Like the Bandit… Like the Gringo… A bullet doesn’t care who it kills!
Blue Underground recently re-released the excellent spaghetti western A Bullet for the General (El Chuncho, quien sabe?, 1966) on DVD and I thought I’d take some time to write about the film since it’s one of my favorite westerns.
The movie begins as a young American “gringo” named Bill (Lou Castel) is arriving in war torn Mexico at the height of the Mexican Revolution. He watches indifferently as a group of young rebels are brutally executed in front of him. He then heads towards the railway station where he jumps the queue and pushes ahead of a long line of people to buy himself a train ticket to Durango. While he stands in line a young Mexican boy (Antonio Ruiz) asks him what he thinks of Mexico and he coldly responds, “Not very much.”
These opening minutes offer an unapologetic look at an “ugly American”, whose innocent appearance and expensive suit can not mask his arrogance and lack of empathy towards the poor Mexican peons (unskilled labors) that surround him. But underlying Bill’s behavior are much darker motivations that become clearer as the film progresses.
As Bill rides the train towards Durango his journey is suddenly interrupted by a gang of Mexican bandidos led by El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) banging a drum in time with composer Luis Bacalov’s excellent film score (supervised by Ennio Morricone). The bandits want the train’s cargo of guns so they can sell them to the revolutionary army led by the respected General Elías (Jaime Fernández).
Instead of joining the fight against the bandidos, Bill helps in the raid and tricks Chuncho into believing that he’s a wanted man so he can join his gang of bandits. This sets the stage for the rest of the film as we’re introduced to the bandits and discover that they’re not typical thieves. Chuncho and his gang have political as well as financial motivations, and much like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, they try to help the poor while stealing from the corrupt Mexican government. Of course the cold-blooded American has plans of his own and things get complicated when his personal motivations conflict with the idealistic bandidos.
This terrific spaghetti western has lots of spectacular gun battles and makes great use of the beautiful desert scenery but the radical political ideas that were taking shape in the war torn sixties are the real focus of director Damiano Damiani’s impressive western. Damiani makes an admirable case against American capitalism and imperialism in A Bullet For the General, which he obscures within a very entertaining movie.
The script is based on a story by Salvatore Laurani that was adapted for the screen by Franco Solinas. Solinas is well-known for his leftist political leanings and he was a member of the Italian Communist Party. His scripts written during the sixties and seventies for films such as The Battle of Algiers (1966), Tepepa (1968), Burn! (1969), The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) and Mr. Klein (1976) brazenly expressed his political views in thoughtful but often controversial films.
At first glance it’s easy to assume that A Bullet For the General is full of typical characters found in many westerns but the characters that populate the film are complex and have a lot of hidden depth if you’re willing to go digging for it.
The revolutionary bandits are the movie’s real heroes but they are often portrayed as drunken simpletons unaware of what they’re fighting against and the bourgeoisie land owners are often portrayed as rational and somewhat sympathetic characters. Italian westerns are notorious for the way they refuse to offer typical examples of good guys and bad guys that are so often found in American westerns and A Bullet For the General is a great example of a movie that refuses to easily define any of the characters that populate it.
Gian Maria Volonté is truly magnificent as the bandidos’ leader El Chuncho. Volonté was a respected Italian actor and he had previously acted in two of Sergio Leone’s westerns, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), but he passed up the chance to play Tuco (a role later given to Eli Wallach) in Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) in order to play Chuncho. Volonté preferred the more blatant political leanings found in the script for A Bullet For the General to the subtle politics at play in The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Some thought it was a bad decision on his part since Leone’s popular film could have catapulted his career but his role in A Bullet For the General is much more complex and in the films final frames the actor is transformed into one of Italian cinema’s most enduring heroes.
A Bullet For the General chronicles the birthing pains of a new nation. And the personal trials that Volonté’s character Chuncho must endure on his troubled journey to self-discovery brilliantly mirror what’s historically happening all around him. Mexico’s revolution is Chuncho’s revolution and we celebrate the country’s victories as we celebrate Chuncho’s final choices.
Klaus Kinski also has one of his best minor roles in the film as Chuncho’s half-brother Santo but unfortunately he doesn’t get enough screen time. Kinski’s Santo is a religious zealot who dresses in dirty monks robes and shouts political slogans while brutally killing his enemies. He seems driven a bit mad by the government made horrors he has seen the Mexican people suffer and he uses his rage to help the people fight back against their oppressors.
Lou Castel is perfectly cast as the heartless young “gringo” Bill. Castel had previously starred in the complex and dark Italian drama Fists in the Pocket (1965) where he played a deeply disturbed young man who wants to murder his family. He was only 23 when he made A Bullet For the General and his innocent appearance and youth easily mislead the audience into believing that he may not be the cold-hearted killer that he really is.
Spaghetti westerns are often accused of having badly written female characters but critics would have a tough time trying to find any poorly defined female roles in A Bullet For the General. The beautiful and talented actress Martine Beswick plays Adelita, a tough señorita who’s deeply scarred from being raped by a rich land owner when she was only fifteen years old. She’s desperately trying to forge some kind of loving relationship with one of the bandits but their life on the run offers them very few intimate moments together. Stolen kisses and a few hours of passion don’t hold much weight in the violent world they inhabit and Adelita longs for a stable home. When the American arrives Adelita seems attracted to his stoic silence and independence, which often mirrors her own demeanor. She’s pleased when he finally starts paying attention to her but the pleasure she gains from his attention is short lived after he suggests that she should return with him to the United States. Adelita is smart enough to know that a relationship with the gringo would never work in his country. She’s fought hard to be treated as an equal among the men that she rides with and she would loose her hard earned pride and independence if she went to America. Adelita quickly refuses his offer and she stays with her Mexican bandit until his bitter demise.
The name “Adelita” is associated with one of the most famous folks songs of the Mexican revolution and there’s no doubt that the writers purposefully selected the name for Beswick’s character. The “Adelita” song tells the story of a brave woman known as a soldadera (a female soldier) who cares and cooks for the troops but also bravely fights alongside them. Soldaderas became a vital part of the Mexican revolution and were idolized for being beautiful, strong and courageous women, just like the character of Adelita in A Bullet For the General. Martine Beswick does a terrific job of making Adelita a strong and sympathetic woman we can identify with.
Another talented actress, Carla Gravina, also has a small but memorable role in the film as Rosario, the wife of a rich land owner named Don Feliciano (Andrea Checchi). When the bandidos arrive at Don Feliciano’s home and demand justice for the crimes he’s committed against the Mexican people he crumbles and feigns heart troubles so he can hide in his bedroom. Resilient Rosario is unfazed and she confronts the unruly bandits alone. The audience is not asked to sympathize with her politics but it’s hard not be impressed with her grace under pressure. Rosario is unwilling to succumb to the bandit’s threats and she verbally assaults them while trying to diplomatically resolve the highly volatile situation she’s found herself in. All does not go well and Rosario is almost raped by the bandits but she retains her dignity throughout the ordeal.
A Bullet For the General is undoubtedly one of the greatest spaghetti westerns made during the sixties and I’m thrilled to see DVD companies like Blue Underground keeping the film available for new audiences to discover.