A Bullet for the General

A Bullet for the General (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Damiano Damiani
viewed: 04/22/07

Something put me in the mind of Spaghetti Westerns, so I queued some up.  Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General came up first.  I didn’t know much about it specifically and frankly beyond Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s Django (also from 1966), I haven’t really explored the genre/period despite fully enjoying everything I’ve seen.  A Bullet for the General only further ups that fact.  It’s excellent.

The phenomenon of the Spaghetti Western still is striking to me, the co-opting of a traditional American genre, infused with action and violence far over the top of anything outside of Sam Peckinpah, there is also this visual style that seems carried through the films that I have seen, one in which extreme close-ups are rapidly contrasted with long shots of the desert backdrops, punctuated with editing that accentuates the contrast.  There is something “fun” or playful, even in serious situations.

A Bullet for the General is a fairly strongly political film, and as it plays out, this fact comes to a pointed emphasis in the very last scene.  The story is about a roving bandit, El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volontè), a former revolutionary who picks up an slick, clean-shaven American, who poses as an outlaw who appeals to El Chuncho despite his cold and mercenary attitude (or maybe because of it).  It’s a moral crisis for El Chuncho who in his days as a revolutionary had fought and operated for idealistic reasons, who is tempted by the American, whose slick, clean appearance and ruthless striving for money attracts him.

Returning to a small village where Chuncho has friends, Chuncho is deeply tempted to take a leadership position and stay with the people.  In fact, he makes this choice.  Only after his former group of bandits steals his much coveted machine gun is he drawn away.  The result of his abandoning his village is that they end up being slaughtered.

Lou Castel is excellent as the American with his striking blond hair and blue eyes, who Chuncho dubs “Niño”.  Volontè is also excellent, really quite compelling and even with the corny dubbing truly comes across as the ribald yet idealistic and less sophisticated heart of the film.  The film is a striking criticism of America, from simple asides such as one bandit commenting that Americans are not good for much but they have a lot of money.  Niño is ultimately completely ruthless except for his true friendship, or at least liking, with Chuncho.  He has no morals and only operates for financial gain.  His sharp-dressed look is in utter contrast to the grimy, unshaven Mexicans for whom he has no liking.  He is questioned several times by a young boy as to how he likes Mexico and he says that he doesn’t like it but he is there because there is money to be made.

El Niño can easily be read as the Devil, tempting and testing El Chuncho.  He also clearly represents America, the ruthlessness of capitalism and idealization of money.

The cinematography is excellent, featuring some striking compositions as well as some lovely framings of the landscapes.  There is a plethora of shooting and action, and the beginning of the film lays down the action and ideas of the film from the absolute get-go, rapidly cutting the scene in which revolutionary bandits are executed in front of a crowd that includes Castel.  It sets pacing and style and the narrative in a punchy, clever efficiency.  It’s a great film, seriously.  Growing in my estimation the more and more I think of it.

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