Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is undeniably a walking, talking human encyclopedia of film. The video store clerk turned award-winning director exhibits this not only in his interviews and top-movie lists, but in his movies themselves. He steals from the best, and pays homage through the cinematography, music, scripts and actors he selects. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he’s flattering a lot of people.
The “genre film” is his bread and butter, and Westerns – or maybe more specifically Spaghetti Westerns (a term American critics used to describe the Western films coming out of Italy in the 1960s – apparently coined by the Spanish journalist Alfonso Sánchez) – are at the root of every Tarantino film – from the grimy characters and violence of Reservoir Dogs, to the cutting of Pulp Fiction, to the title of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
His use of Ennio Morricone’s music in Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained; the Django name (and Franco Nero) in Django Unchained; the snow-covered mise en scene of The Hateful Eight; and the revenge tropes that run rampant in the Tarantino universe, are all nods to some of Tarantino’s favorite Western movies.
In appreciation of his expertise, here are ten of the best Western films recommended by Quentin Tarantino.
1. The Grand Duel
Directed by Giancarlo Santi (Leone’s Assistant Director for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time in The West) The Grand Duel (aka Storm Rider and The Big Showdown) tells the story of an ex-sheriff turned guardian angel of sorts. Clayton (played by the venerable Lee Van Cleef) is out to prevent the murder and capture of Philip Wermeer. Wermeer recently escaped prison, where he’s been wrongfully sentenced to death for the murder of the Saxon family patriarch. Clayton knows who really killed him, and will go to any lengths to protect the innocent Wermeer – no matter how much trouble it brings.
The movie’s comedic elements – some of the voice dubbing, chase scenes, and secondary characters – lend a lighter tone to the film than those of Leone, but overall the shots, story, cast and music can’t help but bring to mind Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. But unique plot twists and some idiosyncratic characters allow the film to stand on its own.
The music was composed by an uncredited Luis Enríquez Bacalov – he also composed the soundtracks for Django, A Bullet for the General, and countless other films. Quentin Tarantino used Bacalov’s score in Kill Bill Vol.1 during the animation sequence in which O-Ren Ishii recalls murdering the Yakuza boss who murdered her family.
Sergio Corbucci’s cult classic spaghetti western, Django, has over thirty unofficial sequels and has been referenced everywhere from the anime film, Fist of the North Star, to the Playstation 2 video game, Red Dead Redemption, to the Rancid song, “Django,” and the Danzig video for “Crawl Across Your Killing Floor.”
The film features an ex-Union soldier named Django (Franco Nero’s first major role) who is out to avenge the murder of his lover by the ex-confederate Major Jackson. He drags a mysterious coffin behind him (which we learn is housing a Gatling gun) and strikes fear into the eyes of everyone he meets – with the exception of Maria, who he’s rescued from the clutches of some confederate soldiers, and he protects from would-be predators.
Django is a lone gunman who sips whiskey, draws his gun quickly, excels at bar fighting, and refuses to side with the confederates or Mexican revolutionaries they are at war with. He hangs out in the “neutral zone” at a bar where he plots the assassination of Major Jackson, fights off red-masked Klansmen, and tricks revolutionaries out of gold.
Tarantino has borrowed heavily from the Corbucci classic, and it’s no secret that he loves this movie. Django Unchained borrowed the Django name, used Bacalov’s score from the original 1966 film for the opening, used identical typeface for the title sequence, and even featured a cameo from original Django actor Franco Nero. Nero’s character comes face to face with Jamie Foxx’ Django and discusses the spelling of the name Django. In Reservoir Dogs Mr. Blonde (aka Vic Vega), tortures a man and cuts his ear off – clearly inspired by Hugo slicing the ear from Brother Jonathan and making him eat it.
3. Death Rides A Horse
A tale of revenge, Death Rides A Horse pits Bill (John Phillip Law) in a race against Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) to kill the men Bill watched slaughter his own family when he was a child. But Ryan just spent fifteen years in jail on account of the same men and is looking for some justice himself. Bill recognizes a skull necklace Ryan wears around his neck from the day of the murders and is forced to make some difficult decisions.
The script was written by Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, Duck You Sucker) and the film was directed by Giulio Petroni (Tepepa, A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof).
Tarantino has cited Death Rides A Horse as one of his favorite Westerns, and borrows from it for Kill Bill. He uses pieces of Ennio Morricone’s score, recycles the film’s famous line, “revenge is a dish served cold,” uses the same revenge plotline for O-Ren Ishii’s flashback animation sequence (the skull necklace becoming a skull ring), and when The Bride is ready to take revenge on any of The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, there’s a close up of her eyes and an orange flashback – the same as Bill’s in Death Rides A Horse.
4. Machine Gun Killers
Also appropriately known as Gatling Gun, Machine Gun Killers is a fictional story of Richard Gatling and his famous invention – the Gatling Gun. Set to the backdrop of the civil war, Gatling invented this new machine gun and very few people knew whether or not he had created a prototype – though Abraham Lincoln was in the know.
Gatling is kidnapped by Tarpas (John Ireland) who in turn attempts to get a million dollars out of the North for the return of Gatling, and a million dollars out of the South for Gatling’s weapon. Chris Tanner (Robert Woods) goes undercover in an attempt to recover Gatling and his weapon for the Union. But Tanner has been accused of multiple murders and has some serious hurdles to jump through to keep the gun out of confederate hands.
Directed by Paolo Bianchini, the film features a jazz-inflected psych western soundtrack by composer Piero Piccioni (his scores have been reused in The Big Lebowski, and sampled by DJ Khaled, and Soulja Boy).
Tarantino has cited Machine Gun Killers as one of his top 20 spaghetti western films of all time for The Spaghetti Western Database (SWDB).
5. One-Eyed Jacks
Marlon Brando directed one film in his career, and one film only – One-Eyed Jacks. He also starred as the protagonist, Rio, a bank robber who’s been double-crossed by his partner Dad Longworth. Rio spends five years in jail before breaking out, and is hell-bent on revenge.
The film was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, but after running into some issues with the studio he decided to drop out of the project. Several writers had a crack at the film including Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), Sam Peckinpah, Calder Willingham (The Graduate) and Guy Trosper.
In a May 1993 interview with Graham Fuller, Tarantino named One-Eyed Jacks as one of his top three favorite Westerns. It’s also revered by the likes of David Lynch – the brothel/casino in Twin Peaks is called One-Eyed Jacks – and Martin Scorsese.