With directors like Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, (as well as properties like “Logan,” “The Mandalorian,” “Red Dead Redemption” and “Westworld”) being so popular with the kids nowadays, you’d expect the genres said popular properties found much inspiration in to be even more favored. Unfortunately, that isn’t true for spaghetti westerns. Maybe for the Leone films, but not so much for the other masterpieces of this mythical genre. They seem to go unwatched and unappreciated, the second and third Sergios dwarfed by the first; the wild west fallen to a fate similar to the Land of Oz. More folks are interested in the world than the actual works themselves.
Maybe this genre’s been done to death, but if you’re feeling a lull for splendid violence, exhilarating action, craggly faces, and swirls of dust, grab a bowl of spaghetti and put on your cowboy hat to watch these spaghetti westerns! Yee-ha! Postmodern westerns- take a backseat. Italians do it better.
10. Navajo Joe (1966)
Navajo Joe is nowhere near Sergio Corbucci’s masterpiece, but it’s still worth checking out because of Corbucci’s knack for making action awesome. It’s still an alright entry Corbucci’s track record and a big influence on Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Navajo Joe is a brutal revenge tale that follows Navajo Joe (played by a painted, allegedly part Cherokee, wig wearing Burt Reynolds) as he embarks on a one man war against the sadistic outlaw gang that scalped and destroyed his tribe. “Navajo Joe” was one of the most violent westerns of its time, and the kills by throwing axe in the film are masterfully shot by Corbucci and his crew. Ennio Morricone’s score also (as usual) does not disappoint, and is among his best.
One can’t help but wish Corbucci casted an actual Navajo actor that needed work at the time, because Burt Reynolds sure didn’t appreciate working on this movie. He only wanted to be involved because he thought Sergio Leone was directing, attempting to back out when he found out it was “the wrong Sergio,” but it was too late. (how dare Burt Reynolds disrespect a spaghetti western master?) Corbucci and Reynolds reportedly did not get along on set at all. Legend says Corbucci drove Burt Reynolds into the heart of Spain’s Almerian Desert and left him there to walk all the way back into town. Silly Sergio! Reynolds was angry with the film crew, but Corbucci found these events funny.
Reynolds later described “Navajo Joe” as one of the worst professional experiences he ever had, and said the movie was “so awful, so awful, it was shown only in prisons and airplanes because nobody could leave. I killed 10,000 guys, wore a Japanese slingshot and a fright wig.” Huh. He’s not actually that wrong.
9. The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe (1973)
In a time where hate crimes against Asians are on the rise, “The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe” serves as the perfect revenge fantasy outlet. This spaghetti western kung fu combo follows Joe (Chen Lee), a well mannered man who finds himself in an old west crawling with racists. When a group of human traffickers send a four man assassin team to kill him, Chen Lee turns out to be a martial arts master and puts his fists to good use.
Chen Lee is great as the movie’s lead. He was probably hired to ride off the success of Bruce Lee, but he still manages to stand strong and hold his own, an underrated Asian star that should have been cast in more main roles. Gordon Mitchell and Klaus Kinski’s small roles as racist hitmen are great . The way Kinski relishes in his character’s scalpy sadism is pure popcorn fun. With rickety, non-stop action, this asiansploitation western might be a little rough around the edges, but still has it where it counts.
8. Night of the Serpent (1969)
Spaghetti western veteran Giulio Petroni wows everyone with his often overlooked 1969 gem. “Night of the Serpent” is a well written character driven story with touching themes of tragedy and redemption. A small town sheriff decides to join a group of townsfolk to kill Manuel, an orphan, to steal his 10,000 dollar inheritance. An alcoholic (Luke Askew) with a tragic past takes this chance at redemption and decides to defend Manuel. Traditional spaghetti tropes ensue, but a few twists, a moving performance by Luke Askew, and a great score by Riz Ortalani spice up “Night of the serpent” into an above average entry in the genre.
7. Keoma (1976)
Directed by exploitation maestro Enzo G. Castellari and starring the iconic Franco Nero of Django fame, “Keoma” is a surrealistic tale of ferocious violence and revenge. At some points, it teeters on the edge of spaghetti and dips its toes into the pools of the acid western.
Keoma (Franco Nero) returns from the Civil War to find it controlled by ex-confederate raiders allied with his own half-brothers. Keoma joins forces with a ranch-hand friend of the past to get revenge.
Based on the plot alone this might sound like every other spaghetti western, but make no mistake, it isn’t. “Keoma” is a must see, and Castellari’s action masterpiece. The visuals are striking and beautiful, the action is even more beautiful, the soundtrack creates a trippy, unnerving atmosphere, brutal violence is paired with perfect slow-mo sequences! And best of all, a hairy Franco Nero is at his zenith of savagery!
6. Massacre Time (1966)
“Massacre Time,” starring (once again!) Franco Nero and the too often unsung George Hilton, is a western treat from Italian horror master Lucio Fulci. It’s about Tom Corbett (Franco Nero), a prospector who comes home to find his brother as the town’s drunken idiot and his property taken over. Nero isn’t at his best, but still does a solid job after starring in the 1966 hit “Django.” The beautifully shot “Massacre Time” is an important watch because it launched both Hilton and Fulci into relevance and stardom, while solidifying Nero’s place as a star. Hilton definitely steals the show in this one.