Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars established the Spaghetti Western as a novel kind of Western. In this seminal film the hero enters a town that is ruled by two outlaw gangs and ordinary social relations are non-existent. He betrays and plays the gangs against one another in order to make money. Then he uses his cunning and exceptional weapons skill to assist a family threatened by both gangs. His treachery is exposed and he is severely beaten, but in the end he defeats the remaining gang. The interaction in this story between cunning and irony (the tricks, deceits, unexpected actions and sarcasms of the hero) on the one hand, and pathos (terror and brutality against defenseless people and against the hero after his double play has been revealed) on the other, was aspired to and sometimes attained by the imitations that soon flooded the cinemas.
Italian cinema often borrowed from other films without regard for infringement and Leone famously borrowed the plot for A Fistful of Dollars, receiving a letter from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa congratulating him on making "...a very fine film. But it is my film". Leone had imitated one of the most highly respected directors in the world by remaking his film Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars and consequently surrendered Asian rights to Kurosawa, plus 15 percent of the international box office. Leone moved on from borrowing and established his own oft imitated style and plots. Leone's films and other "core" Spaghetti Westerns are often described as having eschewed, criticised or even "demythologized" many of the conventions of traditional U.S. Westerns. This was partly intentional and partly the context of a different cultural background.
Use of pathos received a big boost with Sergio Corbucci's influential Django. However, in the following years use of cunning and irony became more prominent. This was seen in Leone's next two Westerns, with their emphasis on unstable partnerships. In the last phase of the Spaghetti Western, with the Trinity films, the Leone legacy had been transformed almost beyond recognition, as terror and deadly violence gave way to harmless brawling and low comedy.
Ennio Morricone's music for A Fistful of Dollars and later Spaghetti Westerns was just as seminal and imitated. It expresses a similar duality between quirky and unusual sounds and instruments on the one hand, and sacral dramatizing for the big confrontation scenes on the other.
Most Spaghetti Westerns were made on low budgets, using inexpensive locales. Many of the stories take place in the semiarid landscapes of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico, so a popular setting was the Tabernas Desert in the Province of Almería in southeastern Spain, at the studios of Texas Hollywood, Mini Hollywood, and Western Leone. Other filming locations used were in central and southern Italy, such as the parks of Valle del Treja (between Rome and Viterbo), the area of Camposecco (next to Camerata Nuova, characterized by a karst topography), the hills around Castelluccio, the area around the Gran Sasso mountain, and the Tivoli's quarries and Sardinia. God's Gun was filmed in Israel.
In the 1960s, critics recognized that the American genres were rapidly changing. The genre most identifiably American, the Western, seemed to be evolving into a new rougher form. For many critics, Sergio Leone's films were part of the problem. Leone's Dollars Trilogy (1964–1966) was not the beginning of the "Spaghetti Western" cycle in Italy, but for Americans Leone's films represented the true beginning of the Italian invasion of an American genre.
Christopher Frayling, in his noted book on the Italian Western, describes American critical reception of the Spaghetti Western cycle as, to "a large extent, confined to a sterile debate about the 'cultural roots' of the American/Hollywood Western." He remarks that few critics dared admit that they were, in fact, "bored with an exhausted Hollywood genre."
Pauline Kael, he notes, was willing to acknowledge this critical ennui and thus appreciate how a film such as Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) "could exploit the conventions of the Western genre, while debunking its morality." Frayling and other film scholars such as Bondanella argue that this revisionism was the key to Leone's success and, to some degree, to that of the Spaghetti Western genre as a whole.
European Westerns are as old as filmmaking itself. The Lumière brothers made their first public screening of films in 1895 and already in 1896 Gabriel Veyre shot Repas d'Indien ("Indian Banquet") for them. Joe Hamman starred as Arizona Bill in films made in the French horse country of Camargue 1911–12.
In Italy, the American West as a dramatic setting for spectacles goes back at least as far as Giacomo Puccini's 1910 opera La fanciulla del West; it is sometimes considered to be the first Spaghetti Western. The first Italian Western movie was La Vampira Indiana (1913) – a combination of Western and vampire film. It was directed by Vincenzo Leone, father of Sergio Leone, and starred his mother Bice Walerian in the title role as Indian princess fatale. The Italians also made Wild Bill Hickok films, while the German twenties saw back-woods Westerns featuring Bela Lugosi as Uncas.
Of the Western-related European films before 1964, the one attracting most attention is probably Luis Trenker’s Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (1936), about John Sutter. During and after the Second World War there were scattered European uses of Western settings, mostly for comedy or musical comedy.
A forerunner of the genre had appeared in 1943 Giorgio Ferroni's Il fanciullo del West (The Boy in the West) and a cycle of Western comedies was initiated 1959 with La sceriffa and Il terrore dell’Oklahoma, followed by other films starring comedy specialists like Walter Chiari, Ugo Tognazzi, Raimondo Vianello or Fernandel. An Italian critic has compared these comedies to American Bob Hope vehicles.
The first American-British western filmed in Spain was The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), directed by Raoul Walsh. It was followed in 1961 by Savage Guns, a British-Spanish western, again filmed in Spain. This marked the beginning of Spain as a suitable film shooting location for any kind of European western.
In 1963, three non-comedy Italo-Spanish westerns were produced: Gunfight at Red Sands, Magnificent Three and Gunfight at High Noon. In 1961 an Italian company co-produced the French Taste of Violence, with a Mexican Revolution theme.
Since there is no real consensus about where to draw the exact line between Spaghetti Westerns and other Eurowesterns (or other Westerns in general) one cannot say which one of the films mentioned so far really was the first Spaghetti Western. However, it is obvious that 1964 saw the breakthrough of this genre, with more than twenty productions or co-productions from Italian companies and also more than half a dozen Westerns by Spanish or Spanish/American companies. Furthermore, by far the most commercially successful of this lot was Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars whose innovations in cinematic style, music, acting, and story decided the future for the genre.
The Spaghetti Western was born, flourished and faded in a highly commercial production environment. The Italian "low" popular film production was basically low-budget and low-profit, and the easiest way to success was imitating a proven success. When the typically low-budget production A Fistful of Dollars turned into a remarkable box office success, the industry eagerly lapped up its innovations. Most succeeding Spaghetti Westerns tried to get a ragged, laconic hero with superhuman weapon skill, preferably one who looked like Clint Eastwood: Franco Nero, John Garko and Terence Hill started out that way; Anthony Steffen and others stayed that way all their Spaghetti Western career.
Whoever the hero was, he would join an outlaw gang to further his own secret agenda, like in A Pistol for Ringo, Blood for a Silver Dollar, Vengeance Is a Dish Served Cold, Payment in Blood and others, while Beyond the Law instead has a bandit infiltrate society and become a sheriff. There would be a flamboyant Mexican bandit (Gian Maria Volontè from A Fistful of Dollars, otherwise Tomas Milian or most often Fernando Sancho) and a grumpy old man – more often than not an undertaker, to serve as sidekick for the hero. For love interest, rancher's daughters, schoolmarms and barroom maidens were overshadowed by young Latin women desired by dangerous men, where actresses like Nicoletta Machiavelli or Rosalba Neri carried on Marianne Koch's role of Marisol in the Leone film. The terror of the villains against their defenseless victims became just as ruthless as in A Fistful of Dollars, or more, and their brutalization of the hero when his treachery is disclosed became just as merciless, or more – just like the cunning used to secure the latter's retribution.
In the beginning some films mixed some of these new devices, more or less uneasily, with the borrowed U.S. Western devices typical for most of the 1963–64 Spaghetti Westerns. For example, in Sergio Corbucci's Minnesota Clay (1964) that appeared only two months after A Fistful of Dollars, you find an American style "tragic gunfighter" hero confronting two evil gangs, one Mexican and one Anglo, and (just as in A Fistful of Dollars) the leader of the latter is also the town sheriff.
In the same director's Johnny Oro (1966) a traditional Western sheriff and a half-breed bounty killer are forced into an uneasy alliance when Mexican bandits and Native Americans together assault the town. In A Pistol for Ringo a traditional sheriff commissions a money-oriented hero – played by Giuliano Gemma with more pleasing manners than the Eastwood character but just as devious and deadly – to typically infiltrate a gang of Mexican bandits whose leader is played by typically Fernando Sancho.
After 1965 when Leone's second Western For a Few Dollars More brought a larger box office success, the profession of bounty killer became the choice of occupation Spaghetti Western heroes in films like Arizona Colt, Vengeance Is Mine, Ten Thousand Dollars for a Massacre, The Ugly Ones, Dead Men Don't Count and Any Gun Can Play. In The Great Silence and A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, the heroes instead fight bounty killers. This was also the time when every other hero or villain in Spaghetti Westerns started carrying a musical watch, after its ingenious use in For a Few Dollars More.
Spaghetti Westerns also began featuring a pair of different heroes. In Leone's film Eastwood's character is an unshaven bounty hunter, dressed similarly to his character in A Fistful of Dollars, who enters an unstable partnership with Mortimer, an older bounty killer who uses more sophisticated weaponry and wears a suit (Lee Van Cleef). In the end he turns out to also be an avenger. In the following years there was a deluge of Spaghetti Westerns with a pair of heroes with (most often) conflicting motives. Examples include: a lawman and an outlaw (And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave), an army officer and an outlaw (Bury Them Deep), an avenger and a (covert) army officer (The Hills Run Red), an avenger and a (covert) guilty party (Viva! Django), an avenger and a con-man (The Dirty Outlaws), an outlaw posing as a sheriff and a bounty hunter (Man With the Golden Pistol) and an outlaw posing as his twin and a bounty hunter posing as a sheriff (Few Dollars for Django).
The theme of age in For a Few Dollars More, where the younger bounty killer eventually bests his more experienced colleague, is taken up in Day of Anger and Death Rides a Horse. In both cases Lee Van Cleef carries on as the older hero versus Giuliano Gemma and John Phillip Law, respectively.
One variant of the hero pair was a revolutionary Mexican bandit and a mostly money-oriented Caucasian. These films are sometimes called Zapata Westerns. The first was Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General and then followed Sergio Sollima's trilogy: The Big Gundown, Face to Face and Run, Man, Run.
Sergio Corbucci's The Mercenary and Compañeros also belong here, as does Tepepa by Giulio Petroni – among others. Many of these films enjoyed both good takes at the box office and attention from critics. They are often interpreted as a leftist critique of the typical Hollywood handling of Mexican revolutions, and of imperialism in general.
In Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly there is still the scheme of a pair of heroes vs. a villain but it is somewhat relaxed, as here all three parties were driven by a money motive. In subsequent films like Any Gun Can Play, One Dollar Too Many and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone several main characters repeatedly form alliances and betray each other for monetary gain.
Sabata and If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death, directed by Gianfranco Parolini, introduce into similar betrayal environments a kind of hero molded on the Mortimer character from For a Few Dollars More, only without any vengeance motive and with more outrageous trick weapons. Fittingly enough Sabata is performed by Lee Van Cleef himself, while John Garko plays the very similar Sartana protagonist. Parolini made some more Sabata movies while Giuliano Carnimeo made a whole series of Sartana films with Garko.
Beside the first three Spaghetti Westerns by Leone, a most influential film was Sergio Corbucci's Django starring Franco Nero. The titular character is torn between several motives – money or revenge – and his choices bring misery to him and to a woman close to him. Indicative of this film's influence on the Spaghetti Western style, Django is the hero's name in a plenitude of subsequent westerns.
Even though his character is not named Django, Franco Nero brings a similar ambience to Texas, Adios and Massacre Time where the hero must confront surprising and dangerous family relations. Similar "prodigal son" stories followed, including Chuck Moll, Keoma, The Return of Ringo, The Forgotten Pistolero, One Thousand Dollars on the Black, Johnny Hamlet and also Seven Dollars on the Red.
Another type of wronged hero is set up and must clear himself from accusations. Giuliano Gemma starred in a series of successful films carrying this theme – Adiós gringo, For a Few Extra Dollars, I lunghi giorni della vendetta, Wanted, and to some extent Blood for a Silver Dollar – where most often his character is called "Gary".
The wronged hero who becomes an avenger appears in many Spaghetti Westerns. Among the more commercially successful films with a hero dedicated to vengeance – For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, Today We Kill… Tomorrow We Die!, A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die, Death Rides a Horse, Viva Django, The Devil's Backbone, Hate for Hate, Greatest Robbery in the West – those with whom he cooperates typically have conflicting motivations.
In 1968, the wave of Spaghetti Westerns reached its crest, comprising one-third of the Italian film production, only to collapse to one-tenth in 1969. However, the considerable box office success of Enzo Barboni's They Call Me Trinity and the pyramidal one of its follow-up Trinity Is Still My Name gave Italian filmmakers a new model to emulate. The main characters were played by Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, who had already cooperated as hero pair in the "old style" Spaghetti Westerns God Forgives... I Don't!, Ace High and Boot Hill directed by Giuseppe Colizzi. The Barboni films are burlesque comedies that replace gunplay and blood with set piece brawls. They feature the quick but lazy Trinity (Hill) and his big, strong and irritable brother Bambino (Spencer).
The stories make fun of U.S. Western-style diligent farmers and Spaghetti Western-style bounty hunters. There was a wave of Trinity-inspired films with quick and strong heroes, the former kind often called Trinity or perhaps coming from "a place called Trinity", and with no or few killings. Because the two model stories contained religious pacifists to account for the absence of gunplay, all the successors contained religious groups or at least priests, sometimes as one of the heroes.
The music for the two Trinity westerns (composed by Franco Micalizzi and Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, respectively) also reflected the change into a lighter and more sentimental mood. The Trinity-inspired films also adopted this style.
Some critics deplore these post-Trinity films as a degeneration of the "real" Spaghetti Westerns, and that Hill's and Spencer's skilful use of body language was a hard act to follow. It is significant that the most successful of the post-Trinity films featured Hill (Man of the East, A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe), Spencer (It Can Be Done Amigo) and a pair of Hill/Spencer look-alikes in Carambola. Spaghetti Western old hand Franco Nero also worked in this subgenre with Cipolla Colt and Tomas Milian plays an outrageous "quick" bounty hunter modeled on Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp in Sometimes Life Is Hard – Right Providence? and Here We Go Again, Eh, Providence?
Leone's later Westerns Once Upon a Time in the West ; Duck, You Sucker! and the produced and co-directed My Name is Nobody in 1973 did very well at the Italian box-office but did not inspire the industry to imitations like his first three did. In fact, Duck, You Sucker! has been interpreted as a critical comment on the Zapata Westerns and My Name is Nobody includes Terence Hill as a Trinity-like character.
By the mid-seventies a few productions, like Keoma and Four of the Apocalypse, tried to revive the pre-Trinity formulas but basically the Spaghetti Western was dead as an active genre.
Later years have seen some "return of stories" Django 2 with Franco Nero and Troublemakers with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.
Some movies that were not very successful at the box office still earn a "cult" status in some segment of the audience because of certain exceptional features in story and/or presentation. One "cult" Spaghetti Western that also has drawn attention from critics is Giulio Questi's Django Kill. Other "cult" items are Cesare Canevari's Matalo!, Tony Anthony's Blindman and Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent's Cut-Throats Nine (the latter among gore film audiences).
Special interest audiences might also nurture a cult of the "Worst", as exemplified in the interest for a director like Ed Wood. His Spaghetti Western equivalent would be the Western œuvre of Demofilo Fidani. The Stranger (1995) is essentially, the Woman with No Name, with a motorcycle instead of a horse.
The few Spaghetti Westerns containing historical characters like Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid etc. mainly appear before A Fistful of Dollars had put its mark on the genre. Likewise, and in contrast to the contemporary German Westerns, few films feature Indians. When they appear they are more often portrayed as victims of discrimination than as dangerous foes. The only fairly successful Spaghetti Western with an Indian main character (played by Burt Reynolds in his only European Western outing) is Sergio Corbucci's Navajo Joe, where the Indian village is wiped out by bandits during the first minutes, and the avenger hero spends the rest of the film dealing mostly with Anglos and Mexicans until the final showdown at an Indian burial ground.
Several Spaghetti Westerns are inspired by classical myths and dramas. Titles like Fedra West (also called Ballad of a Bounty Hunter) and Johnny Hamlet signify the connection to the Greek myth and possibly the plays by Euripides and Racine and the play by William Shakespeare, respectively. The latter also inspired Dust in the Sun, which follows its original more closely than Johnny Hamlet, where the hero survives. The Forgotten Pistolero is based on the vengeance of Orestes. There are similarities between the story of The Return of Ringo and the last canto of Homer's Odyssey. Fury of Johnny Kid follows Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but (again) with a different ending – the loving couple leave together while their families annihilate each other.
It is acknowledged that the story of A Fistful of Dollars closely resembles Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Requiem for a Gringo shows many traces from another well-known Japanese film, Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri. When Asian martial arts films started to draw crowds in European cinema houses, the producers of Spaghetti Westerns tried to hang on, this time not by adapting story-lines but rather by directly including martial arts in the films, performed by Eastern actors – for example Chen Lee in My Name Is Shanghai Joe or Lo Lieh teaming up with Lee Van Cleef in The Stranger and the Gunfighter.
Some Italian Western films were made as vehicles for musical stars, like Ferdinando Baldi's Rita of the West featuring Rita Pavone and Terence Hill. In non-singing roles were Ringo Starr as a villain in Blindman and French rock 'n' roll veteran Johnny Hallyday as the gunfighter/avenger hero in Sergio Corbucci's The Specialists.
A celebrity from another sphere of culture is Italian author/film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who plays a revolutionary man of the church in Requiescant. This film concerns oppression of poor Mexicans by rich Anglos and ends on a call for arms but it does not fit easily as a Zapata Western. The same can be said for The Price of Power, a political allegory where an American president is assassinated in Dallas by a conspiracy of Southern racists who frame an innocent Afro-American. They are opposed by an unstable partnership between a whistle-blower (Giuliano Gemma) and a political aide.
Though the Spaghetti Westerns from A Fistful of Dollars and on featured more violence and killings than earlier American Western films, they generally shared the parental genre's restrictive attitude toward explicit sexuality. However, in response to the growing commercial success of various shades of sex films, there was a greater exposure of naked skin in some Spaghetti Westerns, among others Dead Men Ride and Heads or Tails. In the former and partly the latter, the sex scenes feature coercion and violence against women.
Even though it is hinted at in some films, like Django Kill and Requiescant, open homosexuality plays a marginal part in Spaghetti Westerns. The exception is Giorgio Capitani's The Ruthless Four – in effect a gay version of John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – where the explicit homosexual relation between two of its male main characters and some gay cueing scenes are embedded with other forms of man-to-man relations through the story.
Spaghetti Westerns have left their mark on popular culture, strongly influencing numerous works produced outside of Italy.
Clint Eastwood's first American Western film, Hang 'Em High, incorporates elements of Spaghetti Westerns.
The 1985 Japanese film Tampopo was promoted as a "ramen Western".
The Bollywood film Sholay was often referred to as a "curry western". Japanese director Takashi Miike paid tribute to the genre with Sukiyaki Western Django, a Western set in Japan which drives influence from both Django and Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy.
American director Quentin Tarantino has utilized elements of Spaghetti Westerns in his films Kill Bill (combined with kung fu movies), Inglourious Basterds (set in Nazi-occupied France), Django Unchained (set in the American South during the time of slavery). and The Hateful Eight.
The American animated film Rango incorporates elements of Spaghetti Westerns, including a character modeled after The Man With No Name.
The American heavy metal band Metallica has used Ennio Morricone's composition "The Ecstacy of Gold", from the Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, to open several of their concerts. The Australian band The Tango Saloon combines elements of Tango music with influences from Spaghetti Western scores. The psychobilly band Ghoultown also derives influence from Spaghetti Westerns. The music video for the song "Knights of Cydonia" by the English rock band Muse was influenced by Spaghetti Westerns. The band Big Audio Dynamite used music samples from Spaghetti Westerns when mixing their song ″Medicine Show″. Within the song you can hear samples from Spaghetti Western movies such as A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Duck You Sucker.