Mangai! Spaghetti Westerns

Mangai! Mangai! I’m a big fan of spaghetti westerns and enjoy devouring them whenever possible. While not always filmed in Italy and certainly not a focus on Italian culture, the ‘spaghetti western’ earned it’s namesake for the inexpensively-made westerns filmed mostly across western Europe by mostly Italian directors with a mix of Italian, other European and a few American cultures making up the cast and crew. Typically they were filmed in each of their own native tongues then re-dubbed and distributed in other languages thereafter. While the term “spaghetti western” was originally considered a negative slur, it soon garnered a positive connotation as the genre gained popularity. These films gained popularity in the early 60’s and continued over the following decade or two, claiming nearly 600 films. spaghetti-western-heroes
Of all of these spaghetti westerns certain Italian filmmakers stand at the top of the heap. The 3 Sergios… Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima. Sollima, still residing in Italy today at the age of 92, is the Italian filmmaker well-regarded as one of the best of this subgenre. But interestingly, he only made three westerns- and all three were filmed in a 2-year period. THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966) starring spaghetti western staple Lee Van Cleef was a huge success, which quickly spurred on the other two… FACE TO FACE (1967), starring Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volonte followed lastly by RUN, MAN, RUN! (1968), which starred Milian again. Tomas Milian is a Cuban-born American character actor who was born in Havana and fled to the States after witnessing his father’s (a military general) suicide. After odd jobs and a brief stint in the navy, he was trained in the Stanislavskij method at Ella Kazan’s Actor’s Studio and his acting career blossomed. You may also recognize him in features that continued long after his spaghetti western successes such as Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD (1997) and Stephen Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000).

Sergio Corbucci, known as ‘the other Sergio’, was so-called as he was both a friend and a working colleague alongside Sergio Leone when he transitioned his directing to westerns. Starting in 1963 with MASSACRO AL GRANDE CANYON, Corbucci made a dozen more films of this western flavor until 1974. But it was his fourth western that succeeded well above and beyond the others, DJANGO (1966).  He worked heavily with actors Franco Nero and Tomas Milian. It was the iconic role of Django (played by Franco Nero who was formerly a gas station attendant before landing this role, originally meant for uncredited co-writer Mark Damon) that was so popular it was copied by imitators countless times over. However, only one Corbucci-approved sequel was ever made, Nello Rossati’s DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN (1987)- and it was the only other time Nero himself played Django. The Django role was known as the army coat and hat wearing lone outsider who plays rival gangs against each other against a stark and violent landscape. Cult-turned-pop director Quentin Tarantino was so enamored with DJANGO and the spaghetti western style, he made DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) to showcase a Django character prototype encountering the violent and unjust world of slavery. (For more insight on Tarantino’s modern spaghetti western-stylized western, see my take here )

But the most famous director of this Italiano western subgenre is without a doubt, Sergio Leone. Considered the father of the spaghetti western, he was best known for his ‘Dollars Trilogy’ or ‘The Man With No Name Trilogy’…  A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Starring Clint Eastwood in all three films, he found himself on a summer hiatus from his TV series and with strict contract restrictions from taking on any American film roles, he took on the legendary role that launched his film career via Italy. Not unlike Django, Eastwood’s character is an atypical western hero. More complex, the man with no name’s (although also known as “Joe,” “Manco,” and “Blondie,”) character’s morality seems to bend and yield at times leaving us uncertain as to his next move when pitted against various villains. Ultimately, he is the good guy. Or at least the best guy in each scene- in a harsh desert infested with bad guys and bandits. Dressed in a similar hat and poncho for each film, his dress would also reflect the Civil War backdrop. And so the struggle of good and evil persevered.

The style that remained consistent for these spaghetti westerns was uniquely edgy. A definitive departure from the predictable American westerns so prolific at that time and had been for decades, this new look was fresh with excessive violence, high style, sharp editing, unexpected characters and innovative musical score. The score was one of the most influential contributors to the signature spaghetti western approach. Italian composer Ennio Morricone scored Leone’s Dollars Trilogy films, including the distinctive whistled theme of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, and Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, plus so many more of these Italian westerns including those of Sergio Sollima and Sergio Corbucci.  

The spaghetti western is an acquired taste. I’ve found that people tend to either love them or hate them. But you can’t deny it’s enduring influence. If you’ve never seen a spaghetti western, I highly recommend starting with Leone’s trilogy. You’ll see why it launched Clint Eastwood’s film career from the small screen to the big. Also it illuminates Tarantino’s choices in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) plus others of his films that show this influence. And if you’d prefer a small serving of this tangy Italian cinematic dish in a humorous and entertaining format, you must check out the animated RANGO (2011). Be sure to look for that ‘man with no name.’ You’ll see his familiar face.          
->Throughout this month, The Nitrate Diva blog aka @NitrateDiva is hosting the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Inspired by her love of Italian film culture (and by a San Pellegrino bottle- no really, see her post, and follow all the other wonderful entries there:, the @NitrateDiva is showcasing posts celebrating any aspect of Italian culture via film. Although there are a plethora of more obvious choices to bring honor to this splendid genre, my first thought was of my enjoyment of what has been coined the “spaghetti western.”

4 thoughts on “Mangai! Spaghetti Westerns

  1. Great overview. I loved the "Dollars Trilogy" long before I had ever heard the term "spaghetti western". I just knew they were different somehow from the usual American fluff. I really need to give some time to the other two Sergios. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Hi! You have a really great site! I'm glad to have stumbled upon it! I'm trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link. Thanks and have a great day!


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