The Top 20 Essential Spaghetti Westerns, Part 1
Some 550 westerns were made in the sixties and seventies in Italy, usually in co-production with Spain, Germany or France. Called spaghetti westerns, these films are more popular today than ever. Some genre directors like Leone, Corbucci and Sollima have influenced entire generations of directors and DVD and widescreen TVs have given people the opportunity to watch these film for the first time in their full widescreen splendor. I have tried to select those films that really can be called essential to the genre, limiting myself to twenty entries. Twenty - not more. From the beginning my idea was that the selection had to be interesting for both beginners and people who already had a certain knowledge of the genre. The selected films are not necessarily my favorite films, although they're all thoroughly enjoyable: some have been chosen because they represent a certain subgenre or trend within the genre, others because they are - for some reason or another - quite unique, and therefore illustrate the versatility and flexibility of this genre. The films are given in more or less chronological order. Watch them, and you can participate without any fear in a discussion about that legendary genre called the spaghetti western. These are the first ten.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964, Sergio Leone)
We all know by now that this was not the first spaghetti western, but this film was the real kick-off and made the genre the best ballgame in town. Clint himself, riding a mule, wearing a poncho, chewing on cigars, arrives in the border town of San Miguel where everybody's either rich or dies trying. A war has broken out between two families, the Rojos and the Baxters, and our poncho clad hero offers his services to both factions. When he leaves, most people are dead, and no one is rich, not even the Man with No Name: the Americans and one side, the Mexicans on the other, and he in the middle ... no, that game is too dangerous, even for Clint. But he'll be back.
Miscellaneous: the film was an adaption of a Japanese samurai movie, Yojimbo (1961), by Akira Kurosawa. But Kurosawa based his movie on a classic American novel, Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammet, with some elements (the beating up of the protagonist for example) taken from another Hammet novel, The glass key.
Trivia: Leone knew he couldn't get Henry Fonda, but James Coburn and Charles Bronson were seriously considered; it took them quite some time to say yes to the master...
Great line: When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol is a dead man. Let's see if that's true.
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965, Sergio Leone)
Two bounty hunters are chasing a notorious bandit, one for the money, the other because he has a personal score to settle. Clint smoothly repeats his part as the cigar-chewing, poncho clad anti-hero, but the movie belongs to Lee van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer, a brave man, like the prophet says, but also a man consumed by a craving for revenge. The moment he reveals his sophisticated weaponry, you're sucked into the movie. And listen to those chimes, evoking again and again the fatal moment of the violation, the reason for Colonel Mortimer's revenge. All these elements: revenge, sophisticated weaponry, an attribute evoking memories, and the combination of an older and a younger man, would be very influential within the genre.
Miscellaneous: Leone chose van Cleef for his appearances. He liked his lean stature, sunken cheeks and (especially) his keen glance. Those eyes burn holes in the screen, he said. Van Cleef was out of work at the time, not able to pay his bills. Thanks to the spaghetti western he became a star, and today he is one of the best-remembered actors of his generation.
Trivia: Lee (answering if it was any help that Leone did play the Morricone scores to him beforehand): I don't act to music, not unless I'm doing a musical.
Great line: This train stops in Tucumcari.
THE RETURN OF RINGO (1965, Duccio Tessari)
Ringo comes home after the Civil War and discovers that his ranch has been confiscated by a gang led by two Mexican brothers. One of those brothers offers Ringo's wife to marry him, saying Ringo is dead. Ringo sneaks into the house incognito, brings his little daughter in safety and beats the bandits in a fierce gunfight, helped by some townspeople. This film created its own subgenre, often called the 'Ulysses type', about a war veteran coming home, like Homer's Olysses, who must try to build up a new life in the post-war society. It proved to be one of the most enduring types of movies within the genre. It's also one of the best films starring Giuliano Gemma, the first Italian mega star of the spaghetti western, who paved the way for the likes of Franco Nero and Terence Hill.
Miscellaneous: The most successful spaghetti western in '65 was For a few Dollars More, but posts 2 to 5 were all taken by films starring Giuliano Gemma. The Ringo films were so popular, that they spawned a series of unofficial sequels, films unrelated to the Ringo movies, but with the name in their title.
Trivia: In the first Ringo film, Ringo talks about his father who fought in the Civil war. In the sequel Ringo comes back from the war. So the character seems to be his own father. Luckily it's not a real sequel. Actually, the two films are story-wise completely unrelated.
Great line: Nobody wants to die, but being afraid means dying every day.
DJANGO (1966, Sergio Corbucci)
When Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci had seen Kurosawa's Yojimbo, they both wanted to do a remake. Leone was the first to come up with his film. Corbucci's plans seem to have resulted in this movie, a darker, more violent reading of the idea of two warring factions and the man in the middle. This time the anti-hero is a black clad loner who hides his machine gun in his coffin. It's Mr. Death himself, in the middle between a bunch of sadistic Mexicans and a Ku Klux Klan inspired gang led by a racist renegade Major. A series of grotesque violent scenes result in a shootout on a churchyard, with Django, his hands crushed, balancing his pistol on a cross.
Miscellaneous: In a sort of revenge Montezuma style, Django became even more influential (if possible) than A Fistful of Dollars: everywhere in the world, spaghetti western were given titles with the name Django in it, even if there was no black clad hero, machine gun or coffin in sight. In Germany more than 50 (!) films became bastard Django babies. The scene in which an ear is cut off, was copied by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino appeared also in the recent Japanese 'remake' Sukiyaki Western Django. If you think the western is dead, think of Django.
Trivia: a scene from the film is shown in the New York museum of Modern Art
Great line: You can clean up the mess, but don't touch my coffin.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966, Sergio Leone)
Today on top of most peoples' lists. A caper movie. An adventure movie. A western. This film is all that at the same time, and most things in particular. Lee is the evil incarnate, Eli cannot be trusted, Clint smokes cigars and according to Tuco he is a pig. Their search for gold, and happiness, is placed against the background of the Civil War, a phenomenon those guys don't understand. "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly". Nearly every line is great, nearly every scene is even better. Watch it, and watch it again. They don't get any better than this.
Miscellaneous: The title has entered the collective memory of mankind and Morricone's music is instantly recognized on all continents. Bobby Kennedy used the title during his election campaign and in 2000 a new British band called itself The Good, the Bad and The Queen. Lego has good, bad and ugly puppets, schoolgirls dress up like the good, the bad and the ugly (in the sense of 'mean', I suppose ...). According to Tarantino the final duel with three (Leone called it a triello in Italian) is the best action scene ever filmed.
Trivia: In the English language trailer Lee van Cleef was presented as the Ugly, and Eli Wallach as the Bad, while in the original Italian version (and leone's plans) Lee was il Cattivo (the Bad) and Eli il Brutto (the Ugly).
Great line: In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend, those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.
Click here to read my full review of the movie.
THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966, Sergio Sollima)
Bounty hunter Van Cleef has done so much for the state (he has killed nearly all outlaws!) that he is offered a job in politics. But first he's asked to bring in a young man who is accused of having raped and killed a rich man's daughter. The real reason is that his revolutionary activities must be stopped. Trailing the young man, Van Cleef starts to doubt whether he is guilty and finally he must make 'a choice of classes': he must either chose sides with the poor innocent guy, or with the corrupt rich people who can help him with his career. This is one of the very best political Italian westerns.
Miscellaneous: this was Van Cleef first non-Leone spaghetti western. Actually he already started working on this one, while still acting for Leone in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Long time this was called the best non-Leone western, but it seems to have lost that honorary title to The Great Silence.
Trivia: the film added a new word to the English language: gundown. The original Italian title (La Resa dei Conti) means something like 'To settle the Accounts', the Spanish title (El Halcon y la presa) means 'The Falcon and his prey'. Someone must have thought that 'gundown' was an equivalent of 'showdown'.
Great line: If you don't kill me right now, it'll be the last mistake you make.
A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966, Damiano Damiani)
One of the first and one of the most influential of the Zapata westerns, set in Mexico during one of the many revolutions. An American, played by Lou Castel, infiltrates a gang of Mexican gun runners, led by Volonté and Kinski (as a priest turned bandit; when asked how he can wear the cloth and be a bandit at the same time, he answers: Between two bandits Jesus died on the cross) who sell arms to a revolutionary general. In his briefcase Castel keeps a golden bullet, for a special occasion. Written by Franco Solinas, one of the most prolific political Italian screenwriters, the film was often interpreted as a comment on American foreign policy in Latin America.
Miscellaneous: In nearly all Zapata westerns we have the combination of a Mexican revolutionary, usually a peon (a peasant), and a foreign, very sophisticated professional, in this case an American (whose real intentions remain obscure until rather late in the movie). In the Zapata movies still to come, there would be professionals from Britain, Sweden, Poland, Russia and Ireland. There were a lot of professionals in Europe, and a lot of revolutionary peons in Mexico. And they usually met in Almeria, Spain.
Great line: Do you like Mexico, señor? Not very much.
DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967, Giulio Petroni)
In the opening scene a kid watches how his family is slaughtered. He grows up to become John Philip Law and starts looking for the men who were responsible for the massacre. An older gunman, released from a labor camp, seems to be looking or the same men, who have become respected citizens in the mean time. This film starts like a horror movie, becomes a buddy movie along the way and ends like no other spaghetti western. A masterpiece of action and characterization.
Miscellaneous: Of all spaghetti western that influenced Quinten Tarantino, this is probably the most important one. To him it's one of the five best spaghetti westerns (counting the Dollar trilogy as one); what inspired him most, was the idea of a child witnessing the slaughter of his family and the memory of the crime haunting the movie in those typical spaghetti western flashbacks. The film's most famous line was used for the title of a minor 1972 spaghetti western from Pasquale Squitieri: La vendetta è un piatto che se serve freddo. Trivia: sadly enough, this was John Philip Law's only spaghetti western.
Great line: Somebody once said that revenge is a dish best served cold.
Click here to read my full review of the movie.
DJANGO KILL... If you live, shoot (1967, Giulio Questi)
A man crawls out of his grave and his nursed back to health by two Indians, who are interested in his experiences in the 'eternal hunting grounds'. Is he alive or dead? One of the bandits asks him the question, when he notices his bullets don't seem to hurt him. Django doesn't even have to take revenge personally : gold-hungry town folks kill the bandits for him. A corpse is 'operated' to retrieve a golden bullet, a bandit is scalped and there's a character called Zorro who's dressed in white and has a private militia of black clad homosexual muchachos. Often called the most brutally violent spaghetti western. Director Questi, an ex-partisan, also incorporated some personal memories of the war and Mussulini's empire in the North in this savage and surrealistic film experience.
Miscellaneous: A lot of nonsense was spread about the violence of this movie, not in the least by good old Chris Frayling: bandits were supposed to be roasted over a fire, men blinded, children shot and bits of human flesh strewn all over the place. This was all rumour and hearsay. But the film is violent enough as it is.
Great line: All my life I have been searching for gold, and this man is full of it.
Click here to read my full review of the movie.
FACE TO FACE (1967, Sergio Sollima)
Sergio Sollima's follow-up to The Big Gundown is a less politicized, more philosophical film. New England history professor Volonte travels South-West for reasons of health, and is taken hostage by criminal Milian. Their meeting has different consequences for both men: bandit Milian starts to reconsider his irresponsible behavior, while Volonte, the sophisticated man of letters, discovers his violent instincts, and finally takes over Milian's gang. Without forgetting the action, Sollima mixes influences of Nietzsche, existentialism and the rise of fascism in the most thoughtful of the spaghetti westerns. The next time anybody tells you that spaghetti westerns are brainless actioneers...
Miscellaneous: Milian and Volonte didn't get along very well on the set. Volonte was a convinced left-wing intellectual, Milian, from Cuban descent, didn't like to discuss politics.
Trivia: Milian was not very happy with this film. Volonte's part was far more interesting than his and to make things worse Volonte took over his gang!
Great line: To kill alone, is murder, to kill with ten men is an act of violence, but to kill with thousand men - that is an organized act, a war ... a necessity!
Check out the SWDb's official community-voted Essential Top 20 Films list
Go to The Top 20 Essential Spaghetti Westerns, Part 2
This article is part of the A Fistful of Pasta archive