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Spaghetti Westerns and Politics

From The Spaghetti Western Database

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This article is meant to give visitors of SWDB some insight in the relationship between Italian politics and the spaghetti western. Even today too many people think spaghetti westerns were made, more or less, in a cultural vacuum. But like all other movies, spaghetti westerns were made in a specific time, in a specific context, in a specific country. The country was Italy, the time the sixties, the context a post-war society with a lot of political turmoil.

By and large three historical events were important for the history of the spaghetti western:

  • World War II
  • The rise of left-wing (communist) politics in post-war Italy (and its popularity among artists and intellectuals)
  • The Risorgimento, the movement towards unification of the country in the 19th century (and its importance for the rise of criminal crime rings like the mafia)

I‘ll try to describe these events in such a way that even those people who have only a vague idea of Italian culture and history will be able to understand what it’s all about.


When we talk about Italy’s world war II history, there are two things we must bear in mind:

a)Italy fought on the ‘losing side’ during World War II

Most Italians felt humiliated and this is reflected in many spaghetti westerns that have a Civil War background. Italian directors often use the American Civil War as a substitute for World War II; many spaghetti westerns are set in aftermath of the Civil War and are often concerned with people trying to build a new life in a post-war society. The protagonist might well be a Southerner who is released from a POW camp.

b)During the last stages of WW II Italians fought against Italians

Italy’s part in WW II is rather limited. Mussolini didn’t have the military power of Hitler’s Third Reich and his main achievement probably was the conquest of Ethiopia. Most of his other exploits were failures. He invaded Greece but was soon forced to withdraw. His forces were beaten several times in North Africa, and could only be saved by the German forces led by Erwin Rommel. Soon after Italy was invaded, in June ’43, Mussolini was arrested. But Germany invaded the country, Mussolini was re-installed, and Italy became a battlefield. In the Nazi-occupied northern part of the country a fascist state under Mussolini was founded, with the small town of Salo (near the Garda Lake) as capital. A bloody Civil War that lasted two years broke out. Italian partisans and other civilian forces fought against fascist troops. Finally the fascists were beaten: Mussolini was arrested when he tried to flee the country and killed in April 1945; his corpse was shown, hanging upside down, in the streets of Milan. The list of westerns set in the aftermath of the Civil War is long. Some of the first spaghetti westerns, like One Silver Dollar (1965) and Return of Ringo (1965), and some of the last, like Keoma (1976) and California (1977) are cast in this mould. Even milestone movies like Django (1966) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) have a Civil War background, although their specific subtext is different from the above-mentioned movies.

As said, the protagonist of a typical spaghetti western set in the aftermath of the Civil War, often is a noble Southerner, defeated and humiliated, but unbroken; he tries to take up his life in the post-war society but has to fight for his land and family against vindictive Northerners or corrupt businessmen who terrorize the surroundings. In One Silver Dollar Giuliano Gemma must accept ‘dirty jobs’ in order to survive and accidently kills his brother, a very clear reference to the theme of ‘Italians fighting against Italians’. In the ambitious Johnny Hamlet (1968) the theme of the war veteran coming home is linked to Shakespeare’s immortal tale Hamlet. In The Hellbenders (1967) another theme is treated: that of the renegade Southern officer who refuses to give up the fight. Cotton and his family dream of reviving their ideas in a kind of ‘Southern Empire’ ; they want to found this empire somewhere ‘up North’ with the help of stolen Union money. It’s a very dark, pessimistic film with some vague references to Mussilini’s Empire in North Italy during the last stages of WW II. (Django Kill) Although the protagonist usually is a Southerner, this is not necessarily so. The Ringo character in Return of Ringo, often considered to be the best film of this type, is a Northerne. Django, the mysterious avenger whose family was killed when he was ‘far away’, is a Northerner too. While Ringo has to deal with Mexican bandits who have annexed his possessions (and family!), Django opposes a renegade Southern officer, a Ku Klux Klan inspired racist whose men wear red instead of white caps and who hates Mexicans instead of blacks.

Some of the films have a more ‘peaceful’ message, talk more about reconciliation and fraternity: in Fort Yuma Gold (1966) Giuliano Gemma – the actor most identified with this type of movies - must try to prevent a massacre when some renegades threaten to attack the fort from the title, even though the war is over. Quite on the contrary, in films like I want him Dead (1968) and Kill them all and come back Alone (1968) there are few noble thoughts left; the anti-heroes’ actions, if legal at all, come close to pure brigandage.

Essential films:

  • Return of Ringo
  • One silver Dollar
  • Johnny Hamlet
  • The Hellbenders
  • Fort Yuma Gold
  • I want him Dead
  • Kill them all and come back Alone
  • Keoma
  • California

Related films:

  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  • Django

--By Scherpschutter

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