Death Rides a Horse – 1967

Continuing on from earlier, the second half of a spaghetti western double feature.

I’ve come to the opinion that you can’t have a spaghetti western without a score by Ennio Morricone. Just can’t do it. I remember watching Hang ‘Em High right after seeing the Dollars Trilogy, and y’know, its music stood out too much—pure Hollywood bombast. Morricone’s music has its own epic bombast, but a unique vibe all of its own: twangy guitars, warbled animal howls, mournful choral interludes. Without Morricone’s score, it’s just another western. Of course, it helps if you have a hardboiled anti-hero, minimalism in design and dialogue, gritty noir tropes, and a strong kinetic energy that was otherwise lacking in the flagging western genre in the ’60s. And you hit the pure spaghetti western definition when it involved American actors filming overseas for Italian cinemas.

Death Rides a Horse – 1967

“Vengeance is a dish that must be eaten cold.”

As a child, Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law) saw his family murdered—the women raped—before his eyes. Growing up with vengeance in his heart and his hand quick to his gun, he vowed to track down the men involved. Things begin to heat up when gunman Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) is released from a chain gang, and returns to the town where he was betrayed. I think you can see where this is going. The two rivals eventually form an uneasy friendship: the old gunfighter and the young gun, a complex relationship between mentor and pupil, with bad blood between them.

Lee Van Cleef was born to chew scenery; I’m at a loss to think of a point where he didn’t deliver a great performance. I’m less impressed with John Phillip Law, who has the demanding presence of Van Cleef or Eastwood, but not the voice or acting chops. I wouldn’t say he’s bad in this role, but that he didn’t convince me. He’s kind of like a stolid, monotone John Wayne Lite, which I guess has some appeal. On the bright side, there’s not as much dialogue in the film, relying more on action and visuals.

The movie’s pacing starts off slow, with an air of looming dread beginning with the gothic horror-style murder in a pouring rainstorm. The two main characters start off beset by rivalry, each trying to get to their quarry first—Ryan wants to extort them before killing them, to get the fat stacks of cash they took from Bill’s father, and Bill just wants to shoot all of them. But patience will be rewarded, first with the two characters’ relationship building in interesting ways, and then with the suitable explosive finale, with the two gunslingers taking on the old posse and their mob of mooks. Outmanned, outgunned, but not out for the count, it’s a great shootout set-piece to end things once and for all.

There are a few parts that fly over the top, even for a B-movie. Early on, there’s a scene of Bill shooting, to show off his prowess, and it’s little more than unabashed gun-porn. I didn’t count the shots, but I’m pretty sure he’s got Hollywood specials, since he’s blazing away at eight or ten shots per pistol—and hitting with incredible accuracy. Recurring flashbacks recall the murder sequence when Bill sees some telltale mark that points out a killer, one of the few instances where John Phillip Law shows a sliver of emotion. The coolest is near the finale; after walking through a graveyard of half-buried mummified heads in the middle of a dessicated Mexican town, John Phillip Law’s Bill himself is buried alive by the bandits. (No, that doesn’t count as a spoiler since it’s in the trailer.)

The Morricone main theme is a lot rougher; a jaunty guitar track strumming along like a wild pony, overlapped by the screeching flute, which bleeds into a vocal chant that makes a lot more sense when you know the lyrics. Overall pretty good, but I’m not a huge fan of the screechy flutes—it’s unnerving, which fits with the theme at least.

This was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite spaghetti westerns, making his top-20 list and getting referenced in Kill Bill a lot. I thought it was good; maybe not that good, but a contender nonetheless. It’s an excellent film with a lot of unique twists, such as the impromptu father-son relationship between the two main stars, and the perfect epic showdown. Death Rides a Horse is a fine spaghetti western, something that fans of the genre will love, but not a requirement for those outside that group.


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