Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars initiated a wave of Westerns produced and shot in Europe in the ’60s, and like a lot of sensations, it attracted innovators as well as imitators. Just as the best Beatles-inspired bands took elements of the group’s music in directions the group itself might never have thought to explore, the best of those who followed Leone’s lead found spaghetti Western possibilities only suggested by their inspiration’s films. Leone created a space in which dusty bits of Italy and Spain subbed in for the American West and Mexico, populated it with actors from across the globe, put them through narratives drawn from the nastiest corners of comic books and pulp fiction, and gave it all a yearning, romantic quality by layering on Ennio Morricone’s unmistakable music. His Westerns never felt set in any real place; rather, they were movie dreamscapes of the past, rich with cinematic possibilities.
Which isn’t to say they or the movies they inspired had no connection to the real world. Later years saw the rise of a subgenre spaghetti Western scholar Christopher Frayling would later dub “Zapata spaghettis.” Set during the Mexican Revolution, such films allowed for political commentary on their filmmakers’ own restless times via stories set in the relatively recent past. (Leone tried his own hand at Zapata spaghetti in 1971 with the great Duck, You Sucker.) Working from a script co-written by Battle Of Algiers’ screenwriter Franco Solinas, journeyman director Damiano Damiani (How To Kill A Judge, Amityville II: The Possession) delivered one of the subgenre’s best with 1966’s A Bullet For The General (released internationally under the name Quien Sabe?). Like many spaghettis, it features more violence and less style than a Leone film. But like other memorable non-Leone efforts, it uses the same raw materials to combustible ends.
Colombian actor Lou Castel plays the requisite mysterious antihero, a pinstripe suit-clad American who’s traveled South of the border for reasons he keeps to himself, and which the film doesn’t share with the audience until late in its running time. (The title provides a hint.) A passenger on a train robbed by rebels seeking weapons, Castel ingratiates himself to his would-be captors by helping them in their task. He quickly befriends their loud, loutish leader El Chuncho (Leone vet Gian Maria Volonté) and his brother El Santo (Klaus Kinski, fresh-faced but already twitchy), a priest who sees his ministry and his revolutionary work as being compatible (and who remains blissfully unaware that his brother is profiting from all those rifles they’ve been stealing).
The film’s a bit of a bait and switch. Though Castel’s the ostensible star and looks the part of the cool badass, after a while it becomes apparent that it’s really Volonté’s movie, and that the film’s as much concerned with the evolution of his conscience as with staging memorable action scenes. In fact, Damiani keeps the action brutish and clipped, instead emphasizing moments when Volonté starts to realize, usually too late, the impact his actions have on those around him. At one point, the gang takes over a town and, after dispensing with the wealthy landowners, establishes a festive idyll populated by gunmen and peasants. Then comes the business of figuring out what to do next, who’s going to run things, and how to protect their little bit of paradise from the government forces sure to descend on it en masse—hard questions for which neither Volonté nor the film have any answers.
It’s not hard to figure out where A Bullet For The General’s politics lie. Both Castel and Volonté were leftists who looked for roles that forwarded a political agenda. But it’s no simple piece of propaganda, either. The film portrays the atrocities and callousness of both sides of the conflict and the human cost exacted both by those who adhere mindlessly to their ideology of choice and those who kill purely for money, wrapping it all in the anti-authoritarian attitudes at the center of most spaghetti Westerns. It’s clear-eyed and skeptical to the point of cynicism, which makes a strange, unexpected climax in which the film ultimately comes down on one side of the equation all that more charged. After choking on blood and sand for nearly two hours, it rediscovers a crazed idealism in a last-minute burst of optimism that, like the movie that precedes it, presents a fantasy weighed down by history but driven by the desire to shrug it off.
Key features: A short interview with Damiani, two cuts of the film, and the feature-length documentary Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attore Contro.