The rich, brutal, cynical culture of Italian westerns (aka spaghetti westerns) is dominated by Sergio Leone’s great movies and especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), arguably the definitive spaghetti western. But there is a whole legacy of cynical, hard-edged, and even politically daring Italian westerns of the sixties and seventies. You can see these on SVOD on Amazon Video.
A Bullet For the General (1966), set in the culture of mercenaries and bandits operating in the lucrative chaos of the Mexican revolution, stars Gian Maria Volonté as a charismatic bandit leader who passes himself a revolutionary guerilla as he robs military transports and sells the arms to the revolution for hard cash. Klaus Kinski gets second billing as Volonté’s brother, a wild eyed warrior priest in bandoleros dedicated to the cause, while Lou Castel (who became a regular in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies) plays the American gangster who signs on with the crew as cover for his own mission, riding through the desert in a neatly-pressed three-piece suit even on the hottest days. Damiano Damiani directs it like a twenties gangster picture in the sun-baked desert and white-dust hills of the cutthroat west, where life is cheap, loyalty is rare, and rival gangs constantly battle for guns and contraband. But it is also a portrait of the evolution of a bandit from mercenary to revolutionary, a transformation that puts him at odds with his own gang and especially Castel, the devil on his shoulder and his strangely loyal comrade in crime. There is a sophisticated story of personal commitment and political awakening behind the brutality and cowardice and betrayals, and an unexpected twist on friendship and loyalty.
Along with Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood trilogy, Sergio Corbucci’s Django, starring Italian hunk Franco Nero as the gritty mercenary who drags a coffin behind him, was one of the most influential spaghetti westerns. After mowing down armies of bad guys with his own machine gun (which he brandishes in classic two fisted tough guy fashion – from the hip), he stages a daring gold heist from a Mexican military fortress and then plots to double cross his bandito partners. Corbucci, who co-wrote the story, fashions an unrelentingly violent tale of rival gangs squeezing the life out of a muddy, bloody border town, reveling in the sadism of the genre. The film opens with a woman strung up and lashed by a group of lascivious bandits, only to be saved by even more sadistic gunmen who plan to burn her alive. Quentin Tarantino, a fan, borrowed the scene where a vindictive General slices the ear off a corrupt preacher for his Reservoir Dogs. While not as stylish as Leone’s operatic epics, it pushed the borders of violence into all new territory and the film was banned outright in England and cut in the US. It also spawned dozens of unofficial sequels, none of them with Franco Nero (at least until 1987), and few them even featuring a character by the name of Django.
Case in point: Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967), perhaps the best spaghetti westerns you’ve never heard of it. Directed by Guilio Questi and starring Tomas Milian as “The Stranger” (the “Django” title was added for American release), opens as a simple revenge film, simple at least by spaghetti western standards, but disposes of the revenge quickly and then sets the Stranger against the thoroughly mercenary schemers of a town even worse than cutthroat gang that kicks off the whole film “The people of the Indian tribes call it The Unhappy Place,” we’re told, an understatement that is almost bitterly comic. This is a place where a wounded man is literally torn to pieces by the townsfolk when they discover the bullets in his wounds are made of gold! Milian isn’t exactly the messiah but he has his share of Christ-like trials as the townsfolk nearly tear one another apart looking for the stolen gold hidden by the most corrupt of the enterprising schemers, while another subplot twists “Jane Eyre” into gothic horror on the plains. There may not be a more cynical portrait of frontier greed and human corruption in the spaghetti genre, and that’s saying something. Questi was a committed leftist and, while the film is apolitical as such, he lets this vision serve as his satire of capitalism at its most mercenary and vicious.
Keoma (1976) is probably the last great spaghetti western, a thoroughly cynical portrait of greed, cruelty, depravity, and prejudice in an isolated town suffering from both plague and an outlaw gang. Franco Nero is the half-Indian hero, returned from the Civil War to find his home a veritable ghost town and the survivors become veritable jackals, and he teams up with his family’s former slave (Woody Strode) to take on his half-brothers in a battle for the town. Director Enzo G. Castellari was a jack of all trades in Italian genre cinema and one of Tarantino’s favorites (he was so much a fan he appropriated the title of Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards for his own World War II film). This is one of his best.