Written by: Ron Cotton on July 27th, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, 1968
Director: Giulio Petroni
Writer: Luciano Vincenzoni
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli
DVD released: July 9th, 2002
Approximate running time: 114 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3 Pan and Scan
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English
DVD Release: Brentwood
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $9.98
“Somebody once wrote that revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold. Hot as you are, you’re liable to end up with indigestion.” – Ryan
On a dark and stormy night, thunder strikes as a band of cowboys seek cover from the weather in a small quiet town. They keep their eyes peeled because they have a stagecoach with 200,000 dollars. A gritty gang, all riding on horseback disposes of the caravan riders, four of the gang split up seeking solace in a family’s home. Killing the husband, they take liberties with the wife and daughter and kill them as well. As this is taking place, a boy watches the whole event, remembering details of their unique tattoos and jewelry. One later joins the four men, saving the child from the burning building. The boy later clutches on a spur lost by one of those wretched men. As the boy watches his former home burn to ashes, he cries in the cruel lonely night, wishing for revenge. That boys name is Bill.
Now 15 years later, that innocent youthful Bill becomes an adult. He’s dead on his mark, and if it can take bullets, he’s the sharpshooter who can shoot it. Now a prisoner in a chain gang after being turned in by his compatriots, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) is released from prison after serving 15 years. Ryan also seeks revenge, but he only begs for monetary reimbursement. He visits Bill’s parents grave and pays his respects to both the dead and Bill. Ryan will become a thorn on Bill’s side. Ryan corners Cavanough in his gambling saloon and expects fifteen-thousand dollars, a thousand dollars for every year he was in jail by the next day. Later that same day, Bill comes into the tavern, starts a fight, and instead of being sent to prison, gets hired by Cavanough to dispose of Ryan for five hundred. He half-heartedly tries but fails because Bill is simply too green while Ryan is seasoned. Bill discovers that he’s one of the men who killed his family and returns the favor to Cavanough before Ryan has a chance to get his money. Now, it becomes a game of cat and mouse as Ryan and Bill up the ante as who gets there first. But Walcott (Luigi Pistilli) is a more serious advisory than one thought and has some plans of his own.
Italians capture all the sweat-laced realism of a violent western frontier filled with greedy, unsavory vagabonds unlike the previous old Hollywood westerns. Hollywood simplistically dramatized black is evil, white is good, and good always prevailed. Many criticize all too well that Hollywood made a mockery of the genre while Italians created an art form. Death Rides A Horse has all the trademarks of a legendary spaghetti western, its cast and crew are similar to those in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Actors Luigi Pistilli and Lee Van Cleef, Writer Luciano Vincenzoni, and Music by Ennio Morricone all give a gritty ambiance of this vengeance story. John Philip Law accurately plays the nephrite self-made gunslinger Bill who seeks revenge on the five who raped and brutally killed his family. Quentin Taranitino later paid homage to this film using these elements and a segment of the musical score in his double feature, Kill Bill. The Morricone score acts out the actors intentions, sets the scene, and at times is more telling than the dialog. Director Guilio Petroni and Cameraman Carlo Carlini did a good job of recreating the touch of Sergio and isn’t a deliberate facsimile. One of my favorite cinematic scenes is when Bill forces Cavanough to play cards. The camera pans about all the players at the table. Once the cards are laid on the table, he rips open his shirt to expose his tattoo, proving he assisted in killing his family.
This United Artists release originally in Technicolor and Techniscope has been reduced to a pan and scan public domain budget release. It plays frequently on Turner Movie Classic a restored print that maintains the films original Widescreen ratio. However, the TCM website sells the DVD in pan & scan. The only audio option is in English with No Subtitles. Having only a simple text scrolling biography of Lee Van Cleef, this bare bones DVD is featureless. Death Rides a Horse is part of Brentwood’s 4 movies set Gunslingers.
Although his movie is a bargain bin movie, at the moment, it’s perhaps the best transfer we have. This movie is essential to Morricone, Van Cleef, and Pistilli fans, as well as those who love spaghetti westerns. It’s sad that Sergio directed only a handful of movies, yet this spaghetti western can help fuel your hunger.