Blue Underground // 1966 // 118 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // May 10th, 2012
Like the Bandit...Like the Gringo...a bullet doesn't care who it kills!
In the wake of the success of Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, European-made westerns -- most often, Italian "spaghetti westerns" -- were cranked by the dozen. Many of them made their way to the U.S., often with titles as over-the-top as the action and plotlines (God Forgives...I Don't! or A Genius, Two Friends, and an Idiot or Go Kill Everybody and Come Back Alone or Light the Fuse...Sartana Is Coming). Like their American counterparts, many of these were cheap, quickie productions that seemed interchangeable with each other.
Some were superior works. Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General boasted a story with more heft than the usual spaghetti western, a seriously leftist -- and anti-American -- point-of-view, some excellent action set pieces, and solid performances.
A Bullet for the General has seen two DVD releases, one from Anchor Bay in 2001 and another from Blue Underground in 2007. Now, Blue Underground offers A Bullet for the General in a pretty great Blu-ray package. Saddle up!
During the Mexican Revolution, a group of bandits, led by "El Chuncho" (Gian Maria Volonté, For a Few Dollars More) attacks a train carrying soldiers and peasants, as well as a young American man (Lou Castel, Killer Nun). The American surreptitiously helps the bandits, who are there to steal guns and money, and then demands to ride with them.
El Chuncho's gang -- which includes his brother, Santo (Klaus Kinski, Paganini), a "man of God," and a lone female, the beautiful Adelita (Martine Beswick, The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood) -- spends its time acquiring guns not to fight for the people, but to sell them to General Elias, a leader and hero of the revolution. While some, including Santo, believe they are warriors of justice, Chuncho's motivated by cash, glory, and good times, not politics.
The American is intent on helping the bandits stay on course and get the guns to Elias, to the point that he starts taking on leadership of the gang. Steel-eyed and intense, he's not interested in drinking, smoking, or women; Chuncho determines that the man is a mercenary like himself, and therefore, advantageous to have around.
Chuncho and the American form a strong bond -- but are they really so alike, or does each have a side that other doesn't see?
Epically entertaining, filled with gruesome, rousing action, plenty of humor, and memorable performances, A Bullet for the General is a coolly ironic, Mexican Revolution-based Zapata western-slash-morality tale. While it lacks the grandeur and invention of Sergio Leone's work, A Bullet for the General is smart, exciting, and miles above the typical Euro-westerns being produced in the '60s and '70s.
Director Damiano Damiani (How to Kill a Judge) offers up a western as political allegory, one of the earliest Euro-westerns to do so. Its story of the unwashed masses struggling against the cruel, unfeeling wealthy establishment is easily applied to almost any "people's revolution," though Damiani is pretty clearly turning a critical eye on American imperialism and entitlement, and the corrupting influence of capitalism. The film opens with a group of revolutionaries being lined up and shot, while the Gringo watches impassively, setting the tone right out of the gate with a nice splash of bloodshed.
The common people, as presented here, are less noble than needy, so desperate for leadership that they even consider the boisterous, duplicitous, and somewhat foolish Chuncho as their savior and protector. Of course, the hero (or anti-hero) of a western helping the oppressed people is pretty much a staple of the genre; what's more interesting here is Chuncho's slow-growing political and social awareness, going from relatively carefree marauder to caring, if confused, man -- from rebel to revolutionary. His final line -- the film's punchline -- says it all.
At the center is the relationship between Chuncho and the American. "The Gringo," as he's often called, is never named while he's with the bandits; because of his youthful appearance, he's called Niño by Chuncho, first mockingly, later, with affection. The depth of that affection -- and of the trust Chuncho has in his new comrade -- comes through in a number of scenes, particularly a startling moment when Chuncho does something shocking to help his friend.
There's a pretty heavy homoerotic vibe between the two; in fact, it's almost funny to see scenes featuring Chuncho and the Gringo staring meaningfully at each other while surrounded by swaggering banditos with their shirts open to their navels. The Gringo also gets a number of opportunities to turn down the company of ladies, which causes the characters to raise their eyebrows a bit, not quite sure what to make of it all. Clearly, Damiani was having a good time with this, and while nothing openly sexual between the men is ever even suggested, it does make the bond between them seem that much deeper.
It also makes the third act conflict between the two much more interesting, as Niño's character comes into focus.
Like many westerns, A Bullet for the General is a road movie, the story of a journey -- in this case, both literal and metaphorical. Unlike many "episodic" westerns, the stops along the way here are all significant, contributing to the themes, particularly the radicalization of Chuncho. Among the highlights: a visit to a the home of wealthy man, where the peasants determine to exact revenge; a side trip to a newly liberated San Miguel, where Chuncho revels in a hero's welcome and the Gringo stews, because it delays their meeting with General Elias; the discovery of a long-sought machine gun, which will fetch a good price for the bandits and help the revolutionaries level the playing field; and the arrival at Elias's camp, where all the cards are finally laid on the table.
And of course, there's the action, with enough shoot-'em-up fun here to make even the most jaded western fan take notice. As can be expected from a good Euro-western, there are plenty of stylish and sometimes grisly visuals, including a bombing timed to a champagne uncorking; the attack on the train; and a delirious scene of slaughter that employs the prized machine gun. The body count is pretty outrageously high, even if most of the dead are extras -- though even the bold-print names aren't necessarily spared.
Exaggerated as the violence is, A Bullet for the General is a beautiful-looking film. Damiani's dynamic widescreen compositions are well realized through Antonio Secchi's cinematography. The score, by Oscar winner Luis Bacalov (Il Postino) and supervised by Ennio Morricone, is spirited and evocative, a mix of the kind of aggressive themes so familiar in Euro-westerns, along with softer Mexican ballads.
Volonté is just great as Chuncho, bringing a real sense of life to the character. Kinski gets to play subdued as the pious yet homicidal Santo (the saint), and Beswick is full of all kinds of fire as the lone female bandit. Castel is very good as the mysterious blond American, whose inscrutable demeanor becomes more sinister as the film goes on.
I've criticized Blue Underground for releasing Blu-rays that were little more than tech upgrades of films the company had previously released on DVD -- particularly when the DVDs looked pretty good to begin with and are still available. With their release of A Bullet for the General (Blu-ray), Blue Underground offers a full-fledged, special edition upgrade that's so impressive, it can't even be considered a "double dip."
Blue Underground offers up a two-disc set. Disc One contains two versions of the film: The 115-minute U.S. cut, and the International version, which is three minutes longer. I thought the extra three minutes might contain more violence or sex, but apparently, there are just some scenes trimmed for pacing and, perhaps, politics, including the opening slaughter of the revolutionaries. There are also a few scenes in the Italian dub on the International version that play in English.
The way to go here is the International version, which is called El Chucho Quien Sabe?, a far better title than the U.S. version for reasons better left unsaid. Both versions sport a strong image, with the International looking a bit cleaner. There's some DNR and occasional softness, but overall, the 1080p picture looks great, with vivid colors, deep blacks, and some depth.
While the U.S. version offers only an English audio track with English, French, and Spanish subtitles, the International comes with a choice of two tracks, English and Italian, with English subtitles that translate the Italian. All audio is DTS mono. The English track is much richer than the Italian, which sounds a bit thin. I watched the English version with the translated subtitles, finding that the combination gave me more information than either would have separately.
Besides a pair of trailers -- one, U.S., the other, international -- and a stills gallery, the first disc also offers a new, five-minute interview with Damiani, "A Bullet for the Director," in which he shares his view that he considers the film not a western, but a satire of westerns.
The second disc contains a nearly two-hour documentary, Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attore Contro. I'm not sure if this was originally a TV production (it's presented full frame), but it's an excellent look at this volatile, talented actor and activist that features commentary with dozens of his co-stars and associates.
Blue Underground has topped itself with this release; an outstanding presentation of a fantastic movie. It doesn't get much better than this.
A Bullet of the General is one of the great non-Leone Euro-westerns, and Blue Underground's release does the film justice. It's an excellent package and well worth a purchase.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* International Version