'A Town Called Hell' Divides the Argument Over What Is a Spaghetti Western

Blood and sweat, revolution and revenge, close-up shots and sun-baked sets, and anti-heroes and voluptuous vixens -- is that enough?

A Town Called Hell

Director: Robert Parrish
Cast: Robert Shaw, Stella Stevens, Telly Savalas, Fernando Rey, Martin Landau, Michael Craig, Aldo Sambrell, Al Lettieri,
Year: 1971

At the start of A Town Called Hell (1971) the always fantastic Robert Shaw, in what is arguably his only foray into the spaghetti western genre, goes by the name Aguila and is shown leading an army of Mexican revolutionaries as they brutally shoot down a group of federal soldiers along with every nearby innocent.

Ten years goes by, and we see that this Aguila has forsaken his name and become a priest of a small village in an attempt to hide from his past. But when a widow named Alvira (Stella Stevens), whose husband was one of the murdered innocents, arrives to the town, Aguila’s past comes back to haunt him.

Alvira offers a carriage full of gold to anyone that can help her get revenge on her husband’s murderer, which launches the corrupt town tyrant, Don Carlos (Telly Savannas), into a haphazardly manic and incredibly violent search for a man named Aguila who, little does he know, is preaching right under his nose.

Things get even more difficult for the hiding Aguila when Colonel Benito (Martin Landau), an old comrade and friend of his during the Mexican revolution, arrives to the town. In the decade since the revolution, this Benito has joined the Mexican army and is now on a official mission to kill Aguila.

Because more than enough of the expected genre conventions are present — blood and sweat, revolution and revenge, close-up shots and sun-baked sets, and anti-heroes and voluptuous vixens — most cinephiles, myself included, will categorize A Town Called Hell as a spaghetti western without a doubt. But some of the more anal fans of this genre beg to differ. They don’t believe the film qualifies as a spaghetti western because it is neither directed nor produced by an Italian.

The problem is that no two fans of this genre seem to agree on the specifics of what does and what doesn’t make a spaghetti western a spaghetti western, or where to draw the Euro-western line. While most agree that the genre's title should apply to any Italian produced and directed western from the ‘60s and ‘70s shot on location in the American southwest-looking deserts of southern Spain, there is no concrete, agreed upon definition that encompasses every spaghetti western.

It is, for example, true that most spaghetti westerns have post-synched audio due to their multilingual casts and also that they all ooze with a style far removed from the standard Hollywood western. However, there's little consistency in the make-up of these casts with the ratios between Spaniards, Germans, up-and-coming or has-been American actors, and Italians differing entirely with each film. And although most of these films are all heavily stylized to emphasize violence, revel in their anti-heroes, and both demystify and glorify the Wild West of the American frontier, the goals and results of the many directors in the genre vary widely.

A Town Called Hell doesn’t have any Italians credited in its production, which automatically puts it on the fringes of the genre. However, because it was filmed in the deserts of southern Spain, released when the genre was still at its peak, stylized in the Sergio Leone tradition, and infused with many of the genre’s most familiar faces such as Fernando Rey, Aldo Sambrell,Tito Garcia,Cris Huerta, and Antonio Mayans in minor roles, it should definitely be considered a spaghetti western. Only the most demented and devoted advocates of the devil would disagree.

With that said, the film isn’t a very good spaghetti western. The cast is astonishing on paper and Shaw, Stevens, Savalas, and Landau all live up to their well-deserved reputations as thespians of the highest order. Savalas is particularly good in his role as the town’s manic tyrant who sits sweating in a chair with a military jacket draped over his bulking shoulders while laughing, sweating, smoking, and ordering executions. But he is killed off way too early in the film and everything that follows is confusing.

While the story by Richard Aubrey is good, it seems to be too complex for director Robert Parrish to tell with any clarity. He has difficulty handling all the characters, and the far too lengthy flashbacks that are meant to make some sense of their backstories only confuses you further. The pace is erratic and the editing must have been rushed. A Town Called Hell doesn’t live up to its potential, but it’s definitely a spaghetti western.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.