Next week marks the DVD and Blu-ray debut of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning tribute to his favorite of all cinematic subgenres, the Spaghetti Western. Ah yes, you might nod, unafraid to ask the follow-up question: And what, exactly, is a Spaghetti Western? The short answer — if you’re willing to allow the use of the term, which some of those who made these films take as a slam — is an Italian-made western made roughly between 1964-1973 (there were about 500 of them, give or take a few). But if you’d care to sound a little more informed than that at your next film-geek gathering (shut up, we occasionally gather), or if you’d like to use Django as a jumping-off point for a deeper exploration of these popular works, we offer another of our helpful Beginner’s Guides, this one giving you a brief overview of the practitioners and practices of the Spaghetti Western.
The Western Falls…
In order to understand where the Italian Western came from, you first have to understand where the American Western was at. From the 1930s through the early 1960s, the oater was one of the American cinema’s most durable genres; studios big and small cranked them out on a weekly basis. But by the late ‘50s, they’d made the transition to television, and with so many Westerns on the box at home for free (26 in primetime by 1959), studio production started to slack off. However, Westerns were just as popular overseas, and with television still not widely available in Europe, there was a void to be filled. And thus enter the Italian filmmakers.
Cinecittà Studios and Italian Cinema
The Italian cinema that made its way to America before the Westerns tended to be of an art house vintage — neo-realism and serious works from the likes of Pasolini, Visconti, and Fellini. But those filmmakers hailed from the northern half of the country; in Rome, at the famed Cinecittà Studios, the name of the game was less art than commerce. The studio produced something like 200 films a year, most of them genre efforts, imitating the American films that Italian audiences hungered for (Italian directors would often use Western pseudonyms, not to fool American audiences, but domestic ones). Italian genre filmmaking tended to go in cycles, with one hit or style widely imitated until audiences grew tired of it, and moved on to the Next Big Thing. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Italian filmmakers cranked out Hercules stories and gladiator films; in the ‘70s, they would produce giallo and poliziottesco films by the handful. But in between, they made Westerns.
The first filmmaker to score a major hit, and define the template for Spaghetti Westerns, was Sergio Leone. Inspired by the Kurosawa film Yojimbo, he co-wrote and directed A Fistful of Dollars (original title: The Magnificent Stranger), a low budget ($200,000) Western that became a national sensation when it was released in 1964. It didn’t make it to American cinemas until 1967 due to a copyright dispute with Kurosawa (who eventually settled, for a portion of the film’s considerable profits); by that time, Leone had already made two sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Together, these iconic Westerns would come to be known as “The Man with No Name Trilogy,” after the character played by the American TV star at their center.
An International Affair
Leone had wanted Henry Fonda, James Coburn, or Charles Bronson to play the lead in Dollars, but all three actors (or, more likely, their agents) balked at the $15,000 he was offering. Then he got a look at an episode of the TV oater Rawhide, and offered the role to Clint Eastwood. Eastwood had nothing to lose — his Rawhide contract forbid him from making any American films on his summer hiatus, so he hopped on a plane to Italy and made the movie. The combination of actors from different countries would become typical of Italian westerns; often producers would cast actors of differing nationalities in order to help the films get bookings in their countries of origin. The language barrier wasn’t an issue — the films were all shot silent, and dialogue was dubbed in later by the appropriate ethnicities. Eastwood became the first Spaghetti Western superstar, followed by fellow American character actor Lee Van Cleef, Italian star Franco Nero, and Nero lookalike Terence Hill.
The First Wave: Action and Mythology
When A Fistful of Dollars became a hit, the Italian filmmaking machine went into high gear, cranking out over 100 Westerns per year. The films were notable for their widescreen cinematography, Roman Catholic iconography, and nonstop action. Initially, the Spaghetti Western protagonist was a loner/outcast in the Eastwood mold — not a traditional John Wayne-style “good guy” in a white hat, but a morally flexible type, more unpredictable and cynical. That wasn’t the only deviation; Italian filmmakers took the tropes of the American Western and exaggerated them, with oddball villains, over-the-top violence, and operatic music.
Much of that music was supplied by the great—and prolific—Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who scored the “Man with No Name Trilogy” (including the distinctive whistled theme of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) and Leone’s big-budget studio follow-up Once Upon a Time in the West, as well as such classic Italian westerns as Death Rides a Horse, A Pistol for Ringo, Tepapa, and A Bullet for the General. He would also score the Westerns of Sergio Sollima (more on him later), and Navajo Joe, The Great Silence, The Mercenary, and several more for Mr. Sergio Corbucci.
Sergio Corbucci scored the second giant hit of the Spaghetti Western era with Django, a muddy, dark, bloody little item featuring Franco Nero in the title role. It was rated 18 for adults only, the controversy over its considerable violence centering on a grisly scene in which a character’s ear is hacked off. Sound familiar? Yes, Quentin Tarantino was a fan of Django even before he made a Django film of his own — which was totally in line with the film’s legacy, since it begat dozens of unofficial, in-name-only sequels in the years following its release. (Nero says German distributors would slap “Django” into the title of any film he was in for the next decade.)
The Second Wave: Politics
As the worldwide political scene grew more complicated around 1967 and 1968, subtle subtexts and broad themes alike began to appear in Italian Westerns. The lone hero was out; collectivist themes were in. Many took as their historical basis the border battles between Mexico and the United States (leading to their occasional branding as “Zapata Westerns”). One of the most popular of these “second wave” films was A Bullet for the General, Damiano Damiani’s story of a bandit and a counter-revolutionary. These films were also the domain of the last of “the three Sergios”: Sergio Sollima, who directed charismatic star Tomas Milian in the trilogy The Big Gundown, The Mercenary, and Run Man Run!
The Third Wave: Parody
As the Spaghetti Western began to show its age, filmmakers tried out gimmicks — a blind hero (Blindman), a Spaghetti Western/martial arts mash-up (Shanghai Joe), a Spaghetti Western musical (Crazy Westerners) — and extreme violence (as in Giulio Questi’s Django Kill!) to keep audiences interested. Finally, they started sending up the conventions of the genre with spoof films, particularly Enzo Barboni’s Trinity series (starting with They Call Me Trinity in 1970), starring Terence Hill as a slapstick gunslinger and Bud Spencer as his Oliver Hardy-esque straight man. The Trinity movies were box office hits, but they sank the genre; audiences could no longer take the conventions seriously, and filmmakers slowly began to turn their interest elsewhere.
The homages to Spaghetti Westerns in recent years have been plentiful — not just Tarantino’s Django Unchained (and Kill Bill Vol. 2, for that matter) but Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django and Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy. But the subgenre’s greater influence was felt through action cinema in general. Eastwood brought back to his American films the idea of the cynical loner who took on all comers, often with a laconic grin and a wisecrack, and that became the model for not just his vehicles, but those of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, Chow Yun-Fat, and countless more. The Spaghetti Western may have burned out 40 years ago, but you can still see its children in multiplexes around the world.