What Are Spaghetti Westerns and Where Did The Name Come From

By the second half of the twentieth century, spaghetti had become so well known throughout the world as an Italian food, that the word spaghetti itself came to be a sort of metaphor for anything Italian. So it is not surprising that when Italian film companies began to produce western movies in the 1960’s, they quickly came to be referred to as spaghetti westerns. Initially, the term was essentially used as a putdown. The Italian movies were clearly low budget films--typically featuring a lone American actor alongside an extensive cast of unknown European performers. The implication was that these movies were nothing more than “cheap imitations” of the "vastly superior” American westerns that Hollywood had been producing for some 20 years. But as time went on, many spaghetti westerns came to be broadly recognized and highly acclaimed internationally for their creative artistic achievement. So much so, in fact, that today the “spaghetti western” label has a very positive connotation of admiration and endearment rather than ridicule.

The original Italian westerns tended to differ from the typical Hollywood fare of the time in several notable ways. First and foremost is the fact that they tended to be about cowboys and Mexicans, rather than about cowboys and Indians, as would be more typical of Hollywood. This is perhaps not surprising, since many of these movies were filmed in Spain, where Spanish actors were readily available to play Mexican roles (and Indian actors were nowhere to be found). Secondly, they tended to feature more violence, and far more graphic violence, than American westerns did in those days. And thirdly, the Italian versions often tended to blur the lines between who was the good guy and who was bad guy—giving rise to the term “anti-hero.” This starkly contrasted Hollywood westerns, where the heroes were always good guys who wore white hats and never did anything wrong, and the bad guys were always evil to the core. Interestingly enough, in one way or another, Hollywood eventually began to adopt all three of these characteristics that initially made spaghetti westerns rather unique.

Perhaps the best known spaghetti westerns, and the first ones everyone tends to think of when the topic comes up, is the trilogy of movies directed by Sergio Leone consisting of “A Fistfull of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (1966). These three movies each starred Clint Eastwood and featured the distinct music of Ennio Morricone. And all three of them became enormously popular over time, and remain so today. In fact it was this trilogy that established Leone as a world-renown director, Eastwood as an accomplished actor, and Morricone as one of the most creative composers in the film industry. Another director who became renown for his Italian westerns was Sergio Corbucci. While he directed many movies now considered western classics, he is perhaps best known for his 1966 hit entitled “Django”.

As the meaning and use of the term “spaghetti western” has evolved over time, it has come to take on a broader connotation, and today it is also commonly used to refer to all westerns that were produced in “western” Europe (mostly Italy, Spain and Germany) between 1960 and 1975. Nearly 600 movies are said to fall into this broad category. With the advent of the 1970’s, some spaghetti western comedies and spoofs began to be produced that are still very popular today, including Enzo Barboni’s “trinity” series of movies that began with “They Call Me Trinity” in 1971.

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