By Last Caress.
The last couple of years has seen Westerns such as The Salvation (Levring, 2014) starring Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green, The Homesman (Jones, 2014) starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed the picture), and Slow West (Maclean, 2015) starring Michael Fassbender open to great acclaim, and with titles such as Jane Got a Gun (O’Connor, 2016) starring Natalie Portman, or Jon Cassar’s Forsaken (2015) starring Kiefer Sutherland and his father Donald being released imminently, it would appear that westerns – or, as I calls ’em, “Shootey Beauties” – are very much making a comeback. Even the current darling of this year’s awards season The Revenant (Iñárritu, 2015; check out the BRWC review HERE) is a western, of sorts.
But it’s the interest in another pair of recent westerns – S. Craig Zahler’s vicious debut Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Quentin Tarantino’s almost Grand Guignol bloodfest The Hateful Eight (2015) – which shows that there’s an audience out there for sparse yet incredibly violent westerns. Many years ago, there was an entire sub-genre dedicated to just that: The Spaghetti Western, the Italian-made John Ford knock-offs which, following Sergio Leone’s success with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, became something of a phenomenon in their own right.
Now, anyone with even a passing interest in film will have seen or at least heard of the three spaghetti westerns which comprise Sergio Leone’s so-called “Dollars” trilogy, all of which starred Clint Eastwood: The aforementioned A Fistful of Dollars, followed by For a Few Dollars More (1965) and finally The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1966), considered by many to be the greatest western ever made. Most will also have heard of at least one more Sergio Leone-made western, the epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Oscar-winning Antebellum western Django Unchained, many may well now have heard of Sergio Corbucci’s blood-soaked, mud-soaked genre classic Django (1966).
But are there any more worth checking out? Well, as a proud and unapologetic fan of the genre I’d say, “YES! There are bloody hundreds, you dirty sex-gremlins!” But, for now, let’s have a quick look at five of the best Spaghetti Westerns which you may not have seen or even heard of:
Cemetery Without Crosses (aka Une cord, un colt) (Robert Hossein, 1969)
An Italo-French affair, Cemetery Without Crosses is co-written by horror maestro Dario Argento and stars director Robert Hossein as a man out to avenge the murder of a former lover’s husband. Simple plot, great locations including a wonderfully dilapidated ghost town, a sombre tone almost entirely throughout… the whole thing plays out like a visual representation of a murder ballad. In a way, Robert Hossein is a better “deadly protagonist” than the usual front men purely because he didn’t look so steely, badass or magnetic as your Eastwoods, Neros or Van Cleefs. From the off, his portrayal conveys doubt, regret, mortality. It’s a real grower, this one. Left me thinking about it for days afterwards. Like The Great Silence (Corbucci, 1968) or the more divisive Django Kill (Questi, 1967), Cemetery Without Crosses works its magic after the event.
Keoma (Enzo Castellari, 1976)
In which the titular “half-breed” hero (played by Franco Nero, the original “Django”) comes home from the war to find his hometown crawling with the plague and dominated by his hateful half-brothers. Fantastic movie. Fantastic-looking movie, too. Really scummy and grimy. I’m not buying into the swarthy and ultra-Italian Franco Nero as a “half-breed” native American any more than I’m buying into him as the northern European guns for hire he portrayed in The Mercenary (Corbucci, 1968) or Companeros (Corbucci, 1970), no matter how much hair they pile on top of him. In fact he kind-of resembles Captain Caveman here if you ask me. Do you remember that show? Still, who cares when he’s this magnetic? The film itself is very downbeat, very “serious”, and I loved it, hooked in from very early on right to the end. Just try not to think about the horrible, horrible score as you watch. No, really.
Requiescant (aka Kill and Pray) (Carlo Lizzani, 1967)
“You know what a monkey is? A monkey is somethin’ that makes ya laugh. And you all are like monkeys, goin’ around spewin’ the word ‘liberty’. And that makes me laugh. Liberty? For you, liberty’s only a small piece o’ earth where you can sit in the sun and rot! And that’s all! You don’t develop. You don’t build. You don’t create! But still you want liberty. And what would ya do if you got it? You’d defile it! You’d go around like barbarians, destroyin’ what the George Bellow Fergusons of this world have worked centuries to create! You are the dregs of the Earth. You have no more rights than animals have; you were born servants and you’ll die servants, still spewin’ forth the word ‘liberty’, without knowin’ what it means!” – George Bellow Ferguson, Requiescant
What an outstanding movie. Lou Castel and Mark Damon are both fantastic as (respectively) the titular vengeance-seeking greenhorn and his nemesis George Bellow Ferguson, the homosexual psychopath who slaughtered Requiescant’s entire family. You’ll laugh out loud – but in a good way, hopefully – when a pistol just falls into Requiescant’s hand and he immediately executes two moving targets at range, having never previously handled a pistol in his God-fearing life. How “spag” is that? Brilliant! And the score – some bugger just giving it TWANGTWANGTWANGTWANGTWANGTWANGTWANGTWANG TWANG TWANG TWANG, TWANG, TWANG, TWANNNNG! That’s the “Twang” of spaghetti western Heaven, right there.
Death Sentence (aka Sentenza di morte) (Mario Lanfranchi, 1968)
Unusually for a western, Death Sentence is set up in a portmanteau style, with each separate “story” connected by a main arc in which a man seeks to gun down the men who killed his brother, one by one. As such, it is one of the most interesting and original westerns, Italian or otherwise, that I’ve ever seen. The first segment, in which the avenging brother chases a villain into the desert and waits for him to collapse from thirst and sunstroke, is like something out of The Twilight Zone, and Thomas Milian’s albino gold fetishist in the fourth segment is both hilarious and unnerving. Even the segment centered around a card game – a frequently dull component of the spaghetti western – is tense and interesting. Death Sentence was star Robin Clarke’s only Spag, and what a shame that is, because he’s superb.
Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (aka Se sei vivo, spara!) (Giulio Questi, 1967)
An unnamed Mexican/American (Thomas Milian) is left for dead by the men with whom he successfully stole a large amount of Union gold. He survives and, aided by two Native Americans who think he’s seen the “spirit world”, he gives chase to a town called “The Unhappy Place”, where he finds that the rest of the gang have been murdered by the townspeople, who turn out to be as hideous as the gang. Now they’ve got the gold, they want the man to help them see off local kingpin “Mr. Zorro” and his band of black-clad gay pistoleros. The man wants to play them all off against one another, to hopefully get all the gold for himself. Okay then.
Django Kill really is THE spaghetti western in many ways, despite being quite unlike anything else. Like a crack addict looking to replicate that first hit, Django Kill represents, for me, the high that I’ve been chasing through the entire spag sub-genre since I first saw it several years ago. The English dub veers from creepy to (unintentionally) downright funny, the plot barely makes a lick of sense and at several points it takes a swandive off of the deep end of reality altogether, and Milian’s character is nought but a spectator throughout the proceedings. Is it the first ever/only film where the events that unfold within are almost entirely unaffected by the main protagonist? Possibly. Gay uniformed cowboys? Bowler-hatted Native Americans? Talking birds (not a mimicking parrot either, but a bird capable of holding a conversation)? Jail-cell crucifixions? Obvious stock footage of some bats? Upside-down photography? You bet! This film’s got it all! And that’s before even mentioning the gory bits which were omitted by the censors for many years but reinserted long after the English dub had been recorded, leaving everybody ominously switching briefly to Italian, or the fantastic first sweep by Oaks and his men into “The Unhappy Place”, a scene so eerie and primally upsetting that the whole movie could’ve easily become a Lovecraftian horror at that point; when I first saw it, I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Shub Niggurath herself had exploded out of the ground and began picking up Oaks’s men in her many tentacles and started squeezing them until they burst, raining blood all about and around.
But all of those points, very probable MINUS points under other circumstances, serve to make Django Kill one of the most mesmerising, grotesquely beautiful, disturbing and, yes, BEST westerns I’ve ever seen. Oh, and as to the title? The un-named main character isn’t called Django. Nobody in the film is called Django. Django Kill is one of the many, many spaghetti westerns treated to a re-naming following the huge success of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966). That’s how spaghettis roll, yo!
For more info on these or any of the hundreds of other Spaghetti Westerns out there, visit The Spaghetti Western Database, the most knowledgeable Eurowestern resource on the planet.
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