During a torrential rainstorm on a dark, bone-chillingly cold night, a band of men guarding a cache of gold are all murdered by a masked outlaw gang. The marauders then enter the home of the leader, a married man with a family. He is the first to die, and after his wife and young daughter are brutally raped, they too are killed. But the marauders haven’t seen the little boy hiding in the shadows, witnessing his family’s violent demise. The house is burned to the ground, but the boy lives, storing the memory of the men who destroyed his family, until fifteen years pass, and the boy has become a man with an unquenchable thirst for revenge…
This dark, disturbing scene sets the stage for DEATH RIDES A HORSE, a gem of a Spaghetti Western directed with style by Giulio Petroni, made in 1967 but not released stateside until 1969. The genre was in full bloom at the time, thanks to Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” Trilogy , and Italian Westerns were everywhere during the late 60’s/early 70’s. Petroni weaves a spellbinding tale of vengeance, and though not often included in discussions of Great Spaghetti Directors (limited mainly to The Three Sergios: Leone, Corbucci , and Sollima ), his DEATH RIDEA S HORSE left me yearning to watch his other four genre entries: TEPEPA, A SKY FULL OF STARS FOR A ROOF, NIGHT OF THE SERPENT, and LIFE IS TOUGH, EH’ PROVIDENCE?.
American actor John Philip Law , whose career was bigger in Europe than his native land, plays the grown-up Bill Mecieta, now eager to track down the murderous thugs who slaughtered his family. Law was never an actor of great range, but he did brooding well, and is more than acceptable in the part. But there’s another important character in this revenge story: the gunman Ryan, released after spending fifteen years in prison, and out to hunt down his old companeros who framed him for robbery. He’s played by Lee Van Cleef, fresh off his appearances in Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY . Van Cleef, after years of struggle, was coming into his own after the success of the Leone films and Sollima’s THE BIG GUNDOWN . He would soon become one of the most iconic of Spaghetti Western stars, especially after the 1969 hit SABATA.
It becomes apparent that Bill and Ryan are after the same people, though for different reasons. Bill wants to form a partnership, but the older Ryan balks, telling the youngster there’s too much hate in him. The men play a cat-and-mouse game through most of the film, each fueled by his own desire to right the injustices done to them. We learn the former outlaws have now become prominent citizens in their respective towns, as when Ryan tracks Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson) to Holly Spring. Cavanaugh is the saloon and gambling czar there, and Ryan tries to shake him down for money. Ironically, Cavanaugh hires Bill to protect him from Ryan, but the older gunman’s much too cagey. Bill discovers Cavanaugh was once known as ‘Four Aces’ because of the tattoo on his chest… the same tattoo Bill saw during his family’s massacre! A violent gundown takes place in the saloon, with Bill victorious, and Ryan making the save.
The trail leads Ryan to Linden City, where banker Walcott (Luigi Pistilli) resides. Walcott is far more devious than Cavanaugh and traps Ryan, as his henchmen (led by Mario Brega) deliver a brutal beating, then Walcott robs his own bank, absconding with a million dollars and setting up Ryan as the fall guy. Ryan’s thrown in jail to wait for a date with the hangman, but Bill breaks him out, then leaves him behind to face the man who killed his mother in a Mexican cantina. He does the job, but is overtaken and tortured by Walcott and his crew, buried up to his neck in the blazing hot sun. Ryan arrives as the outlaws leave to search for him, freeing Bill and setting the stage for a climactic battle in a sandstorm, and a final confrontation as Bill realizes who Ryan truly is…
All this takes place under the keen eye of Petroni and DP Carlo Carlini, with the beautifully rugged Andalusia scenery perfectly framed. The shot composition and fluid camera movement are matched by a top-notch Ennio Morricone score, heavy on guitars, bass drum, and flute. It’s a masterful piece of work, with both Law and Van Cleef at their steely-eyed best. Like I said earlier, DEATH RIDES A HORSE left me craving more Giulio Petroni Westerns, and once you see this terrific film for yourselves, you’ll be reserving your seats on the Petroni train, too.
This post is part of The Great Western Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts. Saddle up and check out the other sagebrush entries by following this link: https://thoughtsallsorts.wordpress.com/