The 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.
The 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!
Leone’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?