by Steve Habrat
While the Italian spaghetti westerns of the mid-60s and 70s dealt with some minor political issues, mostly American capitalism, there was a separate subgenre of the spaghetti western called Zapata westerns that dared to go deeper. Zapata westerns were usually dealing directly with the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and were much more politically charged than the regular spaghetti westerns, which would often set the Mexican Revolution in the background. These Zapata westerns would usually be critical of US foreign policy, the Vietnam War, fascism, capitalism, and were usually made from a Marxist point of view. Perhaps one of the most popular and recognizable Zapata westerns aside from Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker is the 1966 film A Bullet for the General, which was directed by Damiano Damiani. Relentlessly thrilling, refreshingly comical, and unafraid to embrace plenty of action, A Bullet for the General is not only the first Zapata western, but also one of the most fun spaghetti westerns out there. Beautifully shot, sharply written, and carried by unforgettable performances from Gian Maria Volonté, who found stardom through Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, and Klaus Kinski, the man who played the creepiest Dracula the world has ever seen, A Bullet for the General is an epic and sweeping journey with a powerhouse climax. And I can’t forget to mention that it features Kinski dressed in monk’s robes and gleefully tossing grenades. You really don’t get much cooler than that!
A Bullet for the General centers around a group of banditos led by cunning El Chuncho (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), who are tasked with collecting weapons for the revolutionary leader General Elias (Played by Jamie Fernández). Early on, El Chuncho attacks a government munitions train, but the mission gets messy as the soldiers on board begin fighting back against the trigger-happy banditos. During the attack, El Chuncho happens upon a mysterious American traveler named Bill Tate (Played by Lou Castel) who goes out of his way to help out the attacking banditos. El Chuncho and his gang, which also consists of his religious brother El Santo (Played by Klaus Kinski) and beautiful gunslinger Adelita (Played by Martine Beswick), take an immediately liking to Bill and they invite him to join their gang. Naturally, Bill accepts their invitation and is quickly given the nickname “Nino.” Bill is eager to get rich quick and he immediately starts plotting multiple attacks with El Chuncho, but as time passes, El Chuncho gets increasingly interested with the Mexican Revolution and the idea of making a difference. El Chuncho slowly evolves into a vicious freedom fighter, but his relationship with Bill takes a rocky turn after he discovers a gold bullet in Bill’s travel case.
Early on, A Bullet for the General wins over the action crowd with nearly forty minutes of nonstop gun battles, massacres, and rollicking attacks set to an uppity score from Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Ennio Morricone. The opening attack on the government train is about as epic as action scenes can be, with director Damiani using widescreen compositions of bodies falling, banditos charging, and innocent passengers ducking for cover as bullet and wood splinters around them. Damiani and screenwriters Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas slow the action down very briefly to allow Bill to join El Chuncho’s gang and then it snaps back into the breakneck action complete with a massive machine gun. Forts are attack, men are executed, and Kinski’s wildly entertaining El Santo screams Bible versus and lobs grenades at scattering soldiers. After all the adrenaline has worn out, Damiani and company begin pumping in the politics, whispering warnings about the United States meddling in the conflicts of other countries and even calling to mind the raging Vietnam War. It also flirts with an anti-capitalist message, especially with the character of Bill looking to fill his pockets off the Mexican Revolution. It is hard to fault A Bullet for the General for trying to send a message and it is interesting to see an outside perspective on these issues, but it begins dragging its feet while doing it, coming almost to slow crawl as it drives its point home. It is definitely an awkward shift after all the gunfire and explosions that set the stage, but Damiani dares to keep these slower moments light and comical.
A Bullet for the General also benefits from some seriously entertaining and unforgettable performances. Volonté, who made his name playing sadistic gunslingers in Leone’s first two entries in his Dollars trilogy, is an absolutely delight as El Chuncho. His character’s progression is certainly interesting and he throws himself into it with a devil-may-care grin on his face. You just can’t help but love him as he tries to train bumbling peasants to fire a rifle, only to grow more and more frustrated with each passing second. It should also be said that the final image of his character is about as prevailing as they come, as it solidifies his character’s radical shift. Castel is grossly miscast as Bill, who tries to disguise his boyish face with icy glares and short monotone responses that are supposed to make us believe he is a grade-A hardass. Luckily, Volonté picks up his slack and really makes their relationship work. Kinski threatens to steal the show from Volonté as the deeply religious yet bloodthirsty El Santo. Kinski would go on to embrace that wild intensity in Sergio Corbucci’s grim and snowy spaghetti western The Great Silence, but here he embraces macho action star complete with bared chest and headband. Rounding out the players is Beswick, who wows with her natural beauty yet keeps us all in check with her skills with a weapon. She isn’t afraid to ride with the boys, which prevents her character from seeming like just a romantic distraction.
As far as spaghetti westerns go, A Bullet for the General may be one of the most entertaining of the genre. It packs a shocker of an ending and a pretty impressive twist with one of the main characters, one that really takes an emotional toll on the viewer. While you do hate to see the film slow down in the middle, it never misses a beat. It will have you chuckling and also hanging on the deepening relationship between El Chuncho and Bill. My favorite sequence of the entire film was the touching and pivotal moment between Bill, who is struck ill with Malaria, and El Chuncho, who plays doctor and protector while also discovering a dark secret about his friend. Overall, it may not be as well known as it should, but it is hard to wave off A Bullet for the General as a small effort in the spaghetti western genre. It may be stuck in the shadows of such films as the Dollars trilogy, Django, Duck, You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in the West, but it matches the epic scope of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West while keeping the action, the politics, and the character development flowing freely. Perhaps its biggest flaw is the casting of Castel, who just can’t really sell his character, but everything is so good, you’ll overlook it. A Bullet for the General is a groundbreaking film and a must-see for anyone who loves film or westerns.
A Bullet for the General is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.