Chuck Dixon: What's a Spaghetti Western, Anyway?

Peek: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly #1

Dynamite Entertainment has informed Newsarama that as it is doing with The Complete Dracula, issues of the July-launching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly will include bonus editorial content at no extra cost. The publisher has provided Newsarama with a look at the start of said material, “What Exactly Is a Spaghetti Western?” by TGTB&TU writer Chuck Dixon.

The essay in part, reads:

“Spaghetti western” was first applied to the Italian western sub-genre by critics who dismissed them as junk cinema back in the 1960s. But the term has long been embraced by fans to describe the stark, moody and violent gunfighter epics that were turned out by European studios in the hundreds over a period lasting less than a decade.

Beginning in the 1950’s Italian studios had long been turning out epic period action films in the “sword and sandal” genre. Countless variations of Hercules, Samson, Maciste and dozens of other mythological strongmen were cranked out on soundstages in Rome and in the deserts and mountains of Spain. But the popularity of these period flicks began to wane at about the same time that Hollywood slowed its own production of that other movie staple; the western.

Westerns are, without question, the most enduring American contribution to the world’s cinema. The very first feature film was about an old time train robbery. Shoot-em-up stories dominated American movies through the silents and the era of the singing cowboy and right up through Gray Cooper and John Wayne to the arrival of television where, at one time, 40% of network programming was guys in cowboy hats. But the sun sets on everything eventually and even the rustlers and cowpokes and sheriffs knew when to pack it in.

As they fell from favor here on both the TV and big screen, they remained popular around the world and particularly in Italy. Randolph Scott retired from movies. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Glenn Ford were getting older and no young guns were rising to replace them. Less and less westerns were being produced for audiences in the USA. To fill the void left behind by this, Italian studios experimented with westerns to some degree of success. The Johnny Ringo series did solid box office but these were basically standard American Westerns with European casts and ersatz plotlines about lost gold mines and greedy ranchers.

It wasn’t until Sergio Leone imported a young TV actor named Clint Eastwood to star in a low budget western originally titled The Magnificent Gunman that the genre really took hold in Europe. The classic that would eventually be known as A Fistful of Dollars was a whole new brand of western action movie never seen before. Its hero was a quiet-talking gunfighter with no interest in saving the rancher’s daughter of cleaning up the town. Cleaning out the town was more his style. The character who became known for having no name also had utterly no morals and was only the hero of the film in contrast to the vile and sadistic bad guys he was up against.

The action was swift and brutal and set against stark landscapes with a driving and haunting soundtrack by the ingenious Ennio Morricone. The whole package was something new and exciting. The western was reborn with a new more aggressive style; pared down to its violent essence and no pretense to nobility or honor. Much like James Bond had re-vitalized the spy movie, the cigarillo chomping dude in the serape had put some giddy-yap in the old horse opera.

The movie caused a sensation in Europe years before it reached the birthplace of the western. Always eager for a quick buck, Italian studios would crank out more than 700 imitators in less than an eight year period. Suddenly, American TV and film stars were flocking to Rome to be cast in westerns. James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Eli Wallach and many, many lesser lights traveled to ride and shoot and win the hearts of Euro-western fans. These movies range from wretched to quite good. While none of them approach the artistry of Leone’s seminal Man With No Name movies, there were some excellent entries by “the other Sergios.” Signors Corbucci and Sollima would produce some worthy spaghettis.

The rest of Dixon’s essay can be found in July’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly #1 coming from Dynamite in July.

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