10 Western Movie Classics You Probably Haven’t Seen

6. The Big Gundown (1966)

The Big Gundown

Sergio Leone is the most famous Sergio, then it is Sergio Corbucci. But in the world of cinema, how many know of the third, Sergio Sollima? (The fourth, Sergio Donati, wrote the screenplay of The Big Gundown too). Sollima is a fine filmmaker of Spaghetti Westerns, infused with the same political streak as Corbucci. The Big Gundown is his masterpiece, and arguably the greatest of the Spaghetti Westerns not widely available.

It helps that Ennio Morricone delivers one of the best scores of his career, led by the wonderful vocals of an unknown female singer – “run man run!” Used for a legendary hunting scene at the climax, it is a phenomenal piece of music.

The Big Gundown sees Lee Van Cleef play Colorado Corbett, a bounty hunter (it is Lee Van Cleef, you can guess his profession instantly) with one last job to do before retiring for a life in politics. His target is Culchillo, one of Tomas Milian’s best creations. Inevitably, Corbett realises that Culchillo may be being scapegoated by the white elite, and soon the story becomes a fight for innocence. Between Culchillo’s knife wielding scenes, the electric score and the hunting scene-standoff finale, this is a true classic waiting in the wings for Leone and Corbucci to move offstage.


7. Companeros (1970)

Sergio Corbucci. Franco Nero. Tomas Milian. Jack Palance. Ennio Morricone – is this the Avengers of Spaghetti Western cinema? It certainly feels like it, as Companeros is a 1970 film that hurls itself along with blistering speed and a great sense of fun. There are sustained tracking shots, electrifying action beats and wonderful exchanges between the characters.

It is another tale of the Mexican Revolution, with Milian’s El Vasco taking up arms and Nero’s ‘Penguin’ Peterson as the mercenary who fights for money, not politics.


8. Valdez is Coming (1971)

Elmore Leonard is a fascinated writer. He emerged as a scribe of such Western stories as 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre and Joe Kidd, then ended up having his crime stories like Jackie Brown and Get Shorty adapted with spades of postmodern gusto. Valdez is Coming is one of his Westerns, and features a powerful Burt Lancaster as the vengeful title character.

Visually, narratively and even eponymously, Valdez is Coming is an American Spaghett Western, forged out in the beating deserts of Spain with a bloodthirsty appetite for revenge. When asked what he hunted, Valdez simply replies, “Apache.” It starts bleakly, with Valdez, an old man, being tricked into killing an African American. After a painful crucifixion, Valdez whips out the hunting rifle and returns to write the wrong.

The poster shows a looming silhouette, more statue than man. The film’s title may have cult film fans salivating for blood, but the story is still an American one, not an Italian one. That it holds back from the violence of Sergio Corbucci is genuinely refreshing.


9. The Grand Duel (1972)

When Ennio Morricone was busy, Luis Bacalov was a worthy substitute. His theme for The Grand Duel begins with wind then incorporates a soulful, aching harmonica riff that is gradually supported into a musical swell that is euphoric. Quentin Tarantino loves it – Kill Bill uses it. Music is so crucial to Italian cinema that story and character often feel like afterthoughts. Lee Van Cleef is back, this time as a Sheriff called Clayton.

The title sequence, set among the swinging, creaking gates of a cow ranch, is a lot more well-dressed than expected of a dirty, ugly Spaghetti Western. In fact, the ‘grand duel’ is deeply subversive. It is Van Cleef against a trio of smug businessmen, who chat away over the music despite the tight close-ups that usually demand silence and expression over words. How the shootout starts is also a surprise.

There is an element of mystery to the narrative, with a killed father lending the story some energy. Overshadowing it all is the film’s signature image, a black and white shot of a hat-wearing mysterious figure, surrounded by smoke. It does not shock, but it does reward.


10. Breakheart Pass (1975)

The poster for Breakheart Pass is an all-timer: Charles Bronson, hanging from the end of a railway trick whilst an attacker’s boot hovers over his sweaty hands. It looks like a shot straight from a Tom Cruise film. Frustratingly, the scene of the poster is never actually in Breakheart Pass, although Bronson does have a quiet scuffle atop the moving vessel.

Written by Alistair MacLean, a true titan of ‘dad’ books (Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra), this 1975 Western takes an Agatha Christie premise and runs with it, as Bronson’s John Deakin, a prisoner aboard the train, ends up assisting his captors in determining who is bumping off the passengers. The cast is a familiar batch of character actors, led by Ben Johnson as U.S. Marshal Pearce.

Narratively engaging, the film scrapes close to brilliance but is let down by some shonky editing and a rather bland depiction of Native American Indians that reminds us of how The Outlaw Josey Wales changed things the following year.