The Five Ingredients of a Spaghetti Western
When I was a teenager, I was introduced to the Spaghetti Western. I can’t say that I knew what hit me but I was immediately mesmerized by the panoramic cinematography, the haunting music and of course, the silent, quick-witted “heroes” that seem to kill more people than they saved. Perhaps it was foreboding my own questionable film taste but really I just had a hunger for films that were dramatic, artful and complex without being pretentious. Below describes why I find these films so delicious...and nutritious. Bon Appetite!
In the 1950s, traditional westerns were slowly moving from film theaters into televisions across the U.S. The only problem was the less tech-savvy countries, like Italy were left in the dust. To satisfy the demand of the western-hungry Italians, the country took matters into their own hands and made hundreds of their own westerns – Spaghetti Westerns.
The films were often shot in studios in the south of Italy, on located in Almería, Spain, Germany, Mexico and the American West. The term Spaghetti Western was initially derogative, used by film critics who thought the genre was a bastardization of the traditional western, but it soon became clear that they were moving the form forward, and inventing a new one. In fact, they became more influential than those snobby film critics could ever imagined.
Perhaps part of the reason was how these films were produced. The filming was always shot without sound and voices dubbed-in later, allowing for greater promotion and distribution. Casts often included actors from all over the world from Clint Eastwood to Franco Nero to Claudia Cardinale to Klaus Kinski, and attracting audiences equally as international.
Stereotypes are usually a bad thing. The loner, the villain, the fool, the whore with a heart of gold. These films could easily look like a joke, an amateur at work, but the best of the genre use these structures to amazing effect, often making a comment on society as a whole.
Sergio Leone is considered the master of the Spaghetti Western and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is perhaps the most celebrated. Talk about keeping it simple. In this highly entertaining tale, three men are inextricably tied together to find a treasure – the whereabouts of which each holds only a part. The three continue to double-cross each other as they draw nearer to the treasure a shootout takes place that even to this day, hold up as spectacular.
Source: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly; Production Company: United Artists
When you sit down to see a Spaghetti Western, get ready to see some carnage. While almost cartoonish at times, there is no missing the death and brutality that will either shock you or amuse you, depending on your brand of entertainment. In fact this genre became a marker in the level of violence that audiences soon began to expect, and crave.
In 1966, Sergio Corbucci unveiled Django, a film that would be called the most violent film of its time. In the film, Franco Nero stars as a misfit who arrives to a feuding town dragging a mysterious coffin around.
Source: Django; Production Company: BRC Produzione Tecisa
That plotline was sinister enough but what earned this film’s scandal were scenes like a man’s ear being cut off – and then fed to him. This act of brutality probably sounds familiar because it is echoed in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. 2012’s Django Unchained is of course an homage to the film as well – he even casts Franco Nero in a cameo role! Indeed, in its own time, the film had a huge impact, igniting strict limits of the films distribution which seemed to feed the public’s growing desire for violence on the screen.
It’s interesting to note that the genre’s debut in the 1960s is also directly connected to the violence that escalated in that decade. The shootouts that took place during the civil war or during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s (usually denoted as “Zapata Westerns”) were perfect vehicles to convey the violence that was happening in America, often against its own people.
You cannot not talk about Spaghetti Westerns without talking about Ennio Morricone. As the composer for some of the very best of this genre, his scores are as much a part of the film genre as cast or crew, if not more so because they have more screen time.
His orchestrations are as sweeping as the incredible vistas of the American Southwest. He uses motifs that are memorable on their own and foreboding in ways that are ingenious – like the sound of a trapped fly inside a villain’s gun which immediately mirrors that of an approaching train.
Perhaps of one the most haunting and enthralling uses of sound is of the character “Harmonica” in Once Upon a Time in the West played by Charles Bronson – a lonesome drifter who is out for justice for a long-standing wrong. He says little and when he does, his harmonica says more. Here in the opening to the film, he is “welcomed” by men on horseback:
Source: Once Upon a Time in the West; Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Garlic, aka, staying power
Like a great pasta olio, a good spaghetti western will stay with you, and hopefully longer. The influence of this genre is hard to convey. As mentioned, they introduced a level of violence that was previously forbidden, igniting an almost blood-thirsty frenzy. There is to count at least 30 unofficial sequels of Django. And it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t have the special brand of twisted brilliance of Quentin Tarantino without the Spaghetti Western.
Additionally, there were countless spin-offs of the genre – fortunately, or unfortunately. They ranged from out-right spoofs like the They call me Trinity series to musicals and hybrids like Shanghai Joe and Kill Bill II.
More subtly and perhaps more far reaching is the influence this genre has had on the modern action movie in particular and the role of the anti-hero in general. The silent, calculating, one-liners and the ambivalent ruthlessness seem to be a maturing from earlier times. Audiences don’t just want justice or for the good guy to win, but payback, where the line between good and evil is a hairline...it’s just more satisfying that way.
Blog Post Written by Laura Jay