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

By | January 26, 2021

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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

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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.