For most people, the term Spaghetti Western applies almost solely to the films of Sergio Leone, particularly those starring Clint Eastwood. But the reality is that close to 600 Westerns were produced in Europe between 1960 and 1980, and during it’s peak, Italy was churning out more than 40 Spaghetti Westerns a year. Of course, with that volume of output, it was inevitable that most of those films would be terrible. But there are also a huge-array of outstanding entries into the genre that have largely gone unseen by the movie-going public of today.
Once a cinephile dives into the murky waters of the Spaghetti Western, it quickly becomes apparent that the genre comes with its own lore and canon. For example, while the layman will speak of the genre in terms of Sergio Leone, within the world of the Spaghetti Western it is more appropriate to speak of the “Three Sergios” that have dominated the genre: Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and Sergio Sollima. And while externally one might perceive the genre as a holistic unit, within it are a series of subsidiary streams – Zapata Westerns for example.
And so, in order to help the newcomer understand the exciting and unexplored world of the Spaghetti Western, here is a quick primer on ten great Spaghetti Westerns that were NOT directed by Sergio Leone.
A Bullet for the General (1966)
Damiano Damiani’s masterpiece is perhaps the most politically conscious Spaghetti Western ever made. And that’s hardly a surprise when considering that it was written by Franco Solinas, best known for co-writing Battle of Algiers. Set amongst the Mexican Revolution, Gian Maria Volonté delivers one of his most ecstatic performances, playing a revolutionary/profiteer who becomes friends with a mysterious gringo (Bill Tate). Opportunism, idealism, and friendship collide as they work to deliver a shipment of guns to one of the Revolution’s greatest Generals. Watch out for Klaus Kinski as a gunslinging preacher.
A side note: This is part of an entire sub-genre of Spaghetti Westerns known as ‘Zapata’: films that deal with the Mexican revolution. There is an endless debate about whether or not these are Spaghetti Westerns at all, but today I’ll make the assumption (quite comfortably) that they are.
Long before Tarantino’s popular addition to the Django series, Sergio Corbucci released this Spaghetti Western classic. Franco Nero stars as the titular anti-hero who carries the burden of a mysterious past. Oh, and his horse carries a large coffin containing a huge Gatling gun. Corbucci’s beautifully shot vision of bad men, muddy streets and violent amputation is one of the greats.
The Big Gundown (1966)
There was a period after The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly when Lee Van Cleef was billed as “Mr. Ugly” on every poster. Given that Van Cleef played “the Bad” in that movie, I can only assume this was either a mistake or good marketing. Either way, here Mr. Ugly co-stars as a bounty hunter hired to hunt down and kill a Mexican peasant (Tomas Milian) accused of raping a young girl. However, as things develop, it becomes clear that the accused may be at the centre of a political storm.
Sergio Sollima directs this tale of the rich elite’s ability to corrupt the good, and destroy the disenfranchised. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of the finest you’ve never heard. Worthy of special mention, the final duel is accompanied by a piece called ‘The Verdict”, which repurposes Beethoven’s Für Elise to interesting effect. Stirring stuff.
Day of Anger (1967)
Tonino Valerii beautifully directs this tale of tutelage and betrayal starring Lee Van Cleef and Giuliano Gemma. Van Cleef is the veteran gunslinger who rides into town to take care of business. Gemma is the local street-sweeper and toilet-cleaner in awe of the seemingly invincible killer. Soon enough Van Cleef takes on Gemma as his pupil, teaching him everything that he knows. But ultimately, the young disciple is asked to pass an ethical line he cannot cross, and the two men must come to blows.
Django Kill… If You Live Shoot (1967)
Giulio Questi’s surreal Spaghetti Western was known simply as If You Live Shoot in Italy, but the Django moniker was added in English speaking countries to cash in on the earlier movie’s success. Tomas Milian stars as a recently undead gunslinger seeking to kill those who murdered him. Except somebody killed them before he got around to it. And then there’s a gang of gay cowboy bandits. And then there’s a crucifixion. And then there’s… well, it’s worth taking a look. Questi’s entertaining mess of a movie is probably saved by the innovative editing of Nino Baragli (Once Upon A Time in America, Salo).
They Call Me Trinity (1970)
The Spaghetti Western may have been about satire in many ways, but at some point it developed its own subgenre of out-and-out parody. The finest and most renowned of these films was They Call Me Trinity. Starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill (pseudonym’s to make the Italian actors more palatable for English speaking audiences), the plot concerns two ethically questionable brothers who find themselves coming to the rescue when the locals of a small town are persecuted by the local bigwig. But the plot of Enzo Barboni’s film is almost beside the point – this is classic Italian comedy. Hill and Spencer would go on to work together in more than twenty films…
Sergio Corbucci dials up every excess to eleven in Companeros, one of the most well-regarded of all Zapata Spaghetti Westerns. The gargantuan plot, filled with a huge array of characters, has often been considered the The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the Mexican Revolution (as opposed to the American Civil War). Tomas Milian, Franco Nero, and Jack Palance all deliver stand out performances, and it’s hard to go past Ennio Morricone’s energetic score.
The Grand Duel (1972)
Alberto Dentice plays a man wrongly accused of assassinating a bigwig named Saxon. Lee Van Cleef is the former sheriff with an inexplicable interest in keeping Dentice alive. Meanwhile, the various wealthy psychopaths that populate the surviving Saxon family manipulate and murder their way to revenge… or is it all just political?
Giancarlo Santi’s Spaghetti Western cum murder mystery is always entertaining, and elevated by the strength of Luis Bacalov and Sergio Bardotti’s rousing score.
My Name Is Nobody (1973)
The classical American western and the Italian comedic approach don’t perfectly sync in Tonino Valerii’s vision of two world’s colliding, but that seems to be the point. Terence Hill plays a jovial gunslinging upstart, in awe of the legend that precedes Henry Fonda’s character, an elderly gunfighter. As Fonda does his best to retire and undermine Hill’s idealistic vision of the Old West, Hill does everything he can to force Fonda to go out in a violent blaze of glory. Morricone’s score elegantly brings together the old and the young, suggesting a reverent respect underneath the film’s light-hearted exterior.
Possibly the most fascinating film on this list, Enzo G. Castellari’s vision begins as a relatively standard Spaghetti Western before moving down the rabbit hole into a seamless conflation of gorgeous action sequences, surreal imagery, heartrending plot points and a brilliant score that seems to be written by the love child of Ennio Morricone, Leonard Cohen, and Joan Baez.
Franco Nero plays a half-Native American man, recently back from the Civil War, rejected by the general community and his own brothers for his mixed heritage. His only friends are his father, his father’s former slave, and an elderly apparition who looks over his shoulder. When Keoma saves a pregnant woman suffering from the plague from being executed, a series of escalating events lead him into trouble… serious trouble.