Spaghetti Western Archive – DEATH RIDES A HORSE

DEATH RIDES A HORSE – 1967 director: Giulio Petroni; starring: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law

There weren’t a lot of viewing options back when I first seriously became interested in spaghetti westerns. In those days you watched these movies on VHS, often times in poorly made copies with German, Greek, or Japanese subtitles. The picture quality was almost always bad, and the transfers were either fullframe and terribly cropped, pr ineptly pan and scanned, and either way you never got a true idea of what the film was supposed to look like. Most of the time this was a nuisance, but every once in a while, when the movie itself was really good, it felt like a cinematic crime. This was especially true of director Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse, one of the best spaghetti westerns of all time, with one of the worst home video transfers.  For many years I’d been trying to a copy of the film that was just plain decent, and by decent I mean one that was widescreen, without washed out colors, and no Turkish subtitles. Well, after almost two decades of looking and waiting, and feeling the painful sting of bitter disappointment by terrible transfers, there is finally a DVD with great picture quality, thanks to Wild East Productions, the leading distributors of quality spaghetti westerns on home video.

With the exception of Clint Eastwood, no American actor is more closely associated with spaghetti westerns than Lee Van Cleef. Already established as a character actor in both film and television westerns, Van Cleef would have likely spent his entire career as a supporting actor in a variety of roles. But his career took a dramatic turn when Sergio Leone cast him as one of the heroes in For a Few Dollars More, and then again as one of the villains in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These two films reinigorated Van Cleef’s career, and turned him into a major star in Italian westerns. He would go on to star in over a dozen more spaghetti westerns, inluding his own franchise film, Sabata. And yet with all these westerns to chose from, with the exception of Leone’s film, none of those starring Van Cleef would ever top Death Rides a Horse.

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. Luciano Vincenzoni has crafted a great script, which should come as no surprise, since he co-wrote For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. John Philip Law turns in a decent performance, although his performance at times 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. But despite Law’s performance which neither makes nor breaks the film, the one thing Death Rides a Horse has going for it is Lee Van Cleef. Giving one of the more inspired performances of his spaghetti western career, Van Cleef steals the film and helps elevate to level well above so many other genre entries.

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