The 10 Best Spaghetti Westerns Ever Made
Have you ever wondered why they call it a “Spaghetti Western?” What does a delicious pasta dish have to do with the West, and how is it different from other Western movies?
Some of the most iconic films in the Western canon were made by Italians and shot in Europe.
After the Second World War left much of Europe in ruin, governments were desperate for outside economic stimulus. Given that the United States was one of the few parts of the globe not directly affected by the war, European states offered American studios the opportunity to film abroad for cheaper than they could in the U.S.
Due to these economic circumstances, a lot of the most memorable westerns from the ‘60s and ‘70s were multinational ventures: financed by American studios; starring American and European actors; written, directed, and scored by Italians; filmed on Italian or Spanish locales that closely resembled landscapes of the American West.
Spaghetti Westerns weren’t just different because they were Italian-made, though. Movies of this subgenre also tended to be grittier and more pessimistic than movies in the wider genre. They were also more critical of mid-twentieth century social mores — and far more questioning of Western civilization’s ability to teach universal truths to the rest of the world.
It is because of these films’ sophisticated themes — not to mention all-around better-quality filmmaking — that the Italian subgenre of Westerns have become virtually synonymous with Western movies more generally. It might also be why many of us don’t even bother to wonder how the subgenre got its name.
The Peak of Spaghetti Westerns
The golden age of Spaghetti Westerns lasted from about the mid-1960s to the mid to late 1970s, though you can still find traces of its influence in contemporary films — like those of Quentin Tarantino.
Most of these movies centered on a rugged, revolver-wielding aficionado with a loose moral compass. Often, the lone gunman was on a quest for revenge, money, or both, and along the way might undergo some slight improvement in his moral fiber, though this was by no means inevitable.
Sergio Leone came of age in Italy during dark times. As a young boy, he saw the rise of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Transitioning into adulthood, he then witnessed his country fall apart as Italy — an Axis power — was pretty swiftly defeated by Allied forces. After 1945, Italy began the long and painful process of re-implementing democratic governance and rebuilding the war-battered country.
Leone, meanwhile, found his way into film production by working as a crewman on American-made “sword and sandal” epics like Ben-Hur. He wanted to be more than a crewman, though: he wanted to direct his own pictures.
Taking a scrutinous look at the film industry, he found the western genre in particular to be in desperate need of resuscitation. These horse-and-revolver movies had, in his view, become too cheap and campy.
With this in mind, he concluded that he’d honed in on his directorial niche: he would inject the western genre with grit, cynicism, and mature social themes.
Sergio Leone found his perfect creative partners in Morricone and Eastwood. Ennio Morricone had already garnered some respect as a classical composer, but Leone was especially intrigued by an American folk song Morricone had written.
Listening to the composer’s work, he came to believe that Morricone possessed the right stuff to produce intense, gritty scores for the epic westerns that Leone wanted to create.
Eastwood, meanwhile, had the perfect on-screen presence as a mean-mugger whose grim expressions could often say more than actual dialogue. And anyway, Eastwood’s acting career needed a breakthrough. His struggle to make it big in Hollywood is what led him to agree to hoof it all the way to Europe to make movies. It was a gamble that worked out nicely for him.
That’ll suffice for an introduction to three of the most prominent figures in the Spaghetti Western canon. Let’s look at the films they made together, and then sample some more of the most iconic Spaghetti Westerns ever made.
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1. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
The first installment in what would later be packaged as a trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars centers on an unnamed gunman wandering the U.S.-Mexican borderlands in search of schemes to make money.
The Stranger — played by Clint Eastwood — rides into the small town of San Miguel and learns of a feud taking place between two rival gangs. Eastwood’s character sees a prime opportunity to maximize his earnings by playing the two gangs off one another.
In the process of profiting from his clever duplicity, the Stranger also strikes something resembling a friendship with both the local innkeeper and a coffin maker.
Of course, he also develops a sentimental attachment to a woman whose life is endangered by one of the gangs. These entanglements with the locals lead the Stranger to go beyond his simple quest for riches and do something to protect the good-hearted people who live in the town.
Fistful of Dollars helped launch the Spaghetti Western to popularity and cemented Leone’s filmmaking style of sweeping, panoramic shots combined with dramatic closeups of characters’ faces.
It should be noted, though, that Leone drew heavily from a 1961 Japanese film titled Yojimbo. Though he took this film as his inspiration, he failed to give the filmmaker credit, which later led to a lawsuit.
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2. For a Few Dollars More (1965)
In this sequel to Fistful of Dollars, the Stranger — or Man with No Name — is still out in search of ways to ply his violent trade for money. Early on in the film, Eastwood’s character learns of a ruthless bank robber known as “El Indio” who recently broke out of prison and now has a large bounty on his head.
While on the hunt for “El Indio,” the Stranger runs into another bounty hunter, Mortimer — played by Lee Van Cleef. Mortimer and the Stranger decide to team up to bring down Indio and his gang (and most importantly, collect the bounty). Mortimer convinces the Stranger to infiltrate Indio’s gang and help them rob a bank holding a million dollars.
What ensues is a game of clever subterfuge, explosions, and gunfights galore. Both the Stranger and Mortimer alike rack up a pretty sizable body count in pursuit of an obscene amount of money on one hand, and old-fashioned revenge on the other.
3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
There’s little argument here about this one’s status as the ultimate Spaghetti Western. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly sees the return of Eastwood as the Stranger, the quiet bounty hunter with unmatched sleight of hand.
Lee Van Cleef returns as well, but instead as a villainous mercenary known as “Angel Eyes.” Director Leone filled out the roster on this epic conclusion to the trilogy with Eli Wallach: Tuco, or The Ugly, whose portrayal of an oafish, conniving, but cunning Mexican bandit many contemporary audience members will potentially find insensitive.
The film’s main events take place against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War. Not surprisingly, none of the principal characters here show much of an interest in the outcome of the war. Instead, they find opportunity to strike it rich if they can get their hands on a stray cache of Confederate gold.
For much of the film, the Stranger and Tuco team up against Angel Eyes to get to the gold first. As a result, we not only see tense gunfights and plentiful explosions, but we also get comic relief in the form of Tuco’s banter with the Stranger — whom Tuco refers to as “Blondie.”
After a few close calls with Union soldiers and Angel Eyes’ men, the movie’s action culminates in a final standoff at a cemetery in which the elusive gold is held.
The Mexican standoff, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s intense score, is not only one of the most memorable scenes in the Spaghetti Western canon, but thanks to its perfectly executed buildup and frenetic exchange of intense close-up shots, it’s one of the best scenes in any film. Period.
Beyond that, we won’t spoil much. You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out who gets the gold.
4. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
After swearing he’d put up his six shooters for good, so to speak, Sergio Leone had to be cajoled into doing another Spaghetti Western. This time, though, Leone had to do it without Eastwood, who had directorial and acting ambitions of his own in the U.S. and had had enough of working underneath Leone.
Fortunately, Once Upon a Time in the West did just fine without Eastwood. Henry Fonda plays a ruthless albeit handsome killer, Claudia Cardinale a tough widow fighting to protect her land from intrusive developers, and Charles Bronson a talented quick shooter who communicates more with a harmonica than words.
This film is considered Leone’s finest work, not only for the performances delivered by a star-studded cast, but also for its intricate plot, brilliant set design, and mature themes — all wrapped up in another smashing Morricone score.
5. Django (1966)
At last, we land on a film that doesn’t have Sergio Leone’s name on it. A Sergio Corbucci classic, Django makes it onto our list as an even more violent and cynical take on the Fistful of Dollars plot.
Here, we see Django, played by Franco Nero, wander into a blood-soaked town. He’s still dressed in his old Union Army uniform, and he’s got a coffin in tow — with a machine gun hidden inside.
Django places himself in the middle of a feud occurring between Mexican revolutionaries and ex-Confederates turned Klansmen. His only mission: vengeance for the murder of his wife at the hands of Confederates.
His method: brutal violence. What do you think the machine gun was for?
At the time of its release, the movie’s violence was considered beyond the pale. The British government refused to license it in the U.K. until 1993. For most people, though, the controversy surrounding the film’s content only made it more appealing.
Side note: you might’ve noticed that these last two Spaghetti Westerns’ titles bear similarity to titles in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. If you’re a major Tarantino fan, check out Once Upon a Time in the West and Django — the two Spaghetti Westerns that inspired him the most.
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6. A Bullet for the General (1967)
For viewers interested in films that carry heavy political commentary, this one should be on the top of your list. Bullet for the General sees a group of Mexican bandits transform into revolutionaries after being disgusted with their government’s laundry list of abuses.
Led by El Chuncho, the newly minted revolutionaries set their sights on an artillery train, which they plan to raid for ammunition. During the raid, Chuncho’s men come across an American named Bill Tate, who claims to be a prisoner of the Mexican Army, though is actually a counter-revolutionary contract killer.
Tate joins forces with Chuncho’s gang, but during their skirmishes with the army, Tate’s true loyalty is tested — as is Chuncho’s commitment to genuine revolutionary action.
Bullet for the General’s intriguing political overtones are a big part of what makes it a stand-out Spaghetti Western. In fact, many viewers have interpreted this film as a commentary on the CIA’s involvement in Latin American affairs — especially given how much of the plot focuses on a duplicitous American gun-for-hire adventuring around Mexico.
Though the film contains many political elements, don’t fear it being a tiresome watch. It’s still packed with plenty of exciting action sequences involving machine guns and explosives.
7. Death Rides a Horse (1967)
After finishing up work on the “Dollars Trilogy” with Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef went on to star in plenty more Spaghetti Westerns. Death Rides a Horse was his first and one of his most notable post-Leone projects. In it, Van Cleef plays an ex-outlaw named Ryan, who joins forces with a young gunman, Bill, played by John Phillip Law.
Chancing upon each other in a small sun-soaked town, Bill and Ryan find they share a common cause: both seek revenge against a ruthless gang. Young Bill because his entire family was slaughtered by the gang 15 years prior. Ryan because the murderous gang framed him for an armed robbery, for which he ended up doing 15 years of jailtime.
On their quest for revenge, Ryan becomes something of a mentor to Bill, teaching the young man tricks to help him survive the frontier and getting him out of hairy situations. However, as the story progresses, Bill learns troubling information about his companion, which threatens to tear asunder their partnership.
Death Rides a Horse borrows quite a bit from Sergio Leone’s playbook, even benefiting from the same musical brilliance of Ennio Morricone. Thanks to a compelling plot and excellent on-screen performances from Law and Van Cleef, though, the film manages to stand on its own as one of the all-time great Spaghetti Westerns.
8. A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)
Otherwise known as Duck, You Sucker! or Once Upon a Time … the Revolution, Fistful of Dynamite is Sergio Leone’s final Spaghetti Western. Though not considered his greatest western, it deserves more attention than it gets.
For one thing, it’s among the most violent and action-packed of the movies we’ve cover here. For another, it’s interesting to consider it in light of the political upheaval taking place in Europe and the U.S. during the film’s development.
The film opens in Mexico, circa 1913, during the heat of the decade-long Mexican Revolution. Juan Miranda, leader of an outlaw gang, sets his sights on a former Irish Republican Army bomb expert who’s working in Mexico as a consultant for a mining operation.
In those days, robbing a bank was a lot easier if you knew someone who could work with dynamite, so Juan asks John, the Irishman, for his help. Although John initially refuses, Juan uses some cunning deception to oblige John to go along with his wishes.
After robbing the bank, Juan and the Irishman end up in a heap of trouble with the Mexican Army. As a result, they become embroiled in the fight between revolutionaries and government soldiers, becoming accidental heroes in a political struggle they’d wanted nothing to do with. It’s an outcome that John especially has to wrestle with, as it brings up unpleasant memories about his days fighting for the IRA.
Fistful of Dynamite succeeds in allowing Sergio Leone to end his western filmmaking days with a bang. It also offers an intriguing glimpse into Leone’s opinions about the revolutionary euphoria that had its grip on leftist groups in Europe at the time.
According to an interview with fellow screenwriter Sergio Donati, Leone sought to remind viewers of the unintended consequences that revolution brought with it. Like most of his westerns, then, A Fistful of Dynamite showcases the director’s critical gaze and iconoclastic character.
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9. The Great Silence (1968)
Sergio Corbucci’s revisionist take on the genre differentiates itself in a number of ways. Its most obvious standout quality is its setting: The Great Silence takes place in deep winter in the mountains of Utah.
It also features a main character who never speaks — a mutilation he suffered in childhood rendered him mute. Finally, this Corbucci film makes heroes out of bandits and villains out of bounty hunters.
In The Great Silence, Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a notorious gunslinger known only as “Silence.” When an outlaw cut out his tongue as a kid, he was left mute and with a big chip on his shoulder. Here, he directs his ire at a group of psychopathic bounty hunters set on using bounty contracts as a thin pretext to whet their appetite for mindless killing.
The film opens in Utah in 1898, where a remote town of down-and-out folk have been forced to steal to survive. Their desperate thievery has marked them as outlaws, making them prime targets for Loco’s bloodthirsty bounty hunters. Silence steps in to try to defend these so-called outlaws against Loco and his men.
Based loosely on actual events, The Great Silence is a carefully paced, solemn tale with a dark attitude, minimal dialogue, and overwhelming tension. It’s recommended for true movie buffs who don’t mind a slow burn and perhaps grow weary of some of the more explosive Spaghetti Westerns listed here.
Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
10. They Call Me Trinity (1970)
Whereas The Great Silence will make you want to draw in the curtains and forget the world, They Call Me Trinity is all about making you laugh. Enzo Barboni’s slapstick mockery of the genre is a prime example of the Spaghetti Western’s late-stage turn to parody.
They Call Me Trinity was originally intended as a straightforward western, but Barboni — who helped Corbucci on Django — turned it into a farcical action adventure. The plot centers on two estranged brothers, Trinity and Bambino, who reluctantly join forces to defend a Mormon settlement against a Major Harriman who seeks to turn the Mormons’ land into a pasture for his horses.
The Mormons, for their part, temporarily jettison their pacifist ways to defend against Harriman’s greed.
This comedy western, the all-time highest grossing Spaghetti Western, is filled with slapstick humor and plentiful knocks against the genre it seeks to subvert. There’s also, of course, some jabs at Mormonism.
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Post-Script: What Happened to the Spaghetti Western?
You may have noticed that all the movies discussed here bear a 1960-something release date, with a few sneaking into the 1970s. Most Spaghetti Westerns produced after that point aren’t really worth paying attention to. By the latter half of the ‘70s, the genre had devolved into farce.
So, why such a brief window of success?
There are a couple main reasons why the Spaghetti Western’s privileged position in the film industry began to falter in the early 1970s. First, the genre’s most respected contributors started to move onto other ventures. Recall that for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, their involvement in Spaghetti Westerns was in many ways intended as a short-term marriage of convenience.
Secondly, viewers were starting to move on from these films as well. As most of us are aware, audience interest in a particular type of movie is fickle, and these Italian-made frontier epics were not immune from this reality.
Of course, that isn’t to say that the Spaghetti Western failed to leave a legacy. In fact, they left an enduring mark on filmmaking, inspiring a litany of subversive auteurs, the most obvious of whom is Quentin Tarantino.
Modern cinema owes a great deal to Spaghetti Westerns. Watch any of the movies listed here, and you’ll begin to understand why.
Old West Favorites
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Sources & Further Reading
- Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Christopher Frayling
- Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death, Christopher Frayling
- Once Upon A Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns, Howard Hughes
- All About Sergio Leone: The Definitive Anthology, Oreste de Fornari
- Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns, Kevin Grant
by Miles Reding
Miles Reding is a freelance writer from Austin who writes about history and politics, and enjoys writing fiction as well. He received his BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in history from Northwestern. More of his work can be found at his website, milesjreding.com.