The Spaghetti Western
From B Movie to Respected Movie Genre
The Spaghetti Western is a film genre that originated around 1960. The genre encompasses movies with a Western theme that were made primarily by Italians, but has also come to encompass any Western made in continental Europe. The American Western had always been a favorite movie genre for Europeans. A few European Westerns were made as early as 1901, but these were not notable films and had little impact on movie-making trends.
If my personal experience is any evidence, Westerns had a huge impact on Europeans’ perception of Americans. In the early 1970s my family had guests stay with us from England. They expressed their shock at discovering we weren’t all cowboys in the US and that we didn’t carry revolvers. It seems that, aside from Starsky and Hutch, the majority of American television that was broadcast to England consisted of American Western films.
It was a reduction in the number of American Westerns being made that induced filmmakers abroad to make their own attempts at producing them. Beginning in 1960, production of Westerns in the US had tapered off considerably due to market and distribution concerns. This made Westerns very difficult to obtain in Europe and convinced European moviemakers to try their own hand at Western movie production. The first attempts were poor imitations of American-made B movies, of low quality and badly dubbed. One movie that was successful was the Spanish-British collaboration Savage Guns (1961). It was filmed in the Almeria province of Spain and starred two Hollywood actors, Richard Basehart and Alex Nichol, and also featured two Spanish actors: Paquita Rico and Maria Granada. It was directed by Michael Carreras, a British director and producer of B horror movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The storyline wasn’t very original, but it was a decent foreign-made Western.
Most typically, a Spaghetti Western had both an Italian producer and director who collaborated with a Spanish co-producer. This was because the films were usually shot in Spain. The Andalusia region of Spain looks the most like the American Southwest. The Tabernas Desert in Almeria was often used because of the region’s close resemblance to the Mexican border. Filming was also done in the studios back in Italy. Usually the cast was made up of both Italian and Spanish actors, but very often attracted multiple nationalities. Extras were generally Spanish locals.
> The name “Spaghetti Western” originated with critics who intended for it to be a derogatory label.
In 1962, the German producer Horst Wenlandt and director Harald Reinl produced The Treasure of Silver Lake. The movie was filmed in Yugoslavia and starred American actor Lex Barker and French actor Pierre Brice. Barker played a frontiersman and Brice portrayed his Indian companion as they acted out the frontier adventure stories written by author Karl May. It was extremely popular with audiences and won Germany’s Golden Screen Award in 1964. It also paved the way for a slew of other German, Italian and Spanish Westerns to be made by 1964. Critically, they were not very well-made movies, but they were very popular and more producers continued to get in on the action.
In 1964 a Western was released in Europe that has become a classic among the Spaghetti Western genre: A Fistful of Dollars (“Per un Pugno di Dollari”). It was an Italian, German and Spanish collaboration, made by a little known director named Sergio Leone. He had been given a paltry $200,000 to make a Western using a pile of leftover film. He chose a script based on a samurai epic and the American television actor, Clint Eastwood, to make what was intended to be a throwaway film. He hired the music composer, Ennio Morricone, to write scores that have become synonymous with the Spaghetti Western genre. A Fistful of Dollars introduced the character of the lone gunman as a man who would do anything for money. This new anti-hero, combined with Leone’s filming style, naked violence and eerie music came together to make a Western unlike any made before. His depiction of the Wild West was anything but romantic; it was brutal and very real. The film was a big hit among audiences in Europe, but it was not released in the US until 1967.
Clint Eastwood was not the first choice when casting was done for A Fistful of Dollars. There were actually several actors considered for the lead role. Leone’s first choice of actor to play “The Man with No Name” was actually Henry Fonda, but there were insufficient funds in their budget to hire a major Hollywood star. Leone’s next choice was Charles Bronson, who turned down the role because he didn’t like the script. The role was then offered to Ty Hardin, James Coburn and Richard Harrison, all of whom turned the opportunity down. Harrison was an American actor who, after unsuccessful attempts at launching his acting career in Hollywood, had moved to Italy where he starred in a long succession of gladiator films, something that was very popular in the 1960s. Harrison was responsible for recommending Clint Eastwood for the part. Later he said, “Maybe my greatest contribution to cinema was not doing A Fistful of Dollars, and recommending Clint for the part.”
A Fistful of Dollars became the standard by which other Spaghetti Westerns were judged and on which they were modeled. It was also the first Western movie to have a major international release. Its financial success kept movie producers focused on the Spaghetti Western, where more money was earmarked.
Leone followed his successful movie up with a sequel in 1965 called For A Few Dollars more. Lee Van Cleef was a retired Hollywood character actor that was paired up with Eastwood. Together they played bounty hunters competing to capture a killer. The sequel’s success made Eastwood and Van Cleef international movie stars, Leone a famous Western movie director, and Morricone a highly successful composer of movie scores. Leone released a third movie, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which was the third release in what has become known as Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. It has also become the most famous of all the Spaghetti Westerns.
Morricone’s musical scores broke new ground in the Leone films and his compositions established the style of music for Spaghetti Westerns. His music was truly innovative, using human voices, whistles and rhythms sounding like the hoof beats of running horses. Many have tried to imitate him or were influenced by him when creating their own individual styles. Francesco DeMasi was a very successful Italian conductor and composer, but is best known for writing musical scores for 35 Spaghetti Westerns, like Ringo the Lone Rider (1967) and Payment in Blood (1968). Another successful Spaghetti Western composer was Bruno Nicolai, creating sound scores for Run, Man, Run (1968) and Adios Sabata (1970). Soundtracks of many of these Westerns have become very collectible on their own, leading to previously unavailable recordings now being offered on iTunes.
Eventually the success of the European Westerns lead to renewed interest among American filmmakers to produce American Westerns. (Ironically, some of them were filmed in Spain.) For the most part, these American Western movies failed to capture the style of the Spaghetti Westerns. They had their successes, but as a separate genre. Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) was an American-made Spaghetti Western that was a great success, but was a remake of a 1969 Italian Western called Django the Bastard by Sergio Garrone. The heyday of the Spaghetti Western continued into the mid-1970s before movie studio interest tapered off. Now as reruns, videos and DVDs they exist to be rediscovered over and over again by each new generation.
Originally the term “Spaghetti Western” was used to denote poorly made, low-budget films with repetitive storylines. But by the 1980s, many of these movies had become fan favorites and began to enjoy both a new respect and regard, as does the classification of Spaghetti Western. Both the movies and the soundtracks have proven themselves to be timeless and will certainly continue to influence many age groups and cultures into the future.