The spaghetti westerns weren’t far along chronologically—although there were already a ton of movies—when the genre began to splinter off into specific sub-genres. In time there would be comedic spaghettis (the most notable being the Trinity films), spaghettis with a touch of horror, and even cross-over spaghettis that brought in Asian elements in the form of samurais and kung fu warriors. But the most important of these spaghetti sub-genres would have to be the politicized westerns. Usually set within the Mexican revolution—or at least something passing itself off as the Mexican revolution—some of the best films within the larger body of spaghetti westerns are found in this particular sub-genre, starting with Damiano Damiani’s brilliant A Bullet for the General.
Along with Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, A Bullet for the General is the “highly political” film people talk about whenever they mention politicized spaghetti westerns. “Oh, those movies were soooooo political”, they say; like they’re tryin’ to impress somebody, when in fact they are just stating the obvious. Which means I’m not impressed by the so-called critics who point out how political an obviously political movie happens to be. I’ve said it before, and I’ll it again—unless you can perform oral sex on yourself, I just ain’t impressed. Especially if you don’t know the driving forces responsible for the political nature of films like A Bullet for the General, and how these films came to exist.
The target audience for spaghetti westerns was working class Italians, primarily in southern Italy, which is where many of the filmmakers hailed from. In the years following Italy’s defeat in World War II, and having grown up during Mussolini’s fascist reign, many of these filmmakers harbored leftist, Marxist, and Communists sensibilities, and a distrust of government and symbols of authority that is reflective in some of the better films of the genre. These sensibilities catered to the anti-establishment views of the working class and younger audiences. The result would be films by populist directors like Sergio Corbucci, that spoke to the cynical nature that prevailed in Italy and much of the world during the turbulent 1960s, as well as the films like A Bullet for the General, which was the handiwork of a Communist director, writer, and actor.
A Bullet for the General is, in fact, one of the most politically charged spaghettis—and one of the best films of the overall genre—but at its heart and soul it is more than just a leftist indictment of colonialism, industrial globalization, and exploitation of third world nations. Yeah, sure, the film is that, but it is also an excellent character study, that makes up the backbone that allows A Bullet for the General to stand firmly over so many other films in this subgenre.
Gian Maria Volonté stars as El Chuncho, the leader of a gang of ruthless banditos. El Chuncho likes to fancy himself a member of the Mexican Revolution, when in reality he’s just a two-bit outlaw who steals guns from the government and sells them back to revolutionaries. While robbing a train carrying a shipment of weapons, the mysterious gringo Bill Tate (Lou Castel) joins El Chuncho and his gang (which includes the always bat-shit crazy Klaus Kinski). With Bill the Gringo along for the ride, the gang steals another load of weapons from a fort, which they plan to sell to the leader of the revolution. For a brief moment, El Chuncho considers staying and helping a village of peasants protect themselves from Mexican soldiers after they rise up and kill an evil land baron (NOTE: all land barons in spaghetti westerns are evil). Of course, our sorry excuse for a hero doesn’t stick around, giving in to his greed, leaving the town unprotected, and eventually the victim of a government massacre. All of this is going on while Bill the Gringo subtly plays members of the gang against each other. And, this raises the burning questions of exactly who is the gringo, and what is his eventual goal? Well, let’s just say that Bill ain’t exactly down for the cause, and this flick ain’t called A Bullet for the General simply ‘cause it sounds like a cool title.
When it’s all said and done, A Bullet for the General is one of the truly great spaghetti westerns, and one of the best of what I like to call the ZRF (Zappata-esque Revolution Film)—spaghetti westerns set specifically during the Mexican Revolution, with a BTR (Bandito Turned Revolutionary) as the anti-hero (an archetype that actor Tomas Milian would come to define). Damiani’s direction is solid, showing what a capable director with a great story and not-so-subtle agenda can do within the genre. Volonté is terrific as the amoral bandito that develops a conscious. Volonté is best known—at least to genre fans—for his work in Sergio Leone’s classic films A Fist Full of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More; but to be perfectly honest, those performances, for all their power, pale in comparison to his work in this movie. Volonté subscribed to hardcore leftist politics, to the extent that it would eventually dictate the roles he would accept. This movie is an example of the Marxist leanings that Volonté, director Damiani and co-writer Franco Solinas were looking to bring to the screen. Solinas also wrote the politically charged films Burn! and The Battle of Algiers. This combination of talent and their personal politics make for a fist-to-the-face-and-foot-up-your-ass film that is never afraid to say what’s on its mind.
Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.