Color, 1966, 115/118m.
Directed by Damiano Damiani
Starring Gian Maria Volonté, Lou Castel, Klaus Kinski, Martine Beswick, Jaime Fernández
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC), Argent (UK R2 PAL), Koch (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Upon boarding a train in Mexico, mercenary American Bill Tate (Mátalo!'s Castel) finds his ride interrupted by a crucified hostage soldier in the middle of the tracks. Soon the train's military passengers are massacred by a mauranding gang of revolutionary bandits led by El Chuncho (Volonté). Equally concerned with getting arms, taking out oppressive Mexican militia, and sparing the peasants aboard, the gang decides to take on Bill (whom they dub "Niño") after he helps with the raid and claims to be a wanted man. The sole fiery female of the bandits, Adelita (Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde's Beswick), can't seem to make much headway with either of the men, who seem to be forming a close but contentious bond with their political ideals becoming increasingly at odds over the lust for gold. Then there's Chuncho's idealistic monk-attired brother, El Santo (Kinski), who enjoys shouting prayers while pelting grenades. Then there's the plan to kill the general of the title and the golden bullet out there with his name on it...
Though it features men on horseback, shootouts, and plenty of gorgeous scope photography in the same Spanish locations found in several Sergio Leone films (which have a somewhat different take on the political idea of men's lives as currency), A Bullet for the General doesn't exactly feel like a western. In the 5-minute interview with director Damiano Damiani (The Tempter, Amitvylle II: The Possession), he calls this a satire on the idea of westerns, though that doesn't quite seem right either.
It's basically a subversive action film about Mexican revolutionaries with a wild, dark streak of humor, and while the personnel behind and in front of the camera is impressive indeed, it's the amazing Volonté who really carries the show here. Recently shooting to stardom thanks to A Fistful of Dollars and especially his fantastic villainous turn in For a Few Dollars More, he really came into his own with this starring role and soon followed it with such major titles as We Still Kill the Old Way, Face to Face, Le Cercle Rouge, Sacco & Vanzetti, and the unforgettable Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion. Interestingly the actor became highly politicized in real life, too, and turned into a very left-wing activist. Also noteworthy is the jaunty music score filled with Mexican-style melodies by Luis Bacalov, who made his name with Django. Interestingly, the score was actually arranged by Ennio Morricone.
Initially released on VHS by MGM, A Bullet for the General made its debut as one of the Italian releases produced by Bill Lustig for Anchor Bay back in the early '00s. Eventually the title was reissued with the same (very good) 16x9 transfer by Blue Underground, including identical extras (the U.S. and international trailers), and the same video source used for most of the film's international DVD releases as well. However, those are easily laid to waste by Blue Underground's Blu-Ray release, which features not only the 118-minute international English version (El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?) but the very different U.S. version as well. The previously released English dub has always been something of an annoyance, as it features none of the actors' voices and only rarely comes close to being in synch, and the U.S. one -- while not much better -- features some completely different voices including a much more guttural reading for Volonté. The European version is essentially the same in basic content, but right off the bat it's a more expansive and interesting experience as it features a significantly longer opening scene (rather than the abrupt bullet-firing executions most viewers have seen in the opening shot of the U.S. one). The opening credits also play out very differently, with the U.S. one compressing the set up with the train in a less interesting manner. Some other editorial variations occur throughout as well, and the Italian track (which features optional English subtitles) is also included as a very welcome option (easily the best of the bunch). It also includes a few variations of its own; for example, one of the film's final, crucial lines has a completely opposite and more logical reading here.) Some English is also present in the Italian track, including the opening narration and a few verbal mutterings by Chuncho to himself. The aforementioned Damiani interview is included, and though short, it's a nice peek into his thought processes on one of the key '60s spaghetti "westerns." Image quality is at the better end of the scale for an Italian-sourced HD transfer; it has pretty strong detail (especially in close ups), and while some noise reduction appears to have been applied, it doesn't suffer from the glaring blotch-o-vision that plagued some other unfortunate titles. (I won't rattle them off again; that roll call of shame has been pretty well established by now.) Also included are new HD transfers of the American trailer (which looks fantastic and razor sharp) and the international one (which, uh, doesn't).
As if the expanded presentation of the movie itself weren't enough, a bonus DVD is also included containing Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attroe Contro ("An Actor Against"), a 112-minute documentary from 2005 about the late star who passed away during filming of Theodoros Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze with Harvey Keitel (both of whom are interviewed here). He didn't wind up in the finished film, obviously, and the doc starts off recounting his death and then retracing his progression both as an actor and as a political force over the years. A huge roster of interviewees talk about him ranging from actors and directors to cooks and close friends, along with film clips and stills from several of his films both famous and obscure. (A disclaimer at the end explains why some titles aren't represented with actual footage, too.) It's an excellent piece (originally released on DVD in Italy as a bundle with a book of the same title), presented full frame (with 4x3 letterboxed clips) and looking watchable if unspectacular; the opening credits are very indistinct for some reason, but it gets better soon after. A very welcome supplement to an already excellent film.
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