A Bullet For The General Review
When the Hollywood Western discovered its liberal conscience as the sixties turned into the seventies – in films such as Little Big Man and Solider Blue - it was, typically, hanging onto the coat-tails of the Italian Western. However, equally typically, the American version watered down the radical politics of the original and concentrated on a bland humanitarianism which informed us how horrible the White Man was to the Indian Peoples and encouraged audiences to wallow in their own sense of collective guilt. In contrast, when the Italian Western turned political, it did so with fire and energy in a series of films set during the Mexican Revolution. These works, which emerge from a small group of radically committed left-wing filmmakers and actors, build on the familiar settings and plots of the earlier Spaghettis – especially the Leone trilogy and Sergio Corbucci’s Django - in order to make an explicit anti-capitalist and, more provocatively, anti-American statement.
The following review contains spoilers for the film.
Damiano Damiani’s 1966 film Quien Sabe?, generally known in English as A Bullet For The General, was the first of the explicitly political Spaghetti Westerns, preceding Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown by a few months. It uses what was to become a familiar narrative structure. An American – in this case Bill Tate (Castel) – comes into contact with a Mexican bandit – El Chuncho (Volonte) – and the two men develop a rapport, although Tate has an agenda of his own which he does not reveal to his new friend. El Chuncho and his religious brother Santo (Kinski) slowly develop a political consciousness which moves beyond the Revolution into an awareness of the inevitability of political struggle between the peasants and their capitalist oppressors. The bandits have stolen arms which they intend to sell to the revolutionaries but along the way, El Chuncho gradually comes to realise his potential to become a revolutionary hero, killing a powerful landowner and persuading his peasants to form themselves into an army. However, his new political enlightenment leads him into conflict with Tate who has come to Mexico on the orders of the American government to kill the revolutionary leader General Elias.
A Bullet For The General was adapted by Franco Solinas, an Italian communist who is best known for his screenplays for Pontecorvo - The Battle of Algiers and Quiemada! - and Costa-Gavras - State of Siege. The central theme of his work on Italian Westerns – he also contributed to The Big Gundown and A Professional Gun - is the idea of the corrupting force of American interventionism, something which has remained a relevant issue in the forty years since A Bullet For The General was released. The ‘Gringo’, an American outsider who initially has no interest in Mexico beyond those which profit his own country, is a figure who is treated differently in the various films. In this film, he is irredeemable and it’s his betrayal of El Chuncho’s new revolutionary fervour – which he has coldly manipulated for his own ends – that leads the film to its unforgettably powerful climax. The character of Tate is intended to be associated with anti-Communist CIA intervention, something which is demonstrated clearly when the film is looked at in the context of Solinas’ other work. Throughout A Bullet For The General, capital and land are associated inextricably with corruption and oppression and there is only one way for the peasant to respond; with physical force, preferably backed up by a machine gun. El Chuncho learns this lesson the hard way when he discovers that the peasant army of the small town San Miguel, which he has rescued from their brutal landowner and trained, has been massacred after he deserted them to run after the money from the arms sale. The final scene, when El Chuncho tells a peasant to buy dynamite instead of bread, is still pretty radical now and must have seemed positively treasonous to many Western viewers in the late 1960s. There’s another agenda operating here. Solinas and the Italian director Damiano Damiani wanted to specifically reference Elia Kazan’s obnoxiously anti-Communist Viva Zapata! and refute the simplicities it offered. The problem, as in most of the Political Spaghettis, is that the anti-Communism isn’t replaced with anything much more sophisticated. To be fair, the Gringo/Revolutionary dialectic of Damiani’s film is made considerably more complex in later films, especially the exceptional Face To Face, but there’s still a sense – quite typical of extreme left-wing filmmakers – that they have replaced the Communist bogeymen with Capitalist bogeymen in a way which often seems like a simple substitution.
However, Damiani’s film is often extremely impressive. He handles the 2.35:1 frame with an epic sweep which recalls Leone’s work and some of his set-pieces are immensely exciting. The lengthy attack on the train which opens the film is wonderfully gripping and immediately immerses the viewer in the narrative. Damiani and his writer know how to involve you with characters and do some of their best work with El Chuncho and his brother Santo. It helps a good deal that El Chuncho is played by Gian Maria Volonte, an actor who can suggest immense depths within the most schematic of characters. At first, you cringe because Volonte seems to be going way over the top with the ‘Meskin’ clichés but as the film goes on he develops into a believable, touching figure and his relationship with Tate is the heart of the film. The scenes in which he nurses Tate through an attack of malaria are delicately poignant and Volonte develops genuine heroic stature. It’s just a shame that he’s stuck with Lou Castel, otherwise known as Luigi Castellato, an actor of obviously limited range and very little presence. Volonte has better luck with the enjoyable extravagant Klaus Kinski, here developing the mannerisms which would blossom in Corbucci’s marvellous The Great Silence, and the gorgeous, ambivalent Martine Beswick playing a woman who was raped by the gang but was soon assimilated into the group to become one of them. However, Castel remains a real problem. The plot demands that an interdependence develop between Tate and El Chuncho and that Tate’s betrayal has a shattering effect on the bandit, but you simply can’t believe that Castel is even in the same film, let alone having a credible friendship with Volonte.
Visually, the film resembles a lot of other Spaghetti Westerns. Of course, this is one of the things which we followers of the genre relish and, in a funny way, the familiar locations of Spain standing in for the American West and Mexico are as distinctive as the use of Monument Valley in John Ford’s work. When Sergio Leone combined the two in Once Upon A Time In The West it was a moment of transcendent rightness. The widescreen cinematography by Antonio Secchi is atmospheric enough, although not as distinctive as Enzo Barboni’s work on the contemporary Django. It’s certainly Secchi’s best work and much of the rest of his filmography consists of mediocre exploitation movies. Luis Bacalov provides a rich and memorable music score which is very much in the spirit of Morricone’s work in the genre – unsurprising perhaps since it was supervised by Morricone himself.
A Bullet For The General is an exciting, intelligent Western and seems, to some extent, to have been at least a minor influence on Sam Peckinpah’s great movie set during the Revolution, The Wild Bunch. It gains from the controlled direction of Damiani who refuses to indulge in the grandiose sadism of some of his contemporaries. I’ve always found it a little baffling that Damiani’s later career fizzled out so spectacularly since this Western and his Italian crime movies are quite superb.
Argent Films’ release of A Bullet For The General is the third of their Spaghetti Western Trail discs to be released on Region 2.
The film is framed in its original Techniscope ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. I was a little disappointed by the picture quality. Although the colours are very strong and there’s plenty of fine detail evident, there’s a serious downside. Print damage is frequently present in the form of small scratches and occasional white speckling and there’s an overall level of grain which is needlessly excessive. Some blocky artifacting is also present within the slightly washed-out blacks. I didn’t think this was a match for the Anchor Bay US release of the film.
The soundtrack is, however, more than adequate. A 2 channel Mono presentation, it has a lush music track and clear dialogue. The film has been dubbed into English but this isn’t too intrusive. No other language track is offered on the disc and there are no subtitles.
The Anchor Bay disc offered only a theatrical trailer in the way of extras. Argent Films have tried a little harder. Along with the trailer and trailers for the other films in their Spaghetti Western collection, we get two short featurettes. The first is a fascinating 17 minute interview with Damiano Damiani during which he repeats his oft-quoted insistence that this is not a Western but a serious political statement about revolution. Damiani speaks in Italian and is subtitled in English. This is a very interesting interview for fans of the film and Damiani comes across very clearly as an intelligent and eloquent man. The second featurette is a 6 minute piece on the film by Alex Cox which is, as you’d expect, fascinating and insightful, cramming as much into 6 minutes as some commentaries manage to include in a couple of hours. This seems to have been filmed at the same time as his other pieces for Argent going by the background and Cox’s clothing.
The film is divided into 12 chapter stops and there are some very striking animated menus. No subtitles are included for the film unfortunately but Damiani’s Italian language interview is subtitled in English.
I think A Bullet For The General is essential viewing for fans of Westerns and it richly rewards multiple viewings. Fans of the film will probably already own the Anchor Bay release but they may well be interested in the extra features on this new release. Newcomers will have to decide whether to choose the superior picture quality of the R1 disc or the better extra features on the R2 disc. Personally, I’m rather happy to own both.