The middle film in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, 1965’s For a Few Dollars More, is considered one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made and is also my personal favorite of the genre. Two years later, 1967’s Death Rides a Horse hit theaters, and hhmm, something sure seems familiar. Borrowing liberally from Leone’s earlier western, it uses the same basic storyline with some almost identical scenes. Thankfully it does enough to stand on its own.
At an isolated ranch where $100,000 is being guarded one rainy night, a gang of bandits and killers descend on the ranch, taking the money as they kill the guards and family. All except one that is…a young boy. Some 15 years later, the boy has grown up, and Bill (John Phillip Law), is looking for the men responsible for his family’s murder. A dead-shot with pistol or rifle, Bill is still inexperienced, but he has specific memories that will help him identify the killers without having seen their faces. As he travels though, he meets up with Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older gunman fresh out of prison. Their plans seem the same as both men are gunning for the same bandits. Will they work together or as foes?
Sounds like For a Few Dollars More, doesn’t it? The young gunslinger teaming with the older, more experienced gun-hand isn’t unique to just FAFDM, but it is an example of a movie that handles it really well. But in the wave of movies that were released after the Leone westerns, some similar stories popped up, and director Giulio Petroni uses that story as a jumping off point. Similar elements are there — the dynamic between characters, the blood-tinted flashbacks — but this is a movie that stands on its own. There’s a reason it is remembered as one of the best spaghetti westerns around. And wouldn’t you know it? This Lee Van Cleef guy is a big reason why.
By 1967, Van Cleef was a star thanks to the spaghetti western. He’d already starred in FAFDM, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Big Gundown, and with ‘Death’ adds another classic to his name. His Ryan is a slightly different version of Col. Mortimer, albeit a little more down on his luck. Even when his characters are in the right though, Van Cleef gave them a mean streak right up their back. He’s an anti-hero, but one you’re never sure of his intentions. Cool as gunfire starts, he knows what he wants and plans on getting it. Playing Colonel Mortimer for Leone is probably his most iconic role, but this is one of my favorites of his. Unfortunately John Phillip Law just can’t match Clint Eastwood’s part, but he does a respectable job as the revenge-seeking Bill. It’s hard to tell if it’s his acting or a bad dubbing, but wooden aptly describes the character. There is a chemistry with Van Cleef’s Ryan though and that goes a long way in saving the story.
So who should our revenge-seeking gunmen go after? ‘Death’ fills out a cast will plenty of recognizable faces, all just waiting to be picked off. Law’s Bill as a child saw little things he could remember about the killers; a tattoo, an earring, a scar, and now he’s looking for those clues. The killers include Luigi Pistilli as Walcott, now a respectable banker (saw him clearly), American actor Anthony Dawson as Cavanaugh (chest tattoo of four aces), a saloon owner and town boss, with two bandit brothers, including Jose Torres as Pedro (scar over his left eye) and Angelo Susani as Paco (an earring from his right ear that dangles). Also look for Mario Brega as one of Walcott’s henchmen, an actor continuing his trend of dying horrifically in spaghetti westerns, and Bruno Corazzari as another hapless henchmen. Don’t forget about him in the finale. Where is he hiding?
All the touches of a successful spaghetti western are here from the anti-heroes and the despicable villains to the dusty border towns and extreme close-ups. For a movie that’s 114 minutes though, it is not action-packed. The story builds up the tension as Bill and Ryan hunt down their revenge, but it’s rarely dull. Just don’t think you’re seeing two hours of shootouts and gunfights. The ending though is one of the more memorable finales of the genre; Bill and Ryan in an isolated Mexican mountain village shooting it out with Walcott’s men. A wind storm whips across the mountains, enveloping the town as sand, dirt and wind swirl around. If you were looking for action, this is the best place to find. Also worth mentioning, a twist that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it works nonetheless in terms of the two characters involved. Great finale, great ending.
Now in a spaghetti western, you’d be safe guessing that composer Ennio Morricone did the musical score, and here, you would be 100% correct. It never ceases to amaze me this man’s talents. Some scores had touches of familiarity, but his ‘Death’ score is unlike any other he did and in general, one of his most underrated scores from a long and distinguished career. Listen to the main theme HERE for an idea. Another sample comes late in the movie — dubbed Mystic and Severe — which you can listen to HERE and watch in context HERE. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of the score, using both those music cues in his movies Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds. A great score though to keep things moving in a great spaghetti western. Van Cleef was rarely better in bad-ass mode, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with too many that are better than this movie. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube, but the quality isn’t great.
Death Rides a Horse (1967): *** 1/2 /****