Give Thanks for Spaghetti Westerns
Remember when a bunch of unruly Europeans dragged manifest destiny off its barstool and shot it down in the dusty street?
Such moments stayed rare in popular depiction, however, particularly once motion pictures arrived nearly 300 years later. For decades, westerns primarily portrayed America’s indigenous people as bloodthirsty, duplicitous “savages,” or at best as addle-brained comic relief. When children played “Cowboys and Indians,” nobody wanted to be the latter—that meant you were the Bad Guy, not to mention the party that mostly just had to get “shot” and play dead.
With few exceptions, it wasn’t until around 1970—when the activist “Red Power” movement was going strong, and ’60s-bred U.S. counterculture society had embraced Native Americans as both societal victims and fashionable spiritual models—that Hollywood changed its tune. Hits like that year’s Soldier Blue and Little Big Man portrayed the white man’s treatment of the country’s pre-existing occupants as a mixture of bureaucratic betrayal and outright slaughter. While in synch with changing attitudes, these portrayals earned considerable ire in some quarters, notably from old-school western stars like John Wayne, who preferred the more simplistic, “patriotic” white-hat-black-hat morality of their own classic vehicles. (As late as 1971, Wayne said “Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”)
But this shift had arrived a few years earlier in an unlikely place: Europe, where the big-screen western genre that was beginning to ebb in the U.S., largely due to the great popularity of such TV shows as Bonanza, found itself most unexpectedly getting a new lease on life. While it was hardly the first western made on the continent, Sergio Leone’s low-budget 1964 A Fistful of Dollars proved an international smash. It set the “spaghetti western” template in many ways, from its stark widescreen presentation (vast landscapes, huge facial closeups) and hypnotic Ennio Morricone score to its heightened violence and cynicism. In lifting hitherto just-medium-watt American TV star Clint Eastwood (of the western series Rawhide) to superstar status, it also altered the core dynamic of traditional westerns: His protagonists for Leone weren’t heroes but anti-heroes, perhaps less loathsome than their onscreen enemies, but nonetheless taciturn, trigger-happy, remorseless, usually driven by greed and vengeance rather than a desire to “do the right thing.”
While Eastwood and Leone only made two more movies together before the former skedaddled back to a greatly elevated Hollywood career, the enormous success of that collaboration had immediate repercussions, particularly on the highly trend-driven Italian film industry. Kevin Grant’s excellent genre history Any Gun Can Play notes that in the decade that followed Fistful’s release, nearly six hundred “Euro-westerns” were produced. (The term “spaghetti western” is something of a misnomer, as it implies strictly Italian origin, when many of these films were co-productions between studios of different nations, and a large number were shot in the American West-like landscapes of southernmost Spain.)
Most of these movies were forgettable and imitative, made in bulk on the cheap, derided (when noticed at all) by critics. But their general coolness has been admired by Quentin Tarantino and other connoisseurs of vintage exploitation cinema, and there’s been an as-yet-slow but steady groundswell of appreciation for the genre as a whole, with a few deserving titles beyond the Leone staples gaining cult followings of their own.
At the time, even the best spaghetti westerns were largely dismissed as simple, mean-spirited knockoffs of their American equivalents, the distaste (from everyone save ticket-buyers) heightened by reaction against so much brutality at a time when movie violence was growing much more explicit, pervasive, and debated as a bad influence by cultural watchdogs. They were considered irresponsible entertainments, particularly as they were not remotely family-friendly like the wholesome Hollywood entries of yore that had anchored decades of kiddie matinees. Their body counts, sadism, implied rapes and so forth took place in seemingly amoral frontier universes.
Though marked by a certain gallows humor, Leone’s sensibility was existentially bleak: He saw plenty of evil but not much good in a humanity driven primarily by greed. With his nihilistic view, deliberately flat “iconic” characters, and meticulous attention to surface style, this most fabled Euro-western director was pointedly apolitical. Indeed, his only quasi-political film (1971’s Duck, You Sucker! a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite) ridicules the very idea of improving social change, let alone “revolution,” with Rod Steiger as a bandit-turned-guerilla leader who’s no noble freedom fighter but a stereotypical “drunk Mexican,” licentious and boorish. The movie invites us to laugh at the slapstick comedy of bridges and peasants blown up for the sake of ideals it assures us are illusory.
Yet other, lower-profile practitioners of the genre managed to sneak in some serious political messages, at times via subtle metaphor, at other times quite bluntly. This shouldn’t be surprising: Adopting an American narrative form at a time (during the Vietnam War) when American policy was unpopular in much of the world, European writers and directors were drawn to addressing their “turbulent” era’s issues through the lens of a fictionalized past. It’s worth noting that not only was the hippie counterculture and radical leftist thought at its European peak during the spaghetti western’s lifespan, but many important figures in the Italian film industry were members of the nation’s Communist Party—which itself boasted the largest such membership outside actual Soviet-bloc nations. Even in Spain, where filmmakers had to skirt the strict censorship of Franco’s dictatorship, westerns provided the means to air veiled critiques of life in an oppressive society.
Thus as early as 1966 we might get an Italian-Spanish western like Navajo Joe, made just after director Sergio Corbucci’s international smash Django. (No small number of actors were first elevated from semi-obscurity to spaghetti-western stardom because they bore a general resemblance to original “Django” Franco Nero, or to Clint Eastwood.) Its titular figure—played by another imported U.S. TV actor, Burt Reynolds—is not so much the “noble savage” of many “revisionist” Westerns as he is a justifiably embittered avenger. He’s hired to eliminate a gang of professional head-scalpers who now threaten the prosperous town they once worked for—whose citizens had funded their slaughter of Joe’s own tribe.
The town’s greed and hypocrisy is business-as-usual for a spaghetti western. John Wayne himself famously despised the laureled 1952 U.S. western High Noon for its unflattering portrayal of frontier society, with Gary Cooper forced to fend off murderous outlaws alone when the “upstanding” citizens he represents prove too cowardly to help. But such dynamics were typical in Euro-westerns, whose makers often shared with the swelling ranks of student protestors a deep mistrust of capitalism and enthusiasm for the theoretically imminent “revolution.”
In Giuseppe Colizzi’s 1969 Boot Hill, outsiders (including a multiracial traveling circus) trigger anarchic upheaval in a town whose corrupt establishment figures use murder, the courts, and various arm-twisting techniques to bleed the citizens dry in a gold-mining region. French writer-director-star Robert Hossein’s 1968 Italian co-production Cemetery Without Crosses assumes a more tragic tone as his sorrowful lone gunman tries to end the violent, autocratic rule of a region’s land-grabbing clan. Similarly in Tonino Valerii’s 1967 Day of Anger, a visiting gunman (ever-cool Lee Van Cleef) exposes the dirty secrets behind smugly superior town leaders who treat their resident orphan “shit-shoveller” (Giuliano Gemma, a particularly engaging Italian star of the period) as an “untouchable” peon. The latter becomes the gunman’s grateful protege, but ultimately this is another bond he must break to truly free himself.
If inherently suspicious of class differences, spaghetti westerns could be scathing about racial inequities, and not just those where Native Americans bore the brunt. In fact, Mexicans were far more often depicted as the principal victims of both criminal and “respectable” abuse. In Hanging for Django (1969), one of umpteen movies that bore no resemblance to the original Django beyond lifting its character name, Caucasians sneak “wetbacks” across the border, supposedly to better jobs—but instead sell them into slavery. Or simply take their money and kill them.
Brutal, callous racism also pervades 1967’s Requiescant, whose hero (Lou Castel) is the sole survivor of a Mexican community massacred by the U.S. military in order to steal their land. Taken in by missionaries, he arrives in San Antonio years later as an adult of almost Christ-like moral purity—albeit with a born sharpshooter’s skills—to rescue his adoptive sister from prostitution. There he must ultimately face down the same monster of colonialism (Mark Damon) who killed his people, and who still rants that his inferiors are “born slaves and will die slaves.” (To further highlight this villain’s parasitical nature, he’s costumed and made up like Count Dracula.) Written and directed by veteran neorealist Carlo Lizzani, Requiescant put its politics so up-front that that most radically far-left of leading Italian artists, Pier Paolo Pasolini, made uncredited contributions to its screenplay and played an onscreen role as a revolutionist priest.
The same year, Castel played a very different role in A Bullet for the General, as a hired assassin who feigns interest in the poor and downtrodden to insinuate himself with a leading Mexican insurgent (Gian Maria Volonte). And still in 1967—the spaghetti western’s peak of productivity and commercial success—Face to Face found Volonte essaying a prim history professor who moves to the frontier desert for his health. There, he gets a little too excited by the power and cruelty afforded by a culture in which the gun, not the intellect, rules. He gradually becomes just the sort of corrupt monster he’d previously decried from his academy ivory tower. This was largely taken as a critique of Italy’s own succumbing to the lure of Fascism in the years leading up to World War II.
Other Euro-westerns had more immediate resonances: Corbucci’s 1968 The Great Silence was reportedly inspired by the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X. Its tale of institutionalized corruption and prejudice made room for a then-very-daring romance between black (Vonetta McGee) and white (Jean-Louis Trintingant) protagonists. Still other films made a point of evoking the Vietnam War, or even interpolating elements of hippie counterculture into the “Wild West”—as in the psychedelic 1970 western Matalo!, whose proto-Manson Family villains and Christlike suffering hero (Castel again) all sport headbands, love beads, and fringed jackets.
Nor was that other bugaboo of the ’60s Left, organized religion, spared scorn: Numerous “spaghettis” (Corbucci’s 1968 A Professional Gun among the most notable) had vehement anti-clerical themes, which sometimes brought condemnation from the Vatican as well as the disingenuously pious Spanish government.
By the early 1970s the spaghetti western had begun to wear out its welcome through an excess of mostly mediocre product (and lame semi-spoofs like the Trinity series), though scattered fine films continued to be made. By the middle of the decade, it had basically breathed its last. But stylistically and otherwise, it had altered the genre’s basic DNA forever.
Going forward, basic white-hat-black-hat western dynamics would always seem old-fashioned. Perhaps the fatal shot to such comfortingly simple morality was fired by Leone in 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West, when he cast Ultimate Hollywood Good Guy Henry Fonda as a sadistic killer in the pay of a ruthless railroad tycoon, and started the film by having the erstwhile Young Mr. Lincoln shoot a helpless young boy point-blank. Gun-happy as they were, “oaters” had traditionally been nostalgic, family-friendly entertainment. After the spaghetti era, however, their essential innocence and optimism could never be taken for granted again. If the “classic” Hollywood western reinforced a familiar schoolbook narrative of manifest destiny and inherent “civilizing” virtue, the European version—despite its surface of seemingly mindless violence and rote cynicism—cast a stinging outsider’s doubt on that official history.