Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Spaghetti Westerns
Why it’s daunting: Europe’s fascination with the American West dates back to before the Old West could rightly be called old. German author Karl May began writing about the Native American hero Winnetou and his German blood brother Old Shatterhand in the 1890s, and his stories seeped into the water of European popular fiction and inspired several films from the 1920s through the 1960s. So it wasn’t that odd, really, that Italian director Sergio Leone would decide to shoot a Western in Europe: It had been done before. But the 1964 release of A Fistful Of Dollars, starring minor U.S. television star Clint Eastwood, started a deluge of European Westerns. They quickly came to be known as spaghetti Westerns, thanks to Leone and the number of Italian directors making them, but they were often European co-productions shot in southern Spain with casts drawn from across Europe and the United States. Between 1964 and 1976, hundreds of spaghetti Westerns saw the light of day. As with any vibrant genre, the quality varies greatly from film to film. Furthermore, Leone’s work tends to overshadow his contemporaries’, meaning a lot of good-to-great movies tend to get overlooked by those who stick with the master.
Possible gateway: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Why: Let’s just get this out of the way: Leone is the genre’s master, and one of the most innovative, stylistically distinctive directors of his era. His three films with Eastwood, sometimes dubbed the “Dollars trilogy”—A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)—introduced a new kineticism to the Western. They understood, and even respected, the rules introduced by John Ford and other American masters, but broke them just the same. Leone introduced new stylistic touchstones—the heart-quickening editing paced to Ennio Morricone’s outré scores, the close-ups of confrontational eyes, landscapes that stretched to the vanishing point, towns covered in grit and dust—and with them, brought in a new attitude. Eastwood played a hero who barely earned the title, ultimately doing the right thing, but with none of the moral glow of a classic Western hero or the psychological torment of his 1950s successors. He played a disillusioned man in a world that gave him no reason not to be disillusioned. He fit perfectly, in other words, into the 1960s that made the films into hits.
There’s really no reason not to start with A Fistful Of Dollars, Leone’s first pairing with Eastwood, an excellent movie that nicely captures the cultural cross-pollination that defined the spaghetti Western. Eastwood plays a cheroot-smoking, poncho-wearing, bestubbled drifter (a persona who came to be known as The Man With No Name, even though the films sometimes name him, and even though there’s no real continuity between films) who blows into a corrupt border town and plays two warring factions against each other to his own gain. It’s an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s cynical samurai masterpiece Yojimbo, which was itself inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s noir classic Red Harvest. And thus, an American TV actor became a movie star playing a cowboy for an Italian director working in Spain looking to a Japanese interpretation of an American crime novel for inspiration. It really is a small world after all, or at least a world pop culture helped make smaller.
Or you could easily start with the equally good For A Few Dollars More, co-starring Lee Van Cleef. Often overlooked as the middle child of the trilogy, it introduces the mournful undertones that would characterize Leone’s work up through his final film, the gangster epic Once Upon A Time In America. With its depiction of the West as a place haunted by personal loss and sexual brutality, it also struck a chord with Sam Peckinpah, and it kicked open the door for his later films, and the wave of revisionist Westerns they helped start.
But for a double-barreled blast of what makes the spaghetti Western great, you might as well go with The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, in which the Good (Eastwood), the Bad (Van Cleef) and the Ugly (Eli Wallach, in a full-bodied performance as the slovenly Tuco) aid and double-cross each other as they look for lost gold against the backdrop of the American Civil War. It’s everything Leone attempted with his previous films, but bigger and better, mining a rich vein of black comedy by contrasting its heroes’ search for treasure against the killing fields behind them. They’re selfish, callow men, sure, but against the absurdity of war, their ugly, self-serving behavior looks like a rational response, a sentiment shared by many spaghetti Westerns, even those that later worked to undercut it by introducing politics and notions of personal responsibility to the European West.
Though it made little impact in the U.S., where it had no official release, the 1966 film Django became a hit to rival Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars in much of the rest of the world, inspiring dozens of unofficial sequels and at least one reggae classic. Sergio Corbucci’s film darkens and intensifies all of Leone’s signature touches, from the violence to the general cruddiness of living in the American West. As Django, star Franco Nero is even more of a self-serving prick than Leone’s characters—he only looks good by contrast with the Klan-like baddies he’s up against—and the West he traverses, dragging along a casket that’s later revealed to house a primitive machine gun, is one of ugliness and mud. Though he lacks Leone’s poetic bravura, Corbucci is a skilled director, and Django has its own bloody, nihilistic charm.
It’s currently tough for American audiences to see most of the movies by Sergio Sollima, the third major Sergio to make spaghetti Westerns. But Run, Man, Run!, his most readily available film, lives up to the promise of its wonderful title. The 1968 film stars John Ireland and Tomas Milian, the latter playing a thief reluctantly roped into aiding the Mexican Revolution. It’s a self-consciously goofy film—particularly once it shifts from Mexico to a particularly unconvincing approximation of America—but it doesn’t try to hide its political subtext. It’s a fine introduction to one of the major spaghetti subgenres: what spaghetti-Western scholar Christopher Frayling dubbed the “Zapata spaghetti.” Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, such films often let directors with a point to make about the turbulent, changing 1960s use the past as a mirror for the present. (For a less playful version of the form, try Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet For The General, from the same year.)
Leone released his own Zapata spaghetti in 1971. Duck, You Sucker (also known as A Fistful Of Dynamite, or Once Upon A Time… The Revolution) casts James Coburn as an Irish revolutionary in exile who becomes embroiled in the Mexican Revolution after hooking up with initially apolitical bandit Rod Steiger. Mangled and defanged upon its initial release—for some reason, the film’s American distributor didn’t feel comfortable opening a Western with a quote from Mao—Duck, You Sucker looks at revolution from all sides, ultimately landing on none of them. Beginning as comedy and ending in tragedy, it’s a long, violent trip through the dark heart of history that explores the way grand political forces—be they for oppression or liberation—crush those in their way.
Directors seeking to make a political point didn’t have to use the Mexican Revolution, however. Anticipating the snowy wastes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Corbucci’s The Great Silence pits a mute Jean-Louis Trintignant against a pitiless, grinning Klaus Kinski. Kinski is chilling as a bounty hunter charged with oppressing a group of outlaw Mormons, here treated more as political refugees than as a religious group. While the film sometimes relies on too many gimmicks—not only is Trintignant mute, he steadfastly refuses to draw first, so he only kills in self-defense—Corbucci makes beautiful use of his snowy locations and one of Morricone’s finest scores as he builds to a grim climax that has to be seen to be believed.
But spaghetti Westerns didn’t just keep moving into darker and darker terrain. The 1970 film They Call Me Trinity made sure of that. Director Enzo Barboni and stars Terence Hill and Bud Spencer—the latter two a Mutt-and-Jeff comedy team both before and after Trinity—emphasized comedy, and not just gallows humor, over explicit violence. Though the film is soggily paced and directed without much distinction, Hill is tremendous fun as the eponymous hero, a lazy sharpshooter first seen letting his horse drag him from place to place. The opposite of a man of action, he barely seems like a hero at all until the camera focuses on the all-business piercing blue eyes staring out from his perpetually mud-caked face. The film is a bit like that, too, all silliness and slapstick until it has to get down to business. (Barboni, Hill, and Spencer re-teamed for a sequel, Trinity Is Still My Name, the next year.)
Though Hill’s foil Spencer is absent in My Name Is Nobody (1973), it provides an even better showcase for Hill’s talents as a comic man-of-action. Nominally directed by Tonino Valerii, but looking a lot like a film by its producer, Sergio Leone, Nobody casts Hill opposite Henry Fonda, in his final Western role. Fonda plays an eager-to-retire gunslinger dogged by Hill’s Nobody. Immaculately well-crafted and relentlessly goofy, it doubles as a critique of what Westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, had become, contrasting Fonda’s nobility with Hill’s degenerate goofball charm.
Nobody wasn’t the first time Fonda worked with Leone, who cast him against type as a bad guy in 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West. (How bad? He kills three people in his first scene.) Parting ways with Clint Eastwood, Leone turned to Charles Bronson as his new anti-hero, casting him as Harmonica, a mysterious gunman who befriends and defends Claudia Cardinale, a widow trying to carve out a new life near the up-and-coming town of Flagstone, a goal that puts her in opposition to Fonda and his men, with whom Bronson shares a mysterious history. Longer in scale and scope than anything Leone had made before, it mines a rich vein of romantic doom. Bronson plays a rough man perfectly suited for his times who realizes his time is coming to an end. It’s as exciting as the Dollars films, but also stark and haunting, qualities Leone’s collaborations with Eastwood never achieved. Put simply, this is Leone’s masterpiece, a film to tower over the rest of the spaghetti genre, though a film best appreciated with a few more spaghetti Westerns under one’s belt.
It wasn’t the form’s last gasp, however. Spaghettis died slowly throughout the ’70s as Italian audiences began to pay more attention to giallos and crime thrillers. 1976’s Keoma gives the genre a proper burial. A misty, brutal film that often feels more like a ghost story than a Western, Keoma brings Franco Nero back to the West to play a half-breed who confronts his brothers in a panicked, plague-stricken town that treats its diseased citizens like sub-human trash. The great Woody Strode co-stars as an ex-slave turned alcoholic, and the film’s Wild Strawberries-like use of flashbacks makes it as much about how hope—in youth, in America, in heroes, in life—transforms slowly into disappointment over time. Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, who helmed the original Inglorious Bastards the following year, it isn’t the last spaghetti Western, and it isn’t a wholly successful film, but it’s as fine a capstone as the genre could have hoped to receive.
Where not to start: Don’t let the generous promises of DVD sets promising 20 spaghetti Westerns on five DVDs fool you. The films might be interesting, but you’ll invariably encounter muddy, sub-VHS transfers that kill anything interesting about the material.