Foreign cowboys? Whatever will they think of next? James Oliver investigates the wild world of the unAmerican Western and dicovers films that would make John Wayne lose his hairpiece...

 The Western might be an American art-form but that’s not stopped filmmakers from other countries having a bash at it.

And while it might sound odd to have cowboys and injuns going “yee-haa!” in Italian (or Finnish, or Serbo-Croat), some of those movies are pretty darn good.

With the new movie Brimstone coming out—it might look and sound like a US western but it’s actually Dutch—this here is a long over-due round-up of the best non-American Westerns.

 

The Great Silence 

It makes sense to start with the Italians and their "Spaghetti Westerns". But let’s not go for the obvious choices: as wonderful as films like A Fistful of Dollars or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly are, their casts include actors who had significant careers in American Westerns (i.e. Clint).

The Great Silence is a more fully European affair, both in cast (it stars Frenchman Jean Louis Trintignant) and theme: it’s a (not especially subtle) critique of American capitalism in which wordless gunslinger takes on some bounty hunters who are working for The Man. And, in an ending Hollywood would never allow, loses.

 

Lemonade Joe 

There were more Westerns made behind the Iron Curtain than you might think: those Commies never missed a chance to cock a snook at the decadent west.

Lemonade Joe, a Czechoslovakian film, is one of the few that does more than wag a finger at American perfidy, although it does that too—the lead character is a salesman for a thinly-disguised Coca-Cola, that preferred symbol of cultural imperialism.

But there’s an evident affection for the genre too: you certainly don’t have to be working towards the dictatorship of the proletariat to enjoy it.

 

The Good, The Bad and The Weird 

A wee bit of a cheat this, since it’s not actually set in the Americas, but since it steals its title and much of its aesthetics from a Sergio Leone masterpiece, that would be a poor reason to exclude it.

This is a Korean film, so it will not come as a surprise to discover it is somewhat crazier than The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ever was, let alone the American Westerns that inspired Leone: three men run around the Manchurian desert in search of promise of treasure.

As over the top as it undoubtedly is, it's far from the craziest entry on this list: as we’ll see, "craziness" is something of a feature of the non-American Western...

 

El Topo

To Mexico, and a cult film from director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Dubbed an "Acid Western" (and not because of its low Ph levels), it leavens the traditional Western dynamics with a great dollop of Eastern mysticism: at one point, for instance, our hero gives up gunfighting to become a yogi.

After its initial release in the Seventies, it was withdrawn from circulation due to obscure legal issues. Understandably it achieved semi-legendary status: rumours of its extravagant lunacy spread wide. When it was finally freed from the vaults, film fans discovered those rumours were... completely true, actually. If anything they understated things. Bonkers, it is. Quite, quite bonkers.

 

The Salvation 

The immigrant experience is a popular one in Westerns—the folks who come from afar to make their home on the range, settling the country so it could grow into the great nation it became.

Being Danish, The Salvation doesn’t quite share the native optimism of those American movies: here the immigrant is Mads Mikkelsen: he comes to the States to flee war against Prussia, only to discover that the frontier is no less violent.

Inspired by Sergio Leone and shot in South Africa with a multi-national cast, it's also the very first Western to feature Eric Cantona.

 

Whity

The Germans love their Westerns so it was only to be expected that they’d start making their own once the Italians blazed the trail.

Whity, though, is untypical of those Sauerkraut Westerns. It was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the national cinema’s enfant terrible, here taking time out from berating his fellow countrymen to take a pop at American hypocrisy for a change.

His subject is racism, punching the bruises of slavery and prejudice more forcefully even than something like Django Unchained. His anger is undermined, though, by his use of white people in black-face make-up. Then again, since this is Fassbinder we’re talking about, it’s entirely possible he did it as a way of provoking even more people.

 

Sukiyaki Western Django

Most discussions of Japanese Westerns start with Akira Kurosawa; the great director was enamoured of cowboy films and loudly announced the influence of great Western directors like John Ford on his own work.

In Kurosawa’s films, though, the protagonists were always samurai. He never actually tried to make an actual Western in Japan. Miike Takashi, by contrast, had no such scruple: Sukiyaki Western Django is his tribute to the genre, with Japanese actors playing American, right down to having them speak in English.

Unlike Kurosawa, Miike is tipping his stetson not to the classic US westerns but to the Italian tradition of Spaghetti Westerns, specifically those about a mysterious avenger called "Django". Funnily enough, the original Django was a rip-off of A Fistful of Dollars (Leone). That, in turn, was a rip-off of Yojimbo, a samurai film directed by Akira Kurosawa. Small world, eh?

 

Tears of the Black Tiger 

Let us remain in Asia. Tears of the Black Tiger is a Thai film and an especially delirious one at that: its heroes wear cowboy outfits and comport themselves in front of huge painted backdrops.

The plot is pure melodrama, but that’s of much less interest than the visual excess. It’s apparently informed by Thai cinema classics but to those of us unaware of such things, it’s a rare and wonderful foray into cinematic artifice.

 

Carry on Cowboy 

There are more British Westerns than you might think; even excluding those set in The Empire (in Australasia, Africa and Canada), there are not a few that take place in the Old West: Ramsbottom Rides Again, for instance (in which “Big Hearted” Arthur Askey deals with some no good varmints). Or The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (Kenneth More makes friends with the indigenous peoples.)

And there’s Carry On Cowboy too. Devoid of sophistication and wit it may be—it is a Carry On film, after all—it still needs to be acknowledged. And now we’ve acknowledged it, let us move swiftly on.

 

The Singer Not The Song 

There are some dashed queer films on this list but The Singer Not The Song tops the lot. For a start, it’s another British Western, itself something of an oddity but all the more so since it’s set in Mexico; you will be relieved/ disappointed—delete as appropriate—to discover the cast don’t do the accent.

Ah yes, about that cast. It stars Dirk Bogarde, then at the height of his fame. Unquestionably a fine actor, one of the best this country ever produced, but not the most obvious choice to play a Mexican bandito. A Mexican bandito, moreover, who likes wearing tight leather trousers.

And what of the plot? That aforementioned Mexican bandito is one tough hombre and he’s got no time for religion. But the arrival of a rugged new priest (played by John Mills) in town sets his heart a-flutter.

Quite what they were thinking (and/ or smoking) while they made it is anyone’s guess but it's a high point of a sort, an oddball camp classic that shows the British could make films as weird as anyone else, even if they couldn’t really make westerns.

Read more: All you need to know about Dirk Bogarde 

 

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