The Spaghetti Western – A Genre of its Own

fistful1.jpg366dollars1.jpgThe western movie genre is filled with mystique and legend. These movies tell and re-tell stories and myths of how early America began. Heroes and villains, searing landscapes, galloping horses and quick draws are just a few of the familiar sights and sounds that make up the western, and definitely among the things that draw us as western fans.

Spaghetti western is a nickname for a broad sub-genre of Western film that emerged in the mid-1960s, so named because most were produced by Italian studios. Originally they had in common the Italian language, low budgets, and a recognizable highly fluid, violent, and minimalist cinematography that eschewed (some said “demythologized”) many of the conventions of earlier Westerns — partly intentionally, partly as a result of the work being done in a different cultural background and with limited funds.   

The term was originally used disparagingly, but by the 1980s many of these films came to be held in high regard, particularly because it was hard to ignore the influence they had in redefining the entire idea of a western up to that point.  Because of the desert setting, and the readily available southern Spanish extras, a usual theme in Spaghetti Westerns is the Mexican Revolution, Mexican bandits and the border zone between Mexico and the US. Many of the films were shot in the Spanish Tabernas Desert of Almería, which greatly resembles the landscape of the American Southwest  

A bit of trivia: Spaghetti westerns are also known as “macaroni westerns” in Japan.   

eastwoodffod.jpgThe best-known and perhaps archetypical spaghetti westerns were the so-called Man With No Name trilogy (or Dollars Trilogy) directed by Sergio Leone.  Up until then we’d been mesmerized by Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide, and now here he was in living color and panorama on the big screen.  These movies replayed at the drive-in through the seventies, where my husband and I watched them with our kids sleeping in the back of the station wagon.  The musical scores composed by Ennio Morricone became synonymous with the genre and still ring in our heads. 

The man with no name rode into cinematic history in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The latter had a shocking high budget for that time and this genre — in excess of one million dollars!   

filmlist_onceinwest1.jpgLeone’s follow-up film after the trilogy was Once Upon A Time In The West, which is often called one of the greatest films in cinema history.  It’s a classic good verses evil tale about railroads, land grabs, and the entrepreneurial spirit.  As the train moves west, the country is changed, paralleling the dwindling presence of the western movie with the forward expansion of Eastern civilization.  The story’s theme is the changing times.  Casting blue-eyed Hollywood good guy Henry Fonda as one of the nastiest curs in the West was pure genius, while Charles Bronson became an unlikely leading man.   


AMC shows this movie frequently, about once a month. Usually they show a pan and scan version in the daytime, but the late night showing will be in letterbox format. Watch the letterbox format or you will miss the beautiful panoramic scope.  (I found it scheduled on TCM on Sat, Sep 22, 2:15 PM.  The original is three hours long, so watch listings for the full version.)

Can you recall the first time you saw Clint Eastwood?  Has anyone NOT seen The Good the Bad and the Ugly?  Do you have a favorite spaghetti western I didn’t mention?  Could you pass the parmesan–er popcorn, please?

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37 thoughts on “The Spaghetti Western – A Genre of its Own”

  1. I remember the intro to The Good The Bad and the Ugly, but I was so little when my parents watched it I don’t remember much else about it(may have to look for these movies at the video store next time we go. ;o)) My dad used to go around whistling the theme.

    I suppose TGTBTH was the first time I saw Clint Eastwood, but then, there were a lot of movies that passed through my childhood, so that would probably be my earliest recollection of him.

    I think I’m going to have to refresh my memory before deciding on a favorite! LOL

    I could pass the parmesan covered popcorn(great combination BTW!)

  2. Hi Cheryl! I love this topic. I’ve often said, when I write, the scenes play out in my head like an on old spaghetti western. :o)

    I’m old enough to remember Clint Eastwood in Rawhide. Then, it was just gravy when he did the low-budget westerns. I remember how people used to discount the whole sub-genre. Funny how most of them gained cult status.

    I sat through the long version of Once Upon a Time in the West not long ago. I was flipping through channels late at night when I stumbled across it, then I sat there–mesmerized–for the whole thing. I had seen it eons ago, but here’s what jumped out at me this time around. Charles Bronson’s character was the basis for Sharon Stone’s character in The Quick and the Dead. Their backstory anyway.

    One of my favorites was My Name is Nobody. It starred Henry Fonda as the famous gunfighter, who “retired” when he was “killed” by the irrepressible Nobody. :o)

  3. Good morning, girls! Taryn, I have the GTBATU soundtrack. Those notes just always get stuck in my head and bring up images of Eli Wallach. LOL

    Brilliant observation about the Sharon Stone character, Devon. You TRULY are a western nut–er–aficionado. Now I will be searching my TV listings for My Name is Nobody. Thank you!

  4. Yummm, spaghetti (well, it’s what I’m fixing the students for lunch ) But yummm, spaghetti western heros.

    My dad was a huge western fan, so of course we saw them all. Mostly at the drive-in where we’d fix coney dogs and hamburgers wrapped in foil (Eh, what was food safety in the 60’s and 70’s?) And big brown grocery sacks of buttered popcorn with REAL butter. A quick stop at A&W and we were set.

    Mom loved the theme to The Good, etc…But I remember Trinity. And Trinity is Still My Name. I couldn’t tell you who the star was–I may have to google him–but he had the bluest eyes. And boy, did the film makers play that feature up!

    What a fun day!

  5. okay I had to look.

    The star of the Trinity movies was Terence Hill. Who, by the way was born in Venice–Italy! With the name Mario Girotti.

    Now THAT’S a spaghetti western star!

  6. Lizzie, I went and looked, too, because I couldn’t remember his name. Yes, it was Terence Hill of the blue eyes. (sigh) And yes, they did home in on those intensely blue eyes–a lot. Or the buzz of a fly, or a drop of sweat splatting at it dripped from the nervous gunfighter’s face. Loved it!

    Cheryl, another one of my faves (though even I will admit, it’s a strange one and kind of obscure) was titled “China 9, Liberty 37.” It starred an Italian actor named Fabio Testi. At the time, he was the European equivalent of Tom Selleck. The movie was pure camp, but man, was he ever good to look at! :o)

  7. My hubby loves MY NAME IS NOBODY. I had to search far and wide to get him the dvd for Christmas. It’s his all time favorite movie. It’s a little strange, humorous and so different from the John Wayne type movies we all loved.

    It was love at first sight with Rowdy Yates. Oh, my goodness! I’d watch the episodes, hoping that Rowdy had a storyline that week. Then Clint sort of disappeared for a while, only to reappear in the Spaghetti Westerns. They weren’t considered “real” westerns, but B movies originally but then they took hold with the American public and became immensely popular.
    Clint then went on to make thrillers like “Play Misty for Me” and “Dirty Harry.” Remember those?

  8. Terrence Hill! I had forgotten Trinity until you brought him up, *lizzie. We used to get one of those giant dill pickles at the drive-in, remember those?

    Devon, if there’s an equivalent to Tom Selleck, I’m all over–um no–I mean will for sure be on the lookout for him. My favorite Tom Selleck movie is of course Quigley Down Under. Sounds like a blog topic, eh?

    Oh, yes Char, Clint was the DJ and a looney female listener was stalking him. (I think there’s a Mary Higgens Clark book like that, but the heroine is a TV personality.) And Dirty Harry is an icon. He could make my day any time!

    Mary, where are YOUUUUUUUUUUU?? I know you have a comment, and I will have my cup safely on the desktop when I read it.

  9. High Plains Drifter. That was the one that always got to me. I had to leave the room for some of the scenes (before fast forward) but I was absolutely fascinated by the story. Was he the devil? The dead guy? The dead guy’s brother? Very creepy movie. Do you remember the ‘little person’ who was his sidekick? Yikes.

  10. Great blog, Cheryl. Personally I find the spaghetti westerns a little gory (when I first heard the term I thought it referred to the amount of blood and guts spilled 🙂 )
    That said, I ADORE the sound tracks and have a bunch of them. Ennio Morricone (they gave him an Oscar for lifetime achievement last year–remember the cute little man who gave his acceptance speech in Italian?) was a genius. The track for “Once Upon a Time in the West” is just breathtaking. I played it all through the last book I wrote.

  11. My son who is twenty-four watched Trinty is my Name over and over again and would snicker when he was a teenager! He gets all that subtle humor stuff and loves it!

    I remember seeing the The Good, Bad and the Ugly, I believe at the theater as a teenager. Our small town always had movies several years after they actually came out! They also played songs on the radio that were months old everywhere else, but new to us! LOL I probably saw Clint in Rawhide because my grandfather who lived with us read westerns and we watched everyone on TV, but I don’t remember.

    My husband loves westerns and I’ve talked him into taking me to see 3:10 to Yuma this weekend. A thrill since we haven’t been to a theater to see a movie in about ten years.

    Great information!

  12. Cheryl, I feel head over heels in love with Clint baby the first time I watched Rawhide. Even then he looked like a man with deep secrets and honor that oozed from him. I loved all the spaghetti westerns and I don’t know it my two all-time favorites are classified as spaghetti westerns or not but I really liked Clint in PALE RIDER where he played a gunfighter posing as a preacher and hid a gun inside a carved out Bible. But my other favorite was TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH. That one had a lot of humor that showed Clint’s softer side mixed with his determination to right wrongs and administer justice. He had such an awesome screen presence! 🙂

    And is it any wonder that I married a man named Clint? But yes I did and he was the love of my life for twenty-three wonderful years. Excellent post, Cheryl!

  13. I have to say that I have not watched any of the movies you mentioned in your post. And I am trying to remember if I have ever seen a whole Clint Eastwood movie. Nothing is ringing a bell.

  14. Oh yes to High Plains Drifter…there is another one, I think The Beguiled? where Clint is held captive at like a girls’ school and gets his leg cut off? Creepcity. A very good recent contemporary Clint movie is Absolute Power. He plays a burglar who witnesses a murder while committing a robbery and of course can’t help because he’d reveal himself. And I do vaguely remember Rowdy Yates. Wonderful post, Cheryl.

  15. I, unfortunatley, have not seen any of the Eastwood westerns. It is something that I plan to rectify in the near future!

  16. The girls’ school! I forgot about that one. They want A MAN and Clint falls right into their *laps*. That was also very creepy.

  17. Never cared much for the Clint Eastwood westerns, now dirty Harry is another story 🙂
    Anyway, I have to agree with Cheryl, if you haven’t seen Once Upon the West, you have really missed something. One of the best, if not a little strange, westerns ever made.

  18. Oh, you guys are GOOD remembering all these movies! Three and a half years ago my d-i-l and s-i-l and family were staying with us while their house was built. My son in law Brad was talking and brought up the movie and called it Three Mules for Dora Lee. My daughter and I laughed until we were sick. I mean literally exhausted from laughing. Every time I thought of it afterward, I cracked up and just sat and laughed. So they got their place with a big spread of land, and he got a tractor mower and guess what he named his tractor — Dora Lee! So we still laugh about it.

    Two Mules for Sister Sarah is still one of my favorites and I watch it any time it’s on.

  19. I always loved the ending of one of Clint’s movies – where he climbs into the bathtub with Sandra Locke. I always thought it was so-o romantic! Was it Two Mules for Sister Sarah?

  20. I’m not now, nor probably will ever be a Clint fan…but he has done some good movies.

    But then, how about that psuedo western Paint Your Wagon. Whoo boy, nothing like a musical staring two men who can’t sing.

    Didn’t watch Rawhide much when it was new, but watched reruns. But for blatent…how about the opening to The Rifleman?

    I’ll admit it–my favorite western…Blazing Saddles.

    Okay, I’ll go back to my corner now.

  21. Paint Your Wagon. Wow. That goes back to Pam’s blog. Didn’t they ‘share’ the only woman in town?

  22. I loved Paint Your Wagon! And I also loved Two Mules for Sister Sarah. It’s been on lately, many times and I catch whenever I can. It was
    Shirley Maclaine. Talk about sexual tension! Poor Clint thought he was going batty, having the hots for a nun. But we all know the truth, right?

  23. The first Clint Eastwood movie I ever saw was Every Which Way But Loose. It cracked me up so much that I made a point to see all of the rest of his films….including his westerns. Of all his westerns, I would say my favorites are TGTBATU and TOJW. 😉

  24. Western are a favorite! The heros always made me swoon. Now there’s an old fashioned word to give away my age. Alan Ladd and John Wayne are favorites. My favorite movies of Johm Wayne include Maureen O”Hara……Like the one I watch over and over…McLintock!

  25. Oh goodness. McLintock! It’s On Demand right now, I watched it just the other night. I just love “Shoot him, Daddy, shoot him.”..Thanks also for the TCM info for Once Upon a Time in the West. I haven’t seen it so it’ll be DVRd for sure.

  26. Pam, was that The Outlaw Josie Wales? These are the films Sandra Locke did with him: The Gauntlet, Every Which Way But Loose, Any Which Way You Can, Bronco Billy, Sudden Impact, and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

  27. Late as usual; you named most of my favs. Trinity trio is Boot Hill, They Call me Trinity, and Trinity is Still My Name; VHS in my hand.
    Lizzie, ck out #2: “take one part Magnificent Seven, one part High Plains Drifter, add a heavy dash of Blazing Saddles and blend til hysterical.”
    Paint Your Wagon had wonderful singer Harv Presnel, great lyrics and WAS funny.
    Devon- YES, YES, YES, China 9, Liberty 37!!!!
    Westerns were theme music and horses for me back in the day.
    ANY TV/movie with Tom Selleck, Sam Elliot (those mustaches!!) Glenn Ford, etc, etc.
    Char, I enjoyed Play Misty as a Hitchcock-like thriller; but turn off Bequiled, too creepy, and wasn’t his wife raped in Josey Wales?
    LOVE 2 Mules, over and over.
    Sandra Locke was in the 6 Cheryl mentioned while having a 12 yr relationship with Clint including the Gauntlet (like SPEED w/ Sandra Bullock)
    Does anyone remember A Big Hand for the Little Lady? Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda, one the kids can see, no violence that I recall, a sting with poker and some twists.
    Found 193 pages on wikipedia about 6 genres of western movies (to find Sam Elliot & Sandra Locke, but CSJ beat me to it! LOL) so I will stop.

  28. forgot to add I remember Clint as Rowdy Yates, be still my young heart!! One of my first crushes, along with Bat Masterson and Paladin. Who was the riverboat gambler? Loved the theme, too.

  29. How could I forget TV series Maverick with James Garner? Wikipedia even has the lyrics to the theme song. While searching, found HBO’s Deadwood had a heavily cursing woman, which research said was realistic for the time, not just done for effect.
    Will have to look for Once Upon a Time in the West when it airs next.

  30. Paint Your Wagon was filmed in my neck of the woods – Baker City, Oregon. But the town folks were pretty happy about it being filmed there, but when the movie crew left, the only problem was they didn’t take all the hippies with them that played extras in the movie! LOL

  31. LOL! Paty! “Paint Your Wagon” had the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in it, as I recall. And Harve Presnell singing “Mariah.” Beautiful and so haunting. I love that movie and have it on DVD. Lee Marvin needs to be added as one of the all-time best western character acters. Who can forget him in Cat Ballou!

    Hey, Lucky Lou! I’m so pleased someone besides me actually saw “China 9, Liberty 37.” I drag it out and watch it every couple of years or so. LOL! Of all the westerns I’ve seen in my life, I do believe Fabio Testi portrayed the sexiest gunslinger EVER! Man, he was hot in that movie–thick accent and all! :o)

  32. I love Clint! Everyone is bringing up movies I’d love to see again and again. Pam, Shirley McLane is the one he climbs into the tub with in Two Mules. The Beguiled is one of my favorites of his, creepy or not. He has that days-old 5 o’clock shadow I love! Mmmmm. Yummy. I had to look this one up, I couldn’t remember the name. Has anyone seen Honkytonk Man? He sings in the movie and his son also stars in it. Another favorite I watch whenever its on is Kelly’s Heroes. I’ll close with this: I LOVE THAT MAN! 🙂

  33. I’m getting way behind on my blogs. I’ll have to do something about that-I’m missing all the good stuff! Better late than never, I guess.

    I do LOVE my spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood! My #1 favorite is TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH. It was just on Saturday, I think. I had it on but didn’t get to sit down to watch it.

    My 2nd favorite is THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. I don’t think I’ve seen that one in a while.

    Cheryl, I cracked up when I read your post about your sil! lol

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