Between the early 1960s and late 1970s, European filmmakers made some 600 Westerns, a great many of them in Italy. Italian takes on the genre were called “Spaghetti Westerns,” and often featured a quiet, drifting gunslinger, two competing gangs, and huge, blood-soaked body counts.
The director Sergio Leone pioneered this style of Western, with his Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars , For a Few Dollars More , and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly ) and Once Upon a Time in the West movies, which are still popular to this day. While Leone’s work is the top of the top, there are still plenty of other Spaghetti Westerns worth checking out. Here are five classics in the genre that weren’t directed by Leone.
1) Django (1966)
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Django has inspired countless imitators, unofficial sequels, and homages, most notably Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). If most Spaghetti Westerns were ripping off Leone’s Dollars trilogy, then the others were ripping off this movie.
The original Django (Franco Nero) is a coffin-dragging Union veteran who pops up at an American-Mexican border town several years after the end of the Civil War. The town is largely abandoned, now merely a battleground between a red-masked group of ex-Confederates and a money-hungry band of Mexican revolutionaries.
Django bears a past grudge against the leader of the wanna-be Ku Klux Klan, but his motives are further complicated when he falls for a mixed-race prostitute named María (Loredana Nusciak). Together, Django and María plan to leave their old lives behind, but not before Django gives us a spectacular finale against the Klan in a cemetery.
2) The Big Gundown (1966)
Director: Sergio Sollima
Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is an aging Texan bounty hunter who gets the idea to run for a seat in the Senate. In exchange for political support, the railroad tycoon Brockston (Walter Barnes) offers Jonathan one last hit, the Mexican peasant Cuchillo (Tomas Milian).
Accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl, Cuchillo has fled Texas for Mexico. Jonathan assumes it’ll be an easy and clear-cut job, but the chase is instead a complicated game of cat-and-mouse. As the game runs on, it becomes clear that Brockston wasn’t telling the truth, and that he has other reasons for wanting Cuchillo dead.
The Big Gundown is one of the earliest Zapata Westerns, a variety of Spaghetti Western in which a team made up of a white mercenary and a Mexican bandit take on the rich and powerful. There are some pretty cool set pieces here, especially the title sequence, but the movie really rises above the rest of the pack with its mature introspection and political themes.
3) The Great Silence (1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci
“They call him Silence,” the widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee) explains, “Because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.” In the brutal winter of 1898, the mute gunslinger Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wanders into the small town of Snow Hill. Times are tough in this remote part of Utah, and the hardest hit have fled to the wilderness, where they ambush and rob travelers.
Snow Hill’s one-man legal system is Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), a greedy banker who promises huge rewards for taking care of the outlaws. Pollicut’s offer attracts Loco (Klaus Kinski), a psychopathic bounty hunter who would rather kill all the bandits than take any one of them alive.
After Loco kills her outlaw husband, Pauline hires Silence for revenge. Though the odds are against him, Silence takes on Loco and his gang to protect the town’s most unfortunate. The crushing bleakness, the Ennio Morricone score, and the beautiful snowy scenery all make for an unforgettable experience that goes beyond a good genre movie.
4) My Name is Nobody (1973)
Director: Tonino Valerii
Technically, I’m kinda cheating with this entry. Tonino Valerii directed most of My Name is Nobody, but Sergio Leone was involved with the production and directed a few scenes. Regardless, and despite Leone later claiming more credit than he deserves, this is properly a Valerii movie.
But enough about specifics: Jack Beauregard (Henry Ford) is the greatest gunslinger who ever lived. The only problem is, according to a young admirer named Nobody (Terence Hill), Jack is about to retire to Europe without a good sendoff. The big farewell he has in mind? Jack fighting 150 outlaws all by himself.
In the early 1970s, after exhausting itself with bloodbaths, edge, and political allegories, Spaghetti Westerns took a lighthearted turn and morphed into family-friendly comedies. My Name is Nobody, with its excellent acting and slapstick brawls, is the best example of this subgenre within a subgenre.
5) Keoma (1976)
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Before fading away in the late 1970s, the Spaghetti Western had one good last shot in Keoma, a movie vaguely similar to Django. Keoma (Franco Nero) is a half-white, half-Native American soldier who’s come home to his devastated border town after fighting in the Union army.
The poor town is in the middle of a plague epidemic, and to make matters worse, it’s being terrorized by an ex-Confederate soldier named Caldwell (Donald O’Brien). Keoma also finds that his three white half-brothers have joined up with Caldwell and betrayed their father (William Berger). Together with his father and a former slave, Keoma plans to take on Caldwell and his brothers and save the town.
Keoma is a mystical dream. The surreal imagery is fantastic, and it includes unusual flashbacks that show Keoma entering and watching scenes from the past. The only downside to this movie is the soundtrack; some might find the caterwauling vocals a welcome addition to the weirdness here, but most will just cover their ears and wish for the songs to be over.
Curti, Roberto. Tonino Valerii: The Films. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. Google Books. Web. 31 May 2017.
Weisser, Thomas. Spaghetti Westerns: The Good, the Bad, and the Violent. Jefferson: McFarland, 2005. Print.