Once upon a time, an Italian film director hired an American TV actor and went to Spain to make a Western based on a Japanese samurai movie. The result, the 1964 flick "A Fistful of Dollars" (which ripped off Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo"), made Clint Eastwood a star, Sergio Leone a top-tier director and jump-started the so-called "spaghetti Western" wave.
Several hundred Spanish/Italian oaters later, Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," which opened Tuesday, riffs on the flamboyance of these films, showing that the style and nihilistic attitudes of the genre remain influential.
Spaghetti Western directors "took the oldest genre in cinema and breathed fresh life into it," says Tarantino. "They kicked up the violence and the stories to operatic dimensions, and tweaked the white hat/black hat morality."
"At a time when order and authority were being challenged worldwide, these films rode the zeitgeist," adds Kevin Grant, author of "Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns." "Their 'heroes' were cynical opportunists; they had brash styling, blurred moral boundaries and anarchic violence."
And thanks to directors like Leone and Sergio Corbucci (who directed the original 1966 film "Django"), the spaghetti Western also exhibited a particularly Italian mindset. It's a "sardonic sensibility," says Grant. "They saw the world in shades of gray, and they introduced a flamboyant use of color, decor, music and camerawork -- operatic excess, you might say."
They also made bad guys the center of their stories, and elevated anti-heroes like Eastwood's Man With No Name to leading-man status. "It was the spaghetti Western that championed the idea of the anti-hero," says Tarantino. "A character who in an American Western could be considered a bad guy. A character like that was rarely a lead in a film."
Plus, unlike most American Westerns, which were cowboys vs. Indians, or good guys vs. bad guys morality tales, the spaghetti Western took on subject matter new to the genre. "Betrayal and upmanship were rife," says Grant. "Consequently, revenge was pretty much omnipresent, as were greed and civic corruption. There was a typically left-wing loathing for religious hypocrisy, and political affiliation with the wretched of the earth. In the era of Vietnam, these were perceived as anti-imperialist allegories."
Nearly 50 years later, the style and attitudes of the spaghetti Western remain with us. Not just in films like "Django Unchained," but in everything from "The Book of Eli," to the animated film "Rango," to the numerous films that riff on the film scores of the masterful Ennio Morricone (who scored all of Leone's films). "Any action film centered on an enigmatic or flippant anti-hero -- and that's arguably most of them -- owes a debt to Leone, Corbucci, etc.," says Grant.
And, adds Tarantino, "it was the spaghetti Western that introduced a modern way of shooting action. All that violence in 'The Wild Bunch' and the Vietnam era films would not exist without the spaghetti Western. That snap, crackle and pop editing didn't exist before then. Also their use of soundtracks, where the score could be an intriguing part of the movie -- they started cutting to music, and people did not cut to music before the Italians did it."
SOME OF THE BEST
Hundreds of spaghetti Westerns were released in the '60s and '70s. Here are a few of the best.
"The Big Gundown" (1966) Van Cleef is a gunman hired to track down a murderer and rapist. Violent and stylish.
"A Bullet for the General" (1966) Mexican bandit Gian Maria Volonte joins the revolution. Very political.
"The Great Silence" (1968) Mute gunfighter Jean-Louis Trintignant helps some outlaws fight off vicious bounty hunters. Violent and nihilistic to the max.