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Bullet for the General, A

Blue Underground // Unrated // May 22, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 10, 2012 | E-mail the Author
Under the searing heat of the desert sun, a train screeches to a halt, coming to a stop just a couple dozen feet from the beaten, bloodied Mexican commander that's been chained to the tracks. The soldiers on the train who leap off to free him are picked off by some unseen gunman far off in the distance, who cackles and pounds on a small drum between shots. It comes down to the life of the man in front of them
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trapped in those massive chains or the many lives of the passengers on the train. It's an obvious decision but a difficult one to make just the same. With the blood of that hostage painting the tracks behind them, the train is eventually on its way again, and the marauders following feverishly on horseback could never hope to catch up.

A lavishly well-dressed, ghostly pale American takes a pistol from the corpse of a gunned-down soldier and works his way to the front of the train. After shooting the engineer dead and slamming on the brakes, this nameless man (Lou Castel) slips on a pair of handcuffs and waits for the bandits to arrive. As the thieves raid the train in search of weapons and slaughter every last soldier aboard, their leader, El Chucho (Gian Maria Volonté), speaks with great fascination with this American. He doesn't really buy that story about being held captive and trading an entire train in exchange for his freedom, but...whatever. El Chucho has what he wants -- a train filled with guns he can resell to the Mexican rebels -- and he's more than happy to oblige his new American friend. As El Chucho and his men ride off onto the horizon, victorious, this gringo announces that he's coming with them. A close bond is immediately struck between El Chucho and El Niño. They're not just...well, thick as thieves, but they become more like brothers than El Chucho's own flesh and blood, a priest (a somewhat underutilized Klaus Kinski) with a fiery temper and a fervent belief in the rebellion. Why does El Niño keep tugging at El Chucho's strings? Why did he
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manipulate his way into a seemingly unremarkable gang of bandits? What's his end game, exactly? A hell of a lot of bullet-riddled corpses will litter the landscape before you get your answer.

Director Damiano Damiani mentions in his very brief interview on this Blu-ray disc that he made A Bullet for the General as a satire of the genre, but I'll be damned if this movie doesn't deliver everything I'd want out of a Spaghetti western. The film revolves, as ever, around a silent, morally ambiguous figure who keeps himself at arm's length and his motivations blanketed in shadow. It's unflinchingly violent and boasts a staggeringly high body count. Like Django and the first couple of Leones before it, A Bullet for the General delivers its share of "oh, shit...!" moments as it turns on its heel and catches the audience completely off-guard.

A Bullet for the General could hardly be mistaken for just another Spaghetti western, though. For one, Damiani's vividly cinematic eye sets it apart from much of the rest of the lot. I found myself completely fascinated by the relationship between El Chucho and El Niño. Gian Maria Volonté takes a character who could've been a one-note brute and infuses him with an astonishing amount of charm, depth, and personality. I love the way A Bullet for the General toys with the idea of who the central character is...where your sympathies are meant to lay. Even though the
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movie's title pretty much tells you which direction the story is heading, there's a very compelling sense of mystery and intrigue along the way, and it doesn't stop building even after that shot is fired.

It's not surprising to me that A Bullet for the General was penned by Franco Solinas, seeing as how this film and The Battle of Algiers have more in common than you might expect. Both of these movies written by Solinas are defined by the all-consuming power of belief. There's certainly a political element, considering that rebellion against an oppressive government is a driving force in both, but these two films transcend that. Their characters' convictions are religious in their intensity, willing to kill and allow themselves to be killed in order to best serve their cause. A Bullet for the General isn't about an outsider who worms his way into a gang and manipulates it from inside to serve his own unspoken motives; it's about El Chucho's exploitative thug paying lip service to the cause gradually transforming into a true believer. There's a truly engaging character arc and a masterful performance from Volonté, and yet the movie still delivers all the visceral thrills you'd hope for out of a Spaghetti western. Obviously Leone's work set the gold standard for this subgenre, and I'd say A Bullet for the General comes dangerously close to approaching those same heights. Very, very Highly Recommended.

This Blu-ray disc features, for the first time, both the U.S. and international cuts of A Bullet for the General. (...and, yes, that means you do get two different sets of title cards too.) The domestic release truncates the execution of the dissidents and the siege on the train, clocking in around three minutes shorter. The international version is certainly the more compelling of the two, but it's still appreciated that both versions have been included here.

A Bullet for the General looks much the same as the bulk of the other Italian films that Blue Underground has brought to Blu-ray. The image is fairly sharp and reasonably well-defined, bolstered by a nicely saturated palette and substantial black levels. The image largely steers clear of any wear or damage of note. One rare exception is the way the image ripples and distorts briefly around the 42:43 mark in the international cut, but that's not even a little bit of a nuisance. The biggest misstep is a familiar one for anyone that's been following Blue Underground's release slate. A sheen of analog video noise floats over the image in place of traditional film grain, and the image underneath is left with somewhat of an unnatural, smeary texture. Case in point:

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The severity of this telecine quirk has varied wildly from one release to the next, and throughout A Bullet for the General, I found it mostly tolerable. I don't have the Anchor Bay DVD or the Blue Underground re-release handy to do a direct comparison, but flaws and all, I'm sure this Blu-ray disc is still a dramatic improvement.

This Blu-ray disc features both the domestic and international versions of A Bullet for the General, and that means there are right at four hours of high-def video on this disc. The analog video noise clumps together more than I've seen in other Blue Underground releases, perhaps because of the sheer volume of material on the disc, and that's especially noticeable during quick pans. A couple of comparison shots across both versions of the film are presented below. Bizarrely, even though the two presentations have largely been culled from the same transfer, the international cut is windowboxed while the domestic version is not.

U.S. CutInternational Cut
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Both versions of A Bullet for the General have been encoded with AVC and are presented at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

The American cut of A Bullet for the General is presented exclusively in English, while the extended international version is served up in English and
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Italian. All three are 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in two-channel mono.

I'm going to focus on the international version here since I'm guessing that's what most of you out there are going to watch. Like most Italian films of that era, the dialogue throughout A Bullet for the General was recorded entirely in post-production, so you're listening to a dub no matter which language you choose. The English dub definitely has its share of advantages, sounding richer, fuller, and cleaner than the Italian track. That's apparent pretty quickly as El Chucho pounds on his war drum. Even though the recording of the English dialogue hasn't aged well, it sounds more comfortable at a normal level than the Italian audio, which is harsh enough that I had to dial the volume back quite a bit. The Italian track is also weighed down by some very pronounced hiss, and, for whatever reason, random, scattered lines are still in English. Despite all that, the English dub suffers from some wretched performances and reams of clunky dialogue. The Italian audio -- exclusive to this Blu-ray disc -- just reads and sounds better, despite being outclassed on the technical end of things. I'll take that over a bad dub any day, but it's nice to see that you have options no matter which way you lean.

The international cut of A Bullet for the General features English subtitles, and they've been properly translated from the Italian dialogue rather than merely transcribing the English dub. The U.S. version boasts a more expansive set of subtitles, offering up streams in English (SDH), French, and Spanish. In case any of the eleven or twelve people on the planet with constant image height projection setups are reading this, the subs don't spill over into the letterboxing bars.

Blue Underground really went the extra mile with this Blu-ray set. The old DVDs were limited to the international cut, an English dub, and a couple of trailers. This release, meanwhile, offers two versions of the film, Italian audio for the international cut, a slew of subtitle options, a still gallery, an interview, and a feature-length documentary.
  • Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attore Contro (1 hr. 53 min.; SD): The second disc in this set is a DVD of the 2005 Italian documentary Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attore Contro. It's a
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    heartfelt and unrelentingly engaging look at an actor who never lost sight of his convictions, regardless of the toll it would take on his career. Dozens of actors, filmmakers, and friends offer their memories of Volonté, speaking about his collaborative spirit, his devotion to both his craft and his beliefs, and his uncanny ability to completely transform himself for each role. Un Attore Contro draws deeply from Volonté's expansive body of work as well as archival interviews with the man himself, ensuring that even those who only know Volonté from A Bullet for the General will still feel a close, intimate connection. It's very much worth noting that A Bullet for the General is featured prominently in the documentary as well. A greatly appreciated addition to this set.

  • A Bullet for the Director (5 min.; SD): Director Damiano Damiani speaks very briefly about how A Bullet for the General is meant to be a satire rather than any sort of proper Western, how this film is cut from much the same cloth as Sergio Leone's iconic work, the casting of Klaus Kinski and Gian Maria Volonté, and how, despite its setting, there's not any sort of North American sensibility to the movie whatsoever. Cursory and rushed but worth a look.

  • Poster and Still Gallery: This high-res gallery features twenty images, including production stills, poster art from all across the globe, and a handful of home video releases.

  • Trailers (6 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras are a pair of trailers -- one domestic, the other international.

The Final Word
A Bullet for the General is a hell of a Spaghetti western and would be an easy recommendation even if this Blu-ray disc were just a straightahead port of the DVD. Impressively enough, Blue Underground has gone out of their way to make this a compelling upgrade, assembling a couple hours' worth of extras, a more expansive set of audio options, and even an alternate cut of the film. Yeah, yeah, the noisy-yet-smeary texture that's become such a mainstay with the label's high-def releases is kind of a disappointment, but it's not even close to being severe enough to be a deal-breaker. Highly Recommended.
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