The Spaghetti Western is a sub-genre that, for many people, begins and ends with Sergio Leone's output. For those of us that like to scratch the surface of cinema and pick at its gooey innards will know this is simply not the case. There are just so many Spaghetti Westerns out there and many of them are obscure even by a cinephile's standards.
Before I go any further I feel I must disclose the following information:
- I am no expert on Spaghetti Westerns. I have, over the last few years, made a concerted effort to add a little Italian to my diet and will be continuing to do so for as long as there are Italian films I have not yet seen. This article, therefore, is only based on the handful I have seen, rather than some bottomless well of knowledge on the subject.
- As I will go on to explain, an element that characterises Spaghetti Westerns is the somewhat unconventional way they end. I have no intention of blowing the finales of these films, yet I am painfully aware of how by simply confirming the presence of a twist can ruin it. You should therefore read on expecting a degree of spoilage.
The conventions that define Spaghetti Westerns are often the very things that make them infamous. Noticeable dubbing, sex, brutality and an often homaged visual style. I cannot dispute the presence of these elements, but Spaghetti Westerns are more than a collection of tropes.
(John Ford, 1956) for starters, classic American Westerns tend to provide a romantic view of America. Through a European lens, however, the American landscape is hardly postcard-worthy. Whether the flooded, muddy streets of Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), the snowy wasteland of The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968) or the scorched dust bowls of Leone's films, it is a savage environment and one that takes its toll on its inhabitants.
Gone are the handsome, silver-spurred heroes of the West; all charming smiles and pristine neckerchiefs, these cowboys look like crap. Dirty, unshaven shadows of men, foreheads wet with perspiration and lips caked in dust, their appearance a portent of the chaos about to unfold.
Spaghetti Westerns have balls, curveballs, and they are not afraid to throw them at you. Django, with a story that owes a lot to A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964), tricks you into thinking it has dispensed with classical hollywood narrative. A mysterious wanderer drifts into a dying town under the control from a maniac and his private army, setting up a cat and mouse conflict that would serve as a solid story for any other Western. Yet in Django, this conflict is apparently resolved in the first half hour and from that the film takes the audience into very uncertain territory.
Guns and Guts (Rene Cardona Jr, 1974), has a plodding, confusing and frankly inept first act and one that really tests its audience to keep watching, but that is because it doesn't introduce its main character until the second act. From that point on twist leads to double-cross leads to red herring, all of which climax in a satisfying, albeit low-rent, slow motion gunfight ripped straight from the The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969). Yet even in its final minutes it throws in one more surprise. It is a brilliantly handled moment that ends the film and one that shows real subtlety and narrative skill. It is as if director Cardona Jr. went from amateur to expert over the course of a single film.
Even some of the more narratively conventional have an ace up their sleeve (or perhaps a gun strapped to their ankle). Massacre Time (Lucio Fulci, 1966), is a fairly ordinary affair, yet one that is spiced up by a prolonged bullwhip fight, an acrobatic final shoot-out and a feint hint of incest between the villain and his Dad.
None of these beat the final moments of The Great Silence. The film is something of a slow burner, but it is a film that rewards patience with an ending so ballsy you'll be sat watching the credits trying to work out whether you actually saw what you just saw. The alternate ending is a far more conventional ending and is utterly ludicrous, not to mention hilarious, when compared with the original.
At the centre of all this chaos are our dishevelled anti-heroes. As already stated these are not the rootin' tootin' gunslingers of Hollywood, but deceptive schemers as adept at manipulating people as they are pistols. The twisting narratives ask a lot of these guys, forcing them to adopt different roles (aggressor, schemer, lover, good guy, bad guy) and allegiances throughout. In many ways they are the male counterparts to Film Noir's Femme Fatales (a Homme-icidal perhaps? Urgh no, really not. Sorry, I don't know what I was thinking).
Their moral pendulum has a broad swing. In A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, 1966), our 'hero', El Chuncho, appears to be the villain for half the film. He is a man that shoots his friends in cold blood and seems happy with his men sexually assaulting women they have captured. He is really pretty shitty when it comes down to it. Yet, like Guns and Guts, the films inflammatory final minutes change everything. Is El Chuncho a hero? A villain? A freedom fighter or a terrorist? You'll be asking yourself those questions long after the film has finished.
Spaghetti Western cowboys may be tough bastards, but they are not indestructible. More often than not their plans get away from them and they find themselves in way over their hats. Unlike a lot of mainstream heroes who can get away with murder by simply tossing off a one-liner, these guys suffer the consequences of their actions pretty bloody severely.
Spaghetti Westerns are brutal, and yes sometimes the lip-sync is off, but these films are wonderfully unpredictable and although quality varies, I have yet to see one that hasn't rewarded me for taking the time to see it through to the end.
Django Kill! (Giulio Questi, 1967) and A Man Called Blade (Sergio Martino, 1977) are next on my hit list and if any of you have other recommendations, or feel I've got it all wrong, feel free to take me to task. But don't be surprised if I give you a gullet full of lead for your troubles.