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Not only did Sergio Leone make the best Italian Westerns, the next-best westerns tended to be made by his veteran associates and his actor discoveries, or in the case of Death Rides a Horse, rediscoveries. The original 1967 Italian Da uomo a uomo ("From Man to Man") wasn't released in West Germany until 1968, as Von Mann zu Mann. It was held up for two more years before United Artists, a major contributor to the budget, put it on the American market with the surefire title Death Rides a Horse. 1 At that time Italian westerns were still going strong at the international box office. A cousin reported seeing a theater in Saigon packed with South Vietnamese fans, even during the war. And actor Lee Van Cleef, resurrected by Sergio Leone from occasional TV work, was riding the crest of a wave of popularity.
Veteran writer Luciano Vincenzoni fashioned Death Rides a Horse as something of a cross between the recent Steve McQueen hit Nevada Smith and Anthony Mann's The Tin Star. In that 50's picture a seasoned gunslinger takes a liking to a younger deputy, and teaches him to get how to out there and massacre bad guys with real style.
The story is a straight vengeance tale. When just a kid, Bill Meceita witnessed the rape and slaughter of his family by four despicable outlaws. He only escaped because some unknown person spared his life. Now a young man, Bill (John Philip Law of Diabolik) has honed his skill with guns, and sets out for vengeance. In pursuit of the same four outlaws is Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), who says they cheated him out of money and abandoned him to a long prison term. The travelers refuse to cooperate with each other, and each plays dirty tricks to slow the other's progress. But they catch up with the crooks, one after the other. Paco and Pedro (Mario Brega and José Torres) are the first two found, and then they move on to Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson of Dial M for Murder) and Walcott, the leader of the old outlaw bunch (Luigi Pistilli). Cavanaugh is now a shifty gambling hall owner. Walcott is a respected citizen and candidate for public office. The ex-bandits prove just as treacherous as ever. But Ryan has been withholding some information, and has an even bigger surprise coming for Bill.
Death Rides a Horse is a quality Italo western that can be said to be firmly situated within the Leone Universe. What with cameraman Carlo Carlini in charge, the lavish sets, costumes and color choices are will be familiar to any fan of the "Dollars" series. John Philip Law wears pretty much a standard issue man-with-no-name outfit, while Van Cleef could have walked off the set of any of his other post-Leone pictures, like Day of Anger. Ennio Morricone's soundtrack has no grand or memorable theme but is unmistakably his work -- to Morricone's displeasure, cues from this score were cut into Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Featured in the music is the Cantori Moderni Di Alessandroni, which provides some stirring choral effects. 2
Italo director Giulio Petrone isn't quite the visual master that Sergio Leone is. There aren't that many interesting compositions beyond some nice exterior silhouettes and shots of young Bill leaning against posts or sitting in the dirt. Law is unfortunately the show's weak link. His looks are excellent and he moves okay in action scenes, but he lacks the kind of presence that even Van Cleef commands. Law always looks directed, never seems comfortable. His performance is a series of stares -- anguished, angry, and smugly victorious.
Petroni's main directorial touch is a visual construction that would later become standard in exploitation vengeance cinema. Part of Billy's flashback to the childhood massacre is stylized with a red tint. Whenever Bill is struck by an image that tells him he's found another of the bad guys -- a special set of spurs, a tattoo, etc. -- he goes into a red-soaked trance, accompanied by loud Morricone riffs and smash zooms. It may be crude cinema, but it surely communicated the story points even when Death Rides a Horse was screened for the most primitive audiences.
Spaghetti fans don't need introductions for the distinctive character actors Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega. Pistilli gets a substantial role as a shark-like frontier politician who (naturally) assures Ryan that he'll be paid what he's owed, and then double-crosses him.
The finale is a siege at Walcott's rancho. Buried to his neck in the sand, Bill tricks Walcott into riding off to nail Ryan, who slips in and subdues the few guards left behind. Ryan and Bill then do a quick Seven Samurai- like job of arming the local peasants abused by Walcott, and setting up a fire trench to defend the rancho's walls. The big battle action drags on a bit, with odd attempts at comedy that don't quite work. In one setup, instead of shooting a bad guy in the back, Bill sneaks up on him from behind, and pushes him out in the open, for Ryan to gun down.
The big character revelation is easy to guess from the beginning, but it does no harm -- Bill and Ryan just have to work out their differences. American audiences in 1969 didn't care, and made Death Rides a Horse one of the most popular Italo western releases. It seemed to be playing everywhere in my high school senior year, as opposed to Leone's masterpiece Once Upon a Time in The West. In my high school town (San Bernardino, California), that epic showed for one week co-billed with a really ridiculous co-feature.
Explosive Media's All-Region Blu-ray + PAL Region 2 DVD Review of Death Rides a Horse, like their release last year of Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown, is a German disc primarily intended for the European market. But the Blu-ray content plays on standard (Region A) U.S. Blu-ray machines. Colors are excellent on the sharp HD transfer, beating previous DVD releases hands down (guest writer Lee Broughton reviewed an earlier DVD release for DVD Savant just two years ago). Making things much easier for home video companies is the fact that full Italian, German and English tracks existed for the full-length version of the film, which runs almost two hours. Fans don't have to dig through confusing choices to see what version they're getting, or wonder what might be missing.
The main feature is on both the Blu-ray disc and a PAL DVD, and most of the extras are on a third PAL DVD. These PAL DVDs are not playable on normal American machines. The documentary Vengeance Rides a Horse is a lengthy interview piece that dispenses a great deal of detailed information from people who worked on the picture. A trailer reel of Lee Van Cleef westerns is quite an ordeal -- it runs for the better part of an hour. And Explosive finishes off the video extras with extensive photo and trailer galleries.
A colorful 22-page souvenir booklet has photos and lobby cards, preceded by essays and monographs on the film and its major creative participants written by Sebastian Haselbeck and Lars Johansen of The Spaghetti Western Database, a very thorough online resource. Death Rides a Horse scores #9 on their all-time best list.
It's good to see to top Italo westerns finding excellent releases on Blu-ray. Now somebody (hmm, Ulrich?) should investigate nabbing those two elusive original Italian Ercole movies with Steve Reeves, and reconstruct them in various versions. Italo sword 'n' sandal epics also need respect. Just tell the money men that Steve Reeves did Italian westerns, too!
Thanks to Bruce Holecheck for corrections.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Death Rides a Horse All-Region Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
1. The title of this movie has nothing to do with the old, cornball barroom threat: "I'm gonna kill you, Jeb. And that goes double for the horse you rode in on."
Hello Glenn, Season's Greetings. I can only imagine Morricone's wrath if he ever found out tons and tons of his music was "borrowed" for all manner of kung fu movies. The new BD of The Big Gundown marks the first time I have ever seen the movie or listened to the soundtrack, but the music is so familiar to me from many of the greatest kung fu classics - here's an example.
As far as I know, the big Shaw Brothers studios did pay to use various existing music (it was much less time-consuming and costly then having to keep orchestras on their payroll) but I suspect the indies simply hoped no-one would notice. There is a strange irony that my love of Morricone and the likes of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel-Jarre comes from these chop-socky cheapos - ironically a genre mostly kept going by bootlegs.
Lest you think I'm totally backward, I assure you I was a John Williams fan BEFORE a certain theme popped up in a Jackie Chan 3-D extravaganza.
Merry Christmas! Ian
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