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Spaghetti Westerns: Eastwood, Leone, Morricone Play Cowboys And Italians

Entertainment | January 29, 2021

Clint Eastwood in 'For a Few Dollars More.' Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

You may know what a "spaghetti western" is -- a western movie starring American actors (like Clint Eastwood) shot in Italy or Spain by an Italian director (like Sergio Leone). But why did spaghetti westerns come about? What was Sergio Leone doing making westerns and why did Clint Eastwood sign up for this crazy plan? 

In the early '60s, the American western was arguably played out. White hats, black hats, John Wayne, and the cookie cutter stories of big studio westerns just weren't doing it for audiences anymore. Viewers wanted something more visceral, they wanted to feel the dust from the desert in their teeth, they wanted to taste the sweat coming off the screen.

In 1964, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars gave audiences what they were looking for. Leone's film, starring a young Clint Eastwood, didn't just demystify the western, it held a mirror up to society. Leone's Dollars trilogy, Sergio Corbucci's Django, and myriad of Spaghetti Westerns from the same time reflected the moral ambiguity of the modern era while putting the aesthetics of the western into a new context.

Four years after Leone, Eastwood, and composer Ennio Morricone put their stamp on the western, the amorphous genre of the Italo-Western drifted away from what made it so popular, but in that short period of time some of the most fascinating films of the era were shot and released to an audience that was hungry for realism in their westerns. This is how a gringo and two Italians tapped into that desire and gave audiences something they'd never seen before.

Eastwood was a TV star looking to get into movies

source: Unidis

Throughout the 1950s, Clint Eastwood was adrift in Hollywood. He pops up in creature features, unsuccessful dramas, and westerns in the first half of the decade, but it was his role as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide that made Eastwood into a household name. While some actors would have been happy with longterm employment, Eastwood hated working on Rawhide. It wasn't just the long hours, it was the same-old, same-old of the scripts, and the fact that he never had a chance to do anything other than act like a goof. That changed when he met Sergio Leone.

In 1963, Leone was looking for an American to anchor his foray into the western genre. Not only did he think that having an American western star would allow the film to perform in the States, but there's a kind of cinematic hypnosis to seeing a westerner as a cowboy in the middle of a European desert. Leone approached Eastwood's Rawhide co-star Eric Fleming to play The Man With No Name. Fleming passed, but he suggested Eastwood for the role.

From a purely economic perspective Eastwood had it made with Rawhide and he didn't need to go off to the middle of nowhere in Spain to film a western with a director he'd never met, but he was sick of playing a goody-two-shoes cowboy. With the promise of a $15,000 paycheck and a Mercedes-Benz at the end of production he joined Leone in Spain with little more than his favorite prop gun and a box of cigars.

Once upon a time in Italy

source: pinterest

Westers have always been popular with Europe audiences, and Sergio Leone was obsessed with them as a boy. But as he grew older he realized that American westerns presented a version of the era that whitewashed much of the violence and terror of the American west. In 1968, Variety's Hank Werba wrote:

To Leone, the westerner was a predatory creature at every level. There were no clear ethical or moral reference lines. The plainsman acted and reacted violently, generally motivated by such basics as greed, revenge or self-survival. It represented a complete switch from the law-virtue syndrome of the past.

Prior to A Fistful of Dollars, Leone worked as an assistant director on a series of Italian films before directing two historical dramas, The Last Days of Pompeii, and The Colossus of Rhodes. Spurred on by the lack of artistic joy in those sword-and-sandals films, and the desire to do something that had box office potential outside of his homeland, Leone lifted the plot Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo wholesale, found locations in Spain, and contracted an American actor as the face of his first foray into the western genre.

Ennio Morricone is just as important as Clint Eastwood

source: United Artists

Expressive and grandiose, the scores of Ennio Morricone are impossible to separate from the spaghetti western genre. With pan pipes, choruses of shouting men, and off the wall percussion, Morricone's work stands out as the sounds of a true master, an artist in complete control of his abilities. It's not hyperbolic to state that Leone's Dollar Trilogy wouldn't be as effective without Morricone's score -- toward the end of his life the director said:

I’ve always felt that music is more expressive than dialogue. I’ve always said that my best dialogue and screenwriter is Ennio Morricone.

Morricone had been working steadily since the 1950s as both a lazy band leader and a composer for radio and film, but it was the limited budget on A Fistful of Dollars that allowed to composer to show what he could do. Without a full orchestra, Morricone utilized the only things at his disposal: whips, a trumpet, an electric guitar, a mouth harp, and the vocalizations of his longtime friend Alessandro Alessandroni and his Cantori Moderni (modern singers).

The music that Morricone, who died in 2020, made for the spaghetti westerns is more than a few cool scores, it established a trademark sound that lets you know exactly what you're in for. That's why directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter sought Morricone out.

What is a Spaghetti Western?

source: MGM

More than just a western filmed in Italy or Spain, the spaghetti western typically has a visual style and tone that separates it from American films. Filmed between 1964 and 1978, spaghetti westerns utilized Cinecittà studios and the landscapes of the Tabernas Desert and the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, an area in southeastern Spain that looks like the rocky, desolate locales of Mexico and the American Southwest -- if you squint just a bit.

Just about every film in the spaghetti western genre plays out similarly. A mysterious antihero comes to town and plays groups of gangsters and bandits off of one another, sometimes there's a heist, often there's a big gun and lots of coffins. While the plots to most of the films, including Leone's, are all fairly similar, the films are more about visual and emotional impact than they are about crafting a unique narrative. It's as if Leone and the directors who followed in his wake were trying to break the western down to its most basic elements to build the genre back up into something new.

Behind the scenes, most spaghetti westerns tended to be samey as well. You had an Italian or Spanish director, a mixed crew, and a collection of Italian, Spanish, West German and American actors who were either famous ten years ago or who were on their way up. In that way the genre isn't dissimilar from the slasher boom of the late '70s ad early '80s. Just like in spaghetti westerns, sometimes you got high art and sometimes you got schlock.

A box-office full of dollars

source: mgm

A Fistful Of Dollars did gangbusters right out of the gate, even though it was hampered by a lawsuit from Kurosawa. The Japanese director rightfully pointed out that Leone ripped off Yojimbo wholesale, and the ensuing lawsuit kept Fistful out of American cinemas until 1967, while putting a healthy amount of the film's gross in Kurosawa's pockets. Even so, the film was successful enough to warrant two sequels over the course of the next two years.

For A Few Dollars More made about $15 million at the U.S. box office alone, but the third and final film in the trilogy, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly ended the series on a high note. Made for only a million dollars, the film grossed $25 million in the States alone,

Leone may not have invented the spaghetti western -- he says as much in an issue of Variety from 1967 -- but his success made the genre the juggernaut that it is. Following the success of Leone's Dollars Trilogy there was a glut of films from the area released with "dollars" in the title, and even more films that featured a mysterious antihero who looked similar to Clint Eastwood.

Following the success of the Dollars Trilogy, Eastwood left spaghetti westerns behind, but he brought the stylish filmmaking style back to the states. Leone was done with the genre as well, but after receiving an offer from Paramount Pictures to make another western, he worked with Dario Argento (Suspiria, Tenebrae) to make Once Upon A Time In The West, an American-backed spaghetti western starring Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson. The film is a distillation of Leone's style but it's still a breathtaking piece of work, one that signaled Leone's exit from the genre. There's been a multitude of copycats, and films that seek to glean a bit of the cool of Eastwood and Leone's partnership, but without the Dollars Trilogy no one would be talking about these films that offer a violent, neorealistic look at the American southwest.

Tags: A Fistful Of Dollars | Clint Eastwood | Ennio Morricone | For A Few Dollars More | Sergio Leone | Spaghetti Western | The Good The Bad And The Ugly

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.