The American frontier, at a time seeming forever unconquerable, unending and unscathed, grew smaller and more crowded as the decades wore on. With the promise of freedom like no one had known before, and the chance to live the adventures that so many had only dreamed of, thousands turned their hopes towards the setting sun. Before long, the Rockies had been scaled, The Great Plains treaded on and the sunny California beaches polluted with the far-reaching stink of the east. America’s thirst for danger, adventure and boundless opportunity could no longer be satisfied by kissing your parents goodbye, buying a revolver and horse, and riding west.
The ravenous and ever-expanding iron grip of “civilization” found its way into every green valley and over even the most desolate expanses of desert. In the grand scheme of things, it was all short lived; the Wild West was smothered in its crib. With its dying breaths, I like to believe that the spirit of the west gave life to a new form of freedom to live out our dreams, feel the awe of riding through undiscovered lands, get the waking sensation of danger right at our boot heels, and experience the thrills of lawlessness; all while we safely sit in a dark room surrounded by friends and strangers with huge buckets of popcorn on our laps. Hollywood was born. In 1903, the western film genre kindled into a raging flame with “The Great Train Robbery,” and to this day, the west lives on in what has been one of the most enduring subjects to project onto the silver screen.
After 60 years of Hollywood pumping out western after western, the genre needed something new, it needed a bit of foreign spice… Thankfully, the golden Italianos over in Europe saw the prospect of big bucks in the genre. Westerns were cheap to make; all you needed was a desert, a grizzled hero with hardened knuckles, and a few horses. Thankfully, there was a desert in Southern Spain only a short plane-ride from Rome, plenty of cheap tough-guys wanting to make it big in the movies, and more than enough horses for every baddie in the “west.” Ultimately, this strange combination of spaghetti-twirling men with cameras and a genre that was inherent to America, came to be known as one of the most stylized periods in film history, which lasted from the mid 60’s to the early 70’s.
The spaghetti western genre is famous for creating some of the most iconic and wonderfully overdone moments in film. Ranging from heart-pounding horse chases, to slow sweat inducing Mexican standoffs, all of which were masterfully captured with the unrivalled camerawork of the Italian filmmakers. Accompanied by operatic scores devised by gods of music like Ennio Moricone, Riz Ortolani, Brunno Nicolai and Luis Bacalov; riddled with chanting Indians, desolate sounds of the harmonica, disembodied whistling, screaming trumpets, plucking from the electric guitar and the occasional sound of a cracking whip. This perfect combination of picture and sound, as of yet unsurpassed, created scenes once experienced and never forgotten. Sadly, it wasn’t long until the genre devolved into a muddled self-deprecating clown show.
Filmmakers began worrying more about checking off all the boxes in order to make the films into “spaghetti westerns,” instead of just worrying about making good films. Before long, the genre all but faded, much like a reel of neglected celluloid. As sad as this may be, the genre still lives on in memory, and there are more than plenty of films in the library to choose from. A few of them are even regarded as some of the best films ever made. “The Good The Bad And The Ugly” being one of them. So, now that I’m finished with my very justified and overly operatic introduction, here are some films that are sometimes not paid attention to as much as the more well-known masterpieces of this wonderful genre.
The Big Gundown (1966)
The plot revolves around Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian), a scummy Mexican peasant who has been accused with the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), a popular and well regarded bounty hunter is tasked with hunting down the bloodthirsty Cuchillo Sanchez so that justice may be served. Corbett, thinking that this will just be another easy catch, soon realizes that Cuchillo is a cunning rat who’s slipped through more than a few cracks in the past, and to him it’s nothing but a game. With every time that Cuchillo escapes by the skin of his teeth, Corbett begins to understand his prey more and more. Soon, Corbett suspects that not everything is as it seems, and he begins to question himself and the people who tasked him with hunting down the Mexican.
“The Big Gundown” really is a great film with plenty to offer and with one of the best duels caught on film to finish it all off. It even has a great score by Ennio Moricone. Sadly, it is not as popular as it deserves to be due to poor home-video distribution here in the states. When the film was first released in theatres, it had been cut down by about 15 minutes of footage from the original European version, because it was thought to be too slow for American audiences. It had not been re-released since 1968, until four decades later in 2013 a fully restored and unedited version of the film was released in Blu-ray. If you want to check it out, which you should, you can find it on Amazon.
Navajo Joe (1966)
We’ve all been there, each one of us, at one point or another has felt that vicious prodding annoyance in the darkest corners of our minds. That longing sensation that most will deny ever having, some will even feel sick with just being reminded of it. Of course, I’m talking about the ubiquitous thought of what Burt Reynolds would look like if he was a Navajo Indian in the old west… or is that just me who’s had this problem? Well, if you’re actually curious now that I’ve mentioned it, then crave no more, “Navajo Joe” has everything you need with Reynolds galore! With an unforgettable score that will stick with you for years to come, and loads of unrestrained Burt Reynolds action that will make you want to get a tan and ride a horse bareback across the plains; “Navajo Joe” is at the forefront of thrilling films. Directed by one of the best, Sergio Corbucci uses every little moment to build rising tension as Joe (Burt Reynolds) torments a group of indian scalping outlaws, in order to avenge his murdered woman. Once again, with music composed by the Legendary Ennio Morricone, the score elevates each scene into something special due to its perfect fit. With the chanting Indians that I mentioned earlier, and the intensity and volume increasing as the tension does the same, Mr. Morriconne nailed it with this one. This one is a must-see. If not for the sake of the western, do it for the sake of Reynolds.
Death Rides A Horse (1967)
Can you think of a better name for a film? I know I can’t. With an opening scene that gets one’s ire going unlike any other film, Death Rides A Horse starts off strong and doesn’t let up until the last shot— pun intended. The first scene shows the brutal murder of a small child’s family as the kid sits and watches while hidden in a dark corner. Is he going to make it out? Will he suffer the same fate by the hand of the bloodthirsty killers? Two hands appear out of the dark and grab the child. We think that it’s all over, except it’s not. The kid is taken out of the house and gently placed under a carriage outside. The faceless hands ride away with the killers. Flames and hate gleam from the little innocent eyes. His home, his family and everything he’s ever known are gone. Flash forward fifteen years later and you have the perfect set-up for a gritty vengeance film. Throw in a score composed by Ennio Morricone, cast Lee Van Cleef as the main character and you have Spaghetti Western gold. With Giulio Petroni behind the camera, a lesser known director but great nonetheless, we get a visually stylized film with more than enough action and a climax that might even rival some of Leone’s films.
The Great Silence (1968)
With a setting in the snowy Utah mountains in the freezing winter of 1898, and a mute gunslinger—very appropriately named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant)— with a brutal past who shoots the thumbs off his victims’ hands, this is one of the most unique films in the genre. Once again, maestro Ennio Morricone creates another epic score that conveys the desolate and helpless essence of the film perfectly. With a dreamy and unforgettable theme, we follow Silence through snow covered lands as he tries to save the lives of desperately starving townsfolk from the hands of a barbaric bounty hunter clan led by a psychotic killer, who is also very appropriately named. Loco (Klaus Kinski), will kill anyone to line his pockets with a few bucks. The film is directed by one of the greats of the genre, Sergio Corbucci, the man that started the Django craze which is still going to this day – the most recent instalment being Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. With Corbucci’s violent direction and with someone as literally crazy and memorable as Klaus Kinski to play the savage villain, we end up with what is probably the most unexpected and depressing endings in the genre. I say this with no exaggeration. A true gem of a film. Make sure you check it out.
This being another one of Sergio Corbucci’s legendary films, we start off following Django (Franco Nero) through a desolate land as he drags a mysterious battered coffin through the dirt, for music, an awesome and comically mournful song plays and lets us into our hero’s past while we watch him trudge on into nothingness. “Django” tops the list because there’s nothing else like it in the genre. It’s got it all, from racist thugs who wear red hoods, extreme violence—for its time—and some of the best music that a western of any kind has to offer, which wasn’t composed by Mariccone, but instead, flawlessly crafted by Luis Bacalov. The film doesn’t let up on the action either, it begins with Django blasting his way through a pack of men, and the body count only keeps rising from there with scene after scene of Django kicking all kinds of ass. It should also be noted that this film was one of the first that popularized the genre, along with Sergio Leone’s unbeatable “Dollar Trilogy,” and, it also spawned about thirty illegitimate films referencing the name “Django” in their titles in order to capitalize off of its popularity. I think that this film really captures everything that I love about a spaghetti western, the terrible dubbing, buckets of red sauce, a tough dude with plenty of brass, ridiculous antics, and more than enough camera zooms to drive a millennial filmmaker up the wall. This is just the perfect film. Oh, and just wait till you see the reason why he lugs around that heavy coffin.
I refrained from adding any of Sergio Leone’s films on here, only because they are usually always at the top of other lists that I have read through online. The “Dollars Trilogy” is perfect in my opinion, and “Once Upon A Time In The West” is on a level of its own. I implore everyone to watch them, they’re truly epic and entertaining films. But, don’t forget about the rest of the other guys, like the five that I’ve mentioned here on this list. They might not be perfect, but they all have plenty of fun to offer. And really, that’s all that I ask from a film.
The Spaghetti Western is very important to me and many aspiring filmmakers alike. It shows that even when you don’t have “Hollywood money” or even the best actors around, you still have the chance of making an enduring film that will be remembered and loved even decades after its release. As you watch some of these films, you will notice how they have influenced modern filmmaking and even culture; not always in the largest of scales, but definitely in more ways than you might think. To me, this genre set the standard for action films. They perfected simplistic characterisation, mastered the building of tension with camerawork and music, and they showed us how to elevate a simple story into something epic. The Spaghetti Western is very special. I think that everyone should at least give the genre a chance. Now, go binge watch all five of the films that I just mentioned.