It’s probably easier to list the films that haven’t influenced Quentin Tarantino than those that have. But, taking from Tarantino’s list of top 20 westerns - as his own 70mm western The Hateful Eight is headed for a Christmas release (with a score by western movie soundtrack legend Ennio Morricone, no less) - this list of our must-see eight runs the gamut from underrated obscurities to more obvious oaters.
As a filmmaker who’s “always influenced by the spaghetti western” - and one whose work is almost a love letter to Western directors like Corbucci and Leone - we can certainly trust an auteur like Tarantino to reference his favorites pretty heavily.
Navajo Joe (1966)
Director: Sergio Corbucci
After an outlaw heads up a bloody massacre of an Indian village, the sole survivor (titular Navajo Joe) steals a train full of money, makes bargains for killing, and has a shootout in an Indian cemetery to avenge his wife’s death. It’s beautiful, it’s violent, it’s perfect.
Filmed in Spain and starring a 30-something Burt Reynolds in his second leading role, Tarantino called this Western, "one of the greatest revenge movies of all time…A one-man-tornado onslaught.” And that’s coming from a man whose motto might as well be “revenge is a dish served as often as possible” – we’ve all seen Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Blonde get even for a botched jewel heist by kidnapping a cop, slashing his ear off and dousing him in gasoline...
In fact, Tarantino’s such a massive fan of Navajo Joe, that if you pay attention you’ll notice the theme music from the 1966 flick plays several times throughout Kill Bill: Volume 2 – right before The Bride and Elle fight, when Bill walks out into the garden, and in the opening car sequence.
The Dollars Trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1865), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Director: Sergio Leone
“The Dollars Trilogy” consists of three spaghetti westerns following the exploits of the same so-called "Man with No Name" (portrayed by Clint Eastwood). The series has become known for establishing the genre and inspiring the creation of many more spaghetti westerns.
Talking about the trilogy while listing his 20 favorite westerns, Tarantino commented, “Right at the top, it’s got to be Sergio Leone’s trilogy, especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – my absolute favorite movie and the greatest achievement in the history of cinema.” You’ve been told.
Pulp Fiction mirrors one of the movie’s most hard-hitting scenes. When Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) eats Brett's food and converses with him before killing him, we’re reminded of a scene in Ugly where one of the main characters kills a supporting one after helping himself to his food.
Inglourious Basterds’ opening scene - the first appearance of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) at the LaPadite farm - mirrors that of the first appearance of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) in the flick – both feature a kitchen table, a sense of impending doom and a nickname…).
In Kill Bill: Volume 1, Ugly is referenced when Ennio Morricone's “Il Tramonto" from the film plays as Bill meets The Bride at the wedding. And in True Romance, Ugly is one of a few films Clarence (Christian Slater) rattles off as canon to movie producer Donowitz.
Death Rides a Horse (1967)
Director: Guilio Petroni
Bill grows up to seek revenge on the gang that killed his parents. He meets up with Ryan, a veteran gunslinger seeking his own revenge for the ones who put him in prison. The two proceed to shoot everything that moves, before Bill discovers Ryan was there when his parents were killed. The flick starts by stunning the viewer with abrupt, senseless violence and proceeds with endless unsettling moments of rape, bloodshed, and the eerie sounds of gunshots spanning the entire soundtrack.
Although not as luxuriant as a Leone western or as politicized as a Corbucci one, Death Rides a Horse boasts its own blunt poetry, and Tarantino was heavily influenced by Petroni’s 1967 bloodbath when making Kill Bill. ”The bandits who killed five defenseless people made one big mistake. They should’ve killed six.” So goes the original trailer. Similarly, Beatrix utters at one point in Kill Bill, “The DeVAS thought they killed 10 people that day, but they made a mistake – they only killed nine.”
Not only did Tarantino borrow the plotline, he also borrowed the name of the main character and the film’s most famous line (“revenge is a dish best served cold”), as well as parts of Morricone’s original score – the main theme played when The Bride faces O-Ren Ishii and her bodyguards at the House of Blue Leaves.
The Grand Duel (1972)
Director: Lee Van Cleef
Il Grande Duello is the original title of this Italian/French/German production. The titular duel pits hard-bitten gunslinger Clayton (Lee Van Cleef) against the equally gritty Saxon (Horst Frank). Before this takes place, however, Clayton champions the cause of Newland (Peter O'Brien), a young punk who'd been framed on a murder charge. One of the beauties of the spaghetti western genre is that there were seldom any clearly defined “goodies” or “baddies” – The Grand Duel is no different.
Tarantino repurposed bits of the movie and rescued it from an eternity of neglect by delivering it to the masses. In fact, with only average general ratings, the filmmaker is one of the few spaghetti western buffs to give The Grand Duel the respect it deserves. And deserving of respect, it certainly is.
During the filming of Django Unchained, Tarantino listed the film as his 15th favorite of all-time – a genuine tribute to a long underrated film. The title theme from the 1972 Western also plays during Kill Bill: Volume 1’s anime sequence.
The Great Silence (1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Italian filmmaker and longtime Tarantino favorite, Corbucci directed this serious-minded populist spin on the spaghetti western (it’s been called his masterpiece), starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence, whose vocal cords have been slashed by sadistic bounty-hunters. Silence joins with local hillfolk in fighting the corrupt and tyrannical authorities in the town of Snow Mill.
In a 2009 interview, Tarantino referred to Corbucci as “the other master,” alongside Sergio Leone. And his devotion to the director shows. 1968’s The Great Silence, which is the same pasta bowl as most Sergio Leone films (only with even more red sauce), served as the inspiration for a whole host of scenes in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, including the part where Django and Dr. King Schultz travel through the snow together. Django's shooting practice in the snow is a direct reference to Silence's target practice, and Tarantino has said that Corbucci's wintery western is a key influence of the whole movie.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Director: Sergio Leone
There's a single piece of land around Flagstone with water on it, and rail baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) aims to have it, knowing the new railroad will have to stop there. He sends his henchman Frank (Henry Fonda) to scare the land's owner, McBain (Frank Wolff), but Frank kills him instead and pins it on a known bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Meanwhile, a mysterious gunslinger with a score to settle (Charles Bronson) and McBain's new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrive in town.
The movie is utterly mesmerizing, with its grandiloquent panoramas and melodramatic closeups on malevolent faces. Everywhere, death and the fear of death are present under the burning sun. No surprise, then, that Tarantino admitted in a 1992 interview that when Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West appeared on the TV before him for the first time, it was then that he decided to “become a director.”
The man himself also admitted that he “never felt gypped when Sergio Leone ended every Western he did with a showdown,” after being asked about how Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and True Romance all essentially conclude with gun-brandishing face-offs. “That’s just the way they ended. But every single one was different.”
Day of Anger (1967)
Director: Tonino Valerii
Also known as Gunlaw and directed by Leone protégé Tonino Valerii, this drum-tight, blood-drenched spaghetti western finds Scott (Giuliano Gemma) as an aspiring gunslinger who hooks up with Frank (Lee Van Cleef), the stoic, cold-blooded killer with an itchy trigger finger. After the two take over a small town, Frank begins to kill everyone. The student and the teacher face each other is a final showdown of cold steel and hot lead.
Tarantino once commented that “Spaghetti westerns were a thing of their time. But one of the big influences that they have had over me cinematically is how they used music and how they bring it to the forefront.” In Kill Bill: Volume 1, Riz Ortolani’s main theme to 1967’s Day of Anger zips right by the audience as Beatrix plucks the eye out of an unfortunate Crazy 88 member. The same theme also surfaces in Django Unchained during the time compression montage, and Tarantino has commented more generally on Day of Anger that, “It stars Lee Van Cleef, whom I love. What a face. A real man. I dedicated Kill Bill: Volume 2 to him.”
Director: Sergio Corbucci
A mysterious man trudges into town dragging a mud-stained coffin behind him. This man is Django (Franco Nero). After he saves Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from certain death, Django finds himself in the middle of a war between Mexican revolutionaries and a band of sadistic racists led by the fanatical Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). In the face of overwhelming odds, Django has a plan: to exact revenge while pitting enemy against enemy.
Django made an international star of Franco Nero, just as Django Unchained brought renewed attention to the 1966 oater. Both films feature deadly gunslingers of the same name, racist antagonists, and over-the-top violence of the ear cutting variety.
Tarantino’s inspiration clearly stems from the original shoot-'em-up, a precedent rendered in obvious terms from Django Unchained's opening credits, when the bouncy theme song from Corbucci's spaghetti western makes its first appearance. Nero also makes a cameo appearance as a minor character watching the brutal Mandingo-inspired slave fights. After Django (Jamie Foxx), tells Franco Nero’s character that the “D” in his name is silent, Nero’s character tells him smugly, “I know.”