There are countless resources online for those interested in the history of the Spaghetti Western (I recommend The Spaghetti Western Database) so this isn’t a comprehensive look at the genre, more of a quick overview of what has been an inspiration during my writing of Golden Heart and On Rails of Gold.
Originally used as a derogatory term for Italian-helmed westerns by Americans who felt that Europeans made cheap, inaccurate movies about a treasured period in their county’s history, the Spaghetti Western ushered in a new take on the genre that has remained ever since. Violent, gritty, lurid and featuring protagonists who had questionable morals, the Spaghetti Western was a refreshing take on the genre that John Wayne had made famous with his clean-cut all-American heroes. This was the western for the counter-culture generation.
Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy is on the tip of everyone’s tongue whenever the genre is mentioned and stands as the benchmark of the Spaghetti Western. Beginning in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars and continuing with For a Few Dollars More in 1965 and resulting in his masterpiece; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966, the loose trilogy made a household name of TV star Clint Eastwood as ‘the man with no name’ (despite actually having a name in all three films – Joe, Monco and Blondie, respectively). These movies created a blueprint for the genre which most Spaghetti Westerns that followed stuck to. Many were filmed in nearby Spain partly because it was cheap and partly because it made a good double for the American west. Most featured an American in the lead with Italian bit players dubbed for English speaking audiences. The psychedelic credits sequences, the creative scores by Ennio Morricone, the harsh landscapes and uncompromising characters became the norm for the genre and more than made up for their cheap production values. These were westerns with style.
The framework of a lone drifter wandering into a town ruled by corruption and walking out of it at the end leaving a wake of bodies behind him was copied by many films to follow. A fine example is Django (1966), which introduced a character so popular that his name was used in the titles of over thirty unofficial sequels (despite the films themselves often having nothing to do with the character) the most recent example being Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). The Return of Ringo (1965) and Death Rides a Horse (1967) introduced a revenge element which became a staple of the genre. The bleakness of the Spaghetti Westerns and their refusal to portray their characters as upright defenders of justice and the American Way made them popular with the baby-boomers as well as earning a fair amount of controversy. Snowbound Utah-set film The Great Silence (1968) was so controversial with its brutal message about the ineffectiveness of justice in the face of profit that it was denied an American release.
In the late sixties a sub-genre emerged within the Spaghetti Westerns known as the Zapata Western. Named after the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, these westerns tended to be set during the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and were more often than not soapboxes for leftist European directors to spout their Marxist ideology. Many directors of Spaghetti Westerns had lived under the brutal rule of Mussolini and were politically motivated to make films that romanticized revolutionary ideals. The Big Gundown (1966) isn’t the only film to portray the Mexican government as a fascist regime and it also took a swipe at capitalism into the bargain by revealing the true villain to be the money-motivated businessman instead of the lowly Mexican peasant he tries to frame. A common theme in movies like A Bullet for the General (1966) and Compañeros (1970) was the working-class Mexican teaming up with an American or European specialist who is motivated by money rather than revolutionary ideals. These were often stand-ins for America’s involvement in Vietnam and Latin America in a critical portrait of U.S. foreign policy. Even the great Sergio Leone made his final contribution to the genre a Zapata Western with the 1971 Duck You Sucker! (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite) which is widely seen as a satirical take on a genre he was growing increasingly tired of.
Leone’s last western was preceded by his crowning glory. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) was supposed to be Once Upon a Time in America; Leone’s vision of the gangsters of prohibition era New York (that film wasn’t to be made until 1984), but studios persuaded him that another western was the way to go. The film was a masterpiece in a genre that had quickly become an ironic self portrait. Spaghetti Westerns had taken on a comedic element in the final years of the decade. Sabata (1969) attempted to create a James Bond type of western and the incredible popularity of the slapstick They Call Me Trinity (1970) heralded the end of the brutal, brooding and violent westerns of the sixties.