There’s something a bit sad in seeing a grimy spaghetti western after Quentin Tarantino has already had his way with it. This is a film I would have liked to have discovered at 1am on a cable channel, the better to marvel at its split-screen flashbacks and Morricone score. But that was not to be. Instead, I saw this film by way of Kill Bill, which lifts best parts, and runs with them.
The plot of Death Rides a Horse is exceedingly simple and familiar. Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law) watches his family butchered by a gang of outlaws, and grows up vowing to avenge them. A few dusty canyons away, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) has just been let out of prison, and is hunting the gang with dreams of extortion dancing in his angel eyes. Ryan refuses to work with Bill, but they end up crossing and recrossing paths anyway. Sometimes they help the other out, sometimes they double cross, but it always ends with one of them being stranded in the desert.
Death Rides A Horse is not a great spaghetti western. It wears its Leone homages heavy on its sleeve — the relationship between Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) and Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law) is a pale imitation between Manco and Col. Mortimer in A Few Dollars More, with lots of “old man!” and “boy!” thrown around.
There’s even a faint mimic of the scene where Mortimer and Manco first spy each other through a window. But with all Leone ripoffs, it’s rather corny. Instead of being startled by a rival bounty hunter with binoculars, they’re just sitting on opposite porches, suspiciously eying each other.
It’s kind of cute, really. Unlike today’s Michael Bay gonna-top-them-all mindset, Italian directors seem to have shrugged and happily fallen short of Leone’s mark. “He already did it beautifully. Why bother? Just have them sit on the porch. Besides, we have severed heads coming up. Leone never had severed heads!” (This is true.)
But Manco (or Blondie or Joe …) were never so trusting as Bill Meceita. Bill (who is like a soft, unmolded Eastwood) doesn’t spend a lot of time wondering what Ryan is to these men. He’s just happy to have the extra gunpowder. The shock on his face when he realizes just who Ryan is would be sad, if it wasn’t so very comical. Django and Manco would be rolling their eyes along with their cigars, and saying “Really kid, you’re never gonna survive out here with that kind of attitude.”
But even modern audiences, their wits sharpened by Tarantino and twists, will be surprised by Bill’s decision at the end. It’s a little moment that makes you sit back and wonder just who Bill is going to become. Does the final revelation harden him into a bounty hunter? Is he riding off to find himself a serape and new ammunition?
Or is his final gesture an indication that he’s ready to return to peace and civilization? Many westerns (and Leone’s in particular) relish men who live in the border lands, preferring blood and anarchy to law and order. Bill is definitely a character who fancies himself a steely killer, but has a real need for community and the father figure of Ryan.
He may be the one spaghetti hero I’ve seen thus far who appears to consciously reject the lawless lifestyle. After all, Bill is someone who has seen what it leads to. While he makes a show of rejecting a deputy’s badge, I suspect he realizes revenge is ultimately a pointless dish that doesn’t bring families back. The gangs that terrorize little villages and homesteads need to be hunted with a force, not just one man who is quick on the draw.
I’m reading too much into it. Death Rides A Horse is a slight film, begging for a plot and a showdown worthier of Morricone’s mighty theme. Still, it’s worth watching, if only astonished that such a blip on the dusty landscape ended up making such a mark on pop culture by way of one battered Bride.