This grim tale of vengeance starts when young Bill Mecita witnesses the brutal murder of his family by a group of marauding bandits. An unseen stranger saves Bill from from the family’s burning house, and fifteen years later the boy has grown up to be John Philip Law (Golden Voyage of Sinbad). And if you were to guess that Bill has spent the last decade and a half training himself to become a well-oiled killing machine with only one thing on his mind, then you wouldn’t be too far off base. Bill is looking to send the varmints that butchered his family on a one way trip to Boot Hill. But it seems our hero ain’t the only one looking for a little pay back. A gunslinger named Ryan (Van Cleef), fresh out of prison, has a few scores to settle, and his path of revenge crosses with that of our Bill. Will the two men come to see that they can both join together on their murder-happy spree, or will they allow petty differences like blinding hatred and the all consuming need for vengeance to keep them apart?
Directed by Giulio Petroni, and accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s score, Death Rides a Horse is a shining moment in a genre that was more often than not plagued with some truly crappy filmmaking. Petroni’s only other western is the largely forgotten (but still solidly entertaining) Tepepa (a.k.a. Blood and Guns), starring Tomas Milian and Orson Welles. Yeah, that’s right, even Orson Welles was in spaghetti westerns. Luciano Vincenzoni’s screenplay is one of the better scripts the genre has to offer, which should come as no surprise, since he was one of the writers on Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Duck, You Sucker, as well as Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun. Vincenzoni cannbalizes elements of For a Few Dollars More, but that’s kind of common practice in this genre.
When it comes to leading men in spaghetti westerns, John Philip Law stands somewhere in the middle of the road. He certainly doesn’t have the charism of the best leading men—Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Gianni Garko, to name a few—but he isn’t the worst. Law’s biggest problem is that at times his performance resembles that of a plank of wood. And even when he’s not wooden, he still seems like he has a pole up his ass. In a lesser film, Law’s acting might break the movie, but Death Rides a Horse is not a lesser film, and balancing out Law’s tepid charisma is Lee Van Cleef. This was Van Cleef’s first Italian western after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and he steals the film—elevating it to a level well above so many other genre entries—and giving it one of the more inspired performances of what would become a long career in the spaghetti westerns.
With the exception of Clint Eastwood, no American actor is more closely associated with spaghetti westerns than Van Cleef. Before becoming a huge star in Europe, he was an American character actor who’d been turning up in film and television for more than a decade. Despite more than one hundred appearances on just about every television western you can name, plus other shows like Perry Mason, The Untouchables, and The Twilight Zone, and even classic films like High Noon, Van Cleef wasn’t exactly a name commodity. In fact, if Sergio Leone hadn’t cast him as one of the protagonists in For a Few Dollars More, and then again as one of the villains in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, chances are Van Cleef’s career would have never amounted to much more than a series of supporting performances as henchman and heavies on shows like Bonanza and The Rifleman. But Leone’s two films reinvigorated Van Cleef’s career, and turned him into a major star. He would go on to star in over a dozen more spaghetti westerns, including his own franchise film, Sabata. And yet with all these westerns starring Van Cleef to chose from, with the exception of Leone’s film, it is difficut to find one better than Death Rides a Horse, a true genre classic.
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