Starring: James Coburn, Bud Spencer, Telly Savalas

Director: Tonino Valerii
Released: 1972

Mood: If you’re really into movies about expendable action guys or just get a kick out of double-crossing people and want to watch a Civil War Western that’s all of that and more.


After watching the hilarious They Call me Trinity, I was on a quest for MOAR BUD SPENCER. This man brings so much to the screen! So imagine my total friggin’ delight when I found a movie with Spencer and the mighty James Coburn – A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die.


Here you have a Spaghetti Western with a similar premise as The Dirty Dozen: a group of men condemned to death by the Union army are given a second chance, if they’ll go on a suicide mission to recapture the fictitious Fort Holman from the Rebs.


Here’s the catch. Their leader is a disgraced former colonel who gave up that fort without a single shot fired.


This movie is riddled with tension from start to finish. It manages to be an action movie while withholding much of the action until the epic final battle. Coburn and Spencer are absolutely brilliant, and the whole thing is driven by a fantastic score by Riz Ortolani.


The DVD is super cheap on Amazon, so there’s no excuse to sleep on this Western.


photo of the Reason to Live, a Reason to Die DVD


A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die opens with footage of the burning wreckage of a brutal Civil War battle. It then tells the story of how only two men survived, in a shocking match between eight wily losers and an “impregnable” fortress occupied by the Confederate Army.


Col. Pembroke (James Coburn) is a disgraced and much-loathed man who recently escaped the Rebs. He suggests to Major Charles Ballard (José Suárez) that he could recapture the same fort he gave up for reasons unknown. Ballard is his bestie, and the benefits to the Union are huge, so Ballard agrees.


Pembroke asks for 12 good men (hello, Dirty Dozen!), but gets his pick of a bunch who literally have nooses around their necks. Among them are looters, horse thieves, a murderer and rapist, and the affable but “unidentifiable” Eli Sampson (Bud Spencer). Each man who agrees is set free, and voluntold to join them is a super-rude sergeant (Reinhard Kolldehoff) who hates Pembroke.


Everyone in this group of deviants treats Pembroke like shit for his reputation. But Pembroke never once sinks to their taunting, jeering level. He overpowers their attempts at mutiny with his quick-draw skills and the aid of Eli, so the audience is kept wondering exactly what he did, and why.


All is revealed in just a few minutes of dialogue before the final showdown, and trust that this is a showdown for the AGES. If you like heists, war movies, Westerns, or action in general, you will absolutely enjoy the violent, bloody death toll as A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die battles through its final scenes.


illustration of a fancy moustache


James Coburn gives you everything you need as Col. Pembroke:


  • Smoldering man with a haunted past? Check.
  • Action from scaling rock faces to lightning-fast draws and hurling dynamite? Check.
  • Duplicitous strategist against everyone involved? Check and check.

Because I love Coburn, I spent the entire movie desperate to know why he gave up the fort. And the payoff for that desperation is utterly perfect in its execution.


You get this slow-boiling buildup that makes you constantly doubt your instincts, because of Coburn’s stoic manner and changeable personality. One minute you think you detect some vulnerability, but then BAM! He’s ready to throw y’all under the bus to achieve his own goal.


Honestly, this is my favourite Coburn role I’ve seen to date. It even trumps my all-time fave, Maverick, and it’s really saying something to top that role opposite my beloved James Garner.


Bud Spencer is so delightfully sweet and reliable in this movie that they apparently marketed it in Germany as a comedy. Spencer, real name Carlo Pedersoli, does provide laughs throughout the film.


But it’s not like other Westerns that throw in comic relief that detracts from the plot (oh hey, Comanche Moon). Spencer delivers his trademark ‘big lug’ force and burgeoning muscles that split uniform seams, but you also get to see him as Pembroke’s trusted ally to infiltrate the fort. This movie reaffirmed my love of Spencer.


Telly Savalas is only present toward the end as Major Ward, and while he did a great job I do think the role could have been played better by other actors. Savalas is distinctly European in his look and vibe, and if you’re a leader of the Confederate Army, you should probably look and sound Southern. I’m just sayin’.


illustration of a fancy moustache


A Reason to Live, a Reason To Die was filmed in Spain’s province of Almería, which you’ll quickly recognize as the ‘Old West frontier’ from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West.


The movie has more character-building than you’d expect from a Spaghetti Western, but it’s not slow. Even when the characters are working toward their ultimate destination, there’s so much drama within the team of criminals that you always have little fights going on.


I haven’t seen The Dirty Dozen, but I don’t think this movie is a rip-off as other reviews claim. The concept is similar, and everyone is expendable, but you get so much story-building with Pembroke that you’re riveted right to the end.


There’s no military training time wasted on this group of death row shitheads – you launch right into the mission with no clear strategy; it’s all trusted to, and slowly revealed by, Pembroke. He’s definitely an antihero, lying to everyone on both sides at all times, and acting as a one-man army. Only Eli has any concept of what’s really happening, and only right before all hell breaks loose.


And there is SO MUCH GORE at the hand of several gatling guns! At one point I think they even repeated footage of the same gunfire and I didn’t even care. I appreciated the rapid acceleration of action and lack of concern for everyone as fodder.


I don’t know what else to say except that if you love Coburn, Spencer, and Spaghetti Westerns, you definitely need to see this movie.


Also, read this bizarre review of The Dirty Dozen from Roger Ebert. I thought it would give me insight into the movie’s premise and potential relation to A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die, but instead I’m super confused if Ebert was on drugs, being sarcastic… or just really loved watching bodies burn.


It’s the weirdest review I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something because clearly I’m a weirdo film critic.