Tuesday, January 1, 2013
30 of the Best Non-Leone Italian Westerns 1-15
There's a little bit of everything on this list of European oater excellence. One thing you won't find is anything directed by Sergio Leone. His films have been discussed to death and hailed to high heaven as if they're the only productions that matter (to some, that would be true) where European westerns are concerned. Those are true classics and Leone's stamp on the genre is unmistakable. One could also say his touch is all over a great many other films of the genre, too. This six gun selection contains motion pictures that are just as, or almost as good as any of the more famous Sergio's cinema. Some are simply escapism with little to offer aside from popcorn entertainment. All are worth checking out for one reason or other, acting as a nice non-Leone sampler of alternative Italian sagebrush sagas.
1. ONE SILVER DOLLAR (1964)
Gary and Phil O'Hara are former soldiers in the Confederate army who go their separate ways once fighting has ceased. Before parting ways, Gary gives his horse to Phil and Phil hands over a silver dollar to Gary. Some time after, Gary arrives in Yellowstone and is asked by a businessman named McCoy to help in ridding the town of a gang of bandits. Unfortunately, Gary finds out too late that the supposed gangleader is none other than his brother, Phil. With both men ultimately shot down, Gary soon awakens and realizes the silver dollar given to him by his brother has saved his life by stopping the bullet. He then sets out freeing the town from the true villains.
Director, Giorgio Ferroni (MILL OF STONE WOMEN) graduated from sword and sandal adventures to the similar trappings of hot and dusty terrains in western pictures. He brought Giuliano Gemma, previously of films such as SONS OF THUNDER (1961) and TWO GLADIATORS (1963), with him for the first of three 'Gary Epics' -- Italian westerns that include FORT YUMA GOLD (1966) and WANTED (1967); three unrelated films in which Gemma plays a character named Gary.
Fans often gave the enormously popular Gemma a hard time claiming he was too clean-cut in his roles amongst the stubble-faced anti-hero tableau of the post Eastwood clones. ONE SILVER DOLLAR is one of a few westerns where Gemma starts off with a full beard. Other films to feature a bearded Gemma are RETURN OF RINGO and THE LONG DAYS OF VENGEANCE (both from 1966). Ferroni directs confidently under his Calvin Jackson Padget pseudonym and Gianni Ferrio's whistling and horn enhanced score is often addictive, if somewhat derivative of Morricone.
Ferroni's trilogy are mostly in the American style with little to connect them with the more popular, sweaty, barren-landscaped style adopted after the release of Leone's FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). That's not to say Ferroni's films in the genre aren't worth tracking down, just don't go in expecting anti heroes and sadistic villains dueling in a vast apocalyptic landscape backed by Morricone cues.
2. A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965)
"...New game, more fun than hopscotch. The first of these gentlemen that steps forward, gets a new lead bullet between his eyes...well I warned'em not to step forward, didn't I?"
The title Ringo is the slick and wisecrackingly dangerous gunfighter nicknamed 'Angel Face'. He's hired to save a wealthy family whose vast hacienda has been inhabited by a Mexican bandit gang after they robbed a nearby bank and killed a number of the citizenry.
Notable screenwriter, Duccio Tessari, tackles his first directorial effort in the Euro western sweepstakes. Not only is it one of the best the genre has to offer, but it's also one of the most successful and influential. This is especially amazing in that it was released post-FISTFUL when this sort of Americanized look to the west had been drastically altered. Tessari's western proved popular enough for over a dozen additional RINGO movies. None of them had anything to do with the original, mind you, and some didn't actually have a 'Ringo' in the picture save for a film title.
Other unusual elements are that this is one of relatively few westerns set during, or leading up to Christmas. It's also unique in that, while it's not politically charged, it features a family of monetary success being oppressed by a ruthless band of thieves and murderers. It doesn't depict "the good life" in a fashion popularized by numerous leftist leaning westerns as only being obtained through the pain and suffering of the less fortunate.
For its US release (where it apparently played as BALLAD OF DEATH VALLEY at some point), A PISTOL FOR RINGO beat Leone's FISTFUL to American theaters by several months and reportedly was an unexpected success before Eastwood's iconic turn appeared. Gemma had incredible charisma and it shows in nearly every frame of this superlative example of the genre. Despite bearing his real name on Italian promotional materials, the film print bears Gemma's American pseudonym, Montgomery Wood. The soundtrack is also an exemplar addition to Morricone's long list of musical excellence. The main theme was a top hit in Europe and whether you're listening to the song, or the instrumental, 'Angel Face' will most likely get stuck in your head long after the film has finished.
3. RETURN OF RINGO (1965)
Presumed to have been killed in combat, Captain Montgomery "Ringo" Brown returns home from the Civil War to find his home overtaken by a Mexican bandit gang and that his wife is now engaged to the gangs leader, Paco Fuentes. Plotting revenge, Brown alters his appearance, taking on the role of a peasant to gain information as to what has happened with his estate and his family.
This is yet another hugely successful Gemma western. Fans tend to put this one above the previous RINGO film. Outside of a few returning cast members (George Martin, Fernando Sancho, Nieves Navarro) and behind the camera crew, there's no connection. The tone is far more serious this time out and Gemma's "Ringo" isn't a milk drinking gunman with an endless array of quips. Both films have much to offer fans of the genre, as well as being essential viewing. Morricone delivers another top class, often soaring score (portions of which can be heard in numerous kung fu movies).
Tessari helmed four more westerns after this (ALIVE, OR PREFERABLY DEAD , LONG LIVE YOUR DEATH , ZORRO  and TEX & THE LORD OF THE DEEP ), and none of them attained the classic status of his two superb RINGO movies; although they're still very good films in their own right.
4. SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS (1966)
The seven sons of the MacGregor clan head out to sell their stock of two hundred horses in Las Mesas. Not long after they arrive, their steeds are stolen from them after they get mixed up with a corrupt sheriff and a sadistic bandit gang led by the ruthless Santillana.
Franco Giraldi helmed this early example of the comedy spaghetti western that wouldn't become chic till 1970. This big budget and profitable funny business goes for lighthearted shenanigans punctuated by an hilarious opening sequence accompanied by a boisterously playful score from the prolific Ennio Morricone. Giraldi does manage to include one incredibly brutal bit of torture and death spearheaded by genre vet, Fernando Sancho. The scene features a victim repeatedly dragged through a fire by horses (this moment is featured prominently on the Italian poster). This scene, too, is played for laughs, albeit straight from the gallows.
The Scottish oldsters seen predominantly during the opening and closing sequences are a riot and a movie built around their characters would have been novel. American, Robert Woods, made a career in mostly 'B' Euro westerns. Leo Anchoriz, a familiar face in peplums and other adventure movies, plays Santillana.
The action scenes are unusually spirited and well choreographed when compared with dozens of other Italian westerns of this time period and beyond. A handful of "professional guns" were behind the camera assisting Giraldi such as Duccio Tessari and Fernando Di Leo contributing to the script. The lively, frequently boisterous score is yet another rousing composition from Ennio Morricone.
5. DJANGO (1966)
Former soldier, Django, travels around a western wasteland dragging a coffin behind him. He enters a mud-caked, lawless and dilapidated town ruled by two bloodthirsty factions -- Major Jackson and his red hooded gunmen and General Rodriguez, the leader of a gang of banditos. Carrying with him a hidden agenda, Django pits both factions against each other to mete out his brand of retribution.
Sergio Corbucci took the modified sagebrush template Leone had originated and altered it even further by pushing the boundaries of good taste. It's virtually the same movie, but with stronger violence, more vacuous, evil characters and peppered with religious iconography. Franco Nero exploded onto the Eurowestern scene with this picture and Sergio Corbucci was quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. He had already shown a penchant for being a capable action director with the likes of ROMULUS AND REMUS (1961), GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES (1961) and SON OF SPARTACUS (1962).
This was Corbucci's fourth western, and arguably, his most famous internationally. His previous three -- MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (with James Mitchum; 1964), MINNESOTA CLAY (with Cameron Mitchell; 1964) and JOHNNY ORO (with Mark Damon; 1966) -- bore traits of the direction Corbucci would take from DJANGO onward. Things would get even more hate-filled, darker and violent from here.
Among the most influential Euroaters, DJANGO amassed some 30 to 50 imitations and semi-sequels featuring the title character. Played by a variety of actors, Franco Nero is the one most identified with the persona and returned for the only official sequel in 1987. Ferdinando Baldi helmed a prequel in 1968 entitled DJANGO, GET A COFFIN READY. This enjoyably comic bookish production had Mario Girotti, alias Terence Hill as Django.
6. JOHNNY ORO (1966)
"It's okay, Juanito, you can go. I don't want you...not until you've got a price on your head..."
After killing three of the Perez Brothers, the arrogant bounty killer, Johnny Ringo allows the fourth Perez sibling to escape because there wasn't a price on his head! Vowing revenge, the last Perez corrals a gang of bandits and outlaw Apache's to storm the town where Ringo is being kept in jail.
Shot before, but released after DJANGO (1966), this average, if entertaining Sergio Corbucci programmer really gets going the closer it gets to the end. The climax provides the sort of explosive popcorn thrills the Italo oaters seldom delivered. Where the US versions were often more preoccupied with exposition, the Euro variants perpetuated exploitation. Before the firepower-fueled finale, we're treated to the execution of women, children and priests. After that, we get an axe flung into a poor saps head, dead bodies used as human shields and a number of sets blown to smithereens. If he was remembered for nothing else, Corbucci arguably surpassed Leone in the action department; Leone being far more concerned with long scenes of men staring at each other while Morricone's music swells on the soundtrack.
Mark (JOHNNY YUMA) Damon ably impersonates the look of Richard Boone's Palladin of the HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL television series. He plays a bounty hunter named Ringo -- bizarre loner character who loves only gold. The alternate title is RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL; the title weapon of which Damon's character uses throughout. It's not so much a classic of the genre than it is unbalanced, occasionally humorous and extremely violent in places. Carlo Savina's score is average for what amounts to an average, if intermittently energetic little movie that foreshadows the greatness to come for the most brutal of the 'Three Sergio's'.
7. NAVAJO JOE (1966)
After a murdering band of outlaws massacres his village, Navajo Joe tracks them to a nearby town where they plan to rob a train and kill as many people as possible. Led by the sadistic Mexican half-breed Duncan, Joe has a personal vendetta to settle with the maniacal bandit leader.
Burt Reynolds' first, and only foray into the Wild,Wild European West may be a bit rough around the edges, but it's one of the most astonishingly violent of the form. It's a simple revenge tale punctuated by a breathtakingly somber, banshee shrieking score by Ennio Morricone. The action scenes are plentiful and exploitative in their savagery. This is yet another gruesome oater from maestro Corbucci, one of three famous 'Sergio's'; the others being (obviously) Sergio Leone and Sergio Sollima.
Burt Reynolds does his own stunts, but apparently wasn't happy doing the picture because there was no romance and that he thought it was Leone he was going to be working with. His portrayal of the title Navajo is eclipsed by a scenery-chewing Aldo Sambrell as the villain Duncan. This big budget Dino De Laurentiis production is light on exposition, but heavy on the savagery -- a Corbucci staple.
8. THE HILLS RUN RED (1966)
Shortly after the Civil War, two Confederate soldiers, Jerry Brewster and Ken Seagal, attempt to steal a wagon load of Union gold. Pursued, they decide that one shall be captured while the other makes off with the loot and meet back up at a later date. Five years later, Jerry Brewster is released from prison and finds to his dismay that his former partner was instrumental in his wife's death, and has used the wealth to formulate a powerful gang.
This is one of two westerns from Carlo Lizzani; the other being the bizarro western KILL AND PRAY (1967) aka REQUIESCANT. Of the two, THE HILLS RUN RED is the most Americanized. The picture benefits from some choice performances and some solid gunfight choreography. Most Italian westerns had standard, or uniformly lousy choreography (particularly in the fist fights), but here, the action scenes are vastly creative compared to so many others. This being a Dino De Laurentiis production, there was most likely a bit more money thrown around than normally afforded these movies.
Thomas Hunter rightly overacts in some of his scenes considering the hell his character is put through. Still, it's Henry Silva as the psychotic gunman Mendez who steals the movie every time he's onscreen. If you've seen Silva in THE TALL T (1957), than you have some idea of what sort of character he's essaying, only ten times more unhinged. Many fans criticize Hunter's performance, but I had no problem with it. He cuts loose at times delivering outbursts like a stage actor. His openly vocal tragic role is different from the style that Leone had crafted in 1964.
9. ARIZONA COLT (1966)
"...Arizona Colt...fine state...fine pistol!"
The callous Sidewinder Gang attack a prison killing the guards and releasing all the criminals to accrue more gang members. One of the prisoners, a sly and vain gunfighter named Arizona Colt, decides not to join and ends up protecting a town against the ever growing gang led by the portly Gordo Watch.
Michele Lupo's best western and one of three that headlined the majestic Giuliano Gemma. It's worth mentioning this quasi-part three to Tessari's RINGO films is closer in tone to A PISTOL FOR RINGO than RETURN OF RINGO (Arizona even orders a glass of milk till the saloon informs him he'll have to settle for a beer). The gallows humor of the former is in abundance as opposed to the seriousness of the latter. The Ringo connotations continue with the re-teaming with Fernando Sancho (in another villainous Mexican bandit role) and Arizona Colt's catchphrase, "I'll have to think about that" seemingly influenced by Ringo's frequent utterance of "it's a matter of principle".
ARIZONA COLT is rather long at nearly two hours, but Gemma is always a pleasure to watch onscreen whether in action, or wooing the ladies. His unforgettably white teeth guarantee all eyes are on him whenever he cracks a smile and his gun is sheathed. The score by Francesco De Masi is spirited and lively. Like the main theme song, the film was released here as THE MAN FROM NOWHERE.
10. THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966)
Jonathan Corbett, an honorable and respected lawman, is hired by a rich businessman to track a Mexican peasant named Cuchillo Sanchez, who's blamed for the rape and murder of a little girl. Eventually catching up with him, Corbett discovers the real truth behind the crime which leads to a final showdown.
Sergio Sollima only directed three westerns, and while all three are superlative examples of the form, it's ironic that the least of the three is the only one widely available in America; that one being the sequel to THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966), entitled RUN, MAN, RUN (1968). For Sollima's first, the pairing of Van Cleef and one of Europe's most beloved (if difficult to work with) and brilliant actors, the Cuban born Tomas Milian, is a highlight of the genre. Milian also headlined Sollima's two other pictures, the provocative FACE TO FACE (1967) and the aforementioned sequel to THE BIG GUNDOWN.
It's yet another of the political westerns that depicts the classic template of the poor as noble and the rich as evil, although it isn't nearly as heavy-handed here as it is in other movies of the western genre. The US release had some ten minutes severed from its running time wrecking serious havoc with the narrative in places. In its unabridged version, Sollima directs assuredly with some enjoyable interplay between Corbett and Cuchillo. Both actors work well off each other, and it's a shame there weren't more collaborations with these two powerhouse performers. It's also a shame Sollima didn't work more in the genre, either. He was an incredible talent who, like Corbucci, remains an obscurity outside of Europe save for fan circles.
11. A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966)
While attacking a train carrying weapons and ammunition, a bandit gang led by El Chuncho find a mysterious American named Tate aboard. With the intent of killing him, too, Tate proves his loyalty to the bandits and their cause to aid General Elias in the Revolution against the Federales.
GENERAL (or QUIEN SABE?) is arguably the most famous, or well known of the slew of political westerns that were popular with Italian directors at the time. While they may feature lots of violence and escapism, at the heart there's a deep rooted leftist agenda; and rarely were politics more apparent than in the works of Damiano Damiani. GENERAL is a wonderful movie, but it truly rams its message of social class warfare down ones throat.
Damiani's film is brilliantly directed and it's made all the more enjoyable with Luis Bacalov's magnificent score accompanying the onscreen action. The performances are top notch, although Lou Castel is robotic throughout. Strangely, mechanical works for his character. Gian Maria Volonte -- who'd resigned himself to only appearing in "important" movies after the "trash" of Leone's first two DOLLARS movies he co-starred in -- is exemplary as the savage, if quasi lovable, uneducated bandito, Chuncho. Whether you agree with its politics or not, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is a superb film and a great entry point to the greatness and versatility found within the Italian western variants.
12. THE HELLBENDERS (1967)
"You're all rotten! You stink of death like this dress!"
Unable to accept the Confederate loss during the Civil War, Colonel Jonas and his sons massacre a Union consignment of gold. Hiding it inside a coffin, the group intend to rebuild the Confederacy, and jump-start the war all over again.
Sergio Corbucci strikes again. This time he abandons the almost non-stop action of his other pictures to focus on a suspense western. Yet again, Corbucci proves his versatility within the western genre. Meanwhile, Leone continued to shoot the same movie over and over again, but bigger each time. Nothing wrong with that, but Corbucci was definitely more willing to experiment and subvert genre conventions; which he'd do again the following year with THE GREAT SILENCE -- one of the greatest westerns, and one that is easily among the most depressing cinematic experiences of any genre. THE HELLBENDERS is something of a primer for that one.
None of the characters in this movie are likable, but they don't need to be. The film is about greed and the results that stem from it. The coffin carried around in the coach seen in the film -- like DJANGO -- is the representation of death; and this film has quite a bit of it. Another highly recommended film with a great cast. At times the film feels like a semi-remake of the equally entertaining western, THE TRAMPLERS (1965); which also starred HELLBENDERS actor, the great Joseph Cotten in essentially the same role. However, that film had a slant towards action instead of suspense and featured an amazing cast in addition to Cotten like Gordon Scott, James Mitchum and a pre-DJANGO Franco Nero. THE HELLBENDERS is typically cruel Corbucci, but very different when compared to his action packed sagas of violence and blood.
13. DAY OF ANGER (1967)
Scott Mary is the young subject of ridicule within the small town of Clifton, Arizona. Treated inhumanely by the townsfolk because of his prostitute mother, Scott Mary has but one true friend in town -- a former lawman who has taught him to use a gun. Things change even more for the young outcast once Frank Talby rides into town. Talby takes the young man under his wing and teaches him to be a more wise, if powerful gunfighter. Eventually, Talby proves to be not at all what he seems to be and the stage is set for a showdown between the student and the teacher.
Two of the genres biggest stars join forces for an incredible action drama from director Tonino Valerii. Lee Van Cleef found his greatest success in Italy, and having co-starred with Clint Eastwood in Leone's movies, Van Cleef was now co-starring with Giuliano Gemma. Gemma was an Italian actor who was just as huge in Europe as Clint was in America. A few of his westerns are among the biggest box office successes of the time and the actor retains a following to this day. In recent years, the actor has enjoyed success as an accomplished sculptor.
If you're looking for non-stop shootouts, you won't find them here. Valerii's movie is far more interested in building characters and an emotional punch that makes the action scenes all the more potent. Apparently the film was popular in Asia. A fair number of martial arts movies borrowed Riz Ortolani's main title theme. Gemma was truly gifted in obtaining the roles he did, and worked with the genres finest performers and technicians behind the camera. DAY OF ANGER is a major Euro-western classic that deserves a wider audience outside the spaghetti spectrum.
14. DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967)
"Bill...I was thinkin'...I'd liked to of had a son like you. Cause one day I'm gonna wind up with a bullet in the back..."
Bill witnessed his entire family slaughtered in front of him as a small boy by four armed men. Having grown up, he tracks them down using only his memories from that fateful night. Bill meets up with Ryan, a man recently released from prison who is also after the same group of men for different reasons. Ryan, the aging gunman, forms an uneasy partnership with the younger, brash gunfighter.
Giulio Petroni's most well known western outside of Italy is a superbly dark, vicious oater. Both this, and the entry below were arguably the two most sadistic westerns of 1967. Petroni, apparently using Leone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) as a blueprint, contains a few similarities to that Eastwood classic; the most glaring being the young and old gunfighters joining forces for their own secret agendas. There are other familiar elements such as red-tinted flashbacks and certain plot points.
The years between 1966-1968 contained the bulk of the genres best and saw the films at their most consistently creative in terms of stylistic violence. The opening of DEATH contains quite possibly the most savage beginning in Euro-western history. Lee Van Cleef delivers arguably his best performance; John Phillip Law exudes the required angelic features for his gunslinging avenger; and Luigi Pistilli does very well in a rare lead villain role. Morricone's score is suitably bleak, matching perfectly with the wind swept, sun-scorched terrain of this quasi apocalyptic western.
Petroni was also among the few directors whose other output in the genre was different from one film to the next. He directed both Gemma and Mario Adorf in ...AND FOR A ROOF, A SKY FULL OF STARS (1968) and a trifecta of Tomas Milian features -- the Zapata western TEPEPA (1968), the rare suspense western NIGHT OF THE SERPENT (1969), and the Chaplinesque Looney Tunes excess of LIFE IS TOUGH, EH PROVIDENCE? (1972).
15. GOD FORGIVES... I DON'T! (1967)
"There's no future for you, dead man."
After a train shows up with its passengers dead and $100,000 in gold stolen, a bounty hunter named Hutch has a hunch that it's the handiwork of vicious outlaw, Bill San Antonio. Curiously, Bill is supposed to be dead, killed in a gunfight by another bounty hunter, Cat Stevens. The two guns for hire form an unlikely partnership to locate the gold and to kill Bill once and for all.
Giuseppe Colizzi's first western of a trilogy is memorable for multiple reasons. The most notable being that this was an early pairing of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Both men would find enormous popularity in 1970 with the Euro western comedy spectacular, THEY CALL ME TRINITY. None of that films comedy is in evidence, but traces of Hill and Spencer's double act are found here. The film was later re-released in America to cash in on the TRINITY craze. While not as action packed as some would like it, Colizzi's movie was incredibly successful at the European box office becoming the #1 picture for 1967.
The connotations of the films title delivers on its gritty promise. Colizzi's movie is one of the most brutal Italian westerns of the entire canon to emerge from Europe. The tone is nicely sadistic throughout and the locations showcase as close to an old west apocalypse as you're likely to get. The score from the underrated Carlos Rustichelli seems better suited for a Sword & Sandal movie, but some of the cues suit the gloomy surroundings.
As impressive as Colizzi's premiere effort is, the stamp of Leone via THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is present; particularly during the finale. Low on action, high on sadism and long on style, it was followed by two increasingly inferior sequels, ACE HIGH (1968) and BOOT HILL (1969). Frank Wolff steals the show as the head bad guy. Wolff was a popular face in these movies, alternating between protagonists and antagonistic bastards. Some of his notable roles are in LAST OF THE BADMEN (1967), THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) and the US-Spanish big budgeter VILLA RIDES (1968).
To Be Continued with EURO-WESTERNS #'s 16-30.
Poster images from:
Wrong Side of the Art