Cowboys, outlaws, deserts, shanty towns, and gunslinging. These are familiar elements seen in the genre known as the Western, in both literature and cinema. But for many genre fans, it specifically refers to Spaghetti Westerns, a genre that emerged during the 1960s. Traditional Westerns they weren’t, as they were often low budget, featured violence and questionable morals, on top of technically being foreign films. So, what is a Spaghetti Western, why is it called a Spaghetti Western, how did they become so popular, and create such an enduring legacy? Let’s find out.
Spaghetti Western Definition
What’s a Spaghetti Western?
A straightforward Spaghetti Western definition will help you understand what the genre is all about. It will also help give some context when talking about the rise and fall of the sub-genre and how its legacy survives to this day.
SPAGHETTI WESTERN MEANING
What is a Spaghetti Western?
A Spaghetti Western is a broad subgenre of Western films made by Italian filmmakers from the early 1960s to the late ‘70s. Also known (and more respectfully referred to) as "western all’italiana" (Italian-style Western), the genre reached its peak in the late ‘60s, garnering worldwide popularity. Often filmed with low budgets, Spaghetti Westerns featured anti-heroes for protagonists, dastardly villains, desert landscapes, non-traditional music scores, and plenty of violence.
Why are they called Spaghetti Westerns?
Even if film fans know the answer to “What is a Spaghetti Western," they might still ask “Why are they called Spaghetti Westerns?” It’s because these films were pretty much all made in Italy by Italian filmmakers, and spaghetti is a worldwide Italian cultural export. And even though the genre’s style has been adapted and imitated, it was still 99% an Italian phenomenon, so the name stuck.
Spaghetti Western characteristics include:
- Anti-heroes with questionable and selfish morals (i.e. doing things for money or revenge).
- Despicable villains that represented the worst in people.
- Desert landscapes and shanty towns.
- Subversion of traditional Western tropes (i.e., identifiable heroes and villains, happy endings, black and white morality).
- Commentary on politics and relations among others.
History of Spaghetti Westerns
Early history of Spaghetti Westerns
The Western is, first and foremost, an American-made genre, influenced and inspired by the real American Western frontier of the 1800s. As a film genre, it was quite popular throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. By the ‘60s, the genre had been mostly relegated to television. One of them — Rawhide — starred a young actor named Clint Eastwood.
Meanwhile, after the Italian Neorealism film movement of the 1940s and ‘50s, the Italian cinematic landscape became dominated by sword-and-sandal epics. These were films set in Greco-Roman periods, and were Italy’s answer to similar films of the day in Hollywood, such as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Spartacus.
In-between all this, some Italian filmmakers were making Westerns that did not raise much attention. They were not anything too special or drastic, simply Western-style films shot in Europe. A few of these were Spanish-Italian Westerns, and Spain would later become a major co-financier in the sub-genre. So, if you’re curious as to where were Spaghetti Westerns filmed (besides Italy), you can point to Spain.
One notable Western — West and Soda — was an animated film parodying the Western genre. Due to being started before but released in 1965 (a year after the genre breakthrough), it is sometimes disputed to be the “first” Spaghetti Western, meaning it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
It also further rattles the question of what is a Spaghetti Western, as parody films (animated or otherwise) didn't really dominate the genre.
Spaghetti Western Meaning
The Spaghetti Western heyday
The exact “start” of the Spaghetti Western is disputed and, ultimately, unknown, since Italy was already making Westerns before the mid-1960s. What no one disputes and what everyone knows is the movie that made these Westerns a household name. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), directed by Sergio Leone, scored by Ennio Morricone, and starring Clint Eastwood.
One of the best Spaghetti Westerns, this was the breakthrough that created an industry where nearly half of every Italian film in production was a Western.
Followed up by For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), these movies comprised what is known as the Dollars Trilogy. Each one starred Eastwood as the Man with No Name, a drifter who came into town to fight off some bad guys in pursuit of money. Other actors in these films included Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, all of whom would later star in even more of these Italian Westerns.
After 1964, dozens and dozens of Italian Westerns got made every year until at least 1969. Taking inspiration from the Dollars Trilogy, these films featured anti-heroes with hidden agendas, revenge plots, and plenty of blood shed. The documentary below provides an extensive look at the genre and how it impacted the cinema landscape.
The films were often shot on low budgets, making their money back even if there was not much of a box office return. Emulating the CinemaScope look without anamorphic lenses, many of these films used the Techniscope technique. This involved shooting with spherical lenses but using a smaller-but-wider frame within 35mm film strips.
The result was a widescreen image with plenty of noticeable film grain, which can be considered part of the genre’s charm.
Outside of the Dollars Trilogy, Leone also directed Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), often regarded as one of the best Spaghetti Westerns of all-time (along with his Dollars Trilogy), making him the preeminent Italian director of Spaghetti Westerns. Even though the genre was not well-regarded among critics (hence dismissively calling them “Spaghetti Westerns”), OUATITW was well-regarded at the time and is still recognized as one of the best Western films ever made, Spaghetti or otherwise.
Outside of Leone, two other Sergio’s made a name for themselves in the genre. These Italian directors helped challenge the definition of “What is a Spaghetti Western” by opening up what they could do, show, and talk about.
Sergio Corbucci directed some of the most violent and bleak Westerns, including Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968), two bonafide classics. Sergio Sollima was the most political of the three “Sergios,” making films that commented on imperialism and revolutionaries.
He had his own trilogy of films with The Big Gundown (1966), Face to Face (1967), and Run, Man, Run (1968); these films are recognized as belonging to the sub-sub genre of Zapata Westerns, which put the focus on Mexican protagonists.
Spaghetti Western Legacy
The Spaghetti Western legacy
By the 1970s, the Spaghetti Western had fallen out of popularity. Not only were way less of these films being made, but now many of the remaining ones were light-hearted comedies. Among these were They Call Me Trinity (1970) and its followup Trinity Is Still My Name (1971), the latter of which became the most financially successful Italian Western of all-time. While still liked by genre fans, these were not the same movies as the ones that came before, and the genre soon died out in the late ‘70s.
However, the Spaghetti Western never really left. Franco Nero, star of Django, returned over twenty years later to play the character once more in Django Strikes Again (1987), the only official sequel within the numerous other Django films that spawned in the wake of the first.
Clint Eastwood kept making his own Westerns, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales in the mid-’70s, and Unforgiven in the early ‘90s. Josey Wales, in particular, was part of the Revisionist Western sub-genre which emerged around the same time as the Spaghetti Westerns. Also known as Anti-Western and Post-Western, these films, like their Italian brethren, eschewed and subverted traditional Western tropes, characters, and plotlines to create movies that questioned the nature of the genre.
And since Spaghetti Westerns were so low budget and so many of them became cult favorites, mainstream and popular directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, more or less, have directed a fair share of Spaghetti Western-esque films. From Kill Bill to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has an immense reverence for these types of genre films.
As for Rodriguez, he made a whole trilogy about a mariachi-turned-gunslinger. Needless to say, the legacy of Spaghetti Westerns has only gotten stronger since the world first got a fistful of dollars.
Best Spaghetti Western Movies
Now that we’ve answered “What is a Spaghetti Western,” why not continue your education by learning about the best the genre has to offer? Our list of the best Spaghetti Western movies of all-time includes popular choices as well as rarely-seen favorites, all of which are certified classics.