Two Rare Spaghetti Westerns Exemplify Gritty Italian Filmmaking of the '60s

The Italian filmmakers who created the spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s didn't invent stubble or sweat or dirt, but they definitely made them what they are onscreen today. Theirs was an Old West of unwashed bodies, grotty little towns, and vile betrayal, light years away from the upright Hollywood studio Westerns they aped and made creatively obsolete. (If George Lucas gets credit for making the future dirty with Star Wars, Sergio Leone and the rest deserve credit for besmirching the past.) At the same time, when most Americans think of the s'ketties, they probably think of their extreme stylization: the sere landscapes (usually rural Spain), the eccentric grunt-and-twang-laden scores of Ennio Morricone, the exaggerated/minimal performances, the sometimes bizarre stories, and, of course, the blatant dubbing—standard practice in Italian films of the period but a jarring novelty over here.

The stylistic legacy of director Sergio Leone and his less-celebrated muchachos extends into the present day, not least in Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming pasta-faux-zool Django Unchained. But there are still plenty of treasures left unexplored by most quick-draw cinephiles, and niche imprint Blue Underground recently rolled out Blu-ray editions of two undersung spaghetti classics to while away dirty, sweaty summer afternoons, hopefully with some AC.

Cognoscenti often rank writer/director Guilio Questi's 1967 Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (also available on Blue Underground DVD) as the most bizarre spaghetti ever made. You can see why they might say that. The title character (no other evident relation to the tentpole s'ketty character/legend first played by Franco Nero) is introduced climbing out of a grave. Django ('60s hunky Tomas Milian) has been the victim of a classic double-cross and left for dead. From there, the plot evolves into yet another gloss on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (see also: Yojimbo), as Django plays rival gangs against each other—in this case, corrupt townspeople and a local rancher/crimelord whose henchmen dress in identical black cowboy/cabana boy outfits. But the plot is largely a delivery system for various baroque, proto-psychedelic set pieces and stylistic gambits.

As a cohesive film, Django Kill is a bit of a snooze. As an early example of the kind of liberties the '60s, and the s'ketties, would bring to filmmaking, for good and for ill, it's a pip. Wacky editing, excessive gore, self-consciously distracting shots, death by molten gold, the whole nine. Milian is a diffident hero at best; a most enjoyable villain in double-crosser Oaks (Piero Lulli) makes a relatively early exit, sadly. But Questi crafts at least one indelible sequence: During an operation to dig rounds out of a shot-up gunfighter, the doctor discovers that Django shoots bullets made of solid gold, which sends everyone gathered around digging into the man's gaping wounds with their fingers, hunting for small hunks of precious metal, oblivious to his screams and last gasps. Let's see John Ford do that.

Django Kill's idiosyncratic pleasures aside, A Bullet for the General (ditto on the DVD edition) is altogether more interesting and enjoyable. Director Damiano Damiani's 1966 film centers on Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonte), a Mexican bandit who steals guns and ammo from the Mexican Army and profits by selling them to the leader of the revolution. Note that Chuncho isn't a freedom fighter himself, although he's clearly sympathetic to the revolutionary struggle against the oppression of the U.S.-backed government (1966, much?). And yet, after the fairly thrilling and brutal train heist that gets the film going in earnest, Chuncho doesn't gun down an icy young blond gringo in a suit (Lou Castel) who he finds on the train. Dubbing him "Niño," because of his youth, Chuncho takes him into the gang (including a holy warrior played by Klaus Kinski). Eventually Chuncho even kills one of his own men—one of his own people, not to put too fine a point on it—to protect this pallid stranger to whom he owes nothing.

The May/June issue of Film Comment magazine offered an illuminating essay by film critic J. Hoberman regarding his love of spaghetti Westerns. As part of his general paean, Hoberman zeroed in on the sociopolitical/ethnic aspects of the genre. Despite drafting genuine gringo actors such as Clint Eastwood and a penchant for blue-eyed heroes in general, whatever their national provenance, the spaghettis came to serve as a playground for the kind of revolutionary post-colonial rhetoric swirling around Europe at the time. As the genre matured, almost all of the stories were set in Mexico, where the government—local, Mexican, and certainly American—was presumed corrupt, and the brown-skinned local peasants were the only people worth relying on, or protecting. Still, things are not always so simple.

As A Bullet for the General unfolds through thrilling action sequence after thrilling action sequence (at least by 1966 standards), Chuncho finds himself wanting to protect Niño, wanting to kill him, and then... wanting to join him, co-opted by the promise of a good life north of the border. What happens from there makes for one of the best and most unabashedly triumphant endings in the s'ketties' dusty history. m