Sergio Corbucci, Django, 1966, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.

THE HISTORY OF SPAGHETTI WESTERNS is a series of increasingly diluted copies and diminishing returns. The first movie in the genre, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), is already doubly derivative. Not only an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), A Fistful of Dollars is also a B-movie repetition of John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, which had turned Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) into a star-studded Hollywood western in 1960. And the hundreds of spaghetti westerns that followed in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars consisted mostly of imitations and spurious sequels of one film: Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), itself a loose reworking of the major elements of A Fistful of Dollars. A movie like Django Kill . . . If You Live, Shoot! (1967) is therefore at some remove from its original material in Yojimbo. (A Fistful of Dollars, Django, and Django Kill . . . are among the twenty-six movies screening in “Spaghetti Westerns,” a three-week-long survey of the genre at Film Forum in June.)

Django is less “about” its own material (a taciturn, haunted Civil War soldier caught between Mexican bandits and Ku Klux Klan–style vigilantes) than it is a metacommentary on Hollywood’s idyllic version of America’s past. Before it is a story, it is already an interpretation. While Hollywood had produced its own “de-mythologizing” westerns—John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962)—Django is the bleakest revisionism: the old West as Hobbesian war of all against all, openly and murderously racist, with rape as the national pastime. Instead of a Manichaean clash between good and evil, or between civilization and savage Indians, Django pits a hateful, filthy mob against its exact double, with the nominal hero a selfish, humorless killing machine. The love story is an intentionally off-putting travesty: such well-defined cheekbones, so little human kindness.

Just as Euripides (history’s first hack) looked at the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus and saw only eye gougings and bathtub axings, which he sought to amplify, Django appropriates the “dark” tropes of late-1950s Hollywood westerns (Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie [1955] and Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock [1959]) and empties them of psychology and nuance. Where James Stewart or Henry Fonda brought a kind of desperate, embarrassed sadism to the self-righteousness of the Law of the West, Django’s Franco Nero (badly dubbed) is without the kind of principles that can really get a man in trouble. Among the spaghetti westerns, this quality of being pushed beyond decency by an incensed, bitter claim is achieved only by Nero himself in Enzo Castellari’s very late Keoma (1976), and by Henry Fonda in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But as Django, Nero is unmoored and unmotivated—driven by a kind of general, free-floating revenge. Perhaps it is this detachment and lack of specificity in the character that opened the door to so many sequels and rip-offs.

If all that Hollywood classics like The Naked Spur (1953) or Destry Rides Again (1939) required was, in Godard fashion, “a girl and a gun,” Django—which began filming without a finished script—imports all manner of atrocities to sustain the action, most memorably a scene where an ear is cut off. Lacking a coherent plot, like most spaghetti westerns Django substitutes a succession of “one thing after another,” peppered with eccentric and attention-grabbing violence. But the exploitation and depravity of the spaghettis, their moral shoddiness, are really not for the viewer. Scenes of human target practice, the whipping of prostitutes, or the bludgeoning of hands into raw pulp are in a sense enacted for the Hollywood archetype itself. The mechanized violence of Django machine-gunning his enemies gives the lie to the heroic individualism of America’s “greatest generation.” It is as though these movies were shoving their grotesqueness directly in the face of John Wayne, demanding, “You like this, don’t you?” The stomach-churning elements in these movies are less titillation and more ritual sacrifice, where the “one who enjoys” the violence is really not the community of onlookers but the abstract other seen as demanding this or that degradation. Spaghetti westerns offer themselves up to the falsely righteous cinematic myth of Hollywood’s West, whose true rancorous bloodlust is here appeased. As Anatole France would have it, “Les dieux ont soif”—the gods are athirst.

This procedure allows Django to disown its nihilism—you see, it is really our nihilism, as Americans—and to smuggle in a moralism not any more complex than what you would find in Stagecoach (1939). Predictably, subsequent films in this vein often devolved into cynical, unstructured decadence, as exemplified in the self-parody My Name Is Nobody (1973) and the eclectic Sabata (1969). As the genre progressed, the better films tended toward explicitly leftist positions—most notably, A Bullet for the General (1966). One exception, however, is Leone’s unwatchable Fistful of Dynamite (1971, screening at Film Forum as Duck, You Sucker!). Despite being the most caustically political film here—James Coburn plays an IRA explosives expert caught up in the Mexican Revolution—it’s an exceptionally distasteful work, almost baroque in its ingenuity of unpleasant, even pornographic one-upmanship. Even composer Ennio Morricone, the true genius behind Leone’s films, is off his game here. There is nothing uglier than cynicism, and the genre’s implosion is a carnival of meaningless spectacle tossed at the viewer like so many bloody scraps. What was initially the target of critique—the ruthless inhumanity (personified in the frequent casting of Klaus Kinski) of American mastery—became an end in itself. The only way to watch these garish late-cycle spaghetti westerns might be as cultural analogues to “End of the 1960s” phenomena like Altamont: a decadence obscurely closing in upon itself.

Ben Parker

“Spaghetti Westerns” runs June 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.