Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (“the “D” is silent”) is blasting through theaters. A nearly three-hour salute to Blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, the ultra-violent, high-profanity-quotient film epic features Jamie Foxx as the title character, a slave in the South in search of his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is being held by charming but brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Also in the cast are Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Dennis Christopher, Bruce Dern and, yes, Franco Nero, who played the title role in the 1966 film Django that inspired a slew of sequels-of-sorts.
The release of QT’s film has prompted discussion about many topics, from film violence to the excessive use of a specific profane word (original star Will Smith supposedly left the project because he was uncomfortable with the dialogue). Django Unchained is also steering movie fans to look in the direction of the movies that inspired it—the spaghetti westerns that became such a popular film genre during the 1960s, after Italy’s Sergio Leone hit it big with A Fistful of Dollars starring American Clint Eastwood, which was made in 1964 but only released to the U.S. in 1967.
We enlisted longtime Movies Unlimited employee and resident spaghetti western aficionado Mike Wlodarczyk to come up with his list of 10 essential spaghetti westerns. We’ve left off the Leones—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, plus Once Upon a Time in the West—because their inclusion would be too obvious. Do you have others you want to tell us about? Let us know.
The Great Silence (1966) (d: Sergio Corbucci): Aside from Leone, director Corbucci is one of the heroes of the spaghetti western genre. His abilities to fuse action and excitement to stories filled with politics and colorful characters are well displayed in this effort. Jean Louis Trintignant, late of The Conformist and now on screens in Michael Haneke’s acclaimed Amour (Haneke is on record as a big fan of Great Silence), plays the mute hero named, appropriately, Silence. Set in Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899, the film has sharp-shooting Silence squaring off against a group of nasty bounty hunters led by Loco (Klaus Kinski). With money playing an important part in the proceedings, ornery bounty hunters serving as lawmen and the common folk being suppressed, there is no shortage of political allegories to be found. There’s also a downbeat ending and impressive snow-capped scenery (the Italian Dolomites stand in for Utah), which has made some folks wonder: Was Robert Altman inspired to make 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller after watching this?
Django (1966) (d: Sergio Corbucci): Corbucci again, and this time the title character (Franco Nero) is a former Union soldier who arrives in town with a coffin and Gatling gun in tow. He soon finds himself saving a woman’s life and being caught between warring factions of Mexican revolutionaries and American KKK-like racist creeps. Django outwits them, of course, eventually playing them off against each other, but suffers a lot of pain in the process, too. The film’s popularity spurred countless sequels, all but one with Nero (1987’s Django 2, aka Django Strikes Again, aka Django Rides Again) as well as many knock-offs that had nothing to do with the original.
Day of Anger (1967) (d: Tonino Valerii): Lee Van Cleef, the New Jersey-born, squinty-eyed co-star of Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, shines in this first-rate saddle saga from helmer Valeri (My Name is Nobody). He’s a gunslinger who takes a young whippersnapper outcast (Giuliano Gemma, whose final film role came in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love) under his wing, and the two are soon taking on the unscrupulous elders of the crooked town where the youth lives. The father-mentor dynamic between the two principals may remind you of Star Wars, or even the baby cart Zatoichi films, while the theme music by Riz Ortolani is bossa-nova flavored cowboy music, weird but catchy.
Blindman (1972) (d: Ferdinando Baldi): Ringo Starr in a spaghetti western? Yes, indeedy. The Beatles drummer is a featured performer in this Baldi number starring Tony Anthony (Comin’ at Ya) as a blind gunman (with a seeing-eye horse) in search of 50 missing women who were supposed to be delivered to Texas. Instead, the women have been corralled by two black hat siblings (Ringo, Lloyd Battista) and their sadistic sister (Magda Konopka).
Death Rides a Horse (1967) (d: Giulio Petroni): Van Cleef in another paisano pistol play, this time as a steely gunfighter who serves as mentor to youngster John Phillip Law (Barbarella), who’s out to avenge the death of the parents he witnessed being massacred when he was a kid. It turns out that the killers were also part of Van Cleef’s gang, and their betrayal sent him to prison for 15 years. Ennio Morricone’s idiosyncratic score, that mixed space age jazz, skittish vocals, and African tribal percussion, was later used by QT in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
The Big Gundown (1966) (d: Sergio Sollima): One of the high points of spaghetti western history has Van Cleef as a Texas lawman tracking a killer-rapist (Tomas Milian) into Mexico in return for a promise from a power broker that he will back him in a senate bid. The closer Van Cleef gets to the culprit, however, the more he discovers that not all is as it appears. Morricone’s music is rugged, urgent and odd, highlighted by military-style drumming. The 1968 sequel called Run, Man, Run features Milian, but not Van Cleef.
Face to Face (1967) (d: Sergio Sollima): A fish-out-of-water cinematic showdown in which a Boston history professor (Gian Maria Volonte) seeks some R&R in Texas, where he meets up with an outlaw (Tomas Milian) who shows him the ropes of becoming a desperado. The education goes to the teacher’s head and he’s soon leading a gang of bandits, while his erstwhile mentor finally finds his moral compass.
Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1967) (d: Enzo G. Castellari): TV’s Rifleman, Chuck Connors, travels to Europe, starring as a Confederate prisoner who teams with a guard and a group of Magnificent Seven-fashioned specialists to steal a cache of gold from a Union fort. Director Castellari (who helmed the original Inglorious Bastards) accents the action sequences, and Frank Wolff and Franco Citti join Connors ably in the macho proceedings.
Forgotten Pistolero (1969) (d: Ferdinando Baldi): Blindman helmer Baldi delivers a wild, wild western with melodrama aplenty, as the son of a murdered general joins forces with the son of his father’s servant to find out what really happened–and make someone pay for the patricide. Also known as Gunman of Ave Maria, the film stars Luciana Paluzzi, Leonard Mann, and Peter Martel; with lots of close-ups of sweaty faces, flashbacks and a Morricone-like score, this is primo faux Leone.
Sartana (1968) (d: Gianfranco Parolini): This film spawned three official follow-ups and countless sequels that bore little resemblance to the original. The first entry (known widely under the title If You Meet Sartana…Pray for Your Death), however, is a surprisingly complex, not-so-surprisingly vicious affair, with Gianni Garko as the vigilante hero who gets mixed up with Mexican and American outlaws while trying to retrieve a strongbox filled with cash. Klaus Kinski, William Berger and Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie, also star. Look for a boxed set in the future including this and three other official Sartana films.