Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Über-Male of the Fairy Tale West: The Spaghetti Western Legacy

The Über-masculinity in the spaghetti western seems to be a very perverted form of conventional masculinity and, while it does come across as highly sadistic, the violence can also be viewed as incredibly ridiculous... By trying to get back to that ‘fairy tale’ quality and by ‘pumping it up’ Leone and his followers paradoxically created a style and genre that was much bigger and vastly different to the traditional American western.

I have been an enthusiast of the spaghetti western genre ever since first watching The Good, The Bad and the Ugly when I was 16 years old and I have continued to explore the genre on-and-off since then. 

Hell, the name of this blog is even derived from a quote from one rather highly regarded spaghetti western film, but you will have to keep reading to find out which one (if you don't know already).

The Über-Male of the Fairy Tale West: The Spaghetti Western Legacy is an essay I wrote four years ago for my Film and Screen Studies BA (Hons) and it is a consideration of the evolution of the western myth throughout the development of the spaghetti western genre. 

Ultimately, this essay was awarded a first.

However, I was never completely happy with the original essay, as my writing style back then was not the most confident and it does come across as highly clunky. Therefore, I have heavily polished it here, it is still a little clunky, but I wanted to retain some of its original flavour. 

Unlike the original essay I have also illustrated this version with many images and video excerpts. Additionally, I have updated the content somewhat, due to some after-thoughts and developments that have occurred over the last couple of years.

I hope you enjoy this consideration of one of the most bizarre film genres out there...

It all starts when a stranger arrives in town...

Like all great forms of anti-thesis,  the spaghetti western - the European produced westerns of the 1960s and 1970s - was a genre and wave of filmmaking that was completely written off by the critics. The first spaghettis were lamented as being: ‘like pale imitations of minor Hollywood “cowboy and Indian” films’ (Frayling 2005:  42). 

The low budgets, post synchronization of dialogue, bad acting, technical discrepancies and the generally perceived ‘pale imitation’ of Hollywood westerns gave the critics good reason to disregard these 'cheap' affairs. 

American critics in particular disregarded the spaghetti westerns for portraying a west that was, in their minds, un-American:

‘The argument, repeated with monotonous regularity, went roughly as follows: given the fact that the westerns made at Cinecitta Studios, Rome, had no ‘cultural roots’ in American history or folklore, they were likely to be cheap, opportunist imitations’ (Frayling 1981: 121).

To all intents and purposes the spaghetti western was seen as nothing more than a cheap exploitation genre: ‘the western genre was considered as something cheap, not worth doing it’ (Alberto Grimaldi, 2003). 

However, it was with the emergence, and eventual acceptance, of the Sergio Leone films that the spaghetti western went on to not only break into the American market, but managed, as a genre, to attain a formula and style all its own. 

Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy

A formula and style that would eventually go on to influence the primary western genre back home in American: 

‘Sergio Leone not only reinvented the Italian western, I think he reinvented the western as well’ (Frayling 2007).

A key difference of the spaghetti western was its unashamed use of a new kind of hero or anti-hero: ‘a hero who did all the stuff John Wayne would never do’ (Frayling 2005: 195). It was exactly this new kind of hero who did for the western what James Bond had done for the espionage film – he made it cool and very stylish. 

This revitalisation is what brought the tired iconography of the western film up-to-date, because now the western had a central figure who contemporary audiences could relate to: 

‘not because of his beliefs, not because of his values, but because of his style. His personal style: the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he dresses’ (Frayling 2007).

Clint Eastwood as a new type of hero.

The archetype for this new spaghetti western anti-hero was established in the form of the Clint Eastwood character in Leone’s Dollars trilogy

The brim of his hat casts a shadow over his face; he has stubble; he smokes a cigar; he is quick with the gun but, above all, he is independent; with a strong sense of self-preservation: ‘the hero stops being a crusader and becomes a style stud’ (Frayling 2007). 

The motives of this character are driven not by an overriding sense of what morally needs to be done but, rather, by what is in his best interests to do: ‘This is an immoral, or even amoral, universe of dog eat dog, where all the characters are completely at home with violence, even the hero’ (Frayling 2007). 

While this certainly shows the hero to be standing in the same light as the antagonists, the key to the success of this anti-hero is the fact that he has just enough sympathetic qualities, as when the Eastwood character assists the persecuted family in Fistful of Dollars (Dir. Sergio Leone, Italy, Spain, West Germany, 1964), in order to keep the audience on his side and aligned with his point of view: “I knew someone like you once, and there was no one there to help” (Eastwood 1964). 

Ultimately, what rounds this off is the style in which he orchestrates himself: 

“Get three coffins ready..."

As he symbolised such a winning formula, this archetype of the Eastwood character would go on, with different names, and sometimes with no name at all, to be used again and again in the spaghetti westerns. 

One such variation is Django (Franco Nero), in the iconic film of the same name (Dir. Sergio Corbucci, Italty, Spain, 1966). 

Django and his coffin - People like that have something inside... something to do with death.

Django begins the film (the original 1966 version) by walking into civilisation dragging a coffin, he then proceeds to rescue a beautiful woman, remorselessly kills just under a dozen men, promises the antagonist he will kill fifty more and then beds the woman he has just rescued - this is only the first thirty minutes of the film.  

"A man with a sad, impenetrable face."

With this new type of hero one thing was sure - he was incredibly macho. 

The heroes of the western had always been very masculine, but with the spaghetti western, the anti-heroes were capable of breaking the rules of the standard western hero: they could remorselessly kill anyone who displeased them and they could bed any woman who took their fancy. 

It was through this process of breaking the rules of the standard western hero that the spaghetti anti-hero became something more than just masculine – he became Über-masculine. 

As Maria (Loredana Nusciak), the woman who Django rescued at the initiation of the film, thanks him for rescuing her, she comments: “For the first time in my life I felt like I was a real woman” (Nusciak 1966). 

This new type of hero was the idealised male. 

However, while the majority of the spaghetti anti-heroes do bed woman, it is interesting to note that the Eastwood character does not in the Dollars Trilogy

Truthfully, there were sequences filmed but Leone intentionally removed them, as Frayling points out: ‘as if in some way it diminished this cool, locked-in hero to have a relationship of that kind’ (Frayling 2007). 

A still photograph from the deleted sequence in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

This act of abstaining from any intimate act makes the Eastwood character, in a certain sense, seem even more Über-masculine, opposed to a variation like Django. The Eastwood character is so incredibly Über-masculine that not even a woman can penetrate his male purity.

Another aspect of this Über-masculinity is representative in how physically resilient the anti-hero can be: 

‘they’re not quite invincible. And you’ve got to have a moment where the hero is completely tested physically, to show that not only are they cool and stylish, they’re also tough’ (Frayling 2007). 

Sadism is abound in the spaghetti; particularly male focused sadism. 

Django suffers a pretty standard beating.

All the spaghettis consistently feature sequences where the anti-hero is beaten to a pulp, or has his hands are crushed, or he is marched through a desert without water, or a situation where he suffers some other form of physical torment - the anti-heroes are put through hell. 

The beating scene from For A Few Dollars More. This is quite a rarity as this version includes footage not included in the MGM restored version of the film that has been widely released on home media.

The Über-masculinity in the spaghetti western seems to be a very perverted form of conventional masculinity and, while it does come across as highly sadistic...

In Django, Maria (Loredana Nusciak) starts off the film being whipped.

... the violence can also be viewed as incredibly ridiculous. 

Ridiculous because - and this is key to understanding the genre - it’s a childhood attitude towards violence. The violence can be as brutal as you like but, like play fighting, ultimately, it wo not harm you.

In Fistful of Dollars, after being savagely beaten and having his shooting hand crushed, the Eastwood character seems to spend no time at all in a cave regaining his precise aim by shooting a bit of scrap metal before he’s back to his old self and ready for the final showdown. 

Bringing this argument back to the Eastwood character being so Über-masculine that woman cannot penetrate him, one begins to see a childhood or, at least, very immature and ignorant attitude towards woman emerge as well: ‘The sexual politics of these films is pretty Neanderthal’ (Frayling 2007). 

This same attitude is present even in the spaghettis where the anti-hero does embrace the woman - the woman are treated as sexual objects.

“I’m glad I made you feel like a real woman, very glad,” Django laments before bedding Maria.

The reasoning behind these ‘Neanderthal’ attitudes is not necessarily because the directors and writers believed in that attitude, it is because the makers of the spaghetti westerns wanted to create westerns that were stripped down - they wanted westerns that would restore the myth of the pre-1950s western: ‘The western in Hollywood was getting really interested in people’s psychology,’ (Frayling 2007) and this is not what the Europeans wanted.

In Django, Maria is the archetypal western whore and damsel in distress, she is just another component of the mythic western architecture.

The Europeans wanted westerns that portrayed the myth of the old west, the same myth of a land far away and long since gone that they had immersed themselves within while playing playing cowboys and Indians as children:

‘When Leone was a child these films made a huge impact on him. He loved these movies. They were life fairy tales to him, and he was really disappointed that Hollywood in the ‘50s and early ‘60s wasn’t making fairy tales like that, anymore. How do you get back to that magic? How do you re-enchant the movies? You pump it up. You make it big, you have effects, so the audience comes out reeling from the experience of seeing this film.’ (Frayling 2007).

Indeed, once you get past their surface of cold brutality, it is surprisingly to see the spaghetti westerns as a desire of the Italian filmmakers, Leone particularly, to restore the myth of the western to its former ‘fairy-tale’ glory: 

‘One of the reasons why Italian and Spanish westerns began to be produced in the early 1960s was precisely because Hollywood wasn’t delivering the goods’ (Frayling 2005: 173). 

The very explicit or ‘pumped-up’ nature of the spaghetti formula ignited: ‘a style that was instantly a parody of itself that had nothing to do with the American west, neither the real nor the mythological one’ (Hall 2008). 

By trying to get back to that ‘fairy-tale’ quality and by ‘pumping-it-up’ Leone and his followers paradoxically created a style and genre that was much bigger and vastly different to the traditional American western: ‘there’s this funny paradox: he [Leone] loves it to death but, at the same time, he wants to criticise it’ (Frayling 2003).

When Leone’s Dollars films were imported to the USA for distribution, the Eastwood character was repackaged and advertised as ‘The Man with No Name’. 

"This long cigar belongs to the man with no name..."

The myth of the American west and its morals, just like the hero, The Man with No Name, no longer had a clear identity, it had become a stranger: ‘those John Wayne characters seemed a very long way away from reality by the mid ‘60s, and life wasn’t like that. Probably never was, but particularly wasn’t like that by the ‘60s’ (Frayling 2007). 

With the political, economic and cultural upheaval pf the 1960s, Americans started to realise the fallacy of with their concept of the mythology of the west:

‘The world of the Man with No Name is a world that comes to pass after an apocalyptic event. Such an event is one that calls into question all the assumptions that have underlain the situation of the world as it has existed up to the moment of the event, including assumptions about the nature of good’ (McGee 2007: 168).

Even John Ford, a key defining director of the western genre, came to realise the western's disillusionment and illustrated it when he made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film all about a lie - "this is the west, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The spaghettis shook up the traditional-and-morally-clear-cut-western-image and, through the course of doing so, the spaghettis managed to reflect the nature of the contemporary world – a world that was not black and white: 

‘As someone once said: In traditional Hollywood movies, the hero was the best shot. In Italian westerns, the best shot is the hero. The guy who is best at it wins’ (Frayling 2007). 

A truth of the spaghetti that finds its bleakest manifestation in Corbucci’s The Great Silence (Dir. Sergio Corbucci, Italy, France, 1968), a film in which all the sympathetic characters are brutally murdered by the antagonistic bounty hunters - it's a film in which the bad guys actually win!

The alternate ending that was shot for exhibitors who did not want to conclude the film with the original ending, whether this end was ever screened is still up for debate.

Filmmaker Alex Cox has described the film as: ‘an anti-western; it kind of turns westerns on their heads completely’ (Cox 2001). Anti-western and anti-myth: the film shows the world not as you would hope for it to be seen, but as it actually can be:

‘The western as a genre is declared dead by these movies, which means that its signifiers have lost all referential value, all historical meaning, except to the extent that they congeal in themselves the absence of any meaning or hope in the contemporary world’ (McGee 2007: 169).

The end of the classical or ‘black-and-white’ western myth, as far as it survived in the spaghettis, occurred when the spaghetti western genre reached its thematic apex in Once Upon A Time In The West (Dir. Sergio Leone, Italy, USA, 1968). 

"Who are you?"

The most radical focus of this bold conclusion to the spaghetti western genre is the fact that the central character is not only a female, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), but an incredibly strong-willed female character, who undergoes an evolution over the course of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Jill starts off in pretty much the same place as Django's Maria and then leaps centuries ahead - Jill represents the coming of the progressive America.

The film chronicles Jill's growth from a prostitute into a iron willed matriarch: ‘she is transformed into the symbolic agent of social change’ (McGee 2007: 181). Leone is now presenting a very modern and ‘un-Neanderthal’ representation of a woman in a spaghetti western - modern feminism had arrived!

Symbolically, it is Leone’s and the genre’s way of coming to terms with the truth of the western myth, the truth that: ‘All these wild west myths were all a sham. What lay behind it was a lie’ (Frayling 2007). 

The Eastwood archetype is again present, but here in three different variations: Harmonica (Charles Bronson), Frank (Henry Fonda) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards). 

Towards the end of the film, Cheyenne laments: “Men like that have something inside them, something to do with death” (Robards 1968), the archetype - the Über-male - are dealers of death and, accordingly, have no future in the approaching modern America and progressive world as a whole: ‘a masculine world is world deprived of life’ (McGee 2007: 182).

The building of  the railroad and the way it paves to our modern civilisation.

Once Upon A Time In The West is the story of the passing of the old traditional west, symbolised in the passing of the three Eastwood archetype characters, and the introduction of the new, blossoming, industrialised America, as represented by Jill and her endorsement of the railroad:

‘she represents the possibility of a society based on social collaboration and economic justice; but as the camera pans right to reveal Harmonica riding off alone with the dead body of Cheyenne, the implication is that traditional masculine heroes have no place in such a world’ (McGee 2007: 181).

"Yeah, I got to go too."

In the traditional western myth there is no place for modern feminism, it either ignores it, as the majority of American westerns and spaghetti westerns did, or, as in the case of Once Upon A Time In The West, makes way for it to take over. 

Together with the myth of the traditional ‘black-and-white’ west, this is where Leone leaves the concept of Über-masculinity behind: ‘it expresses a negative and almost elegiac view of everything that will be lost in the process of a creating a new and potentially just world – in particular, traditional masculine identity’ (McGee 2007: 180). 

Sean (James Coburn), the male lead of Leone’s next film Duck, You Sucka a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite (Dir. Sergio Leone, Italy, 1971) is not nearly as closed-in as the standard Eastwood archetype and is much more sensitive, complex and, above all, real. 

However, this evolution within the spaghetti western genre would not be the complete end of the Eastwood archetype in other spaghetti westerns; there would certainly be many more Djangos! 

Even after the spaghetti western's day had passed, the legacy of its Über-male would persist in the action films of the 1980s and beyond...

However, for Leone, there was no future for that archetype or for the traditional western myth. Certainly, the spaghettis that expanded on Leone's would be much more socially-politically concerned and in sync with contemporary concerns of the 1960s and 1970s.  

"When the bullet turns red, the general will be dead." 

Leone would go to produce a thematic epilogue to his take on the spaghetti western genre. The only representational place left for the traditional western myth was in parody - the man with no name had become My Name is Nobody (Dir. Tonino Valerii, 1973). 

But in American a new serious revisionist western genre was beginning to blossom, thanks largely to the thematic innovations of Leone and the spaghetti western genre: 

‘Part of the legacy of Leone’s Westerns was strong sense that the old fairy tales had to keep up with or even keep ahead of the 1960s audiences – especially young audiences’ (Frayling 2005: 190).

After a two decade run, in which stylistic innovations of the spaghetti western genre were heavily incorporated, the American revisionist genre arguably reached its darkest conclusion in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), the west was no longer a fairy-tale and it was time for the man with no name to face up to his crimes...

"That's right, I killed women and children. I killed just about anything that walked or crawled at one time or another."

However, the American west and the myth it became is an enduring fascination and like all film genres, the western goes in cycles. As with the rise of the spaghetti western in the 1960s, it appears the (spaghetti) western is returning...

Paying homage to the films he loves - doing what Tarantino does best.

Ultimately, regardless of what any critic of the 1960s or 1970s may have said, what should be clear is that the spaghetti western is far more than just another exploitation genre.

The spaghetti western developed in response to the decline of the traditional American western and was a huge commentator and progenitor in its revitalisation. Following the cinematic inspiration of Sergio Leone’s films the genre went on to attain a style and formula all its own. 

A style and formula that not only questioned the validity of the traditional western myth, but also produced a legacy that went on to inspire new generations of filmmakers audiences alike.


Frayling, Christopher Sergio Leone: Once Upon A Time In Italy. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2005.

Frayling, Christopher Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Euorpeans: from Karl May to Sergio Leone. Revised paperback edition. London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 1998, reprinted in 2000.

McGee, Patrick From Shane To Kill Bill: Rethinking The Western. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007.


An Opera of Violence (DVD); Lancelot Narayan. 29 minutes. UK: Lypsync Productions, 2003.

Alex Cox Discusses The Great Silence (DVD); Alex Cox. UK: Digital Classics, 2009.

A New Kind of Hero: Sir Christopher Frayling on Fistful of Dollars (DVD); Michael Arick. 22 minutes. USA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2007.

A New Standard: Sir Christopher Frayling on For A Few Dollars More (DVD); Michael Arick. 19 minutes. USA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2007.

Django (film); Sergio Corbucci. 87 minutes. Italy, Spain: B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l., Tecisa, 1966.

Duck, You Sucka a.k.a A Fistful of Dynamite (film); Sergio Leone. 157 minutes. Italy: Rafran Cinematografica, Euro International Film, San Miura, 1971.

Fistful of Dollars (film); Sergio Leone. 99 minutes. Italy, Spain, West Germany: Constantin Film Production, Jolly Film, Ocean Films, 1964.

Once Upon A Time In The West (film); Sergio Leone. 175 minutes. Italy, USA: Finanzia San Marco, Rafran Cinematografica, Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Rich Hall’s How The West Was Lost (film); Chris Cottam. 89 minutes. UK: Open Mike Productions, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 2008.

The Great Silence (film); Sergio Corbucci. 105 minutes. Italy, France: Adelphia Compagnia Cinematografica, Les Films Corona, 1968.