Written by: Michael Den Boer on August 18th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, 1968
Director: Giulio Petroni
Writer: Luciano Vincenzoni
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli
DVD released: August 15th, 2005
Approximate running time: 110 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 15 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono German, Dolby Digital Mono French, Dolby Digital Mono Italian, Dolby Digital Mono Spanish
Subtitles: English, German
DVD Release: MGM (UK)
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: $23.95
Synopsis: Five bandits seek refuge after they rob a stagecoach that was transporting 200,000 dollars. Four of the five bandits find sanctuary from the nasty storm that is brewing outside in an out of the farm. The mood quickly turns ugly as the men start to molest the wife and daughter angering the husband who fights back which only further enrages the men who then slaughter the whole family. A fifth man arrives as the other four are putting the final touches on their massacre as they burn the home to the ground. Hiding in the corner all of this time is a young boy named Bill who is now the only living witness. Flash forward fifteen years Bill is now a grown man and he is ready to exact his revenge on those who murdered his family. He must first find the men and his only clue is a spur left behind by one of the men. Around the same time one of the men Bill is looking for named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison after a fifteen year stay and he also has his own score to settle with his former partners. Will Bill finally be at peace once he achieves his goal or will his quest for vengeance forever change him?
Giulio Petroni only directed a handful of films over his twenty year career as a director. After the success of Sergio Leone’s a Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More the western genre would soon take over the Italian film industry over the next few years countless imitators would emerge which would lead to the over-saturation and demise of the Italian western. During the peak of the western genre in Italy Giulio Petroni would direct three westerns Tepepa, A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof and Death Rides a Horse which is regarded as his best film as a director. One of the reasons why Death Rides a Horse works so well is the brilliant screenplay which was written by Luciano Vincenzoni a man who is no stranger to the Italian western as he wrote or co-wrote For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Ugly, the Bad, The Mercenary and A Fistful of Dynamite.
From the films opening sequences it is obvious that Death Rides a Horse is not your typical western with its depiction of raping and killing woman and children. Even though this film has underlying tone of violence that drives the story there is also a distinct line that is drawn between the good and the bad guy which is something that makes Death Ride a Horse stand out in crowd of films that often dealt in the gray areas and never established the hero form the villain. Lee Van Cleef is one of the Italian westerns most iconic actors as the genre single handedly resurrected his career after he appeared in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More. In Death Rides a Horse he is self assured and always looks cool even when things aren’t going his way. The character Ryan has many similarities to the Frank Talby character Van Cleef played in Day of Anger most notable that they are both mentors to younger gunfighters who seek revenge.
In the lead role of Bill Meceita is actor John Phillip Law who is probably most remembered for his roles in the films Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella. At times John Phillip Law looks to wooden and when he tries to look angry his eyes betray the rest of his body language. I don’t know if it is his voice for the English dub of Death Rides a Horse and who ever they got sounds like a bad impersonation of John Wayne. Despite his shortcomings John Phillip Law, still manages a few really great moments like when he is buried in the ground with nothing more then his head above ground and the Ryan character has returned to rescue him. The look on his face when Ryan takes his sweet time to dig him back out of the ground is priceless. All of the best Italian westerns are blessed with strong supporting cast that offset the leads and Death Rides a Horse is a virtual whose who of supporting players including Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega, Anthony Dawson and José Torres. The look and atmosphere of Death Rides a Horse is heavily influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns. Not only actors that appeared in many of Leone’s films also appeared in Death Rides a Horse. There is also another key ingredient in the films composer Ennio Morricone who would write all the Leone westerns scores. Morricone’s score for Death Rides a Horse see him to continue to experiment as a composer. Some of the music in Death Rides a Horse would be used thirty five years later in the film Kill Bill which also borrows a few other elements from Death Rides a Horse including both films lead is named Bill and both film employ blood red flashback sequences. Giulio Petroni direction is solid at the action sequences are top notch and he keeps things interesting with a few amazing uses of the widescreen frame.
MGM presents Death Rides a Horse in anamorphic widescreen that preserves the films original aspect ratio. After being reduced to washed-out pan & scanned budget label versions through the years MGM finally gives fans of the film its first ever widescreen release on DVD. The image looks sharp as black levels remains strong through out. Colors look vivid and flesh tones look natural. There are no problems with compression and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum. Another positive about MGM’s single layer DVD it is progressive scan. The print used is in amazing shape and outside of a few nicks or specs of dirt it is virtually flawless.
This DVD comes with five audio options English, German, French, Italian and Spanish. All five are presented in a Dolby Digital mono. For this review I listed to the English audio track. The audio is razor sharp as it is always easy to hear and follow. The music and effects sound evenly mixed as they never drown the other out. There are no problems with hiss, distortion or any of sound defects. Overall this film sounds outstanding considering its age and mono limitations. The German and Italian audio tracks when I sampled then are in very good shape and on par with the English audio track. The French and Spanish audio tracks are not in as good as shape as the other as there is some noticeable hiss and distortion. French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Finnish subtitles have been included. This DVD also comes with English and German closed caption subtitles for the hard of hearing.
This DVD contains absolutely nothing in the extras department not even the films original trailer. While this is a film that begs for a special edition DVD I am just happy to finally hold in my hands a pristine looking widescreen transfer. One thing about this release that I found annoying was that there is a forced preview about piracy that cannot be skipped over and has to be watched every time you load the DVD. Also besides lack of extras the menu is very simplistic and if it wasn’t for MGM’s name on the DVD I would have thought an amateur made the menu. The difference in time between this release and the U.S. releases of Death Rides a Horse is solely due to PAL being 4% faster then NTSC and this release is completely uncut. Death Rides a Horse is one of the ten greatest Italian westerns ever made and until a proper special edition DVD comes along MGM’s release is a welcome addition, highly recommended.