Who likes Spaghetti Westerns? I love Spaghetti Westerns. And the more pasta, the better. “What’s he talking about?” some of you are thinking. “What does John Wayne have to do with marinara sauce??” Well, this essay will explain. I’ll also give a short list of my top five “Spags” – in case anyone would like to sample the cuisine.
Here’s the Spaghetti Western Database definition of a Spaghetti Western (this assumes most of you already know what a “Western” is):
The spaghetti western was born in the first half of the sixties and lasted until the second half of the seventies. It got its name from the fact that most of them were directed and produced by Italians, often in collaboration with other European countries, especially Spain and Germany. The name ‘spaghetti western’ originally was a depreciative term, given by foreign critics to these films because they thought they were inferior to American westerns. Most of the films were made with low budgets, but several still managed to be innovative and artistic, although at the time they didn’t get much recognition, even in Europe. In the eighties the reputation of the genre grew and today the term is no longer used disparagingly, although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style). In Japan they are called Macaroni westerns, in Germany Italowestern.
I’ll add that most casual Western fans in America associate Spags with four films produced and directed by Sergio Leone, three of which starred a young Clint Eastwood (before he started talking to empty chairs): A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (the fourth is Leone’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST). Although these are the most well-made and popular, there are hundreds of lesser-known Spags, some of them quite interesting. Many have outrageous titles like GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T and LIGHT THE FUSE…SARTANA IS COMING! Many also feature the alternately weird and majestic musical scores of Ennio Morricone. Stylistic trademarks include sparse, dubbed-in dialogue, lingering close-ups, desolate landscapes – and often the lack of coherent plot (forget substance, Spags are all about atmosphere).
Spaghetti Westerns are also very violent. Quentin Tarantino’s recent DJANGO UNCHAINED is a modern-day nod to Spags. I’ve been critical of overt violence in cinema, but I do think there’s a difference between the almost cartoonish violence in movies about the Old West and the more realistic violence of today. Anyway, that’s my lame excuse.
So here are my Top 5 Spaghetti Westerns:
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY: The most popular Spag, it’s also one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Eastwood perfected his cool “Man with No Name” persona here. He gets great support in bad Lee Van Cleef, a mainstay of the Spag genre, as Col. Douglas Mortimer (aka “Angel Eyes”); and ugly Eli Wallach, who provided a crude but lovable character as Mexican bandit Tuco and lifted this film to another level. This is a long trail-ride of a movie about a search for buried gold, and it has dozens of great moments. My favorite is a scene with a drunken Union general (a parody of U.S. Grant). Also the climactic three-way cemetery shootout. And Morricone’s sweeping music is instantly recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Spaghetti Westerns.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Another Leone flick, this movie is a bittersweet depiction of what happened when civilization intruded upon the Wild West, changing it forever. Henry Fonda, usually a good guy, played the blue-eyed killer, Frank, one of the coldest villains in film history. The hanging scene at the end is a classic. Also stars Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson as…wait for it…“Harmonica.”
THE GREAT SILENCE: This Spag is unusual because the entire movie takes place in the snow. The cinematography is gorgeous, and it showcases creepy, maniacal actor Klaus Kinski as a soulless bounty hunter. It also has a highly erotic, interracial love scene. Director Sergio Corbucci loved downbeat endings, and this movie is no exception (though the DVD adds an alternate, more upbeat ending).
COMPAÑEROS: Starring charismatic Franco Nero, a big star in Europe, along with the entertaining Tomas Milian. The movie has plot holes large enough to drive a wagon train through, but it’s a rollicking good time and, like a lot of Spags, it centers on an unstable partnership between two antiheroes. It also has great comic elements, plus the added attraction of beautiful German actress Iris Berben.
THEY CALL ME TRINITY: In the early ‘70s, a series of lighthearted Spaghetti Western parodies came out starring Terence Hill. Many Spag fans don’t like the Trinity films, but I say “Hey, it’s all in good fun.” Some prefer MY NAME IS NOBODY, with Fonda as an aging gunfighter worshipped by Hill, but I prefer this one, the first in the series, because it’s less goofy than the others. Watch this one after you’ve seen a few of the more “straight” Spags.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my tribute to Spaghetti Westerns. If you do choose to sample this pasta – gringo – may I recommend complementing your meal with our house tequila, followed by a skinny cigar? No? Maybe some sarsaparilla and refried beans?