After the chaos of WWII and the Mussolini-government the largely devastated Italian film industry developed the so-called Italian Neorealism, which distanced itself from the epic studio productions and conservative comedies of earlier times, concentrating on realistic (maybe even as far as cynical?) depictions of ordinary lower-class people and their struggle with the everyday problems in the devastated post-war Italian society.

A different, yet likewise iconic, film genre originating from Italy is the so-called Spaghetti Western of the 60s, which took the inherently American genre of Westerns, stripped them from the classic American ideals they depicted (freedom, discovery of the west, pursuit of a better future, ...) and concentrated on their violent essence, putting cynical and emotionless anti-heroes into an even more run-down and cynical depiction of the American west, considered to some degree more realistic than the classic US Westerns of the 50s.

Seeing that both genres were in some way efforts to revolutionize existing structures with a more realistic viewpoint and concentrating on more "ordinary" people with less idealistic goals (albeit in fairly different settings), I wonder to which degree the advent of Spaghetti Westerns was influenced by Italian Neorealism.

(But I also have to say, that I have admittedly no practical experience with Italian Neorealism and my theoretical knowledge doesn't go much further than Wikipedia and Movies & TV, so I might be entirely making things up here.)

  • 3
    The question might be a bit broad, but I hope it elicits some comprehensive answers from people more acquainted with movie history (or just better research abilities ;-)) than me.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Mar 23, 2014 at 23:02
  • I have no real clue, but it would seem to me the Spaghetti Western was highly influenced and even a spinoff (if that is the right word) of Neorealism. It seems like an extension to me. Mar 23, 2014 at 23:53
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    This is a great question. I think it will be difficult too answer, because it's requires very specific knowledge of Italian Neo-realism history, American western history and probably German expressionism. Also the politics of the era (I think if the Taft–Hartley Act never happened, that era of film would be way different). This is a question I wish I could answer, and would love to but it would take lots of research. I might give it a try, but in my opinion I think that Neorealism would be influenced by lots of world events, as would Spaghetti Westerns...
    – Ben Plont
    Mar 24, 2014 at 4:32

2 Answers 2


The Spaghetti Western, or Euro-Western, carries the legacy of NeoRealism in its very fabric, yet is a conscious step away from the Historical cynicism and introversion that had entrenched itself within Italian Cinema.

Cinecitta, as the Italian Film Mecca or "Hollywood on the Tiber" was naturally the primary studio for most Italian Neorealism (after being re-built and reclaimed by the Neorealists). Sergio Leone, the indisputable godfather of the Spaghetti Western took tutelage under Vittorio De Sica working personally on Ladri Di Bicyclette, still considered to be the high water mark of the cultural movement (with Rome, Open City being the oft cited instigator).

As Italy began to reconstitute its national identity post war, Neorealism began to fade in relevance when compared to more progressive, visually experimental and post modern film movements. The French New Wave provided a reflexive cinema, as did Italy's own Federico Fellini.

There were two divergent departures moving simultaneously away from Neorealist Cinema: domestically, there was the pursuit of an artistic identity separate from the morose introspection of Neoreaism, with a tendency to admonish Italy's past as opposed to celebrating/interrogating its present, leaving it out of step with the prevalent mood of Italy. Internationally, there was a growing trend for Cinecitta tobe utilized by foreign interests to produce their 'Sword and Sandals' epics; Ben Hur and Quo Vadis being American funded projects in this mold (and both of which featuring a cast member named Sergio Leone).

It has been cited by biographers that Leone took notice if not objection to this imperialist capitalization of Italian resources, and so, just as the Americans plundered Italy's cultural heritage, Leone made a vendetta out of reversing the process.

This is probably a more hyerbolic version of Leone's motivation, but he certainly seemed to situate himself against the image of America sustained by John Ford:

Leone tells in an interview how the Catholic Irish American immigrant Ford imbued his movies with a traditional American Christian vision of the West; as a result, his characters always present a typically American optimistic future. Leone has described that, as an Italian and a descendant of the Romans and therefore an outsider, he necessarily had to develop a different perspective on the history of the American West: to him it represented a world characterized by "the reign of violence by violence"

What Leone had consciously constructed was the Japanese historical perspective, filtered through the grotesque, which it has been argued to be the principal composition of the Spaghetti Western. The connections between Japanese cinema (particularily Kurosawa, who was most prolific during this period) have been observed at length before; Leono's seminal A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) was famously a re-interpretation of Kurosawa's Yo-Jimbo, before we even get near The Magnificent Seven.

So at least if we trace Leone's lineage, his arrival at Spaghetti Western's came through working with Americans, then washing their cultural tradition through a Japanese Mangle and throwing in a touch of German Unheimlich, not to mention the natural cynicism inherited from years of working within NeoRealism.

Alireza Vahdani actually undertakes a reading of A Fistful of Dollars with a clear reflection on its Neorealist origins, an extract of which is provided here:

A Fistful of Dollars can be read in neo-realist terms. The main similarity is that in both cases the characters are trapped by their lives. Leone in Frayling (2006, p.131) says that his characters are inspired by the characters of Sicilian theatre because they are “working within a fairly restricted margin.” However, the representation of ‘being trapped’ differs in westerns and neo-realist films. In the latter, the characters initially do their best to change the situation, but to no avail; they barely survive. On the other hand, in Italian westerns the environmental conditions of the characters are so cruel and unpleasant that they cannot expect any form of survival. They either succeed entirely, or lose it all.

She goes on to hypothesize that the real root of Neo-realism can be found in the way Spaghettit Westerns re-orient the principal goal of their antagonists around the concept of Money and Wealth, replacing the Fordian notion of Honour and Justice which was readily adopted into America's cultural tapestry.

Finally, there are the economic and financial considerations to observe. A pale imitation of American Westerns simply wouldn't be marketable, do to its indifference to already available content (not to mention the looming market collapse due to saturation through American Studios). Paul Cooke's Dialogues with Hollywood emphasizes a mode of production that thrived because of its difference to American cinema, not in spite of it:

A Fistful of Dollars is responsible for the popularity of the Spaghetti western genre. It set a standard, designed a roadmap for a violently nihilistic cinematic style that dramatically separates Euro westerns from the Hollywood variety


Well, after the WWII, in Italy there was the so called "Hollywood on Tevere". Because of an Italian law, American productions were obliged to invest part of their earnings due to the Italian audience in Italy. Enchanted by the urban and natural landscape, lots of productions started in Italy, starting a strong co-operation with Italian movie artists and craftmen. Italians started copying the English and American movie genres. Bava and Margheriti, for example, both directed several important Gothic movies (Black Sabbath for example) under English names, adding an "Italian touch" to the genre. Another important genre which was "revisited" by Italians was Peplum (movies about Ancient Roman setting or mythology). At the end of the 60s, Italian directors started making Western movies. The so called "Spaghetti Western" was born only after Leone's first successful movies.

Now I list what these movies may have in common with Neorealism:

  1. In both these movies, not professional actors worked. They were chosen mostly because of their "particular" faces, fit for characters living in hard times and in dirty borderline lands.
  2. They both take inspiration by what happened in Italy at the end of WWII (Italy was a no-men's land, with huge criminal and economical problems). The director of the Western "Se sei vivo spara" stated that part of the events of the movie were inspired by his memories of the war. Later on, Spaghetti western was used as a metaphor of the political revolution of the '70s, especially using a parallelism between the strikes of the workmen and the Mexican indipendence war.
  3. Both these kinds of movies tried to get far from the unrealistic American way to portrait events.

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