Monday, September 13, 2010

Death Rides a Horse (1967)

by Jimmy "On a Steel Horse I Ride" Callaway

See, the thing about the western genre, what could keep it relevant if more writers/artists wanted to, is that there are no social constraints. The wild, wild west, regardless whether it's a colonial fiction, was where individuals were forced to survive as individuals. The trappings of civilization, like an effective system of justice, were all but negligible. Therefore, the western is the perfect vehicle for explorations of retaliation and justice, revenge and vengeance.

The spaghetti western seems to take this most to heart, utilizing the charcoal-gray morality of a time and place in which you had to worry more about being eaten by mountain lions than which fork to use at the dinner table. When it comes to the action-revenge flick (which this li'l ol' site will be concentrating on), you needn't go much further than Roma in the late '60s.

Death Rides a Horse features who I would consider the quintessential spaghetti western star (not counting Ennio Morricone)(who also happens to "star" in this): Lee Van Cleef. Or as I often refer to him: "Fuckin' Lee Van Cleef, man!" Yeah, I know Eastwood and all that, but Van Cleef was way more of a bad-ass in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sure, Clint looked tough with that cigarillo, but Van Cleef could smoke a pipe and make it look tough. Do you have any idea how difficult that is?

Anyways, this also features a young John Phillip Law. When I first saw this about five years ago, I remember being impressed by how good he was compared to twenty years later in Space Mutiny. But as so often happens, I was dead wrong. Still, at least Reb Brown's not in this.

The story is fairly simple, but I like it's two-pronged approach to frontier justice. Back at the Mesita Ranch, young Bill's family is slaughtered before his eyes by a group of hoods for being really blonde. It's not the most disturbing murder/almost-rape scene ever, but it's pretty gross, and it has that zoom-effect with tense music as Bill memorizes a little something about each (a scar, an earring, etc.), so it can be played back to us later on in case we're dumb (which we are, speaking personally)(and for most of you). A kind stranger pulls Bill out of the burning ranch so he can grow up and be our protagonist.

Fifteen years later, Ryan gets out of the joint, and he's looking to get even with his gang who double-crossed him and landed him in hard labor. Natch, this is the same gang Bill is looking to settle the score with, and it becomes kinda like The Cannonball Run to see who can get revenge on each of these guys first.

What struck me the most about watching this again is how well-balanced these characters are despite their major differences. At first, it looks like Ryan is gonna win out since not only does he have more experience with this life than does young Bill, but he's also more dispassionate about it. He's looking to bleed these guys for their cash, and not for their...well, blood. Bill, on the other hand, is driven by these hateful emotions, and while one certainly can't blame him, early on we see how destructive this sort of thing is, when Bill ditches out on a fine woman and a good job in order to hunt these guys down.

Ryan beats Bill to Cavanaugh's saloon and braces him for fifteen large. It's just business here: one thousand dollars for every year Ryan was in prison. Of course, Cavanaugh is a little reticent to pony up, so he hires a drifter to kill Ryan. But whoops, that drifter is Bill. Once young Bill puts two and two together (it takes him a while, y'know, education wasn't so important back then), he puts a round or three into Cavanaugh, and now Ryan's out that dough.

Next up is Walcott, the head bastard, who is now a big-time banker and politician as a front for his ne'er-do-well-ness. A lot of these flicks, having been produced in those tumultuous 1960s, often make a show of this corruption in authority, but really, that sort of thing transcends that time for me. Walcott is a lot smarter than his underlings, so he manages to see Ryan coming and sets him up to hang for bank robbery. And here we see the downside of Ryan's way of thinking: if he had just shot Walcott like Bill had planned instead of trying to blackmail him, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble. So even though going with your gut often seems irrational or leads to irrational behavior, in this case Ryan outsmarted himself. Luckily, young Bill springs him from prison, and the race is on again.

Bill ends up in a little Mexican village, which happens to be under the sway of a band of outlaws, who also happen to be Walcott and his gang. They get the jump on Bill, even though he manages to take out yet another of his tormentors. They give Bill the old Indian burial, up to his neck in the dirt and leave him to die. But Ryan shows up and saves him.

By this point, it's obvious that these two are just going to have to put their differences aside and work together. So they do the big Santo Poco thing and get the villagers to help and to help themselves. Without giving away the ending, we see that the path to revenge is largely a foolish one, an egomaniacal one. What Bill finds out is that even given the horrendous events of his childhood, not everything was as black and white, these-boys-need-killin' as he thought. And speaking generally, the actions of the evil will eventually be their own undoing. Sure, they may get away with it for a long time, but basically, if you do evil shit, evil shit will more than likely happen to you. It's not karma, really; it's just logic.

What I think really brings this out well in the film is the use of the wind and duststorms at the end. Because of all the turbulence and detritus, Bill's vision is obscured, and he lashes out blindly. Once the wind stops and the dust settles, he sees where he was mistaken, where things look a lot different. That may be a long way to go for an above-average spaghetti western, but it's there to be seen.

This movie was a little more boring than I remembered it from years back, but I still highly recommend it. Try and get a decent copy, though. Mine is from the cut-out bin, public-domain style, so it's a really terrible transfer/pan-&-scan version. But if you find it for a buck down at the Big Lots, grab it up.