A mustachioed Union officer heaves his swollen, gangrenous leg onto a cot. He is bloodless, wheezy, life leaving him breath by breath. Despite his rank, he is too fragile for war. He has no name, just “Commandant.” Over him looms Union Sergeant Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef), looking aggressively healthy in comparison. Between wheezes, the Commandant berates Angel Eyes for torturing Confederate prisoners in their POW camp. As long as he is Commandant, he says, prisoners will not be tortured or robbed.
“As long as you’re Commandant,” Angel Eyes sneers. He could destroy this man, but why bother? As a hired gun, Angel Eyes destroyed many lives with a bullet. As a sergeant, he wields a bigger weapon: the law. The foolish Commandant’s integrity is no match for the juggernaut of the U.S. Government. His rank is meaningless; he is too weak to make good on threats.
Marshalling strength, the Commandant proclaims his desire to court-martial all those who disrespect the Union uniform.
Angel Eyes salutes wryly in response. “I wish you luck.”
To fulfill his desire, the Commandant would need to court-martial the entire Union army, and then some. His naïve belief in law and order is a gangrene, festering.
I’ve been a little obsessed with spaghetti westerns lately. When I’m not watching them, I’m thinking about them. Every night, a new one. Every afternoon, I spend hours dissecting themes while listening to Ennio Morricone soundtracks. I tell myself this is research for my spaghetti western-themed novel, but after watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly three times in three weeks, and spending an entire day mapping the plot scene by scene, I’m starting to think there’s something else going on with me.
Between the years of 1964-1975, about 600 westerns were made in Europe, most by Italians. They tapped into something powerful in the post-war European psyche. A profound sense of betrayal. The realization that the government, the police, and the military existed to uphold a rotten system. That those who claimed to protect and serve were actually corrupt, money-obsessed, willing to torture and murder their own people to keep things orderly. In this new world, survival meant self-interest, and trust was more precious than gold—and just as rare.
Spaghetti westerns have a reputation for being “cynical.” Where Hollywood westerns glorify lawful white heroism, spaghetti westerns are violently operatic fuck-yous to the American mythos. You will see no cowboys ridding towns of unsavory elements and making them safe for white mothers and free enterprise. If the railroad appears, it is a harbinger of corruption. If the sheriff appears, he is a drunk, or a fool, or in the pocket of a businessman. If people of color appear, they are rarely the bad guys. (The actors are also rarely of the ethnicity they’re depicting, but that’s another essay.) Heroes range from morally complex to blatantly criminal. It can be hard to like a spaghetti western hero, and that’s part of the point.
Hollywood westerns promise us mastery over the earth as long as we try real hard, have white skin, and obey the law. John Wayne tips his hat, politely committing genocide. Hollywood westerns don’t interrogate, they just accept the tautology: The law is right because it’s the law.
Spaghetti westerns are dirty, ugly, brutal. They say: The world is chaos, and the only certainty is that you will suffer. Law and order is a joke, something only bad guys want. Now that you know this, what will you do with your life? How will you respond?
In this moment, as the Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated with nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the president of the United States threatened to attack American citizens with their own military.
“I am your president of law and order,” he said.
Truth is always a bit on the nose.
I am a white cis woman who has benefited in ways small and large from white supremacy, in a country whose dominant narrative angelizes the law. For all their quirks, spaghetti westerns are helping me visualize my role in fighting for justice and understand the ways I fall short. These movies are uniquely relevant right now, as we watch the cruel and brutal American story crumble in real time, as we try to manifest a better destiny. Three movies in particular, directed by Italy’s holy trinity of Sergios: Leone, Corbucci, and Sollima.
You could be forgiven for thinking Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a story of three world-class turds hunting down a bag of money. “The Good” Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is introduced as he abandons his friend “The Ugly” Tuco Ramirez (Eli Wallach) in the desert. Blondie leaves Tuco to die with no water, money, or horse, a noose dangling from his neck.
This is a story that explores all the terrible, petty things people will do to each other for money. But it doesn’t let us off the hook, emotionally—Tuco and Blondie’s friendship is peppered with moments of genuine affection and pathos. We’re rooting for them, despite their turdliness.
Nipping at their heels is the Civil War. Tuco and Blondie run around, squabbling and making money, and meanwhile this grand sweeping opera of a war is happening just over the horizon. Most movies about the Civil War are about the Civil War. But in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s not even mentioned until 45 minutes in.
A stray Union cannonball saves Blondie from Tuco’s noose. A runaway Confederate wagon saves Blondie from Tuco’s gun and introduces them to the gold they spend the rest of the movie chasing. You don’t get to escape death twice and not return the favor. If they want their bag of gold, they’re going to have to participate in the war.
In a Hollywood movie, fighting in a war would change the characters. It would melt their greed away and make them manlier. But Tuco continues to not give a shit about humanity, and Blondie is changed in such miniscule ways, you can’t even believe it. He offers a dying soldier a puff of his cigar, he drapes the soldier with his coat. We’ve come to expect so little from Blondie that these moments almost feel like redemption. When you’re starved for hope, every little kindness is a cookie.
If Blondie and Tuco want their gold, they will have to blow up a strategic bridge—one that both the Union and the Confederacy want. The two sides clash with sabers and rifles, and for the first time, Blondie can’t avoid witnessing the carnage. Now that the war is shoved in his face, he remarks: “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.”
The thing is, though, Blondie has never seen because he’s never actually looked. He didn’t have to. He is briefly moved, but once the war is out of sight again, Blondie quickly puts it out of mind.
In the end, Blondie and Tuco get the gold, which is unusual because Hollywood is very stingy with characters who are not pure of heart. After Blondie’s tender moments with the dead soldier, he and Tuco waste no time reprising their earlier shitbaggery—double-crossing each other to the verge of death. At the end, Blondie rides off, leaving Tuco dangling from a noose and begging for his life, only to shoot him free at the last moment. We’re left a bit dubious that they’ve learned anything at all. Tuco confirms this with the last line of the movie. He squirms in the sand, hands bound, noose around his neck; he hollers into the manic Ennio Morricone theme:
“Hey Blondie, you know what you are? Just a dirty son-of-a-bitch!”
People don’t change just because the three-act structure tells us they have to. In real life, we are often forced out of our petty bubbles to witness real-world horrors, and how dramatically we are affected by them! We demand change, we want to help. As soon as the horror is removed from our immediate sight, we’re like little babies with no persistence of vision. We forget. We are eager to forget. Some of us are labeled “good” for no reason and get the goddamn gold anyway.
The first time I watched Corbucci’s The Great Silence, the ending made me gasp. The bad guy, bounty hunter Loco (the always creepy Klaus Kinski), massacres the hero, his girl, and all the townspeople, and then rides off into the sunset. Filmmaker and spaghetti western aficionado Alex Cox said of the movie: “You could only take on the powerful and the wicked for a short while, it seemed, before they crushed you.”
Corbucci is not coy about his distaste for law and order. The bumbling sheriff (Frank Wolff) argues with Loco that the hangman’s noose is different from the bounty hunter’s gun because “the law has the right to kill.” An entire village’s worth of poor people is banished to the mountains, sentenced to starve for crimes that remain unclear but are clearly dubious. The sheriff does not actively murder them, but he doesn’t protect them, either. Instead, he pays Loco for their murders because, technically, bounty killing is legal, and technically they are criminals. Eventually, predictably, Loco will kill the sheriff, too.
At the end, as Loco surveys the bloodied corpses, he delivers the final line: “There’s a bounty on each one. We’ll come back and collect ‘em all later, all according to the law.”
The protagonist of the movie is Silence (Jean Louis Trintignant), a western hero so spare with words, he literally cannot speak. The plot is a perversion of a Hollywood western: he rides into town to clean it up, but ends up getting everyone murdered, including himself. He has a strict moral code of only shooting in self-defense, so his strategy is to taunt you until you’re pissed enough to draw your gun.
When Loco murders Pauline’s (Vonetta McGee) husband, she hires Silence to avenge his death. In yet another departure from Hollywood western conventions, Pauline, a Black woman, is shown as deserving of protection, care, and justice for the state-sanctioned murder of her Black husband. Loco, meanwhile, goes out of his way to tell us: “What times we live in when a Black’s worth as much as a white man.” In his twisted moral code, the bounty hunter’s biggest concern is being paid too much for a Black man’s murder.
Silence does manage to kill a bad guy or two—namely, man-about-town Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), who murdered Silence’s parents and mutilated his throat. He and Loco are profiting (legally!) off the murders of the townspeople. Pollicut is the human embodiment of corruption: a businessman, banker, and justice of the peace, triple-dipping into the blood and wealth of his village.
So, okay. The town is run by bounty hunters, the law is corrupt, the sheriff is well-intentioned but ineffective—all talk and no action, the opposite of Silence—and everyone who puts up a fight is doomed. That said, defeat was not inevitable. Silence is famous for how fast he can shoot. Even Loco declares he can’t outshoot him. Silence has allies in town—the saloon girls are itching for a fight, and Pauline wants vengeance. Many of the displaced townspeople would not hesitate to join up, sick of waiting for the law to step in and absolve them. Even the sheriff might have been convinced (before Loco drowned him, of course). But never once do Silence and his allies consider fighting together. Silence is determined to face his enemies alone: no strategy, no partnerships. His code of never shooting first poses as integrity but gets in the way of doing actual good, of making an actual difference. Shooting first would mean taking responsibility for death, and Silence prefers to remain morally pure. Pauline warns him the final shootout is a trap, but he plows ahead stubbornly, as though he’s eager to become a martyr.
Listen. What truly makes Silence a tragic character is not that he fought the law and the law won, but that he believed in the doomed American narrative of rugged individualism and missed his chance.
Spaghetti westerns make their protagonists suffer. Usually, they are tortured, battered and bloodied, or in the case of Silence, just straight-up murdered. Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown is unique in its lack of physical torture. Instead, we watch our hero—celebrated bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett (Lee van Cleef)—be humiliated and outsmarted again and again.
But at the beginning of the movie, Corbett’s star is rising. He easily outsmarts three criminals, and robber baron Brockston (Walter Barnes) wants him to run for state senate. Brockston even offers to financially support his campaign. He wants to build a railroad to Mexico, see, and he needs a man on the inside. Corbett agrees to the deal, but he is very clear: “I’m interested in Texas, not your personal profit.”
Could it be: a good apple?
At Brockston’s request, Corbett agrees to go on one final bounty hunt to find a Mexican bandit named Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), accused of raping and murdering a 12-year-old white girl. We are on Corbett’s side. We trust his intentions; we trust his quest. Who doesn’t want a rapist-murderer brought to justice?
But as Corbett chases Cuchillo, we get the sinking feeling that perhaps we were a bit quick to believe the narrative that Cuchillo committed this crime just because he’s poor and Mexican and a rich white man told us so. Bit by bit, our sympathies shift from Corbett to Cuchillo, and we begin to see him as a smart, resourceful spaghetti western criminal-hero who’s just trying to survive. If he wants to evolve with us, Corbett must also realize his mistake—by journeying through the underworld, through a twisted myth of the West.
First, he tries to save a blonde Mormon girl from Cuchillo. Instead, the girl shoots him to let Cuchillo escape. Summoning dignity after being shot by a little girl, Corbett expresses relief that at least the minister’s daughter remains virtuous. The minister laughs: “Daughter? She’s my fourth wife.”
Corbett then pursues Cuchillo to a sex ranch run by a widow (Nieves Navarro) and her gang of beefcake ranch hands. When she tries to seduce Corbett, Cuchillo whips the ranch hands into a frenzy of jealousy and makes his escape. Corbett, furious at being outsmarted yet again, massacres every last ranch hand, leaving the widow alone and vulnerable in the wilderness. Rather than judging the widow for her kinky lifestyle, we judge Corbett for his cruelty instead. For the first time, we begin to doubt that he is the righteous hero we were promised.
Next, finally, a recognizable archetype: A covered wagon with a white father, mother, and son on their way West. But Corbett does not obey the archetypal narrative. He punches the father, steals his gun and his horse, and makes the nice little boy cry. Still, you can’t help feeling sorry for Corbett, watching him realize that the world is much more complex than the one he thought he was protecting.
The more unsure Corbett becomes of Cuchillo’s guilt, the more obsessively he chases him and the worse his behavior becomes. Corbett is wrestling with the agony of cognitive dissonance. Admitting he was wrong would mean overcoming his prejudices. Overcoming his prejudices would mean a complete rethinking of his worldview. How exhausting. Much easier to cling to the devil we know than face the horrific realization that we’ve been wrong this whole time.
But truth is more relentless than bounty hunters. We learn that the rich white guy is using his money and power to protect the true rapist-murderer, who is, surprise! another rich white guy. It’s Brockston’s own son-in-law, in fact, whose family land Brockston needs for his railroad.
Corbett’s problem is that he wants both his integrity and the money and power that come with preserving law and order. The movie tortures him until he chooses a side. Only when he is humbled enough does Corbett change his mind, shedding his protective cloak of law and order and forming an alliance with Cuchillo. Each assists the other in surviving the titular big gundown, where Cuchillo, true to his name, brings a knife to a gunfight and skewers the real rapist-murderer in the forehead. Corbett, meanwhile, shoots Brockston right off his horse.
In the end, the two allies ride off into the desert and go their separate ways. The wind and sand cover their tracks almost immediately, symbolic of how minimal their impact will be, how quickly forgotten. There will still be a railroad. There will still be political corruption. Poor brown people will continue to be hunted and punished for crimes that rich white people committed. But we, the audience, have learned that “making a mark” is the same as leaving a scar, as building a railroad. We’ve learned that only bad guys desire a legacy.
Spaghetti westerns reveal that it is the American myths of benign law and order, rugged individualism, and moral purity that are cynical. This narrative is false and violent, and it’s beyond time to destroy it. We can hide from the world to avoid the pain of changing ourselves in Act Three; we can ride, guns blazing, into injustice and martyr ourselves with no strategy or partnerships; or we can change our minds, and celebrate the small, sweet victories that accumulate and grow and come from looking out for one another. In The Big Gundown, for one moment, justice is served. Which means that, even when sand covers our tracks, justice is possible.