What Is A Spaghetti Western & Which Movies Should You Watch First?

So, you've heard the term "spaghetti Western," but you're not sure what it refers to? Fortunately, it's a pretty simple category for a cycle of Western movies made by Italian studios and filmmakers in the '60s and '70s, but often shot in Spain and other locales disguised as the American West. More subjectively, spaghetti Westerns tend to be more stylized and violent than their American counterparts, with less sentimentality and cooler atmospherics. These were movies produced for a younger audience that was more interested in rock music than Gene Autry campfire songs or serious meditations on the West, and that makes them all the more entertaining today.

If you're interested in spaghetti Westerns, there are some directors that you need to know. The first — and by far the most influential — is Sergio Leone, the director of the "Dollars" trilogy ("A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," all starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name) and "Once Upon a Time in the West." These four movies alone make a decent enough introduction to the massive wave of spaghetti Westerns that were made, and though there are several other masterworks out there, you'll be hard-pressed to find any that surpass them in quality. And one movie, in particular, makes for an ideal starting point.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has virtually everything that makes spaghetti Westerns great

Although Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was his third spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood as the nameless and seemingly unkillable gunfighter, it makes for an ideal introduction to the entire spaghetti Western universe thanks to its status as a pop culture icon. Everyone knows the movie's theme song by Ennio Morricone, and everyone knows about Leone's penchant for extreme close-ups and long, drawn-out buildups to climactic violence. These elements have become so iconic that they have been parodied again and again in cartoons and comedy sketches. But watching these elements and others in their native form is so exciting, especially when they were probably never executed better than they were in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

After you watch "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," you'll know whether you want to go further in exploring spaghetti Westerns. If you like it, you'll be pleased to check out Leone's other Westerns, and if you don't, you can be reasonably certain that spaghetti Westerns are not for you. But there are plenty of great spaghetti Westerns not directed by Leone for you to check out as well.

Franco Nero's Django is one of the most iconic spaghetti Western heroes

If you're familiar with Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," you're at least somewhat aware of Sergio Corbucci's "Django" starring Franco Nero as the titular — and just possibly undead — vengeful gunfighter. "Django" is simply one of the coolest Western heroes ever conceived, Spaghetti or otherwise, thanks in large part to Nero's charismatic and mysterious performance, as well as that coffin Django has a habit of dragging everywhere behind him. Corbucci made many spaghetti Westerns, and one of the hallmarks of his films is their extreme violence. This element is certainly present in "Django."

"Django" inspired several unofficial sequels, as well as a belated official follow-up starring Nero in the 1980s. Many of these are entertaining and worth checking out as you explore the world of spaghetti Westerns more thoroughly. And good luck getting the "Django" theme song — which was also borrowed for "Django Unchained" — out of your head once you've heard it.

Day of Anger is a lesser known spaghetti Western masterwork

Like Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci directed plenty of other great spaghetti Westerns, in addition to "Django." "The Great Silence" is particularly good, and serves as a grim bit of political philosophy, as well. But in the continuing interest of a wider focus, "Day of Anger" is another spaghetti Western essential, and this one isn't even directed by a guy named Sergio. Instead, it's the work of Tonino Valerii, another spaghetti Western master who worked for Leone as an assistant director for branching off and making a few classics of his own.

Valerii's "Day of Anger" stars Lee Van Cleef (a familiar face to spaghetti Western fans, to say the least) as gunslinger Frank Talby, who rides into town and serves as a mentor to aspiring gunfighter Scott Mary (Giuliano Gemma). Talby teaches Mary some crucial lessons about the world of Western showdowns, but the two eventually find themselves on opposite ends of a showdown of their own. The mentor-turned-antagonist dynamic and the film's climactic battle both give "Day of Anger" a unique flavor among spaghetti Westerns, and it's also a blast to see Van Cleef playing a multifaceted character who serves as both mentor and villain.

Fortunately, even after you watch these movies, there are plenty more spaghetti Westerns waiting for the dedicated scholar. "Keoma," "A Bullet for the General," and "Duck, You Sucker" are some other genre highlights that come to mind, and also serve as proof that no variety of movie has ever had better titles.