Entertainment

Stewart Lee's Guide to Spaghetti Westerns

The comedian and filmmaker takes over the 'Deeper Into Movies' column this month for an ode to an often maligned and misunderstood genre.
March 16, 2021, 9:30am
Robert Lloyd Stewart Lee De
Photo: Robert Lloyd and Stewart Lee in the new documentary 'King Rocker'
All the good shit you should be watching, as curated by the East London film club Deeper Into Movies.

In their new film King Rocker, comedian/filmmaker Stewart Lee and director Michael Cumming (‘Brass Eye’) deconstruct the music documentary as they investigate a missing piece of British punk history: Robert Lloyd, best known for fronting cult Birmingham bands The Prefects and The Nightingales, who has survived under the radar for over four decades. It's funny, messy, smart and all heart.

It’s already a Deeper Into Movies favourite of 2021. So, we asked Stewart to take over this month’s column with a curated list of films from his favourite genre: the spaghetti western.

The comedian Simon Munnery once observed that all autobiographies should be subtitled “Failure Justified.” Most attempts by artists and writers to appraise other works tend, it’s true, towards self-validation, and this piece on my favourite Italian westerns isn’t about to change that. I am a stand-up comedian, writer and sometime filmmaker. Here are 20 things I should like to be compared to.

Twelve years ago, when I was depressed, I told my wife I didn’t seem to have any interests as everything had become work. She asked me what I used to like when I was a teenager. I said, “Italian westerns”, which back then, before streaming and YouTube and online sales and DVDs, just meant Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood films, but I did once go to Paris, aged 18, specifically to visit the rep cinema that showed the full length version of Once Upon A Time In The West never shown in the UK. My wife bought me a book on Italian westerns and suddenly I realised hundreds of forgotten classics and non-classics were now available to view. I took a deep breath, and dived in.

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Disparaging the ‘60s and ‘70s Italian cowboy films, American critics called them ‘Spaghetti westerns’, and their condescending attitudes are captured in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, where a fading Hollywood star seeks succour in the Italian movie business. As a practitioner involved in a combative relationship with my own populist genre – stand-up comedy – I believe these films to be the work of supremely gifted hacks, a bit like me. Mass-producing over 600 Euro-westerns in the ‘60s and ‘70s, shot mainly in the deserts of Franco’s fascist Spain with a patchwork of pan-European money and international casting, these mine-donkey directors were able to cloak experimental and political ideas in the clothes of a populist genre, subversively drip-feeding them to the Italian working class moviegoers that packed the nation’s cinemas many nights a week, and winning fans in the strangest of places. In Jamaica, there was even a whole substrata of reggae based around name-checking Italian western heroes, and 1972’s The Harder They Come, the island’s first international hit film, is a rock steady spaghetti. 

Though once derided, Sergio Leone’s westerns, for example, are now lauded BFI retrospective fodder. You’ve almost certainly seen Leone steal the story of Goldoni’s sixteenth-century satire The Servant of Two Masters, via Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai rewrite, Yojimbo, to feed 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars. The subsequent ‘Dollars Trilogy’ made a star of an initially unconvinced Clint Eastwood and inspired hundreds of films that imitated its striking perspectives, nihilistic humour, and operatic themes, as well as aping Ennio Morricone’s psychedelically south-western soundtrack. Budgets expanded and left-leaning commentary bled through For A Few Dollars More and Once Upon A Time In The West, culminating in the genre’s high water mark, 1968’s epic assault on railroad capitalism Once Upon A Time In The West. 1971’s Duck You Sucker (which must be seen in its 157-minute cut) used a Proustian adventure tale to examine revolutionary disillusion, and in 1973 Leone and Tonino Valerii essayed an elegiac farewell to the archetypes Leone had popularised in My Name Is Nobody

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But you know all this. You are a ‘Deeper Into Movies’ reader. Why am I wasting your time? So here instead are the next ten spaghetti westerns you really should have seen, followed by a brief look at ten of spaghetti’s odder offerings. Watch them all in a tequila haze. The same actors, sets, and Almerian locations reoccur bewilderingly. The same five basic plots resurface in different shapes, and when editing our rockumentary King Rocker, Michael Cumming and I naturally fell into the same hero’s journey tramlines you’ll see in Death Rides a Horse (1967), The Return of Ringo (1965) and Django The Bastard (1969). But behind the bluster, big political questions are asked. And in the midst of the spaghetti production line, moments of breath taking artistry arise. I could not imagine life without these films and I see the world through their sand-smeared lens. Suddenly we seem to live in a pre-apocalyptic world of daily uncertainty and pervasive moral confusion. It’s the same landscape stalked fifty years ago by Django, Ringo, Tuco, Sartana, Sabata, Angel Eyes and The Man With No Name.

TEN FURTHER SERVINGS OF SPAGHETTI

‘Return Of Ringo’, Dir. Ducco Tessari (1965) 

Shot back to back with his unexpectedly Godardian A Pistol For Ringo, Ducco Tessari’s Return of Ringo is simply one of the most beautiful movies ever made, especially in its Arrow Films remastered edition. The legend of Ulysses returning home in disguise to reclaim his beguiled wife and his captured kingdom is transplanted to the Mexican borderlands. The pretty boy of the spaghetti western, the distinctively scarred Giuliano Gemma, is aided in his quest by the fortune teller Nieves Navarro, a brilliant and charismatic actress who has ashamedly disavowed her spaghetti past. The long unbroken tracking shot that follows her dancing through the hacienda of the pastry-faced Fernando Sanchez, Almeria’s most dependable Mexican bandit, is sumptuous and breathtaking. Though made a year after A Fistful Of Dollars, Return Of Ringo seems born of simpler, less cynical times, a heart-warming mytho-poetic tale unblemished by the moral complexities of the emerging genre. 

‘Django’, Dir. Sergio Corbucci (1966) 

Sergio Corbucci’s Django established many genre staples – the hero dragging a mysterious weapon in a box, the hero beaten nearly to death and left to fight his final battle in a state of disarray, saloon bar prostitutes fighting in mud – and saw dozens of unrelated movies clumsily retitled for international markets to suggest they had a Django connection. Demofilo Fidani’s One Damned Day At Dawn …. Django Meets Sartana, for example, featured neither. Django was refused a UK release until 1993 on the ground of its sadistic worthlessness. I wonder if this is because the English language dub tweaks the dialogue of the titular wandering cavalry officer to sound fashionably nihilistic, rather than retaining the romantic and defeated idealism of the Italian script, making it seem a much nastier film than it is? Always watch Django in Italian with English subtitles!

The eternally handsome Franco Nero arrives in a rain-ravaged ghost town, fought over by bandits and racist military renegades, led by the reliably dead-eyed villain Eduardo Fajardo, and plays both off against each other Yojimbo-style, finally winning the day against the forces of fascism, mounting his gun on a grave with his cruelly broken fingers. Luis Bacalov’s theme song swings with decadent menace. If Django seems cliched, it's only because it has been so influential. A bit like me then.

‘A Bullet For The General’ aka ‘Quien Sabe?’, Dir. Damiano Damiani (1966) 

This inspiring political action film, in which a coldly cynical American opportunist, played by the Swedish Maoist Lou Castel, attaches himself to a passionate bandit freedom fighter, played by the explosive Italian Communist firebrand Gian Maria Volonte (pothead gang leader Ramon in A Fistful Of Dollars), sees ideals tested by greed as the gang’s loyalty fragments against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution. Klaus Kinski is a rifle-toting priest who believes violence can bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Southern Italian peons might not have flocked to watch a documentary detailing contemporary American meddling in South American politics, but A Bullet For The General conceals its critique in a bloody action film and is the first of what became known as the Tortilla, or Zapata, westerns. What Damiani tells us is you can make your political points, but you still need explosions, gunfights and train robberies. Make sure you see the 135 minute cut, not the butchered 77 minute UK version.

‘A Train For Durango’, Dir. Mario Caiano (1968) 

I doubt this picaresque buddy road movie makes many other writer’s must-see lists, and as a rule I dislike the Italian western’s attempts at whimsy and comedy, but I am repeatedly drawn back to A Train For Durango. The usually dignified displaced Argentinian nobleman Anthony Steffen shows his lighter side, and the eternal supporting artist Enrico Maria Salerno moves centre stage to show off his bouffon qualities, as the two pursue a missing safe by a variety of modes of transport. The film feels much longer than its 96 minutes, but seems by terms boring and then inexplicably mesmerising, and sometimes 1960’s Spanish power-lines and pylons are visible in the wide shots, giving it the feeling of a modern day historical re-enactment of some mythical fable. 

‘The Big Gundown’, Dir. Sergio Sollima (1966) 

Sollima’s masterpiece of a moral fable finds a resolutely incorruptible bounty hunter, played by the slit-eyed spaghetti regular Lee Van Cleef, head over the border into unknown territory to capture an alleged child murderer, played by the maniacally intense and always compelling bisexual Cuban method actor Tomas Milian, whose trademark character move is to eat chicken or stew in a messy way. But he realises he is just an unwitting tool of big business and fake news, and finally teams up with his former quarry. Opening with a precisely choreographed woodland ambush later assimilated by Tarantino in The Hateful Eight and including reformed cowboy monks, Nieves Navarro as a weird Circe-like widow sexually enslaving passing thugs, and Gerard Herter’s skinhead Austrian nobleman assassin, this is one of the great spaghettis, Van Cleef heading into a heart of darkness where he is forced to confront his absolute ideas of good and evil. Make sure you don’t watch the 95 minute American edit.

‘Face To Face’, Dir. Sergio Sollima (1967)

Gian Maria Volonte, formerly always cast as blustering bad guys, shows his range as Brad, a thoughtful but consumptive city intellectual, sent west to benefit from the dry desert air, where he inadvertently aids the escape of a criminal in transit, another blistering babbling turn by Tomas Milian as Beau. Thrown together by fate they seek refuge in a mountaintop anarchist commune where bromance blooms and Brad discovers his inner bandit, embracing a fascist philosophy of power, as Beau fades in his shadow amidst a stirring Morricone score.

‘The Great Silence’, Dir. Sergio Corbucci (1967) 

Shot in the Dolomites in Winter, Corbucci’s ‘spaghetti in the snow’ sees a mute bounty hunter, Silence, and an afro-American widow co-operate against the capitalist forces that have taken over her town, intent on driving out unprofitable factions of society. But Corbucci has seen enough revolutions fail, and theirs fails too. Bleak and beautiful, with enigmatically blurred cinematography and jarring editing, and one of Morricone’s most haunting scores, The Great Silence is unlike any other spaghetti. Except Taste of Death, which is similar.

‘Tepepa’, Dir. Giulio Petroni (1968) 

In the messy aftermath of WWII, director Giulio Petroni fought as a communist partisan against fascism’s fading forces, and Tepepa transposes his political concerns onto the Mexican revolution. John Steiner, an inexplicably obscure ‘60s British actor who seemed destined for better things, is Price, a doctor who saves the revolutionary Tepepa, Tomas Milian in another virtuoso food-gobbling performance, and befriends him, despite the fact many believe he murdered Price’s lover. A Mexican colonel, played brilliantly by a then blacklisted Orson Welles, who never mentioned the film to anyone and purportedly appeared in it only to try and steal raw film stock for his own projects, persuades Price otherwise and the two hunt down Tepepa. It’s another Zapata exploration of betrayed idealism and American interventionism, this time spiced with boy revolutionaries and vintage vehicles. Try and watch the 136 minute cut, please.

‘Cemetery Without Crosses’, Dir. Robert Hossein (1969) 

Later much better known as a director of massive scale French theatre, Robert Hossein’s only western, with its testosterone-spurting Scott Walker theme song, sees Maria Mercia’s vengeful widow punish her husband’s killer, a cattleman called Larry Rogers. She enlists a haunted hermit gunman from his surreal ghost town hideaway to orchestrate the rape of Rogers’ daughter, sparking a futile cycle of tit for tat atrocities. This sparse art movie western remains genuinely shocking, and yet sumptuously beautiful.

‘Companeros’, Dir. Sergio Corbucci (1970)

Ennio Morricone’s thundering chorale of untrained peasant shouting announces Corbucci’s largest scale assault on the typical Zapata themes of idealism and betrayal. A suave Swedish mercenary arms dealer, played by the superbly self assured Franco Nero, joins with another of Tomas Milian’s scenery-chewing Mexican revolutionaries, to rescue Fernando Rey’s Professor Zantos, a liberal intellectual sounding board for their opposing political views, whilst being followed by a tenacious bird of prey trained by Jack Palance. Essentially a turbo-charged remake of Corbucci’s own 1968 film, A Professional Gun, Companeros has it all; humour, violence; political theorising; an awesome soundtrack; and loads of prostitutes storming a fort. 

Now, if that’s whetted your appetite, here’s ten quirky side-orders of vintage spaghetti.

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Django Kill! If You Live, Shoot, Dir. Giulio Questo (1967): Unconvincing Native shamans resurrect Tomas Milian’s mysterious Stranger, who plays off two rival gold-seeking factions, of greedy townsfolk and mounted, uniformed, homosexual Mexican bandits, in the original acid western.

Man, Pride & Vengeance, Dir. Luigi Bazzoni (1967): A hallucinatory death sequence frames Franco Nero in a passionate re-telling of Carmen. 

Johnny Hamlet, Dir. Enzo Castellari (1968): Hamlet is remade as a garishly stylish western with a stirring psychedelic soundtrack.

And God Said To Cain/Stranger in Paso Bravo, Dir. Antonio Margheriti (1969): Klaus Kinski appears to be some kind of ghost, called Gary, systematically slaughtering those who wronged him. An exact remake of 1968’s A Stranger In Paso Bravo, starring Anthony Steffen. 

Light The Fuse, Sartana Is Coming, Dir. Guiliano Carnimeo (1971): Gianni Garko’s enduring magician-avenger makes his final official outing, now in the company of a portable church organ that is also a missile launcher.

Matalo, Dir. Cesare Canevari (1971): A psychedelic re-make of the exact script of 1968’s Kill The Wickeds, in which a bunch of hippy cowboys hide out in a creepy town inhabited only by one weird old woman, overlaid by a blanket of screaming acid rock. If Iron Butterfly had been a western instead of a Californian proto-metal band they would be Matalo.  

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A Town Called Bastard, Dir. Robert Parish (1971): Telly Savalas, from Kojak, is the mad king of a deranged desert fiefdom where a mute Dudley Sutton, from Lovejoy, drives around in a hearse and Robert Shaw, from Jaws, bangs on a big bell.

Blindman, Dir. Ferdinando Baldi (1971): A blind gunfighter is hired to rescue fifty naked women from the clutches of a bandit Ringo Starr in a mildly crass exploitation movie elevated by a heady dose of Jodorowsky style surrealism, and set against a superbly strange Stelvio Cipriani soundtrack.

Cut Throats Nine, Dir. Joaquin Luis Romero Marchent (1971): Seven prisoners and two captors endure a nightmarish passage across snowy mountains in this gratuitously gory horror western, spliced with unrelated footage of offal.

Four Of The Apocalypse, Dir. Lucio Fulci (1975): Zombie horror auteur Fulci portrays a quartet of unlikely travelling companions menaced in a mystical desert wilderness by a psychopathic bandit, played by Tomas Milian, under an odd soundtrack of Italian country rock.

Stewart Lee & @deeperintomovies 

Watch ‘King Rocker’ on Sky Arts or NOW TV, and listen to the ‘Deeper Into Movies Podcast’ with Stewart Lee on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.