Starring: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law
Director: Giulio Petroni
Mood: If you’re mad at everyone and rather than sending angry emails you want to watch a couple of gunslingers go around doing a lot of revenge killing without feeling any regret whatsoever.
It took multiple tries to finally watch Death Rides a Horse, and this violent little Western was mostly worth the effort.
First I found a copy at a thrift store, one of those cheap double-feature DVDs. But even with my TV at max volume, I could barely distinguish the dialogue or see the characters’ faces due to the crappy quality, so after five minutes I quit. The same thing happened with a copy borrowed from a local library.
This is one dark movie. You can count the smiles on one hand. Two men are out for revenge, lots of bad guys get killed, and Lee Van Cleef is the master of the squinty stare.
Oh sure, it had been done before. It was written by Luciano Vincenzoni, who co-wrote For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but had a huge falling out with Sergio Leone and left his team to make this movie. For all we know, Leone was the intended director for this script.
But that’s the thing – if you like that style of storytelling and cinematography, Death Rides a Horse is a top-notch Spaghetti Western. It’s light on plot and huge on action, which is sometimes exactly what you want on a winter weeknight.
Death Rides a Horse opens with a posse of bad men riding up on a homestead. They burst inside, shoot the father, and molest the mother and daughter before also shooting them. A small boy had been hiding and witnesses the terror. He notices distinct marks or accessories on each of the bandits, and vows revenge.
Fast forward 15 years. A man named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) is released from jail, and immediately sets out to kill the men who framed him. It’s nearly 20 minutes into the movie before Ryan speaks, he just communicates his badassery through long stares (hmm, just like how nobody spoke for the first 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West?). He doesn’t even have a last name, or maybe Ryan IS his last name. He’s like Cher.
For some reason Ryan rides to the homestead where the family was murdered. He meets the son, Bill (John Phillip Law), all grown up and now an amazing gunslinger. The two men part ways, but soon end up on the same journey, hunting the same men – the ones who killed Bill’s family, and framed Ryan.
Ryan doesn’t want the hotheaded Bill along, and enjoys thwarting him and making him look foolish while simultaneously teaching him how to be a better killer. They develop a begrudging arms-length partnership, but as they close in on the last of the villains, a shocking revelation turns everything upside down – and turns one of them from hunter into prey.
Death Rides a Horse is a familiar premise of Lee Van Cleef teaching a cocky young man the way of the gun, just like For a Few Dollars More. Again, same writer, and it came out just one year later. It’s also got a bit of an “I lost my father/never had a son” energy.
But Van Cleef is always watchable, no matter the script or the co-stars. He’s in fine form here, rocking a great moustache and handily evoking the tall, dark antihero. He basically aces the assignment.
John Phillip Law gives you a combination of bravado and pouty immaturity, which may or may not have been a conscious choice. It also sounds like he’s attempting a bit of a John Wayne voice. The way his eyes flash (not the flashback sequences, I mean actual glinting with anger) and purses his lips is a bit like Emilio in Young Guns.
And he looks like Zac Efron. Tell me you don’t see it.
Everyone else here is good at being fodder, and that’s the key difference between this movie and the Dollars trilogy. None of the bad guys make an impression. But at least they’re excellent at doing super-dramatic deaths when shot and most of them have fantastic facial hair.
Director Giulio Petroni uses a lot of Leone’s camera techniques in Death Rides a Horse, but so did a LOT of Italian directors.
You get the closeups of dirty faces, sudden bursts of action, and dramatic angles with rapid zoom. And it’s all done really well. If anything, the whole production is slightly less over-the-top dramatic and thus, slightly more realistic.
The final showdown is deliciously drawn-out; the men on both sides even have to pause overnight to sleep and prepare for another day of shooting. Then there’s a massive dust storm that heightens the drama and really sets the mood. That, and the outstanding score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose work you’ll recognize from every other great Spaghetti Western there is.
I read quite a few reviews complaining about Bill’s flashbacks, but I didn’t find them intrusive. It feels like they were going for a modern almost sci-fi effect, and honestly I needed those flashes of each bad guy’s telltale trait to remind me who we were killing.
The plot is definitely questionable, but again, think of the genre. I didn’t get why Ryan would go back to the homestead, and I also didn’t get why any of the guys related to the incident were still hanging around the town next door 15 years later.
And SPOILER ALERT what the hell were these bad guys doing raiding this one pathetic little homestead, anyway? Ryan was “late”, so it was obviously a planned attack for them to be meeting there at a set time. But they didn’t take anything, they didn’t identify themselves to prove a point, and they didn’t seem to have a specific quarrel with the family. It makes no sense.
After watching Death Rides a Horse, I have one thing left to say: Who would win in a squint-off between Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and James Coburn?