Nordesterns and spaghetti westerns

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More or less in the same period as the spaghetti filone in Italy, a similar genre took place in Brazil. I’m not on about the so called western fejoada, bean stew westerns, named (with a reference to the spaghetti westerns) after their national dish, but the nordesterns, films with western elements, but also with a strong brasiliedade to them, the most well-known Baretto’s O CANGACEIRO and Glauber Rocha’s BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL and ANTONIO DAS MORTES.


The nordesterns are set in the backlands of the north east Brazil, the nordeste, or the the sertão, in the period from the 1890s until the middle of the 1940s. The sertão was a barren landscape partly covered by caatinga, desert vegetation dominated by underbrush, trees and cactus, but also with grasslands. It was colonized by the Portuguese for the purpose of supplying food to the coastal region. So, ranching became the main economy here, the social structure that of the latafundia, and the political system coronelismo. That is to say that the big landowners, the coronels, also dictated pretty much everything else.

The conquering of the backlands, which was completed by the early decades of the eighteenth century, is however not a theme in these films, unlike the conquering of the west in many American westerns. At the forefront - or the backdrop - here are the cangaços, bandit societies roaming the caatinga for more than five decades.


At the end of the 18th century and throughout the first decades of the 19th century the backlands were inhabited by an impoverished population consisting of a mixture of what was left of the indigenous people, descendants of North African slaves, declassed Portuguese people and mestizos. From this mixed bag the cangaços were recruited.

The term cangaceiros refers to the way the bandits carried their rifles over their shoulders as a yoke (canga). It is also said to be used as a pejorative expression, meaning a person who could not adapt to the coastal lifestyle.

The most notorious cangaceiro was Virgil Ferreira. He was the son of a rancher, grew up a member of the land-owning class and joined a cangaço only after his family had fallen out with some neighbouring landowners. The name Lampião, it is said, he got because he fired a lever-action rifle so rapidly that the fiery glow at dark would illuminate him like a lantern.

Lampião’s cangaço was eventually massacred 1938. A rancher thought friendly, betrayed him by leading the police to his camp, where the police killed and decapitated all cancaceiros and cangaceiras present. Lampiãos subchieftain Corisco, not present at the time, exacted some vengeance. He cut off eleven heads at the traitor’s ranch, put them in a bag and sent them to the police. Corisco was himself killed in 1940 by Antonio Das Mortes. The killing of Corisco was the end of the cangaços. It is at the end of BLACK GOOD WHITE DEVIL as well as the opening of ANTONIO DAS MORTES.


The cangaceiros are sometimes called social bandits[1]. At the opening of ANTONIO DAS MORTES Rocha states that Lampião “conducted a 25 years’ struggle against the government”. That is perhaps an exaggeration. Lampião, it is true, conducted a guerrilla like existence for a period some years shorter than that[2], pestering coronels, himself pestered by volantes. At the end of the period, under the new republic, the government also conducted a regular war on him. But Lampião did not conduct a war against the government. He was not a revolutionary by a long chalk. In 1926 the Coluna Prestes, a true rebel army forming in the wake of the failed military uprising in São Paulo in 1924, marched through the sertão. The authorities of the state of Ceará offered Lampião the commission as a captain of the Patriotic Batallions set up to fight the rebel army, an offer he willingly accepted. As it were, Lampião’s contribution amounted to nothing.

And he didn’t fight a war against coronealism. Lampião demanded money from the coronels, or, as it might be, ransom money for some person abducted; if it was paid, the ranch was left in peace, if not, it was sacked.

And he was no Robin Hood either. His cangaço, it is true, enjoyed sympathy and support from the impoverished (and also from people who supported them out of fear for the consequences of not doing so). They also sometimes distributed loot among the local population. But outside that it seems Lampião took heed to no other concerns than what had to be done to preserve things in the sertão as they were. He several times even killed road workers for no other reason than not wanting roads to be built in the sertão.


The first film of the genre was O CANGACEIRO/ THE BANDIT OF BRAZIL (1953). But the genre kick-off film seems rather to have been Carlos Coimbra’s A MORTE COMANDA O CANGAÇO/ DEATH REIGNS THE CANGAÇO (1960). After that, more or less thirty films were turned out, until the genre came to a halt in the late seventies .

In the earlier films the hero is often avenging the cangaceiros’ wrongdoings against the coronel. This approach of course changed with Rocha’s films. Also, the films were soon to become more violent and more outrageous in the atrocities committed than what you’ll see in a spaghetti western.

While quite a lot of the Italian westerns were shown in Brazil, not many nordesterns where shown in Europe. O CANGACEIRO and Rocha’s films were shown and won prestigious prizes. ANTONIO DAS MORTES was even recut as a western with the addition of new music and Italian dialogue. O CABALEIRO was released in Italy in 1968 with new Italian dialogue and an entirely new score, under the name SE INCONTRI SJANGO, CERCATI UN POSTO PER MORIRE!. Also, QUELÉ DO PAJEÚ must have been shown in Italy. When a decent copy of this 1970 revenge nordestern, literally a lost gem of Brazilian cinema, was found, it had Italian subtitles.[5]


As for influences between the nordesterns and spaghetti western, there seems to have been some. Especially it seems BLACK GOOD WHITE DEVIL (1964) made an impact. And in particular there seems in to have been mutual influences between Rocha’s and Sollima’s films.

Sollima’s Cuchillio character is clearly taken from BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL. This is a film about a vaqueiro, Manoel, and his wife Rosa. Manoel kills his coronel and joins a messianic society. After the rest of the followers are slaughtered by Antonio das Mortes, they join what is left of Corisco’s band, three days after the killing of Lampião. Manuel Sanchez, alias Cuchillio, the peon running in Sollima’s films, is Manoel, running for his life at the end of BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL.

Manuel running.png
Manoel running at the end of BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL (1964).
Cuchillio running.png
Manuel Sanchez, alias Cuchillio, running in THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

Cuchillio’s wife Rosita is Rosa in Rocha’s film, both hardworking women, although not in the same line of work. In BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL Manoel tells Rosa “there will be happiness, after the sertão, the ocean”. In THE BIG GUNDOWN Cuchillio likewise sweettalks Rosita about the great ocean behind the mountains, and perhaps he will take her there. As it were, both end up leaving their wives behind.

Manoel and Rosa.jpg Manuel and Rosita.jpg
To the left Manoel and Rosa in BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL. To the right Manuel and Rosita in THE BIG GUNDOWN.

And Johnathan Corbett in THE BIG GUNDOWN is clearly cast in the same mould as Antonio das Mortes: Antonio, the killer of more than a hundred cangaceiros, he doesn’t kill for the money, but because he “can have no peace with this misery”; Corbett emptying the sheriff office’s walls of wanted posters, cleaning out the whole area of outlaws.

In Solina’s story for THE BIG GUNDOWN Corbett kills Cuchillio, wanted for raping and killing a twelve-year-old girl, even though he has learned Cuchillio is innocent. This ending was changed by Sollima. According to co-writer Donati, this was Leone’s suggestion. But it might as well be that Sollima ditched Solinas’ ending in favour of an idea taken from BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL. In Rocha’s film Antonio das Mortes kills Corisco. Corisco had in his time abducted and molested a twelve year’s old girl, Dada, later to become his lifelong wife and comrade in arms[6]. Manoel, the poor vaqueiro, is permitted to run free. In Sollima’s film THE BIG GUNDOWN the child molester is likewise killed, while Cuchillio, the innocent peon, runs free.

And perhaps Rocha settled the account with Sollima by doing a sequel to (or remake of) BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL with ANTONIO DAS MORTES, making up another last cangaceiro, to give Antonio a second chance for him to go through the torments of doubts and eventually change side, like Corbett did in THE BIG GUNDOWN.

BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1964, then at Il Festival del cinema di Porretta Terme later that year. A lot of Italian filmmakers I reckon would have seen it. It precedes the Zapata westerns by a couple of years, filmed in black and white with extensive use of amateur actors, two years before THE BATTLE OF ALGER, written by Solinas.

Corisco and Dada.png

In QUIEN SABE, the people of San Miguel are about to kill the town’s boss Don Felipe, when Adelita asks why his wife is going free. The scene echoes Corisco’s rape of a bride when sacking a ranch in BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL Adelita asks, with reference to the señora, why are you so concerned, I was only fifteen when a man like Don Felipe raped me, why should this woman be treated different? In BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL Corisco rapes a bride with the silent approval of Dada, or perhaps even upon her command, her silent and compelling stare saying “you raped me, a child of twelve, now you do the same to her”.

The ongoings of BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL is commented on by a blind man singing and playing a guitar, anticipating the minstrel in HATE IS MY GOD[7]. And as for Antonio das Mortes’ long wide duster coat, where did that turn up later anyway?

When Fago made O’ CANGACEIRO in 1969 (the only genre film to be made outside Brazil) it is only reasonable that Thomas Milian’s Cucillio character was given back to the Brazilian genre. The discussion in that film between Espedito and Black Devil about the cross and the dagger, repeats Corisco’s words at the end of BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL, reciting Lampião: “A man is a man when he uses his gun to change his fate, not a cross, Satan, a dagger or a rifle”.

O’ CANGACEIRO by the way opens and ends with the song Mulher rendeira, also sung by Milian in the middle of the film, a song used at the opening of the 1953 Brazilian film. A Brazilian folk song, said to be used by Lampião’s cangaceiros in battle, it begins with the following verse: «Olé, mulher rendeira/ olé mulhé rendá/ tu me ensina a fazer renda/ eu te ensino a namorá». Something like «Hello, woman lacemaker/ hello woman surrender/ you show me how to make lace/ I show you how to get lovers».

morgan, May 2020


[1] E.g. Hobsborne.

[2] His first armed conflict with the police took place in 1920. From that time on he and his brothers were branded criminals. The year after they turned to banditry.

[3] For a list of films, se the thread, second posting.

[4] Christopher Fayling in Critical Perspectives on the Western, p 18-19. Rocha requested the Rome Magistrate's Court for the Italian version to be withdrawn from the cinemas, believing that the dubbing had deformed the dialogues of the film in many points, distorting its meaning; on May 31, 1970 the film was seized by the legal order of the then Praetor Angelo Grieco.

[5] It premiered in April 1970 and run for six weeks at Cine Windsor in Sao Paulo. Then it was actually considered lost for forty years, until the only copy of the film known today was found in Europe by writer, director and producer Paulo Wenceslau Duarte. It was shown on Canal Brasil in Christmas 2016 and is today not hard to search out. Quelé do Pajeú, directed by Anselmo Duarte, was bases on a novel by Lima Barreto, who also is credited with the original screenplay, which was revised by Duarte, and not entirely to Barreto’s liking.

[6] The rape of Dada is in CORISCO THE BLOND DEVIL (1969) by Garlos Coimbra. Dada cooperated with Coimbra on that film helping him with reconstruction of the story. She also worked with the actor playing Dada in the film. She even sewed the cangaceiro costumes used in that film.

[7] Later to turn up in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.


The first part of this article relies heavily on Billi Jaynes Chandler: The Bandit King Lampião of Brazil 1978 and Peter W. Schulze: Beyond Cowboys and Cangaceiros. Crossing Frontiers: Intercultural Perspectives on the western 2012. The second part, on the nordestern’s influences on spaghetti western, is just my thoughts.

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