A Spaghetti Western Top Ten

I love Spaghetti Westerns. The best ones are what I would call “gothic westerns” since they combine some of the best aspects of Italian gothic horror films and literature with classic American westerns and western novels. They are filled with high drama but laced with subtlety. They offer romantic views of the west but they’re often very dark and at times even frightening. Suspense, death, blood, dirt, graveyards, coffins and religious iconography are reoccurring aspects of Italian westerns. Silence and sound were equally valued by directors and atmosphere was as important as story. Good and evil are often irrelevant and humanism – with a misanthropic streak – is king.

Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the politics at play in many Italian westerns. Many of the directors, composers and actors who made these films were card carrying Communists. Capitalism and Imperialism were often the real bad guys and many of the best Italian westerns managed to present their Marxist ideals in an incredibly entertaining way.

Recently Keith Brown over at Giallo Fever asked his blog readers what their “Top 10 Spaghetti Westerns” were. I had a hard time putting my list together because I like a lot of Spaghetti Westerns, but I thought I’d share my current Top 10 List here.

1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (a.k.a. Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966, Sergio Leone)
This is my favorite Leone film for many reasons. It’s a thoughtful, funny and entertaining movie with an amazing Morricone score. I really love the writing and I think the script is just brilliant, plus Leone films it all beautifully. Eli Wallach gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and in my opinion he steals the show from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The scene between Wallach and his brother (the priest – Luigi Pistilli) is one of my favorite scenes from any film ever made. Wallach is not just reviving his character Calvera from The Magnificent Seven here, he’s giving him depth and making him one of the most enduring characters in the history of cinema. It’s a movie I’ve watched countless times and I never get tired of it.

Watch: Lengthy clip leading up to my favorite scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

2. The Great Silence (a.k.a. Il Grande silenzio, 1968, Sergio Corbucci)
I’ve already written a bit about why I love The Great Silence but the movie deserves a few more words. I think it’s Corbucci’s best film and definitely one of the most violent westerns ever put on film. There is deep humanity and brutal realism at play in The Great Silence and I think the movie has a kind of surreal quality that’s hard to put into words. Klaus Kinski gets to play one of the most ruthless characters ever created and that’s reason enough why this movie is one of my personal favorites but I also love Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance as the tragic and doomed Silence.

Watch: Great clip of Klaus’s brutality in The Great Silence

A Bullet for the General (1966)

3. A Bullet for the General (1966, Damiano Damiani)
I wrote about this terrific film last month and explained why it’s one of my favorite westerns so I won’t bother with the details again. Please check out my previous review.

4. Once Upon a Time in the West (a.k.a. C’era una volta il West, 1968, Sergio Leone)
This is another great Leone film with a terrific Morricone score that I love. I think Henry Fonda is wonderful as the cruel killer Frank and the infamous scene where he murders the boy and his family is one of the most brutal scenes ever captured on film but the rest of the cast (Bronson, Cardinale and Robards) also offer worthwhile performances here. In the end though Once Upon a Time in the West is really an epic about the birth of the civilized west and the landscape that gives it life. The story and the directing are the real stars. It’s a beautiful love letter from Leone to all Spaghetti Western fans.

Watch: Clip from my favorite scene with Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West

5. For a Few Dollars More (a.k.a. Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965, Sergio Leone)
This is my second favorite Leone/Eastwood film. The story is wonderfully told and the film’s really entertaining but I especially love the interplay between Klaus Kinski’s hunchback character Wild and Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer. Both actors are my favorite western bad boys and their scenes together in For a Few Dollars More are truly priceless. Kinski’s performance is full of his typical twitches and outbursts, and Lee Van Cleef gets in his usual cold hearted stares. Eastwood is really good here and he looks truly fantastic in his poncho and hat but in the end this is really Lee van Cleef and Gian Maria Volontè’s movie. Both actors are terrific in their starring roles alongside Eastwood and once again Morricone delivers a fantastic score that really compliments the action and drama.

Watch: Great Kinski vs. Cleef fan video compiling clips from For a Few Dollars More

6. Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci)
I love the Django series and I had a hard time choosing between three Django films to list here. Django Kill – If You Live, Shoot! (1967) and Strangers Gundown (1969) are also worthy of being added to my Top 10 list, even if they’re inclusion in the Django cannon is debatable. In the first film the handsome actor Franco Nero stars as the enigmatic Django and his performance as the coffin carrying gunslinger is equal to Clint Eastwood’s best performances as “the man with no name.” The story of Django is well told and beautifully directed by Corbucci. The film also boasts a great score by composer Luis Enríquez Bacalov which is comparable to some of Morricone’s best work. All three of the Django films I mentioned are well worth a look if you like your spaghetti westerns dished up bloody and a bit surreal.

Watch: The final 6 min. of Django

7. Death Rides A Horse (a.k.a. Da uomo a uomo, 1967, Giulio Petroni)
The story treads familiar ground but it’s still one of the most entertaining revenge westerns ever shot. Lee Van Cleef and the very cute John Phillip Law give two of their best performances here as Ryan and Bill, and I think they have a surprisingly good chemistry together. The movie boasts some creative camera-work and it features one of Morricone’s most unnerving scores. One of my favorite scenes involves a poker game between Bill (John Phillip Law) and bad guy Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson), but Lee van Cleef gets a lot of great scenes in Death Rides A Horse as well.

Watch: One of my favorite scenes from Death Rides a Horse

8. Massacre Time (a.k.a. The Brute and the Beast/Tempo di massacro, 1966, Lucio Fulci)
I wrote about Fulci’s Massacre Time back in March so I won’t bother going over it again but I will add that besides Fulci’s stylish directing, Massacre Time includes one of George Hilton’s best performances and it has a great score by composer Coriolano Gori (a.k.a. Lallo Gori).

9. My Name Is Nobody (a.k.a. Il Mio nome è Nessuno, 1973, Tonino Valerii & Sergio Leone)
I really enjoy the humorous westerns that feature Terence Hill and this one is my favorite of the bunch. It’s probably Sergio Leone’s most lighthearted effort but he works well here with Tonino Valerii who directed some great Italian thrillers. Henry Fonda delivers a terrrific performance as an old gunslinger and he has some wonderful scenes with Terrence Hill. Morricone’s score is really playful at times which works well with the movie’s comedy. My Name Is Nobody is a fun film but it’s also a touching farewell to the old west and it confirms that Leone offered Fonda some of his best and most interesting roles late in his career.

Watch: One of my favorite scenes from My Name Is Nobody

10. Dragon Strikes Back (a.k.a. Shanghai Joe/Il Mio nome è Shangai Joe, 1972, Mario Caiano)
When I was a kid Kung Fu was one of my favorite TV shows. The impact that the show had on me is hard to explain but the philosophy it championed definitely made an impression on me. Dragon Strikes Back is basically a drawn out movie version of Kung Fu with Chen Lee (a poor man’s Bruce Lee) playing David Carradine’s role. It’s plain silly at times and the story is thin but it also has some great moments such as the fantastic bullfight and the duel between Chen Lee and Klaus Kinski (once again playing a nasty bad guy here). The combination of Spaghetti Western and Kung Fu action flick is a strange mix that really works. The movie also has a great Bruno Nicoli score (with borrowed bits from Have a Good Funeral, My Friend) and overall the movie is just a really entertaining treat.

Note: Keoma (1976), Companeros (1970), A Bullet for Sandoval (1969) and Duck, You Sucker (1971) all came close to making my list.

I’ve only seen about 25 or 30 Spaghetti Westerns and there are hundreds so my list is subject to change in the future.

18 thoughts on “A Spaghetti Western Top Ten

  1. Lots of fun but extremely difficult. I just posted mine over at my blog. I love all the ones you listed, I only included one Leone on mine so he wouldn’t overwhelm the list. Great photos and post as always…

  2. I’ve been working on mine ever since I saw that post over at Giallo Fever, but I’m still struggling with it. Your choices are terrific. I did recently write a Spaghetti Western thing, that’ll show up eventually. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that.

  3. Jeremy – I’m glad you participated! Yep, it was tough to choose. There was no way I could leave my favorite Leone films off the list, and no matter how I cut it he dominated. Of course, I snuck in mentiions of other films so it really ended up being a Top 16 list. 😉

    Neil – I hope you’ll join in the fun too!

    Marty – Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to checking out your own list.

  4. I still have gaps, and have not seen three of your ten films. A couple Italian westerns that I like that you didn’t mention are “A Man called Blade” by Sergio Martino, and Don Taylor’s “Five Man Army” which I count as it was written by Dario Argento. When I get settled, I’ll see about catching up with Django. I didn’t see “Massacre Time” but I did see Fulci’s “Four for the Apocalypse”.

  5. I really only know Leone, so I could hardly attempt such a list. This gives me some good ideas of more films to watch. Thanks for posting!

    I wonder what a list of my top 10 films noir would look like?

  6. Peter – I have seen A Man Called Blade and I like it a lot. It would make my Top 20 list for sure! I haven’t seen Five Man Army though so I should give that a look soon.

    AR – I think you’d enjoy Corbucci’s films like The Great Silence and Django, as well as the other two Django movies I mentioned. Corbucci’s westerns have a surreal quality that I think you’d appreciate.

    Nicolas – I do like Run Man Run, but it’s not a favorite. I think it’s because I prefer seeing Thomas Milan in more serious roles so the casting didn’t work too well for me. I’m not sure, but for comedy/ spaghetti westerns I personally prefer Terence Hill’s films like My Name is Nobody and the Trinity series.

  7. Great list but I think 1 and 2 should be switched. But thats only my opinion. I’m just excited were finally getting the other Leone westersn as special editions that have availabe over seas.

    There is a great but very pricey book that lists every Spaghetti Western ever made. wellworth searching out, but like I said a bit on the steep side. Sadly they did not include Alex Cox’s Straight To Hell. Which was a modern day take on the genre.

  8. Beautiful list. Among the ones you do not mention, i like Il ritorno di Ringo by Duccio Tessari, Il Mercenario by Sergio Corbucci and I giorni dell’ira” by Valerii.

    talking about westerns, will you interested in the John Ford Blog-a-thon i proposed for the period of the La Rochelle Festival ? Read more on Inisfree.

    See you.

  9. Thanks for the comments Bruce & Vincent!

    Bruce – I really like Alex Cox and I’ve enjoyed his films a lot. Straight to Hell is a great movie!

    Vincent – I’m not sure I could contribute something to the John Ford Blog-a-thon since I’ve only seen 5 or 6 of his films. I feel a bit silly writing about him, but I’ll see if I can think of something worthwhile to contribute. Thanks for thinking of me!

  10. Excellent list!

    As a Spaghetti Western fan myself let me share my personal list.

    1. The Good, the bad, the Ugly. 2. For a Fistful of Dollars. 3.For a few Dollars more. 4. Once Upon a Time in the West. 5. Duck, You Sucker. 6. Django 7. The Great Silence. 8. Keoma. 9. Navajo Joe. 10. Companeros.

    Two worthy nominations…

    Four of the Apocalypse

  11. 1. The good,the bad and the ugly de Sergio Leone
    2. Run man run de Sergio Sollima
    3. Death rides a horse de Giulio Petroni
    4. Companeros de Sergio Corbucci
    5. Face to face de Sergio Sollima
    6. For a few dollars more de Sergio Leone
    7. Once upon a time in West de Sergio Leone
    8. The great silence de Sergio Corbucci
    9. Duck, you sucker de Sergio Leone
    10. The Big gundown de Sergio Sollima

  12. Great post 🙂 You mentioned one of my favorite scenes (Cleef vs. Kinski in cantina) from “For A Few Dollars More” …your link to it is missing however 😦 Here is another link to a wonderful tribute to Lee Van Cleef that features that scene:

    There is another great tribute video to spaghetti westerns from this same person:

  13. Great List. I think For a Few Dollars More is Leone’s best. My top 10 1 Great Silence 2 For a Few Dollars More 3 Once Upon a Time in the West 4 A Bullet for the General 5 Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (Way underated action fest) 6 Django 7 My Name is Nobody 8 Companeroes 9 The Good The Bad The Ugly 10 Big Gundown

  14. There is nothing wrong with any of the above; after all, we are talking about personal favourites…having said that, i am suprised to see no one mentioned: A Cemetary Without Crosses(in tribute to Sergio Leone)which I consider to be the equal of the Great Silence, the totally excellent Day of Anger, Death Sentence, Ruthless Four just to name a few. You won’t be disappointed…

  15. I happened across The Great Silence last month while working my way through Klaus Kinski’s filmography (someone needed to warn me about Jess Franco). Fabulous! The ending made me stand up, cheer, then run to my computer and buy the DVD. Snow, music, great ending, and the BEST screen time for my all time favorite actor outside the Herzog collaborations.

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