At the height of the Mexican revolution, a mysterious young American dubbed El Nino (Lou Castel) joins a gang of marauders led by El Chucho (Gian Maria Volonté) on a series of savage raids to steal guns for a powerful rebel general. But when the El Nino brings his own cold-blooded ideals to the bandits, El Chucho discovers that the real weapons of war belong to no army. In a land ravaged by poverty and violence, can true freedom be bought with a single bullet? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis).
About two years after Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) set off the spaghetti western cycle and less than a year after Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) altered its trajectory into the realms of hyperviolence and nihilism, a pair of films established the social/political potential of the genre. With their anarchic, rock ‘n roll slants, Leone and Corbucci’s earlier films could certainly be read as political, but the bulk of the Italian western output was still concerned with recreating the tone and aesthetic of Hollywood westerns, not making political statements. The two films in question were Damiano Damiani’s Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe? or just Quien Sabe?, a more appropriate title that translates to Who Knows?) and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti, which translates to The Showdown) and they instigated the short-lived, but vital Zapata western movement.
Named for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata – a famed Mexican Revolution general that stood alongside Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco, who still inspires real-world Mexican politics to this day, most notably the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) – Zapata westerns were set mainly during the Mexican Revolution, utilizing the historical conflict as an allegory for then modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s) left-leaning politics. They also tend to revolve around a pair of unlikely protagonists that are forced to pool their resources to combat a greater evil. The use of the Mexican revolution as a proxy for modern politics was originally lifted from pro-American, vaguely anti-communist Hollywood westerns, such as Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954) and Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata (1952). Previous Italian westerns, especially Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios (Italian: Texas Addio, 1966), which was released just before Damiani and Sollima’s films, followed this lead, purely for the sake of profit over political ideology.
The Big Gundown and Bullet for the General are intrinsically linked by more than their political messages and 1966 theatrical dates. Bullet for the General screenwriter Franco Solinas also, along with Fernando Morandi, wrote the original story that Sollima and co-screenwriter Sergio Donati based their Big Gundown script upon. It’s possible that both films were adapted from roughly the same source and that Salvatore Laurani – whose original story Solinas based the Bullet for the General script on – is the actual and maybe accidental mastermind behind the entire Zapata western subgenre. A long tradition of not crediting screenwriters, secondary directors, actors and even composers in Italian filmmaking renders complete crew recognition impossible, but it is at the very least clear that Solinas, a self-proclaimed Marxist, connects the films. His participation in both politically left-slanted projects makes sense in the context of his wider career, as well, considering that he also co-wrote Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and an Academy Award-nominated screenplay Gillo Pontecorvo’s brazenly political The Battle of Algiers with director (also in 1966), along with two more Zapata westerns – Corbucci’s The Mercenary (Italian: Il Mercenario; aka: A Professional Gun, 1968) and Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa (also starring Milián, 1969).
There’s little subtlety or variance behind The Big Gundown and Bullet for the General’s political messages, rather, the difference is found in each film’s delivery methods. Solima’s Zapata westerns, like Corbucci’s, are generally playing with older genre conventions, masking the social commentary in a well-structured and often funny adventure story that works just fine for viewers that are unable to recognize or choose to ignore its politics. Politics and genuine gravitas are important elements, and usually presented as reasonably straight-faced, but humor and excitement are still fundamental pieces of the formula, where they’re used to coax the audience through the heavier messages. Thanks to fast moving trends, Zapata’s eventually morphed into something closer to pure comedy, including Corbucci’s Compañeros (Italian: Vamos a Matar Compañeros, 1970) and What Am I Doing in the Middle of the Revolution? (Italian: Che c'entriamo noi con la rivoluzione?, 1972), Damiani’s A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (Italian: Un genio, due compari, un pollo, 1975), and the first half of Leone’s extremely cynical, anti-political Duck You Sucker (Italian: Giù la Testa; aka: Fistful of Dynamite, 1971). Bullet for the General isn’t dour by any means, especially during its first two acts, but, even when it’s having fun, Solina and Morandi’s uncharacteristically canny script is constantly challenging its audience’s expectations. Not to imply that most spaghetti westerns are dumb, but they were definitely written very quickly and emphasized narrative archetypes over ambiguous lessons, multifaceted characters, and subversive plotting. The Marxist messaging is central to the text, but the journey to the end is esoteric throughout and rarely accepts black and white simplifications.
The tone is set early when El Chucho – portrayed by self proclaimed Communist Gian Maria Volonté, coming off star-making appearances as the (separate) villains in both Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (Italian: Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965) – and his men set a trap by binding a tortured general to the tracks ahead of a train carrying munitions. The outranked soldiers within are left with the choice to surrender and give up their guns, fight and risk death at the hands of well-placed snipers, or press the train forward, crushing their general in the process. The scene is a self contained mini comic-tragedy that leaves the audience unsure who to trust in terms of antagonists and protagonists. Then, following a rousing action sequence, El Chucho’s men brutally and coldly dispatch the remaining soldiers (many of whom are injured and/or have already surrendered). The juxtaposition of rollicking fun and sobering violence carries through the entire film, right up to the shocking finale and El Chucho’s final statement: “Don't buy bread with that money, hombre! Buy dynamite! Dynamite!”
Damiani is best known for a series of poliziotteschi (Italian crime) films, such as Confessions of a Police Captain (Italian: Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica,1971) and How to Kill a Judge (Italian: Perché si uccide un magistrato, 1974), both starring Django himself, Franco Nero. Following that, he dabbled in everything from comedies to melodramas throughout his long career (he was making movies right up until 2002). Despite the popularity of A Bullet for the General, he only made one other western, the aforementioned A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe, which featured They Call Me Trinity (Italian: Lo chiamavano Trinità…, 1971) and My Name is Nobody (Italian: Il mio nome è Nessuno, 1973) star Terence Hill (real name Mario Girotti) and was produced and second unit directed by Sergio Leone. It has almost nothing in common with Bullet for the General, instead fitting in with Hill’s other comedy westerns.
This Blu-ray release includes both the original 115 minute US release, which was previously unavailable on DVD, and the 118 minute international cut. I’m not sure why anyone would prefer the shorter cut, but it certainly has archival value. Imdb.com claims there is a 135 minute cut, but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD in any territory.
The first thing I notice in comparing this new HD transfer to the old DVD is not the heavy increase in detail, but the even heavier increase in vibrancy. Everything about this new transfer is beaming and bright, making the previous release appear as if it were being viewed through a greasy, clear plastic. This transfer is also a lot warmer than the DVD’s, which would logically seem to be in step with Damiani and cinematographer Antonio Secchi’s intended look. The warmth overwhelms some of the solid white and light green elements (Blue Underground’s Deep Red transfer had a similar problem), but does very well by the red highlights, and is a lovely contrast to the occasionally violet-tinted night sequences. Details are largely consistent throughout, though Damiani and Secchi tend to pull focus a bit tighter than Leone while filling their 2.35:1 widescreen vistas. Close-up textures are among the strongest details (you can’t count threads, hairs or pores on the DVD copy), but I’m also impressed with some of the decorative background patterns. There’s very, very little in the way of CRT scanning noise, or obvious signs of DNR on this image. Occasionally the grain appears to be a bit mushy (especially in the starker backgrounds), and there are a few dancing edges, but overall digital noise looks pretty natural, and the sharpened details show little sign of enhancement effects. The only time telecine effects are particularly noticeable are in some of the deepest background details. So far as basic print damage goes the Blue Underground techs have done a fine job cleaning things up, leaving only occasional flecks of white, a few black blotches, and one or two ragged reel changeovers.
The previous Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVD releases of A Bullet for the General have included only the English dub track, not the original Italian dub, so fans can mark this release as an upgrade in terms of video beyond just the uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio capabilities. Once again, I must stress that the bulk of Italian films from the era were filmed without sound, and the bulk of spaghetti westerns feature international casts, often speaking their own languages at each other during the filming process, so both the English and Italian tracks (along with any other language tracks) are post-dubbed. The choice of language track here is purely a case of personal preference. There’s very little difference in the overall volume and distortion levels of the two tracks, though the dialogue on the English track tends to be a bit softer and natural. Both tracks feature minor distortions on the highest volume levels, and the louder action sequences tend to get a bit mushy with activity, but there’s nothing unexpectedly ‘damaged’ on either track that I noticed. Luis Enríquez Bacalov is the penultimate spaghetti western composer behind Ennio Morricone. Bacalov largely worked off the genre defining sounds Morricone created for Fistful of Dollars, but developed his own flavor with Django, The Grand Duel (Italian: Il Grande duello, 1972), and this film, which Morricone acted as musical supervisor for. The unique defining element of this particular score is that it has an even more sizable Latin influence than most spaghetti scores. The action themes in particular recall Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story music at times. Both tracks treat the score very well, including enough supportive bass, and warm overall fidelity.
A Bullet for the Director (5:01, SD) – An interview with director Damiano Damiani, who discusses his intent on satirizing the western genre, his affection for Leone’s westerns, and allegory.
US and international trailers
Poster and still gallery
Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attore Contro (1:52:21, SD) – A documentary covering the life and times of the controversial actor. Volonté was a political activist, a beloved craftsman, and by most accounts an utter mad man who was notoriously difficult to deal with on set. The film covers his difficult early life, the bulk of his acting career, including footage from his early stage and television appearances and his better known major motion pictures, and is structured around the shadow of his sudden death on the set of Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses' Gaze in 1984. This includes interviews with film historian Ferruccio Morotti, directors Theo Angelopoulos, Francesco Rosi, Damiano Damiani, Paolo Taviani, Peter Stein, Carlo Lizzani, Margarethe Von Trotta, and Giuliano Montaldo, actors Harvey Keitel, Erland Josephson, Giorgio Albertazzi, Lou Castel, Piera Delgi Esposti, Roberto Herlitzka and Ennio Fantastichini, along with about a dozen other friends and relations whose names shot by too quickly for me to write them down. The section most pertinent to Bullet for the General comes around the 30 minute point, when Damiani and Castel discuss some of the problems Volonté had on set, including a period of filming where he became convinced his horse was persecuting him.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page (I also cropped out the black back in the days when I first started adding them to reviews). Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.