The Best Spaghetti Westerns
Director Sergio Corbucci claims that the idea for spaghetti westerns came when he was working as a second-unit director for his friend director Sergio Leone, filming in Spain on The Last Days of Pompeii (1959). Seeing the landscape of Spain with its wild horses, extraordinary canyons, and semi-desert landscapes which looked a lot like Mexico or Texas, Corbucci suggested making an American Wild West-themed film in Spain. Corbucci then directed his first western in Spain just before Sergio Leone completed the ground-breaking A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. The Wikipedia entry on “Spaghetti Western” lists the first such as The Sheriff in 1959.
David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film says more than 400 of what are generically referred to as spaghetti westerns were produced from 1963 to 1973. As a general matter, the best of them are the four directed by Sergio Leone, which show a remarkable progression in film-making ability. Two western stars in particular reached a higher status through their appearances in spaghetti westerns: Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, who both appeared in Leone films in the mid-1960s. And such other stars as Henry Fonda and Jack Palance had their careers prolonged by appearing in spaghetti westerns. Spaghetti westerns usually exhibit most of the following characteristics:
- They are generally made with low budgets; but Leone’s third and fourth westerns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) clearly show what he could do with a larger budget.
- There are often lingering close-ups and a fascination with blue eyes. They often feature long shots, with fewer middle-range shots (compared to, say, the westerns of Budd Boetticher, who used mid-range shots a lot).
- They were most often filmed in Spain and frequently their stories were said to be set in Mexico; perhaps due to the setting or simply to a fondness for grittiness, there was often lots of dust.
- They featured extended, and not very realistic, violence and brutality.
- The music was sometimes excellent in a new sort of way (especially that provided by Ennio Morricone for Leone and other films), but it was often disproportionately loud.
- They were made by Italian directors with largely Italian casts, with a light sprinkling of American stars (either up and coming, like Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds, or getting to be long in the tooth, like Henry Fonda, Lee Van Cleef or Jack Palance).
- They were shot without recording the sound, depending on putting the sound in later during post-production. That resulted in a lot of dubbed voices, sometimes by the actual actor on film (Eastwood or Van Cleef), but often not; see, for example, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West. It could often mean that music or sound effects supposedly provided by someone on the film had the wrong accoustics.
- There was often a fondness for the freakish, surreal or bizarre–dwarves, hunchbacks, inexplicably maniacal laughter, etc.
Our consultant for Italian and horror films, Adam Sorensen at Lionsgate Films, has provided one list of the best of the spaghetti westerns. As he says, the list is dominated by the two Sergios: Leone and Corbucci.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)
- Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
- For a Few Dollars More (Leone)
- The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
- A Fistful of Dollars (Leone)
- Django (Corbucci)
- Companeros (Corbucci)
- The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima)
- My Name is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
- Keoma (Enzo Castellari)
From Adam: “The two Sergios (Leone and Corbucci) pretty much dominate the genre. However, there is a third Sergio (Sollima) who also has a very good reputation. In addition to this top ten, these are the most notable honorable mentions, in order of general acclaim:
*Day of Anger (Valerii)
*Run, Man, Run (Sollima)
*The Mercenary (Corbucci)
*Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni)
*A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani)
*Mannaja (Sergio Martino)
*Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (Giulio Questi)
*Four of the Apocalypse (Lucio Fulci)
*The Grand Duel (Giancarlo Santi)
*Navajo Joe (Corbucci)
*Texas, Adios (Ferdinando Baldi)
*A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (Valerii)
*Face to Face (Sollima)
*Cemetery Without Crosses (Robert Hossein)
*Sabata (Gianfranco Parolini)
*My Name is Trinity (Enzo Barboni)
- “Some of these get pretty bizarre, surreal, and brutal, but that seems to be part of the appeal.”
Some of the more successful of the spaghetti westerns gave rise to sequels, even multiple sequels, sometimes by parties other than the original director. Among the series, the best known is Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name or Dollar Trilogy, which features no continuity of character or story but each film simply has Clint Eastwood as a different character with identical costuming. Such spaghetti westerns series include:
The Man with No Name or Dollar Trilogy (Leone)