The Best Criminally Underseen Westerns
For over 100 years, Westerns have been a popular, uniquely American staple. In fact, Westerns made up the dominant film genre for decades until about 1960, and they appear to be making an invigorating comeback, at least on TV with Westworld, and in video games with Red Dead Redemption 2.
With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar succeeded in creating one of the most impressive open worlds ever seen in a game, and a game that can rightfully stand aside some of the greatest Westerns ever to hit the big screen. Like all Westerns, Red Dead Redemption embodies a return to the bygone frontier: wide-open spaces, shoot-outs, larger-than-life good bad guys, horse chases and a frontier gunslinger named John Marston. Although Red Dead Redemption initially frames itself as a story about redemption and being able to forge your path through life anew, the game takes this familiar recipe and manages to create something truly spectacular. Rockstar imbued Red Dead Redemption with such a stark beauty and such a compelling narrative that Red Dead Redemption is more than just an allusion to cinema, it’s a bonafide masterpiece. Now that Rockstar Games has officially announced a sequel, set for release next year, what better time to look at some
Now that Rockstar Games has officially announced a sequel, set for release next year, what better time to look at some criminally overlooked Westerns that fans of the game may be interested in watching while they impatiently wait for it to arrive.
Note I am not including any Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns as they are immensely popular, but if you are unfamiliar with the filmmaker’s work, I strongly suggest you set aside some time and watch his movies.
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Bruco Corbucci and Sergio Corbucci
1966, Italy / Spain
The most obvious influence for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was of course critic-turned-director Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece Django. The film features the Belgian actor Franco Nero playing the soon to be an iconic titular character, a mysterious gunslinger who finds himself caught between two feuding factions: the KKK-like ex-Confederate soldiers (sporting red hoods over their heads) and a gang of Mexican bandits. Django has a score to settle with Confederate leader Major Jackson and intends on killing two birds with one stone by walking away with the treasure of gold belonging to the Mexicans.
Django is a prime example of the Italian way: how they do things bigger, better and bloodier than their American counterparts. Thus, Django was criticized on release for its onscreen violence (it has a body-count of 168) and was inexplicably banned in the UK for 23 years. However, it’s an important part of the spaghetti western canon and managed to be influential in its own right, inspiring more than 50 unauthorized sequels – and counting. But for American audiences, it was mostly an inconsequential curio, as Corbucci was always overshadowed by his Italian contemporary, the other Sergio. But Django is perhaps the best of the blood-splattered spaghetti westerns – albeit, a downbeat, bleak and desolate movie from start to finish.
Playing a slight variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (by way of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), Nero’s Django is a loner anti-hero who pays allegiance to no man nor country. Death is everywhere, and Django is like the Dracula of outlaws, complete with his own coffin which he drags around with him, and a thirst for revenge that can only be quenched with bloodshed. Franco Nero’s performance was so good in Django that it gave him superstar status in Europe. Nearly every movie he made thereafter bears the Django brand.
The action in Django is downright entertaining, and the best scene comes when Django takes to wielding an oversized gatling gun (which went on to inspire a scene in DePalma’s Scarface). Another much talked-about scene involves a deranged preacher forced to eat his own ear as punishment for spying on the Mexicans. The cutting of the ear, of course, influenced Tarantino’s famous sequence in Reservoir Dogs. And another cruel moment sees Mexican prisoners used as clay pigeons. But the film’s most nihilistic moment comes when we witness the titular character receive his punishment for stealing from the Mexicans, leading to an unforgettable final gunfight: Django guns down six men with just six bullets even though his hands and fingers have been smashed to a pulp. Yes, Django is an extremely sadistic film, and when the credits roll Django walks away with even less than what he started with. In Corbucci’s Wild West, there is no honour amongst men. Django is the director’s cruel morality fable of men at war with themselves, each other and the whole damned world. Corbucci never gained the international reputation of Sergio Leone, and while he can’t match the master’s style or virtuosity, he’s the closest anyone else has come. There’s much to admire in his direction; his attitude, his films, and their iconography.
The only sequel endorsed by Corbucci, Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno, came 20 years later. It was the only other to also star Franco Nero.
Nataniele: “If you’re a coffin maker, you sure did pick a good town to settle.”
The Great Silence
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Mario Amendola and Bruno Corbucci
1968, Italy / France
With The Great Silence and Django on his resume, Corbucci is without a doubt one of the greatest directors of Westerns. His best films rank up there with Sergio Leone, and arguably The Great Silence is his most critically acclaimed (although not my favorite). Without a doubt, it is also one of the most disheartening Westerns ever made and stands out amongst the many spaghetti Westerns for a number of reasons. Set in the Utah Territory during a bitter cold winter around the turn of the last century (1899), the film follows a mute gunslinger appropriately named Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who faces off against a gang of blood-thirsty bounty hunters led by their vicious German leader, Loco (Klaus Kinski). The pair creates one of the most memorable protagonists/antagonists in any western movie: Silence is cool, calm and silent and Loco is ruthless and cunning and talks too much. Watching them onscreen together is utterly engrossing.
The greatest moment is reserved for film’s sensational finale, an ending of despair and hopelessness for which it has become famous for. In Corbucci’s world, the lines between right and wrong are blurry and the good guys don’t always walk away unharmed. It’s a bleak, brilliant and violent vision of an immoral West.
Featuring superb photography by cinematographer Silvano Ippolito and a haunting score from maestro Ennio Morricone, director Sergio Corbucci’s unrelenting spaghetti western is a must see.
Pauline: “Once, my husband told me of this man. He avenges our wrongs. And the bounty killers sure do tremble when he appears. They call him “Silence.” Because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows.”
The Mercenary (Il Mercenario) (A Professional Gun)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Giorgio Arlorio and Adriano Bolzoni
1968, Italy / Spain
Second, only to Leone, Sergio Corbucci is the best when it comes to making spaghetti westerns. The man would never take a break, directing Django, The Great Silence, Navajo Joe and The Mercenary within a span of two years. Each is a superb Italian Western, but each is incredibly distinct. Tarantino has called The Mercenary one of his 20 favourite films of all time, and while it is perhaps not Corbucci’s best, one can understand why.
The Mercenary stands out in part as his most hopeful and playful film. It isn’t bleak like Django nor somber like The Great Silence and is best described as a member of the “Zapata Westerns,” a nickname given to a sub-genre of spaghetti westerns dating largely from the mid-1960s to early 1970s which were set in and around Mexico and dealt with overtly political themes. While The Mercenary has the stylistic action you’d expect from Corbucci, it is also stuffed with humour and lightweight politics as well.
The year is 1915 and the story of The Mercenary takes place in the middle of the Mexican revolution and follows an unlikely pair of revolutionaries: Franco Nero stars as the mercenary Sergei Cowalski, a Polish immigrant who is hired to transport silver to a mine in Texas by Paco (Tony Musante), a peasant who leads his comrades into rebellion against the oppressive Mexican military government. Switching sides, the hired gun finds himself teaching the rebel leader how to put his revolutionary ideas into practice, but soon the two clash over ideals and a gorgeous, feisty woman (Giovanna Ralli). Hot on their heels is General Garcia and gunslinger Curly (Jack Palance), out for revenge and determined to catch Kowalski and Paco, who stole their gold.
Originally written by Franco Solinas and Giorgio Arlorio and inspired by the Bertold Brecht’s Die Ausnahme und die Regel, The Mercenary started with quite overtly leftist politics but after passing through many hands, and undergoing several rewrites (including a final draft by Corbucci himself), and the end result saw the politics take a backseat to funny dialogue and a few religious references. For example, Nero’s character is captured and strapped to a cross, and Paco’s twelve men are like Disciples – when they meet Kowalski, he becomes their saviour.
The acting in The Mercenary is what really sets the film apart from so many of its contemporaries. Palance stands out amongst the eccentric cast of characters for his villainous turn as Curly, a white-suited gay gunslinger. Palance manages to play the character as both campy and menacing and despite little screen-time, he has some very memorable moments, including finishing off one revolutionary by placing a grenade in his mouth. Heroes in spaghetti Westerns are more likely to be motivated by money than idealism or revenge than forgiveness. Franco Nero and Tony Musante’s duo are no different and they make a great team, playing the characters as both comedic and heroic.
While The Mercenary isn’t quite as good as Il Grande Silenzio, or as iconic as Django, Ennio Morricone’s score and the giant action setpieces (specifically, the well-choreographed shootout in the climax) elevate The Mercenary above your average Italian Western. Morricone would compose 7 scores for Corbucci, each with a wide variety of styles matching the different moods of the scenes. The most famous track, “L’Arena,” was later appropriated by Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol.2.
While Navajo Joe has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans, it did kickstart a wave of films that featured sympathetic Native American characters in starring roles.
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Written by Fernando Di Leo and Ugo Pirro (story)
1966, Italy / Spain
The sole survivor of a massacre vows revenge on his attackers and on the men who murdered his wife.
Most spaghetti Westerns are by and large, shot on small budgets and in little time. Storytelling wasn’t always the prime concern for most filmmakers, especially the producers, and of the hundreds made, only a select few standout. They all featured a distinct visual style that separated them from their American counterparts but only a few had compelling stories. Navajo Joe isn’t nearly Corbucci’s best film but there is no doubt it is better than the average spaghetti Western. And although it’s weak in story, it’s riches lie in the action set-pieces, wild gun play, and assorted bloodshed.
The film opens with a gang of ruthless bandits riding through the west killing every Native American in their path for a one-dollar reward on every Indian scalp. As in Inglourious Basterds, we are treated to a scalping in the horrific opening, a grim introduction set to Morricone’s heart-pounding score. Later an axe is thrown face in the direction of the camera, splitting open a villain’s head (much like Kill Bill Vol. 1); various messy shootings unfold and as per usual the body-count is extremely high. In one of the pic’s strongest scenes, the hero finds himself a victim of a savage beating. Hung upside down for an extended period of time, Joe, with the help of a friend, storms up a brilliant way to escape. The action of Navajo Joe is stellar. And there is enough to keep any spaghetti Western fan glued to the screen. The bandits’ ambush of the train is a particular standout. In another standout sequence, a dancehall dame is quietly executed by the town doctor, via his sharp scalpel.
Much like Sergio Leonne’s Dollars trilogy, Joe’s lead came from the small screen. T.V. actor Burt Reynolds, like Clint Eastwood, would get his start in the spaghetti Western genre. Both men would, of course, go on to become icons in the ’70’s. Reynolds in his first major role, playing a Native American is enough to make any person curious, and while the choice to cast a white man is subject, dare I say Reynolds in his youth looks the part. His performance, however, is a mixed blessing. He registers little charisma and enthusiasm when delivering his dialogue and his post-dub is uninspired. To be fair, the brief, banal and lackluster dialog doesn’t help. But thankfully Reynolds suits the role in other ways – as an actor he is actually very action oriented, performing many of his own stunts and elevating Navajo Joe as one of the most physically demanding roles for any Western anti-hero. Apart from drawing his Colt .45 from its holster, Joe never stops moving, stabbing foes with his knife, soaring through the air like an eagle and pumping out shotgun shells every chance he gets. Reynolds throws his whole body into making the character lethal and in the finale, Joe carves a target onto a man’s forehead with his knife before grabbing a rock and smashing down an exclamation mark on his vengeance.
Corbucci and his director of photography Silvano Ippoliti, a first-rate technician, crafted a visually impressive movie. Navajo Joe is Corbucci’s first Western shot in an anamorphic widescreen process and Ippoliti captures some wonderful vistas and compositions. It is also worth noting that Ruggero Deodato, widely known for his controversial and extremely violent Cannibal Holocaust, served as an assistant to Corbucci for a few of his most popular Westerns. Joe was one of them.
Ennio Morricone (credited as Leo Nichols), provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks of his entire career. This was Morricone’s first score for Corbucci. He established a different style for the director’s films so one could easily distinguish them apart from the scores composed for Sergio Leone. The music is inspired by Indian tribal songs incorporates a wailing imitation of Native American chants. Both Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino used sections of it in their respective films, Election and Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
Like most Spaghetti Westerns by Corbucci, Navajo Joe touches on racism, tribalism, and genocide. While Navajo Joe has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans, it did kickstart a wave of films that featured sympathetic Native American characters in starring roles. In one scene Joe appoints himself sheriff, telling the townspeople, “My father was born here, as was his father and his father before him. Where was your father born?”
All that aside, Joe is first and foremost an exploitation flick, a film that glorifies violence while preaching an anti-racist message.
I Giorni dell’ira (Blood and Grit) (Day of Anger) (Gunlaw) (Days of Wrath)
Directed by Tonino Valerii
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Tonino Valerii, Renzo Genta
Day of Anger is a spaghetti western directed by Tonino Valerii, who began his career as Sergio Leone’s assistant and would later direct My Name Is Nobody (1973). Lee Van Cleef stars as Frank Talby, a drifter who takes a young Scott Mary (Giuliano Gemma), under his wing and teaches him how to survive in the wild wild west. We are deceived into believing Talby is a good man but his true colours soon become clear and his motives turn out to be entirely self-serving. In reality, Talby is only interested in taking control of Scott’s hometown and cunningly does so through a combination of deceit, murder, and blackmail. Now the student is left to stop his master from destroying everyone and everything he knows.
Think Star Wars but in the American West: a young hero must learn to use his natural skills in order to become a man. Along the way, he is tempted by the dark side and must eventually defeat his father figure (in a dramatic final showdown, no less), in order to free himself from the shackle of that temptation.
Van Cleef left Hollywood in the ’60s to appear in European spaghetti Westerns, initially as a secondary actor. He will always be remembered first and foremost as playing second fiddle to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Eventually, he went on to star in a number of strong entries without being overshadowed by his co-star and became one of the international film scene’s biggest box-office draws. His best efforts (excluding the Leone films) were The Big Gundown, Death Rides a Horse and of course Day of Anger
Anger is a special film for the actor since his role demands that good and evil cohabit the same character. Frank Talby is at once the hero and the villain of the film. Cleef is in top form as the aging gunman, a wild card who exhibits good and bad qualities in equal measure keeping the viewer guessing his every move, action and motive to the very end. Cleef played both sides of the coin with ease. This is a man you don’t want to fuck with. In Anger he’s a true loner, a drifter who embodied the fierce cynicism of the European vision of the American west. Day of Anger allowed Van Cleef to explore the full range of his talents. His expert gunslinger Frank Talby is polished and ruthless and never merciful when someone gets in his way. In one scene, he burns down a saloon, leaving its owner to perish inside. In another scene he stands up for the young man who is bullied by his fellow townsfolk.
Giuliano Gemma was also a popular actor in the genre. His charm and good looks made him a star on the rise thanks to his roles in A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo. Gemma’s wide eyed innocence contrasts Cleef extremely well. His role is also quite demanding, beginning as the bullied, dopey and naive boy who undergoes dramatic changes throughout the film and culminating in a fantastic showdown in which all the lessons Scott has learned from Talby come into play.
Director Tonino Valerii sure did learn a lot from Sergio Leone but Leone’s genre-defining traits are mostly played down here. Valerii’s camera is more fluid and with less extreme close-ups and less waiting around on Mexican stand-offs to commence. Perhaps his most interesting directorial flourish is in his penchant for utilizing reflected images. The action here is fast and extremely well staged. One of the highlights of the film comes with the arrival of a mysterious assassin who challenges Talby to a duel with muzzle loading rifles executed like a joust on horseback. This set piece alone is a masterclass on direction, camera, and editing and can easily stand alongside anything Leone ever directed. D.O.P Enzo Serafin captures the fetid heat and constant brutality of the desert landscape while Riz Ortolani delivers a wild, and typically rousing, trumpet and electric guitar-driven score which is used to great effect throughout the film, particularly during the rotoscope opening titles.
Most interesting about the film’s narrative is how it demystifies the gunslinger’s God-given natural talents in drawing their pistols faster than the average man. Valerii doesn’t present Talby nor Scott as unstoppable and as it turns out, Talby’s gun is mechanically altered to discharge bullets quicker than the average revolver. By the end, every man catches a bullet along the way, and some never recover.
Despite its familiar plot, Day of Anger still, manages to be one of the best films of the genre. It is inevitable that Talby and Scott will face each other in the end but as we the viewers are deceived from the opening frames, we are never ever truly sure how it will resolve.
Day of Anger was heavily cut for U.S. release and to my knowledge, the full uncut version has been discontinued. If you are lucky enough to find a copy, I recommend picking it up. Valerii’s film is among the best spaghetti westerns ever made.
Da uomo a uomo (Death Rides A Horse) (As Man to Man)
Boasting my favourite title of any Spaghetti Western, Death Rides A Horse opens like a horror film. On a dark stormy night, a gang rides in and invades a small ranch home, raping and killing a mother and daughter and killing a father while accidentally leaving their son alive. Hiding under the cupboards the boy witnesses the gruesome proceedings and the event is forever etched in his memory. Bill retains mental souvenirs from each of the killers (a unique piercing, a tattoo of four aces on a chest, and so on). The prologue quickly sets up your standard revenge story as the boy grows up to be an expert gunslinger (played by John Phillip Law), and uses minor traces from that horrific night to hunt down the men who murdered his entire family and execute his revenge. Also in this 15 year span, Ryan (played wonderfully by Lee Van Cleef), is released from prison. The two cross paths and both men quickly realize they are after the same group of bandits. The difference is, one man is seeking vengeance while the other searches for monetary payment. If the story sounds familiar, it was because it was remade in 1971 as Viva Django as part of the long-running Django series.
The plot is fairly straight forward and the twist at the end isn’t at all surprising to any viewer paying close attention, but Death Rides a Horse is essential viewing for fans of the genre for producing four very memorable scenes (the opening prologue being the first). Little known director Giulio Petroni, working with cinematographer Carl Carlini, boasts strong camerawork throughout. Bill’s poker-table duel with the gang’s leader is the second highlight, a stand-out sequence using a piano player in the saloon to cue the Mexican stand-off. Petroni’s direction is uncouth but effective. Replete with florid torture and acidulous flashbacks, Petroni drenches the screen with red filters for every traumatic memory Bill encounters.
Much like Day of Anger, Death Rides A Horse is a perverse buddy film in which a young gunslinger and an old-timer find themselves on the same side and wreak vengeance on the same gang of criminals. Lee Van Cleef fits his role perfectly, providing a complete contrast to his better known performances as the anti-hero in previous westerns. Unfortunately Law (best known for starring in Mario Bava’s Diabolik) looks wooden and awkward. Thankfully the man can hold a revolver – showing off his gun-work early in the film (the third highlight of the movie).
The final highlight worth mentioning comes during the overstretched climax, an epic action set piece, featuring the two men pit against an entire army. After a long shootout, both sides stop and break overnight. A traditional Mexican funeral song is played throughout the night to set the stage for what is about to come the morning after. Highlights like these add up to make Death Rides A Horse well worth your time.
The film is also boosted by an orchestral and choral soundtrack from Ennio Morricone (borrowed in Kill Bill ) and ranges from traditional Western to cacophonous jazz. The score is among one of the maestro’s best.