People think Westerns are boring.
Once upon a time, this wasn’t so. They were the action flick of choice for American audiences, and no one could get enough of dusty landscapes, saloon brawls, and showdowns at noon. Westerns were on the radio, on the big screen, and on the small. Every time they were declared dead, they came roaring back thanks to some radical reinvention, or a star that wore spurs particularly well.
But the Western wore thin, and it’s almost died off as a genre. Now that it’s relegated to a musty corner of cinema, people glibly dismiss them as dull, lifeless, and out of touch. When a new Western comes along – a “Django Unchained,” for example – audiences get excited, point at the screen, and say “If Westerns were more like that, I’d enjoy watching them. That right there is a Western!”
People will undoubtedly be saying that a lot this week, as we face down the release of
Johnny Depp’s Disney’s “The Lone Ranger (the astronomical budget of which in and of itself qualifies the film as one of the weirdest westerns ever made, or perhaps – more accurately – one of the weirdest westerns ever green-lit). But if you think Westerns are boring, you’ve been watching the wrong ones. This is a genre that ranges from traditional to surreal, from historical to histrionic, and there’s one for every taste. Johnny Depp and his bird hat can’t hold a candle to these weird Westerns that feature witches, sex, bullfights, bondage, musical numbers, and much, much more. If “Ranger” leaves you wanting something stranger, look no further than one of these.
If you’re looking for a Western that has a witch, a Christ allegory, and a soundtrack that was Italy’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen, look no further than “Keoma.” Franco Nero stars as the titular character, a bare-chested hunk who is the child of a white father, and a Native American mother. He returns home from the Civil War to find his home town overrun with plague, and being bullied by desperados. Naturally, Keoma steps in to make things right … and that’s when it stops being a typical Western, and becomes something stranger. Keoma is followed around by a witch, has all his action narrated in song, has a pregnant woman as a sidekick/love interest, and becomes a Christ allegory before galloping into the sunset.
“Don’t Turn the Other Cheek” (1971)
What happens when a Russian prince (Franco Nero) pairs up with a Mexican bandit (Eli Wallach) to comb the frontier for buried treasure, while an Irishwoman (Lynn Redgrave) keeps trying to use them to stir revolution? Insanity, and a lot of double crossing, of course. On the surface, it seems like a terrible rip-off of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and that’s clearly the inspiration, but it’s far loopier. All you really need to know is that the treasure map is tattooed on someone’s butt – hence this film’s English title -- and that Nero and Wallach have to pull down a lot of pants to find it.
“My Name is Nobody” (1973)
Directed by Tonino Valerii and Sergio Leone, “Nobody” is almost mean spirited in its eagerness to undermine everything that’s cool in the Western genre. (Leone was thoroughly tired of the genre he’d helped to invigorate, and it shows.) Terence Hill plays Nobody, a gunfighter who idolizes the legendary Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda). He wants to give him a glorious retirement, much to the annoyance of Beauregard, who just wants to be left alone. Their relationship becomes a sort of rocky bromance, with Nobody acting the brat until he gets his own way. The scene with Hill “helping” a stranger with his prostrate trouble may haunt you forever.
“Mad Dog Morgan” (1976)
Americans often forget that Australia enjoyed a period every bit as wild, lawless, and mythic as our own Wild West, and that they’ve produced a fair share of movies full of outlaw antiheroes. “Mad Dog Morgan” was meant to be one of these, but it’s really an incoherent fever dream starring Dennis Hopper, who was undoubtedly experiencing one of his own. Though the script and plotting is pure grindhouse, “Morgan” is actually beautifully shot, packs a brutal wallop or three, and closes with one of the most squirm-inducing lines in cinematic history.
“Captain Apache” (1971)
Lee Van Cleef made many spaghetti westerns. Some were good, some were bad, and some were just plain trippy. “Captain Apache” is all three. It’s similar to “Keoma” – a hero tormented by racism, a witch, a goofy, spoken word soundtrack – but goes its own demented way thanks to twins dressed like the Mad Hatter, nymphomaniacs, and scenes where Van Cleef must strip to his skivvies so that Native Americans will speak to him. Van Cleef performs on the soundtrack, and delivers a line so badass that even Clint Eastwood would shiver: “No, thank you. I don’t eat cookies.”
“Django Strikes Again” (1987)
As spaghetti western fans know, Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” was so popular that it became a cottage industry. There’s roughly 31 “Django” films, all unofficial sequels and spin-offs, and none star Franco Nero’s Django. (Of course, some countries titled everything he made “Django,” but that’s a separate category.) But then, in 1987, Nero took back the mantle, and made a proper “Django” sequel, and it is amazing. It’s far better than a sequel made 21 years later ought to be, but there’s no denying it’s strange. Django is now a peaceful monk, on the verge of taking his vows, when an ex-lover (hinted to be the prostitute from the original film) asks him to care for their daughter. She’s kidnapped by slavers, forcing Django to take up his gatling gun once more, and the result is a terrific cross between “Rambo” and “Fitzcarraldo.” It’s quite possibly the only Western to feature a character inspired by Grace Jones.
“Cat Ballou” (1965)
Not all weird Westerns come from Italy, and remain in the grubby underground. Some are mainstream, big budget flicks starring A-List actors of the swinging ‘60s. “Cat Ballou” is a everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Western where Lee Marvin plays two roles (one of them requires a flashy silver nose), Nat King Cole is a singing Greek chorus, and cold blooded murder is made into slapstick comedy. Unlike most of the films on this list, “Cat Ballou” is considered a classic, but it proves that classics can be pretty odd if you start pulling at the seams.
“Trinity Is Still My Name” (1971)
If Franco Nero was the imitation Eastwood, then Terence Hill was the poor man’s Nero, reveling in aimless plots and strained slapstick. If you ever wondered what “Dumb and Dumber” might be like as a spaghetti Western, look no further than “Trinity Is Still My Name.” A farting baby, mistaken identity, a card game, and numerous dinners with a genial family make up the bulk of the action. It’s a wacky road trip movie in a time when there weren’t any roads, and a cash-in sequel that makes “The Hangover II” look like part of the Three Colors Trilogy. But really, it’s just on the list because what other western spends as much time with a farting baby?
“The Mercenary” (1968)
This list is so overloaded with Franco Nero that one hesitates to add another, but “The Mercenary” is so delightfully off-kilter that it would be a shame to ignore it. This is a film that strips Jack Palance naked – punctuated by the weirdest grunts ever to grace a soundtrack – and puts Nero in a horse’s bridle. It puts its hero (if there is such a character in a Sergio Corbucci film) in clown make-up during a key action sequence. “The Mercenary” just doesn’t care who it embarrasses. Oh, and did we mention Palance actually plays a character named Curly?