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Any Gun Can Play: A Euro Western Primer

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has made some waves since its Christmas release, including some recent wins at the Golden Globes and status as Tarantino’s highest-grossing film to date. Odds are this attention has (hopefully) piqued viewer interest in the “spaghetti westerns” that inspired much of its style and tone. Grungy classics of the ’60s and ’70s (we here at Movie Ink prefer the more accurate nomenclature Euro Western) perked up a waning genre with a combo baroque style and fascinating anti-heroes, and helped pave the way for The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Missouri Breaks, and so many other great American Westerns of the era.

Odds are you’ve at least seen Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” and Sergio Corbucci’s Django (if you haven’t, hang your head in shame and march to the video outlet of your choice), but there are scads of other great Euro Westerns in addition to those definitive masterworks. The list is extensive; here are some good places to start:

Bullet for the General A Bullet For the General (1966). One of the more famous Zapata Westerns, a sub-genre characterized by a political edge and a Mexican Revolution setting. Euro Western mainstays Klaus Kinski and Gian Maria Volonte star as bandits turned counter-revolutionaries by a gringo (Lou Castel) who is actually an assassin working for the Mexican government. Director Damiano Damiani may not be as well known as the two Sergios, but he proves himself capable of operating on their level, and would later leave a mark in the intense poliziotteschi crime film cycle of ’70s. The score is by Luis Bacalov (Django), with an assist from the legendary Ennio Morricone.

Big GundownThe Big Gundown (1966). On the heels of playing the heavy in The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, Lee Van Cleef made his debut as a leading man here, playing a bounty hunter with political aspirations who is hired to track down Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a man charged with the rape and murder of a girl. The man proves to be a wily adversary; more to the point, he may be innocent. Considered one of the best non-Sergio Euro Westerns, it’s worth seeing just for the climactic duel between gunman and knife-thrower. Followed by the worthy sequel Run, Man, Run.

Death Rides a HorseDeath Rides a Horse (1967). Van Cleef teamed with John Phillip Law (Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik) for this double-barreled revenge tale. Law plays a talented young gunslinger out to avenge the slaughter of his family that he witnessed as a boy; Van Cleef is a former member of the gang in question, released from prison after having been betrayed by them and out to recover his share of the loot before his young rival puts them all in the ground. The climactic showdown borrows liberally from The Magnificent Seven. An overlooked classic that influenced Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1.

Django KillDjango Kill (1967). Django spawned roughly 30 unofficial sequels (read: “knock-offs”) that are best left forgotten — with the exception of this little gem, which — aside from the title — has nothing to do with its predecessor. Milian stars as the Stranger, a half-breed bandit first seen crawling out of his own grave after he’s betrayed by a gang of ex-Confederates turned gold thieves. He pursues them to the nearest town, only to find that the inhabitants, an hypocritical, back-stabbing, and depraved bunch in their own right, have taken justice into their own hands, and the Stranger quickly finds himself caught between feuding factions. Surrealistic, bizarre, and considered one of the most violent Euro Westerns ever made (22 minutes had to be trimmed in order to get it past the censors), its themes prefigure Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter by several years.

If You Meet SartanaIf You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968). A brutal stagecoach robbery sets of a chain reaction of betrayal and murder. Enter Sartana (Giani Garko), a black-clad drifter with a knack for gunplay and gambling, to throw a wrench in everyone’s works. Exuberant and over-the-top, even by the genre’s own standards. The character’s fondness for gadgets was added by director Gianfranco Parolini, a die-hard James Bond fan. Wildly successful, it spawned four official and ten unofficial sequels.

Great SilenceThe Great Silence (1968). Director Sergio Corbucci followed-up his wildly successful Django with this hallucinatory tale of vengeance and brutality. set in the mountains of Utah (but filmed in the Pyrenees), it follows a band of poor folk-turned-outlaws cornered by a sadistic bounty hunter (Klaus Kinski at his weird best). Their sole hope for survival lies in Silence Gordon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute gunfighter with a score to settle. A work of nihilistic beauty, with possibly the most downbeat ending of any Western.

Once Upon a Time in the WestOnce Upon a Time in the West (1968). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly may be Sergio Leone’s most entertaining movie, this epic-length gem is his most artistic. An ode to Western expansion and the waning days of the gunfighter, the degree of talent involved is spectacular: It was co-scripted by Leone and Sergio Donati, from a story by Leone, art house-fave Bernardo Bertolucci, and horror mainstay Dario Argento; the score is another Ennio Morricone classic; the cast includes Charles Bronson as a vengeance-driven gunman in the Eastwood mold, Jason Robards as a charming bandit, Henry Fonda cast against type as a ruthless killer working for a corrupt rail baron, and the stunning Claudia Cardinale as a widowed homesteader caught in the middle of it all. A more somber film for Leone, and a definite masterpiece.

MercenaryThe Mercenary (1968). Corbucci re-teamed with Django star Franco Nero and cast him against none other than Jack Palance for this Zapata Western set in 1915. Tony Musante stars as a peasant turned revolutionary who hires a Polish mercenary (Nero) to teach him the fine art of leading an army. The two find themselves at odds with one another, while government forces and a sadistic killer (Palance) close in. Far-fetched but enjoyably so, with an inspired final showdown staged in a bullring. Corbucci injects some much-needed humor, without resorting to the broad self-parody of later Euro Westerns.

SabataSabata (1969). Parolini followed-up his hugely successful Sartana franchise with this first installment in what would become a popular trilogy. Van Cleef stars in the title role as a gunman of copious skill and few morals, who becomes the target of a parade eccentric bad guys after he thwarts a bank robbery. A quirky classic full of bizarre gimmicks — including a killer with a rifle concealed in his banjo (a gag Robert Rodriguez borrowed to great effect in his Mariachi Trilogy). Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven) assumed the role for the sequel, but Van Cleef returned for the third installment.

They Call Me TrinityThey Call Me Trinity (1970). After a few years and countless knock-offs, the Euro Western was ripe for parody. Enter writer-director Enzo Barboni with this gentle send-up of the wild west. Terrence Hill stars in the title role as the fastest (and possibly the laziest and most shiftless) gun in the west, and Bud Spence is his brother, an outlaw posing as the sheriff of a backwater town; together, they take on bandits preying on Mormon homesteaders. Followed by a sequel, it made international stars of Hill and Spence and — for better or worse — sparked a Western-comedy craze.

CompanerosCompaneros! (1970). Corbucci once more re-united with Nero and cast him opposite Milian, Palance, and Fernando Rey for this extravagant hybrid of The Mercenary and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. A wannabe joins the army of a corrupt revolutionary and teams with a Swedish arms dealer to kidnap a pacifist professor with the combination to a safe full of loot. Chaos ensues. Morricone once again provides a brilliant score.

Fistful of DynamiteDuck, You Sucker! (aka A Fistful of Dynamite, 1970). Leone tried his hand at the Zapata Western, and the result is something akin to The Wild Bunch filtered through a fever dream. Rod Steiger and James Coburn star as a Mexican bandit and an IRA explosives expert (respectively) who get drawn into the Mexican Revolution circa 1913. Often overshadowed by the director’s earlier Westerns, it is an eccentric and abstract work that perfectly captures the disillusionment that followed in the wake of the idealism of the ’60s.

My Name is NobodyMy Name is Nobody (1973). One of the better European comedy-Westerns, directed by Tonino Valerii with an assist from Leone. Fonda stars in his last Western as Beauregard, an aging gunfighter intent on fading into obscurity; Hill is Nobody, a laconic cowboy who idolizes Beauregard and wants to see him earn a place in history — by arranging for him to single-handedly fight the 150 henchmen who see him as a loose end. This was also Leone’s last Western, and it’s an endearing one with a pleasing mixture of irony and sincerity.

Four of the ApocalypseFour of the Apocalypse (1975). Legendary western writer Bret Harte gets the Euro Western treatment with this loose adaptation of his classic stories “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”, by none other than the Italian “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci. A group of petty criminals led by Fabio Testi wander the Utah badlands while being hounded (and, at one point, drugged with hallucinogens) by a sadistic bandit (Milian). Gritty and violent, it is also more of a character study than is usually found in Euro Westerns; somehow, Fulci makes the disparate elements work.

China 9 Liberty 37China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). A gunslinger scheduled for hanging (Testi) is offered a reprieve in exchange for killing a stubborn miner (Warren Oates) holding up a railroad development. Instead, the two become fast friends — until the gunslinger sets his sights on the miner’s comely young wife (Jenny Agutter). Granted, ’78 was a little late for a Euro Western, nevertheless it rates as an offbeat and intense example of  the genre, and is another classic from cult-film director Monte Hellman (The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop). The final Western for both Oates and Hellman, it also featured a cameo appearance from Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah.

About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.


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