Friday, January 2, 2009

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1967) d. Damiano Damiani

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

“Ballots not bullets” has long been a saying describing the democratic philosophy of American politics, but that has not always been the case in this country nor is that statement sovereign for most of the rest of the world. When it comes to Westerns, bullets are often the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a leader, solving a dilemma, answering a question or even having fun. While the appeal of the American Frontier has long been the siren call for film makers, Mexico and its turbulent culture and history is sometimes more fertile ground for a truly ripping western tale. John Huston’s TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is just one of dozens of classic tales of the passions and lawless savagery of life in the Mexican hinterlands. When you take a story cut from Mexico’s garish cloth and mingle it with the unmistakable flair of Italian film making, you have an undeniably powerful combination. A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is a film that succeeds brilliantly on many fronts and should please even the most finicky of connoisseurs of the “Western” cinematic genre.

Set during the bloodiest days of “The Feast of Death” (aka The Mexican Revolution) of the early 20th Century, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is the story of a band of revolutionary cutthroats who are somewhat more powerfully motivated by greed as much as they are by political conviction. Led by “El Chucho” who raids Federal trains to steal weapons for Senor Elias, Chucho makes the acquaintance of a young American whom he dubs “Nino” and who joins this gang of bandits. It is not long before “Nino’s” ideas permeate Chucho’s band and one bloody but successful raid after another nets a large cache of rifles, ammunition and even a machine gun for Senor Elias, all of which should bring a colossal reward. It is at the height of their achievement that members of Chucho’s bunch of hooligans begin to have different thoughts about their aims and their futures, even as it becomes obvious that “Nino” has his own unfathomable plans. Deception, murder and avarice combine to tear apart El Chucho’s mob even as the big payday approaches.

From the very first musical strains and shots of a locomotive chuffing through a desolate Mexican landscape, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL feels as authentic as any western I have ever seen. Excellent dubbing, a superb cast of principal characters supported by dozens of extras that look like they were pulled from the hills above Vera Cruz, startlingly genuine looking costumes, sets and props and a fantastic score blend together inexorably to paint a rich and amazingly flavorful repast of Revolutionary Mexico replete with poverty, passion, violence and venality. While A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL lacks some of the panoramic beauty more typical of most “Spaghetti Westerns”, there are some sweeping vistas and sun-drenched scenes in the last one-third of the movie, but that is not what makes up for the landscape-art deficiency. Each scene is carefully composed and sports a mix of expressive close-ups, balanced group shots and energetic action sequences that evoke a wide variety of emotions. Even though the imagery seems at the onset to be the greatest strength of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL and is a constant force throughout, it is the story that sneaks up on the viewer and leaves a lasting impression by the end.

Over the first half of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, there is a curious mix of light-hearted humor in the actions and dialogue of the characters, bloodthirsty violence laced with an odd feeling of a romp, and a deepening undercurrent of political commentary. The pace of the narrative begins slowly but with clear purpose and as each raid progresses and the character interplay intensifies, the momentum increases irresistibly, developing an undeniably savory stew of daring, dirty deeds, exuberance and primal energy. Even as the plot begins to progressively coalesce and gain power, the mood begins to subtly shift in such a clever and infinitesimal fashion that it is hard to catch the darker tones that are woven into the tale at first, but they are there all the same and finally begin to forcefully assert themselves. Before long, an unquestionable streak of seriousness has arisen and it takes A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL in an unexpected but deeply satisfying direction. There are clear dollops of foreshadowing that allow any alert viewer to guess some of what is coming, but other elements of the story are carefully hidden until they are brought forth to move the plot through twists that keeps the story fresh and full of life.

Another engaging trait of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is the fabulous admixture of well-scripted characters supported by excellent casting and fine performances. Gian Maria Volonte steals the show as the mercurial, wacky and yet murderous trickster “El Chucho” and the depth and complexity of a character that starts out as a seemingly stereotypical “Mexican Bandit” turns into a human force that helps to propel the intricacy of the entire motion picture. While not a sizable role, Klaus Kinski gets to portray Chucho’s brother “El Santo” and he adds his own inimitably blended veneer of intensity, creepiness and acting expertise that has never quite been surpassed. No one can ever say that they left a film in which Klaus Kinski played a part and did not exit that movie with an icy blue gaze stabbing daggers into their soul. Lou Castel is the baby-faced, cold-blooded “Nino” and plays his part with an understated, rapier-thin impact that is a perfect foil for the unpredictable and childlike mayhem of “El Chucho”. Finally, there is the dark and intoxicating beauty of Martine Beswick as Adelita, whose barely suppressed emotions seethe and simmer under the more maniacal and masculine capering of the thugs. Despite the peasant clothes and “bandita” facade over her lethal loveliness, Ms. Beswick’s presence is like adding crystal stemware to a fried chicken picnic, and the amplified elegance only aids the overall outcome.

As is typical of older European fare of any genre, bonus features are not always easy to come by. Whether it is due to many of the cast and crew not being well known to Americans, or not being terribly easy to locate and assemble for reminiscences, and/or having gone to their heavenly reward, there are no interviews or old promotional clips to be had. All that is available are the original international and U.S. theatrical trailers. When dealing with a film that is more than 40 years old, such lacks are almost always unavoidable, but also deeply sorrowful, for Lou Castel and Martine Beswick are still alive and at least in the case of Ms. Beswick, still available for comment as she has been on some of the MGM releases of the older James Bond films. While probably a costly tidbit to add, her recollections of working with Gian Maria Volonte and Klaus Kinski are likely to be priceless as would be her anecdotes about filming a western in Italy. As each year passes and we lose first-hand accounts of such experiences, a little more of our precious cinematic history is lost. At least Blue Underground has brought us this inestimable jewel known as A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL so that others can enjoy it too.

When I look at the children in my classroom each year, I wonder how many of them will eventually come to embrace the splendor of “The Western” and I worry that it may be few or none. I was lucky enough to have essential training on the subject in the form of television shows like The Rifleman and Have Gun Will Travel, which led me to graduate from the school of gun fighting and then move on to upper level studies in American and then European “westerns”. I can’t imagine a world where generations of children will not know the joy of sitting down to watching dirty, dusty degenerates disagreeing violently over land or water rights, or cattle or other commodities on the frontier and then settling their differences with gunplay. That may seem barbaric to modern audiences, but after watching A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, I am fairly certain that sitting through Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Simple Life is a far more primitive way of spending time than seeing a beautifully crafted film from a genre that deserves our glorification.

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