Monday, 24 May 2010

A Bullet for the General (1966)

Country: ITALY

El Chunco, quien sabe?

This expansive and beautifully structured spaghetti western exists within a sub-genre of westerns in the 1960’s and 70’s that dealt with the subject of the Mexican revolution. This tumultuous period in Mexican history offered politically motivated filmmakers the opportunity to comment allegorically on the various social and political upheavals of the day. Unfortunately very few of these films also managed to be wonderfully entertaining but A Bullet for the General succeeds admirably in this department. The political subtext of the film can be laid squarely with the communist leanings of Franco Solinas who adapted the story by Salvatore Laurani to suit his outlook. Earlier in the year Solinas had penned The Battle of Algiers (1966), and this western works through many of the same themes and concerns. Clearly director Damiano Damiani (best known to horror buffs for Amityville II: The Possession (1982)) is sympathetic with this attitude and would return to politically motivated material with his excellent How to Kill a Judge? (1976). Damiani brings an invigorating and commercial approach to material that could have become staid and preachy in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

The film opens with the impeccably attired Bill Tate (Lou Castel) a citizen of America whose barely disguised contempt for the Mexican peasants and peons is only matched by his self-important arrogance as he waits to board a busy train. As the only American character in the film Tate tells us a lot about the filmmakers attitude to America - it is seen as an unwanted and exploitative imperialist force, only out for the material gain that dominates a capitalist system. The train which is carrying both passengers and a cache of government ammunition is soon held up by a group of courageous revolutionary bandits led by the enigmatic El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonte), and his idealistic brother El Santo (Klaus Kinski). When Tate is accepted as part of the misfit group what follows is a series of episodes in which this band of outlaws attack military outposts and steal arms, including a coveted machine gun, in order to sell them to the revolutionary leader General Elias (Jaime Fernandez). The narrative is something of an odyssey across the Mexican desert for El Chuncho, a journey of self discovery, ending in the realisation that it is important to have something to fight for; other than money. His desertion of a town in need, and the eventual massacre of the populace (an event which takes place off screen) sees his brother return as an avenging angel. This is a war torn world which pits brother against brother, and they fight beneath a baking sun kissed landscape that is shaded by the spectre of imperialism.

Kinski is particularly strange in this film - he plays a religious zealot, who is happy to gun down the opposition in cold blood whilst proclaiming the righteousness of the scriptures and his brand of violence. The moral hypocrisy and internal complexity embodied within the form of El Santo is representative of the confusion and chaos of a country torn asunder by civil war. Nevertheless he possesses a radicalism that isn’t done justice by the infrequency of Kinski’s on screen appearances. That he perishes at the hands of Bill Tate - the imperialist exploiter - says a lot about the sympathies of the American government in this country. Tate turns out to be an assassin hired by the Mexican government to eliminate General Elias - that he uses El Chuncho and the revolutionary cause in order to achieve his aims for material wealth is a sobering message. Tate tries to share that wealth with El Chuncho, and he attempts to civilise him with fine clothes and wines, but Chuncho is ill at ease and uncomfortable. It is only right that he should eliminate Tate at the conclusion as he tries to ride a train out of Mexico - the film comes full circle and Chuncho runs off into an uncertain future, but certain at least of what he stands for.

The film doesn’t shy away from siding with the proletariat. But the film loses some ground with its depiction of some of the Mexican peasants as little more than illiterate clowns. Only the leaders of the revolution are portrayed with dignity, and the film fails to completely get to grips with the grass roots suffering of the impoverished masses. This is largely because Damiani is just as interested in constructing breathtaking shoot outs, and memorable stand offs. Volonte is excellent as Chuncho - improving considerably on his less rounded characters in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Lou Castel is equally impressive as the steely American, the shadowy figure that manipulates less intelligent people and plays on their vulnerabilities and vanity. In its politics it is far more radical than other Mexican revolution westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), but the true success of the film is in its seamless marriage of radical politicising and the conventions of commercial filmmaking.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. çiçek

    For sharing thank you very much good very beautiful work

  2. Terrific review, Shaun. I agree in every regard: this film was a real surprise for me, and compelled me to seek out more Volonte titles (he really demonstrates his acting chops in this film). Castel, who can appear terribly flat on occasions (see the giallo/procedural hybrid 'Who Killed The Prosecutor And Why?'), is also very engaging. Kinski is, as ever, lots of fun.

  3. Cheers Johnny...much appreciated :-)
    Volonte is on form here, I saw another film with him in recently - Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE, and he is excellent in that too. I'm not overly familiar with Castel's career, but he manages to hold his own and not get lost in the Volonte/Kinski shuffle. This is up there with anything Leone did, and is certainly among the ten best euro westerns.


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