Though the Western was the most popular film genre for many years stateside, it slowly began to decline in the late 50s as audiences grew tired of its ideology and black and white moral viewpoint. Enter Italian directors, who quickly began to re-interpret the genre for a new decade and more cynical era.
Supplanting the plains for the southern border (to make better use of the country's desert locales and Spanish actors) these ultra-stylized, morally muddy and conspicuously violent "Spaghetti Westerns" (as they were derogatorily called at the time) became as influential and bankable as the films that first inspired them, and have since come to be well-regarded by critics and audiences as some of the most entertaining movies ever made. Below are ten of the best.
10 A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
The first film in Sergio Leone’s seminal “Dollars Trilogy” stars Clint Eastwood as an anonymous gunslinger who finds himself in a Mexican village gripped by a violent conflict between the Rojo Brothers and Sheriff Baxter.
Though not technically the first Spaghetti Western, Leone’s loose adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) was the earliest film to make a clean break from the Hollywood formula and chart a totally unique course that would come to define the subgenre’s trappings--border locations, morally ambiguous anti-heroes, wild stylization, soaring scores--and provide a swift kick in the pants to a type of cinema that was floundering.
9 For A Few Dollars More (1965)
Frequently overshadowed by A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, the middle entry in Leone’s loose trilogy is still a masterpiece of the genre, and for some, the best in the series. With a brutal outlaw known as El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte) terrorizing the region, two bounty hunters (Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) set out to capture him and collect the reward.
In some ways, For A Few Dollars More may be more narratively simple than its predecessor and lack the grand scale of the film that follows, but it’s a lean, mean actioner that shows Leone and Morricone at the height of their respective powers.
8 Django (1966)
Sergio Corbucci’s most famous film is another loose adaptation of Yojimbo, regarded as one of the most violent films ever made at the time. Starring Franco Nero in his breakthrough role as the titular hero, he’s first introduced dragging a mud-caked coffin through the countryside where he rescues a woman, Maria (Loredana Nusciak), from being burned alive. Upon escorting her home, he discovers a ghostly town ravaged by the same dastardly group.
Though ostensibly a copycat A Fistful of Dollars (making it a knock-off of a knock-off), Django has become well-regarded as one of the finest spaghetti westerns and stands shoulder to shoulder with Leone’s film. Corbucci (the “second greatest” director of Italian oaters) has a meaner, crueler bent than Leone, and his violent pop-style, combined with an instantly iconic score by Luis Enriquez Bacalov make Django feel like something sitting haughtily between comic book and myth.
7 The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
A massive film (in both length and influence), Sergio’s conclusion to his Dollars Trilogy is frequently cited as the greatest of all spaghetti westerns. Set during the American Civil War, a mysterious drifter (Eastwood), and a Mexican Bandit (Eli Wallach) unite against the diabolical “Angel Eyes” (Lee Van Cleef) to locate a trove of treasure buried somewhere in the desert.
A tense, mesmerizing, and unforgettable experience, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is the high watermark for the genre, and though it was largely reviled upon release (as most Italian Westerns were) it has since become an unassailable classic.
6 The Big Gundown (1966)
Another Lee Van Cleef Western by another Sergio (this time, Sollima) The Big Gundown lets the actor single-handedly hold the screen, and he does so splendidly.
Van Cleef stars as Jonathan Corbett, a gunman who’s been so successful at exterminating bandits from the state of Texas, he’s presented with a possible Senate position by a railroad tycoon who will back him if he hunts down the killer of a 12-year-old girl. Corbett vows that this will be his last bounty hunt, and seeks out to end the murderer’s spree at any cost.
5 A Bullet for the General (1966)
Set squarely in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, A Bullet for the General stars Gian Maria Volontè as El Chucho, who is in dire need of weapons in support of General Elias, the leader of the revolution. He seizes a government supply train assisted by an American outlaw named Bill Tate (Lou Castel), with whom he becomes fast friends. But is Bill really on the side of the revolutionaries? Or could there be something deceiving in his calm demeanor and boyish charm?
A rousing blend of action and history, director Damiano Damiani lacks the stylistic bombast of the genre greats, but the script by Salvatore Laurani is the first of its kind to treat its subject with real gravity.
4 Death Rides a Horse (1967)
Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law) has spent over a decade plotting revenge against the bandits who killed his entire family when he was just a boy, and finds a kindred spirit in Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), a well-worn gunslinger out for vengeance against those who framed him.
While not nearly as stylishly accomplished as the other films on this list, Giulio Petroni’s film is a classic example of a “tutorship” narrative (in which an older, wiser, grizzled master mentors a young hot-headed upstart), and though it isn’t conceptually daring, Van Cleef and Law make an endlessly watchable pair.
3 The Great Silence (1968)
This film stars the legendarily troublesome Klaus Kinski as “Loco,” a morally bankrupt bounty hunter who preys on a band of outlaws. Driven by greed and utterly blind to anything but financial gain, Loco is eventually challenged by a gunslinger known only as “Silence” (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who takes him and the corrupt system he represents on in a battle where the lines between good and evil are erased entirely.
Though something of a commercial dud, The Great Silence has grown in stature with the passage of time. A more reined-in affair than Spaghetti audiences were used to, Corbucci still delivers some stunning wide photography of the desolate mountain setting that perfectly mirrors the icy moral ambiguity that is central to the film’s thematic thrust.
2 Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
With a sole patch of land in the area that gives access to water, railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sends one of his goons, Frank (Henry Fonda) to strong-arm the land’s owner McBain (Frank Wolff) into selling it. After killing the landowner, Frank sees that the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) becomes a suspect.
As evidenced by the bigger names in the cast, the Spaghetti Western had grown profitable and slightly more respectable as the 60s drew to a close. Unfortunately, the genre was burning out fast, and Once Upon a Time in the West plays like a fairytale rendition of the tropes Leone helped solidify.
1 Keoma (1976)
When gunslinger Keoma (Franco Nero) returns to his border town after serving in the Civil War, he finds it under the thumb of Caldwell and his gang of heavies. Not only that, but his three half-brothers have joined with Caldwell to undermine his rule from the inside, using Keoma as a pawn in their scheme.
Coming way, way late to the party, Enzo G. Castellari’s Keoma is the absolute last gasp of the Spaghetti Western, and what a way to go! Brilliantly absorbing the counter-cultural fervor of the time, Keoma’s hero is a mythical figure that goes on a journey filled with Shakespearean drama. The less said about the horrendous score the better, and Keoma may frustrate some with its looseness, but it’s stunning to look at and there’s something pleasurable about its rueful slipperiness.