Ten Best Spaghetti Westerns
Europeans just love American Westerns
What is a Spaghetti Western? Beginning about 1960, movie producers in Italy grew interested in America’s only original movie genre: the Western. Perhaps they were growing bored with the art form and wanted to put their distinctive stamp on it; they also wanted to save money, because it was cheaper to make movies in Europe than it was in Hollywood. What they made were heavily stylized versions of the American form, with somewhat more violence, a fair amount of parody and lots of overly dramatized scenes.
Astonishingly, from 1960 to 1980 about 600 of these Spaghetti Westerns were produced!
The people making these Westerns were a European bunch – Italians, Germans, Brits, Spaniards, etc, and most of these films were made in Southern Italy, Spain or other Mediterranean locales, any area that resembled the American Southwest.
Spaghetti Westerns were mostly directed by Europeans too. Certainly the greatest director of the Spaghetti Westerns was Sergio Leone, who developed the quintessential look of these swashbuckling, heavily romanticized melodramas. For inspiration, Leone liked to play the film’s music while the actors rehearsed scenes. Most Americans would probably be familiar with Leone’s “The Man with No Name Trilogy” produced in the mid 1960s and featuring Clint Eastwood.
Now that you have at least a vague idea of what a Spaghetti Western is, let’s check out the Ten Best Spaghetti Westerns:
Sabata stars Lee Van Cleef, perhaps the most famous American actor in the Spaghetti Westerns (either him or Clint Eastwood). Van Cleef's chiseled visage and piercing eyes seem perfect for any Western, particularly when portraying the bad buy. In this film, Van Cleef plays Sabata, a gunslinger who rides into a small Texas town about the time a gang of bandits robs the bank of $100,000. Some acrobats named the Virginia Brothers aid in the robbery by jumping to the bank’s upper story.
Sabata soon learns that corrupt town leaders engineered the bank robbery, hoping to use the money to buy land to sell to the railroad, which plans to lay track through the area. Led by a man named Stengel, the town leaders murder the Virginia Brothers, lest they squeal. Sabata discovers the connection between Stengel and the Virginia Brothers and then blackmails Stengel. Sabata then kills every gunslinger Stengel sends after him - raising the blackmail money every time - and lastly blows away Stengel too. Finally Sabata, after sharing much of the loot with others, rides from town with it. Apparently Sabata isn’t a completely selfish guy!
9. Guns for San Sebastian
Set during the flintlock era of the late 1700s in Mexico, Guns for San Sebastian stars Anthony Quinn as Leon Alastray, a half-breed rebel who, while being chased by the Spanish army, enters a Catholic church, where a priest grants him sanctuary. The priest then leads Alastray to the disserted town of San Sebastian, which needs a new priest, because the townspeople have fled to the hills, avoiding the Yaqui Indians who destroyed their beloved town and its church.
Charles Bronson, another Spaghetti Western mainstay, and looking as tough as Lee Van Cleef ever did, plays the part of Teclo, a bandit who lives with the Yaquis and hates the Catholics. When Alastray and the priest come to town, one of Teclo’s men shoots and kills the priest. To keep from getting killed by Teclo and avoid capture by the army, Alastray masquerades as the dead priest and eventually helps the people of San Sebastian rebuild their town and repel a final attack by the dreaded Yaquis.
8. Duck You Sucker!
Also titled A Fistful of Dynamite, this movie takes place during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Rod Steiger plays Juan Miranda, a revolutionary fighting for the same cause as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. James Coburn plays John Mallory, an IRA explosives expert who’s on the run from the British. Miranda wants Mallory to help him break into the Mesa Verde National Bank, thereby raising funds for the revolution.
Eventually Miranda cracks the bank but discovers it’s little more than a political prison, though he appears the hero after releasing hundreds of prisoners. When the army pursues the escaping prisoners, Miranda and Mallory volunteer to stay behind and fight the army, firing two heavy machine guns and detonating fistfuls of dynamite. At such times, they cry, "Duck, you sucker!"
This was Sergio Leone’s last western, and though very good, the musical score seems more suitable for a romantic comedy! So it you can keep from chuckling too much while listening to it, the movie presents many highlights, particularly a head-on collision between two steam locomotives at the climax.
7. Ace High
Eli Wallach stars as a generous bandit named Cacopoulos, who manages to escape from a hanging for a crime he didn’t commit. While on the run, Cacopoulos steals $300,000 from two robbers played by Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. Naturally the robbers chase after Cacopoulos and eventually capture him. The trio then becomes reluctant allies as they pursue the men who framed Cacopoulos.
Ace High is the second movie in a trilogy that includes God Forgives . . . I don’t! and Boot Hill. As with many American films, the Spaghetti Westerns spawn numerous sequels and trilogies!
6. Red Sun
Although this movie was directed by an Englishman, Terrence Young, it features an international cast and was filmed in Spain, thus preserving its pedigree as a Spaghetti Western. Charles Bronson stars as Link Stuart, one of a gang of bandits that rob a train carrying a Japanese diplomat who plans to deliver a ceremonial sword to President Ulysses S. Grant. Stuart’s partner, Gauche, played by Alain Delon, double-crosses Stuart, hoping to keep the money and sword to himself.
One of the diplomat’s samurai guards, Kuroda (Toshiro Mifune) then accompanies Stuart as they pursue Gauche. Kuroda hopes to recover the sword and preserve his honor, thus avoiding suicide by disembowelment, while Stuart hopes to recover the money from Gauche before Kuroda hacks him to death with his sword.
5. A Fistful of Dollars
A Fistful of Dollars is director Sergio Leone’s first movie in his “The Man with No Name” trilogy. It’s credited for launching the Spaghetti Western craze when released in Italy in 1964 and then the U.S. in 1967. Clint Eastwood stars as this nameless guy or stranger who rides into the Mexican border town of San Miguel, where rival families vie for control of the town. Sensing an opportunity to make money, Eastwood decides to play each family against the other.
Attempting to reinvent the American Western, which had grown stagnant and predictable, Sergio Leone made Eastwood’s character morally ambiguous, a kind of anti-hero, who did what he pleased and had few if any allegiances. Eastwood had also grown tired of the one-dimensional cowboy wearing a white hat, so this part of a “lone wolf” was just what he wanted.
An important aspect of this film, and the others in the trilogy, is the stirring, nearly operatic music of Ennio Morricone. Particularly distinctive is the use of loud whistling and gunfire in Morricone’s score. Moreover, many of the scenes in the movie seem long – perhaps too long - because Leone wanted the music to keep going. But this pacing helped compose the elements of Leone’s directorial style.
4. Once Upon a Time in the West
This classic Western is another one directed by Sergio Leone. Playing against type, Henry Fonda portrays the villain simply known as Frank. Fonda’s bad guy is so heartless and cold-blooded he shoots women and children, which he does early in the film, hoping to secure water rights for the railroad which will soon be coming through the area.
Charles Bronson plays Harmonica, a mysterious, harmonica-playing gunslinger who relentlessly pursues Frank and kills every gunman Frank sends after him. It turns out that Harmonica has a vendetta against Frank, who murdered his brother during childhood.
Once Upon a Time in the West did very well in Europe but was a financial flop in America. The film’s length may have been part of the problem. Originally it was almost three hours long and had numerous scenes with little or no dialogue or action. For American release, its length was reduced to 145 minutes. Nevertheless, purists such as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese have hailed it as one of the best movies of all time and perhaps the best Western ever.
3. For a Few Dollars More
This film is the second in Sergio Leone’s so-called Dollars Trilogy. Once again Clint Eastwood plays “The Man with No Name,” though this time he carries the nickname of Manco. Manco is a bounty hunter who pursues El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) and his gang of cutthroats. Manco soon learns that Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), another bounty hunter, also hopes to nab El Indio. They quarrel at first then decide to join forces.
Manco and the Colonel soon discover that El Indio and his gang hope to rob the Bank of El Paso for one million dollars. Mortimer persuades Manco to break one of El Indio’s men out of jail, so he can join the gang. El Indio soon blasts his way into the bank and steals the safe, but needs Mortimer’s safe cracking expertise to open it. At the climax, El Indio discovers that Mortimer was the brother of a woman he had raped and murdered many years ago. In revenge, Mortimer kills El Indio. Then he and Manco dispatch the gang members, though Mortimer wants no part of the bounty money.
At times, this movie is a hoot, when various gunslingers blow off each other’s hats!
2. My Name Is Nobody
By the early 1970s, Spaghetti Westerns were becoming parodies of American westerns – even parodies of themselves. One movie that exemplifies this subgenre is My Name Is Nobody, released in 1973. Co-written by Sergio Leone, who also directed some of the scenes, My Name Is Nobody stars Henry Fonda as Jack Beauregard, an aging gunfighter who would like to retire in peace rather than fight every young buck who wants to prove he’s faster.
Terence Hill, who plays the part of Nobody, idolizes Beauregard and wants him to go out in a blaze of glory while fighting the infamous Wild Bunch, a gang of bandits that launders its loot via a fake gold mine. Of course, Beauregard finally confronts the Wild Bunch. Using a rifle fired at long range, he hits their saddlebags which are loaded with dynamite, setting off numerous explosions. Beauregard’s legend now complete, Nobody finally “kills” Beauregard in a gun fight, though this is staged so Beauregard can slip away and ride into the sunset.
This movie is filled with so many clichés it’s hard to count them, and many scenes are very funny. My Name Is Nobody certainly is a parody of the American Western, as well as a well-crafted homage.
1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Everything that’s great about Spaghetti Westerns is found in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There isn’t a weak point in the movie: Sergio Leone’s direction is as skillful and exciting as it ever was (Quentin Tarantino calls it the best-directed film of all time); Ennio Morricone’s score is probably the best of any Western (the soundtrack album was on the charts for more than a year). The script is as taut as piano wire; the widescreen cinematography is mesmerizing and the casting a masterstroke.
Clint Eastwood plays “Blondie,” aka the Good. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad and Eli Wallach the Ugly. This motley trio searches for stolen Confederate gold during the waning days of the American Civil War. Once again, Eastwood and Van Cleef play bounty hunters; the only difference between the two is that Van Cleef is just a little more likely to shoot somebody for a pay day. They call him Angel Eyes. Go figure.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a long movie, about 140 minutes, but it piques your interest all the way to the exciting and unforgettable denouement, when the three gunslingers confront each other in a Mexican standoff, their steely eyes darting at each another, as Morricone’s music thunders like a stampede of horses. This is the kind of movie you never want to end, and you can never see it too many times.
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Spaghetti Westerns never died out; they simply went underground for awhile. When interest in the American Western reaches a fever pitch once more, they’ll come back like locusts. We should be so lucky!
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© 2011 Kelley
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