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Spaghetti Westerns and Italian Culture

Updated on October 2, 2011

Italians and cinema have had a close relationship since the invention of film. Some of the most interesting and unique films of a generation have come out of Italy and served both as great entertainment, but also as a historical marker. Culturally enriched, many of the Italian films have featured Italian qualities and lifestyles that are special only to Italy. One film movement in particular was the Spaghetti Western that dawned in the 1960s and 1970s. Fantastic sets, flawed characters and dramatic gunfights were all signature of this popular genre featuring the wild untamed west. Spaghetti Westerns have since played an important part in cinematic history due to their ability to both depict the western lifestyle, but also show Italian culture; because of this Spaghetti Westerns have and will continue to influence different cultures within cinema.

A Spaghetti Western is a unique and interesting genre that has many individual characteristics that separate it from other genres. One of these important characteristics is how the film builds drama and suspense in the audience. Most Spaghetti Westerns do this with a combination of music and several close-up shots of the both the gunslingers face’s and their gun’s. The intensity that the film builds up for the audience also can be seen as culturally significant because of how it relates to Italian lifestyle. In the book La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind the author Beppe Severgnini talks about the rhythm and tension that exists in modern day Italy. “ Let’s just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss” (3). Much like how Severgnini describes what his view of Italians is like, Spaghetti Westerns reflect on the tension and drama that resides within the Italian lifestyle. In addition to the tension Spaghetti Westerns use, they also strive to produce intense violence and cynical, but often funny characters. A book that describes the characteristics of the Spaghetti Western well is Once Upon a Time in the Italian West by Howard Hughs. In the book Hughes describes Spaghetti Westerns as “a cinema of contradictions, with abstract cartoon title sequences and black humour contrasting with striking religious imagery, blood-drenched violence and echoing, ethereal music” (1). As Hughs has described, Spaghetti Westerns are a unique blend within cinema for several characteristics that make it standout from other genres. Their portrayal of the west compared with that of cultural habits in Italy like Severgnini describes also lends a hand to what makes the Spaghetti Western truly special.

The history behind the Spaghetti Western dates back to the 1960’s post World War II and continued up until the 1970’s. During this time in Italian cinema many Italians fantasized and dreamt of a recovery within their society and to restore their image of themselves to the rest of the world. Many famous directors like Sergio Leone and Duccio Tessari took this opportunity to create films that would later be called Spaghetti Westerns. Unlike the American westerns that focused around cowboys and Native Americans, these westerns were usually set in a time period after the American Civil War and depicted the recovery of both the North and the South with the main characters in between the conflict. A film that demonstrates this conflict well is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly directed by Sergio Leone. In the film, Clint Eastwood’s character is caught between the two warring sides of the North and South. His journey, which is to find buried gold at a gravesite, is met with obstacles that he has to overcome, but in order for him to succeed he has to be clever. Politics between the two warring factions within the film then become essential in comparing it with historical context of World War II. In an online article written by Mr. Scherpschutter called Spaghetti Westerns and Politics, Scherpschutter says, “…the protagonist of a typical spaghetti western set in the aftermath of the Civil War, often is a noble Southerner, defeated and humiliated, but unbroken; he tries to take up his life in the post-war society but has to fight for his land and family against vindictive Northerners or corrupt businessmen who terrorize the surroundings” (1). Representation of Italy’s humiliation, but also its determination in redeeming itself then becomes the heart of why Spaghetti Westerns were made and why they were so popular in both Europe and America. The symbolism that the films provided audiences was then a beacon of light, especially for Italians, who looked at the films and became inspired.

Inspiration and hope might have been what gave rise to the Spaghetti Westerns, however these films would have never been created without Italy’s first cinematic movement. Neorealism, which started during and after World War II, was a crucial stepping-stone for Italian cinema and what later allowed Italian entertainment to flourish. Comparing both the cinematic styles of Neorealism and Spaghetti Westerns provides an insight into both history and ideology between the two movements. This ideology can be examined in the book FILM: An Introduction written by William H Phillips who says that Neorealism “…created films that combine imaginary and actual events, are usually located in actual settings, and show ordinary and believable characters caught up in difficult social and economic conditions, such as poverty and unemployment” (679). At the same time Phillips quotes an Italian film director who sums up Spaghetti Westerns as, “political and social unrest…The good guy who wins in the name of law was no longer valid. So a new, ambiguous character was born, a character that played both sides, a person who didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone (Baldi)” (Phillip, 316). Although the two movements of films were drastically different from one another as stated by Phillips, there are similarities that are shown. In both the Neorealist, Bicycle Thief (Bicycle Thives) film and the famous A Fistful of Dollars film, overlapping characteristics can be seen. One of the most important similarities resides within the main characters in both films. In A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood plays a man that has no name and who is struggling to make money doing labor for two warring families. In The Bicycle Thief, the main character is considered just another nameless Italian seeking a job (even though he has a name) and who is also trying to make money to support his family. Between these two films one can then begin to see how traces of the Neorealist movement and Italian culture have influenced the later cinematic movement of the Spaghetti Western by incorporating similar thematic plot lines.

Economic and marketing for the Spaghetti Westerns genre has also had important significance in the popularity of the films over time. Interestingly during the time period of Spaghetti Westerns many American films were dominating the international market, especially in Italy. In the book Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production, author Paul Smith says, “The Italian film industry for all intents and purposes had been taken over by U.S. concerns almost immediately after World War II: in 1976 alone the Italian domestic market had been flooded by something like six hundred American movies…the staple product on the Italian movie market remained the American one” (1). Italian filmmakers then realized that in order for them to succeed against the giant business monster that Hollywood was, they would need to create several successful films on a tight budget. In order for them to stand a chance many famous Italian directors like Leone decided to take a genre that was dying in the United States and reinvent it into something that was better and fresh. This genre was the western, which Hollywood was going to stop producing since the genre was continuing to lose money in the United States due to a lack of demand. “Most histories of the western will point to a decline in its production in the 1950s that far exceeds the general Hollywood trend of slumping production…despite a late 1950s boom in westerns on television, the declining fortune of movie westerns has continued into the 1990s with only very few being produced or becoming successful in the American market” (Smith, 2). Despite the lack of market for western films, Leone and other Italians got to work restructuring the American western into something truly unique. Later the success of Italian directors would pay off, since the films were given incredibly low budgets many of the films, if not all, made huge profits in Italian theatres. When Spaghetti Westerns did finally reach American audiences people were shocked and moved by the reinvention of how the west was portrayed and many flocked to the low budget films.

Among the several Spaghetti Westerns that spanned across the sixties and seventies, one of the most influential was The Man With No Name Trilogy (or The Dollars Trilogy). The three films, A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, were all directed by Sergio Leone and would help popularize and make Spaghetti Westerns famous in cinematic history. However, the fame that these films procured would also lead Sergio Leone and several other Italian filmmakers into angry fervor about how their films were grouped into being named “Spaghetti Westerns”. In a book written by Christopher Frayling called Spaghetti Westerns:Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Frayling talks about the difficulties Italian directors have had with how their films are marketed and generalized by the name ‘Spaghetti Westerns’. “…Leone was still keen to distance his work from rotgut Spaghettis-“When they tell me that I am the father of the Spaghetti Western”, he once said to me through a haze of cigar smoke, “I have to reply ‘how many sons of bitches do you think I have spawned?’” (2). For most Italian filmmakers the term ‘Spaghetti Western’ has been widely rejected because of its negative meaning and stereotypical implications. In his book Frayling even mentions, “Actually, the term ‘Spaghetti Western’ was often used as a pejorative in America in the 1960s and 1970s, meaning “not at all like the real thing”( Frayling, 2). Although the term Spaghetti Western will probably never fade, its fame that it has obtained through films like The Man With No Name Trilogy will stay and provide historical and cultural importance in the future.

Today, the Spaghetti Western continues to influence the culture of cinema and media in the twenty first century. Traces of the classic genre have even spilled over into video games in recent years. The most notable adaptation is a game by Rockstar entertainment called Red Dead Redemption (2010). This game, which follows the life of John Marxston, plays very much like a Spaghetti Western right down to the long drawn out gun duels. Aside from interactive entertainment like video games, the Spaghetti Western continues to inspire new western films such as the Wild Wild West (1999) starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline and even more recent films like Cowboys and Aliens (2010). Phillips sums it up best when he says, “Only time will tell whether the western is now largely corralled, but given its long history and filmmakers’ record of adapting it to different times, places, and circumstances, I think it unlikely” (Phillips, 319). Although the classic genre of the Spaghetti Western might never truly be revived, adaptations of the famous classic will continue to draw in crowds.

The Spaghetti Western is a film genre and popularized movement that has been through a lot of obstacles, many of which include budgeting, getting acceptance, and distribution. However, despite the difficulties of the Spaghetti Western the cultural and historic importance that it provides both in Italian and American society is significant. The stories they tell of a lone man struggling to survive, while trying to remain unbroken truly symbolizes the Italian spirit, while characterizing western ideology. Overall the Spaghetti Western is a classic movement that has and will continue to inspire and shape the future of cinematic culture in both American and Italian society.


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