The Ultimate Spaghetti Western Film Guide

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

The Spaghetti Western is a popular subgenre of Western movies from the 1960s and 70s. It originated from the approach of Sergio Leone, which other Italian filmmakers picked up, hence the name. The Italian Western gained popularity by deviating from typical themes, narratives, and myths of the Wild West or Old West as depicted by Hollywood.

Our Spaghetti Western film guide will introduce you to this broad subgenre of Western with a definition and an overview of notable Italian filmmakers and a list of the best Spaghetti Westerns.

What is the Spaghetti Western subgenre?

The Western genre features movies set in the American West during the time of the early 19th to the early 20th century when this part of North America was colonized. These Old West, Wild West, or American Frontier films often portray a hostile environment with a harsh, rugged nature, and a lawless state in which moral good and bad characters face off, depicted by sheriffs, outlaws, settlers, natives, and other stereotypical figures. The Western narrative picks up themes of settling and "taming" the country, and the Manifest Destiny, in which justice, freedom, individualism, and civility will prevail. The Western tale of US history and identity features a nostalgia for a time that never existed.

The Spaghetti Western genre as a subgenre of Western largely breaks with the tradition of American Westerns, and we'll go into the characteristics and differences in greater detail below. The Wild West of Hollywood was popular from the 1930s to the end of the 1950s. Italian filmmakers were also producing Westerns, without gaining much attention. This changed with the release of A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 by Sergio Leone, with Clint Eastwood in the leading role as the man with no name and a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. This successful Spaghetti Western sparked an industry. During its heyday, nearly half of Italy's film production comprised Westerns.

Sergio Leone cemented his status as an eminent Spaghetti Western filmmaker with the completion of the Dollars Trilogy sequels, both of which starred Clint Eastwood. His co-stars Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach continued as Italo-Western actors. Leone's 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West with Hollywood actors Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda was well received and to this day is among the most acclaimed Western or Spaghetti Western films.

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Spaghetti Westerns went beyond the Wild West of Hollywood in their depiction of conflicted or corrupted anti-heroes, violence, and tragic endings. Some inserted cynical or political commentary to further subvert the Hollywood Western genre. The Zapata Westerns of Sergio Sollima featured Mexican protagonists, carving out a niche of their own within the subgenre.

The popularity of Spaghetti Westerns waned in the 1970s, and films turned to lighter comedies instead. Clint Eastwood later made Western movies of his own. The Western subgenres of the Anti-Western, Post-Western, or Revisionist Western emerged, which continued the subversion of traditional Western tropes. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez revered the Spaghetti Western and their approach to filmmaking, which inspired titles such as the Kill Bill and Desperado trilogies, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

What is the Spaghetti Western film genre? Around the world, spaghetti is the number one item associated with Italian culture, which is why the Western movies produced by Italian filmmakers and in Italy became known as Spaghetti Westerns or Italo-Westerns. More respectful names are Western all'italiana or Italian-style Western. The genre's prime years are the early 1960s to the late 70s, with the 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars by director Sergio Leone sparking its peak. Spaghetti Westerns differ from Hollywood Wild West films and their heroic narrative or Manifest Destiny nobility: the main characters are typically anti-heroes, facing off with the worst villains, while questionable morals and motives drive both, thus subverting many tropes of traditional Western movies. Filmed with a lower budget, Spaghetti Westerns used landscapes and locations in Italy, Spain, and sometimes Mexico for shooting.

Characteristics and differences

As a subgenre of Western movies, Spaghetti Westerns didn’t merely add the element of an Italian director into the mix but went against the Wild West tales of Hollywood in several aspects. The following elements are defining characteristics and differences to the parent genre that define the Spaghetti Western:

The look of Spaghetti Westerns

Despite low budget constraints, Italian filmmakers imitated the look of CinemaScope without the actual anamorphic lenses of the technique. Instead, they used the spherical lenses of Techniscope and shot on 35mm film to achieve a wide-screen image, with visible film grain as a byproduct. Many cinephiles consider that "gritty" look an essential charm of the subgenre.

The characters in Spaghetti Westerns often face tough battles and moral choices, which play out in the tension and emotion written all over their faces. To bring that out with impressive effect, filmmakers relied on close-ups and extreme close-ups with dramatic zooms. Similarly dramatic and expressive, the opening credits often featured elaborate graphics and titles to set the mood or begin with a visual bang.

The sound of Spaghetti Westerns

The scoring of these Italian Westerns was far less cinematic than Hollywood productions. For A Fistful of Dollars, composer Ennio Morricone used whistling on the soundtrack and introduced electric guitars. Many Spaghetti Westerns followed this example and picked up the new style for their soundtracks.

The characters of Spaghetti Westerns

These films did away with the clear-cut opposition of good versus evil and black-and-white morality. Instead of justice, freedom, or Manifest Destiny, the Spaghetti Western antiheroes are selfish and morally ambiguous. Money, revenge, and self-interest motivate the protagonists, and the opposing villains resort to cruelty and extremes Hollywood wouldn’t show. Gunslingers, bank robbers, and bounty hunters become the main characters. The Zapata Westerns also showed Mexican revolutionaries and gunfighters taking on corrupt rulers.

The themes of Italian-style Westerns

From gunfights to gore, these Westerns include more violence than the productions in Hollywood, where a code limited filmmakers. The Spaghetti Western lets the audience root for antiheroes who have their flaws and errors, and villains who are entirely unsympathetic. Viewers can relate to these stories more than to the larger-than-life myth of the American Frontier. Instead of nostalgia and idealization, the more realistic portrayal of Italian Westerns was often undercut with left-wing politics, satire or cynicism, and commentary on the worldview, corruption, and politics of the Old West.

The production value in the subgenre

Most Spaghetti Westerns didn’t replicate the box office success of Sergio Leone. But because these films were typically low-budget productions, it took little to achieve commercial success. To keep costs down, the films in the Italian Western subgenre were shot in Italy and sometimes Spain, thus technically making them Spanish-Italian Westerns. In 1971, during the waning of these films, Trinity Is Still My Name became the greatest financial success of all Spaghetti Westerns.

Examples of the best Spaghetti Western Films and Filmmakers

Now let’s look at the filmmakers and movies that defined the genre with the following overview of Italian Western directors and examples of the best Spaghetti Westerns.

Spaghetti Western filmmakers to know

There’s no way to avoid dropping a list of names of Italian filmmakers if you want to immerse yourself in the Spaghetti Western subgenre.

Sergio Leone

The man who kicked it off: Italian director, producer, and screenwriter Sergio Leone is hailed as the pioneer of the Spaghetti Western genre, influencing the history of cinema. Extreme close-ups and their juxtaposition, as well as long shots, are the hallmarks of his style. Leone’s films the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West are must-watch titles.

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    The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)
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    A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
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    For a Few Dollars More (1965)
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    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
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    Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
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    Duck, You Sucker! (1971)
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    Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Sergio Corbucci

Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci took the Spaghetti Western in two directions, producing violent films and more light-hearted action comedies starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. His first commercial success was the 1966 Django, starring Franco Nero, with whom he worked many times after. The film is a remake of the 1961 Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa. Corbucci became the second most successful Italian Western filmmaker after Sergio Leone. Quentin Tarantino took his inspiration for Django Unchained (2012) from Sergio Corbucci.

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    Django (1966)
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    Navajo Joe (1966)
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    The Mercenary (1968)
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    The Great Silence (1968)
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    Drop Them or I'll Shoot (1969)
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    Compañeros (1970)
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    The White the Yellow and the Black (1975)

Sergio Sollima

The third Sergio, Sollima, began his filmmaking career as a screenwriter in the 1950s. His first Spaghetti Western came right at the height of the phenomenon and had to compete with the work of the other two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci. Nevertheless, The Big Gundown starring Lee Van Cleef was released in 1966 with huge success. He only filmed two more Westerns: Face to Face in 1967 with Gian Maria Volonte, who also starred in the first two Dollar trilogy films, and Run, Man, Run! (1968), but is a popular name among genre fans. Ennio Morricone provided the soundtrack to all three of his Westerns.

Giulio Petroni

Italian filmmaker Giulio Petroni directed five Spaghetti Westerns, which cinephiles view as genre-defining because of their violent and emotional approach and focus on the darker psychological aspects of the characters. Petroni ended his film career in the late 1970s and became a literary author.

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    Death Rides a Horse (1967), starring Lee Van Cleef
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    A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof (1968)
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    Tepepa (1969), starring Orson Welles and Tomas Milian
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    La notte dei serpenti (1969)
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    Life Is Tough, Eh Providence? (1972)

Tonino Valerii

Director Tonino Valerii got his start in the genre as assistant director on the set of A Fistful of Dollars. His top films span a wide range within the subgenre, from violence to comedy.

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    Day of Anger (1967)
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    The Price of Power (1969)
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    A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)
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    My Name Is Nobody (1973), with Henry Fonda and Terence Hill

Enzo Barboni

Italian director, screenwriter, and cinematographer Enzo Barboni is credited for popularizing the slapstick Italian Western with his comedies starring Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

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    The Unholy Four (1970)
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    They Call Me Trinity (1970)
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    Trinity Is STILL My Name! (1971)
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    Man of the East (1972)
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    Sons of Trinity (1995)

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Top 10 best Spaghetti Western films to watch

If you haven’t caught on yet, Sergio Leone’s films are all must-watch titles when you want to become familiar with Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, we’ve named all the titles on the following list above, but here they are, ranked and in order: the best Spaghetti Westerns. If you want to binge further, head on over to IMDB for an even lengthier ranking.

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    Once Upon a Time in the West (1967)

The haunting harmonica sounds of the mysterious stranger. Charles Bronson facing off with Henry Fonda as two gunslingers! The cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli with extreme close-ups and desert landscapes! There are plenty of reasons this tale of survival and a ruthless assassin working for the railroad deserves the number one spot.

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    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Sergio Leone again puts Clint Eastwood in a tale involving bounty hunters and buried treasure. This title deserves the crown of the best Spaghetti Western just as much.

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    The Great Silence (1968)

The Great Silence seems to repeat the widow tale of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, but it stands out. Set in the winter of 1898, director Sergio Corbucci brings the snow of the Dolomites into the Wild West for a grim, tense, and bitter struggle.

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    A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

The man with no name comes to town and plays two rival families against each other in this story of greed, pride, and revenge. The film that started it all and made Clint Eastwood a famous actor.

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    Django (1966)

Sergio Corbucci cast Franco Nero as Django, a gunslinger who walks the frontier in a feud between racists and revolutionaries at the Mexican border. The first film in a series, Django began a long legacy. Similarly, the 1966 Blood at Sundown by Alberto Cardone featured the character Sartana, which started a whole series of Spaghetti Westerns. Though the character of Sartana differs from Django, the unofficial Django Meets Sartana! created a crossover.

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    The Big Gundown (1966)

Lee Van Cleef as John Corbett hunts the Mexican Cuchillo Sanchez for the bounty on his head as a rapist and killer of a girl. Sergio Sollima created an emotionally charged story in which things differ from how they seem.

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    Day of Anger (1967)

The violence, corruption, and carnage in Tonino Valerii's Day of Anger make this film starring the iconic Lee Van Cleef stand out.

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    Compañeros (1970)

A must-watch Zapata Western, this outstanding film by Sergio Corbucci with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack has Franco Nero play a Swedish arms dealer who gets caught up between the Mexican revolutionaries and the army.

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    The Mercenary (1968)

Sergio Corbucci delivers another Zapata Western revolving around the corrupt and oppressive Mexican government. Franco Nero is Polish this time around but a mercenary nonetheless, helping a mine worker and a peasant girl.

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    For a Few Dollars More (1965)

The second installment of the Dollars trilogy has Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef team up as bounty hunters as they track down an escaped Mexican convict.

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