What is a Spaghetti Western?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The Spaghetti Western is a term used to describe Western films made during primarily the 1960s by Italian directors. Since it was often cheaper to work in Europe, these movies became a popular alternative to westerns made in the US. In addition, the camera techniques, plot devices, and strong violence of the films ultimately redefined the genre of Western films.

Spaghetti westerns were filmed by Italian directors, often in Spain.
Spaghetti westerns were filmed by Italian directors, often in Spain.

Some critics have argued that the key difference in the Spaghetti Western in regards to violence is that it is seen as a necessary and vital part of the West. This contrasts with earlier films, where violence tends to erupt and disturb an otherwise peaceable community. Bloodshed is the necessary evil in films directed by Western greats like John Ford, but in the Spaghetti Western, it is often "just part of life" and is treated in a casual way or in a way that revels in death. The body counts in some films are quite large, and the references to death, via scenes in graveyards and use of symbols of death, are many.

Old west saloon.
Old west saloon.

Some key directors, composers and actors stand out as part of this film tradition. Of these directors, most consider Sergio Leone to have had the greatest influence on the modern Western. His "Man with no Name" trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is considered to have provoked foundational change in the genre.

While Spaghetti Westerns were often discarded as simply a quick way to make a few bucks at the box office, Leone’s trilogy is considered by some critics to be examples of timeless filmmaking. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which was shot primarily in Spain, is often considered to be a landmark achievement. The film is extremely violent, something Clint Eastwood would echo in films like Unforgiven.

It is not surprising that Eastwood would be influenced by these films, since he starred as the "Man with no Name" in Leone’s trilogy. Eastwood’s film, though violent, is more self-reflective of the violence occurring, however, recognizing the violence as actually having an effect on the characters. Most types of Spaghetti Western were violent without self-reflection on the part of the characters. Some argue, however, that the Eastwood’s character, particularly in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, only uses violence as a last resort.

Leone’s work introduced unusual camera work, from the panoramic to the extremely tight close-up. This is particularly the case in the final moments of the last film in his trilogy. Viewing this scene is a must for any film buff.

The score by Ennio Morricone in the last film of the trilogy would become one of the most easily recognized scores ever. Morricone would go on to score American films like the 1980s The Untouchables.

As well as Eastwood’s participation in many Italian directed films, other frequent participants in the were actors like Lee Van Cleef, Jason Robards, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, and Henry Fonda. Other noted directors include Enzo Castellari and Sergio Corbucci.

Spaghetti westerns continue to be a popular theme for short films today.
Spaghetti westerns continue to be a popular theme for short films today.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I always liked his score from the Untouchables-- kind of schmaltzy, a bit overdramatic, but fun.


@robert13 - Morricone's score for Days Of Heaven is great as well. I also happened by chance to find a score he did for a film I've never seen or heard of called La Califfa which is quite good. He certainly has a very haunting, dramatic style. He did scores for about 40 westerns, all of which are probably worth watching if only to hear his music!


I love a good Spaghetti Western. This article mainly focuses on the popular Western films like Sergio Leone's "man with no name" trilogy which are definitely the first place to start if you're looking to get into the genre. I'd also highly recommend The Great Silence which is a slightly different take on the genre as it's a "snow" western.

Good to see Ennio Morricone mentioned here as well; he's certainly one of the best film composers of all time and Once Upon A Time in The West is one of his best scores. What other scores of his are worth checking out?

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