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At the height of the Mexican revolution, a mysterious young American dubbed El Nino (Lou Castel) joins a gang of marauders led by El Chucho (Gian Maria Volonté) on a series of savage raids to steal guns for a powerful rebel general. But when the El Nino brings his own cold-blooded ideals to the bandits, El Chucho discovers that the real weapons of war belong to no army. In a land ravaged by poverty and violence, can true freedom be bought with a single bullet? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis).

 Bullet for the General BU Blu-ray
 Bullet for the General AB DVD
Often listed as a personal favourite among spaghetti western aficionados like Professor ‘Sir’ Christopher Frayling and Repo Man director Alex Cox, Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General is not a great place for uninitiated viewers to start with the spaghetti western genre. In fact, Bullet for the General (aka: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe? or just Quien Sabe?, a more appropriate title that translates to Who Knows?) isn’t only a revisionist/spaghetti western, but is also counted among a more demanding subgenre known as ‘Zapata’ westerns. Named for Emiliano Zapata, a famed Mexican Revolution general that stood alongside Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco, Zapata westerns are largely set during the Mexican Revolution, utilizing the historical conflict as an allegory for then-modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s), left-leaning politics. Despite Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s early, more popular spaghettis often showing signs of politically slant, most historians and critics credit Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown as the Zapata subgenre kick-starter. The Big Gundown was released in 1966, starred Lee Van Cleef (hot off the success of For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Tomas Milian (in the first of many popular spaghetti western roles, including Sollima’s Face to Face), and was followed by a sequel, Run Man Run (1968, available on Blue Underground and Anchor Bay DVD). Corbucci later took his first real shot at the subgenre with The Mercenary (aka: A Professional Gun) in 1968, staring Franco Nero, Jack Palance and Tony Musante. He’d effectively remake and improved upon The Mercenary formula two years later with Compañeros, which also starred Nero and Palance, and replaced Musante with Milian (I personally count Compañeros as the subgenre’s highest point).

Bullet for the General was released later in the same year as The Big Gundown, which makes the number of commonalities between the films all the more compelling. These include the basic themes of criminals turned revolutionaries, and the dual protagonist structure, a common spaghetti theme post- For a Few Dollars More, but one that would eventually define the Zapata western subgenre. Often overlooked is the fact that Bullet for the General screenwriter Franco Solinas, who is credited as ‘adapting’ Salvatore Laurani’s original story, was not credited for writing the story Sergio Donati and Sergio Sollima based their Big Gundown screenplay upon (Tulio Demicheli and Fernando Morandi are also marked on imdb.com as uncredited writers). It’s entirely possible that both films were adapted from roughly the same source, and that Salvatore Laurani is the accidental mastermind behind the entire Zapata western subgenre. A long tradition of not crediting screenwriters, secondary directors, actors and even composers in Italian filmmaking renders entirely factual recognition impossible, but it’s at least clear that Solinas is a connecting factor. His participation in both politically left-slanted projects makes perfect sense, especially considering he also co-wrote an Academy Award nominated screenplay for the brazenly political The Battle of Algiers with director Gillo Pontecorvo in 1966. Following 1966 Solinas wrote two more Marxist-inspired Italian westerns, Corbucci’s aforementioned The Mercenary, and Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa (1969, co-staring Milian and Orson Welles).

 Bullet for the General BU Blu-ray
 Bullet for the General AB DVD
Solima’s and Corbucci’s Zapata westerns are generally entertaining action films, built around charming dual lead casts, and presented with tongue firmly implanted in cheek. The underlying politics and occasional gravitas are important, and usually presented as reasonably straight-faced, but humour is still a fundimental element used to coax the audience into the heavier messages. The subgenre eventually morphed into something closer to pure comedy, including Corbucci’s What Am I Doing in the Middle of the Revolution? (1972), Leone’s extremely cynical, anti-political epic Duck You Sucker (aka: Giù la Testa, 1971), E.B. Clucher’s Trinity series ( They Call Me Trinity and Trinity is Still My Name), and even Damiani’s A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe. Bullet for the General isn’t dour by any means, but isn’t exactly what most viewers consider a comedy, outside some amusing one-liners, and slightly absurd action sequences. The almost frighteningly smart screenplay at first appears somewhat formless, but eventually develops into something truly subversive, and builds up the deceptively simple characters into ambiguous, multifaceted human beings. Damiani and Solinas’ leftist allegories are a central part of the text, but the film remains relatively esoteric throughout, and rarely accepts black and white simplifications.

The tone is set early when Chucho and his men set a trap by binding a tortured general to the tracks ahead of a train carrying munitions. The outranked soldiers within are left with the choice to give up their guns, risk death at the hands of well-placed snipers, or press the train forward, crushing their general in the process. The scene plays out with a mix of comedy, tragedy, and in the end, even horror, leaving the audience unsure who to trust in terms of antagonists and protagonists. Following a relatively rousing action sequence, El Chucho’s men brutally and coldly dispatch the remaining soldiers (many of whom are injured and/or have already surrendered). The previously stirring, mariachi inspired musical soundtrack helps cue us in to the truth of the situation, and assures us that things are no longer amusing. This juxtaposition of rollicking fun and sobering violence then carries throughout the entire film, right up to Chucho’s final statement – ‘Don't buy bread with that money, hombre! Buy dynamite! Dynamite!’. It’s a heavy-handed enough approach to chase away some viewers not prepared for the operatic highs of Italian western, but those of us acclimated to these extremes expect something similarly unsubtle.

 Bullet for the General BU Blu-ray
 Bullet for the General AB DVD
Damiani is best known for a series of Poliziotteschi (Italian crime) movies including Confessions of a Police Captain (1971) and How to Kill a Judge (1974), and dabbled in comedy and melodrama throughout his long career (he was making movies right up until 2002). Despite its popularity, Bullet for the General is something of an anomaly in his canon. His only other western, A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (1975), which starred Terence Hill, was produced and second unit directed by Sergio Leone, and has almost nothing in common with Bullet for the General outside of its genre heading. Damiani’s direction is never as graphically studious and epic as Leone’s, nor is it as natural and poetic as Corbucci’s, but his rough edges and handheld camera techniques have a real cinéma vérité grit, recalling his early documentary work (not to mention Battle of Algiers), and mixes with Techniscope widescreen framing to uncanny success (though I imagine they may have been a bit overwhelming on the big screen). The action sequences could certainly do with the spit-shine of some more dynamic blocking and tighter editing, but there’s an otherwise unattainable immediacy to them, and some are artfully framed by unlikely sources.

Gian Maria Volonté, who had just portrayed insane villain roles for Leone’s incredibly popular Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More is certainly consistent as Chucho, but can’t quite compare to Tomas Milian, who would basically define the peon/fool role in spaghetti westerns in the same way Clint Eastwood defined the Man with No Name role. Volonté’s manic energy is infectious enough to fill this slight charm deficiency, and he’s always been better with drama than comedy anyway, which makes for a particularly strong showing during the extended climax and coda. The bigger problem is that Lou Castel is no Franco Nero, leaving Volonté to fill the peon/fool and stoic/sly roles. This is somewhat appropriate since the character dynamics are often switched in relation to most Zapata westerns, but is still relatively disappointing. Klaus Kinski gets pretty high billing on most releases, but is an unsurprisingly minor character, and is cast largely against type as an honor-obsessed religious man. He’s given plenty of opportunity to turn the ham up to eleven, but is dubbed on both the English and Italian track, robbing him of his second most valuable asset (behind his crazy face) – his maniacal voice. Martine Beswick’s ( From Russia with Love, Thunderball and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) performance as Adelita is perhaps the film’s most undervalued contribution. Adelita may represent the most substantial female role in spaghetti westerns up to that point, appearing a solid two years before Claudia Cardinale’s Jill McBain ( Once Upon a Time in the West) and Vonetta McGee’s Pauline ( The Great Silence).

This Blu-ray release includes both the original 115 minute US release, which was previously unavailable on DVD, and the 118 minute international cut. I’m not sure why anyone would prefer the shorter cut, but it certainly has archival value. Imdb.com claims there is a 135 minute cut, but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD in any territory.

 Bullet for the General BU Blu-ray
 Bullet for the General AB DVD

Video


Blue Underground has the rights to decent collection of some of the best spaghetti westerns ever made, including Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot!, Texas, Addios, Run Man Run, Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, Keoma, Compañeros and Keoma, but until now have only found the time/money/will/material to put Corbucci’s seminal classic Django to Blu-ray disc in May of 2010. I wouldn’t dare accuse Bill Lustig and company of shuffling their feet based on the sheer quantity of HD-worthy titles in their collection, but when they announced that Bullet for the General and Django Kill would be making the format leap I was more than ready to forgive time spent on less exciting releases like Baba Yaga and Killer Nun.

The first thing I notice in comparing this new HD transfer to the old DVD is not the heavy increase in detail, but the even heavier increase in vibrancy. Everything about this new transfer is beaming and bright, making the previous release appear as if it were being viewed through a greasy, clear plastic. This transfer is also a lot warmer than the DVD’s, which would logically seem to be in step with Damiani and cinematographer Antonio Secchi’s intended look. The warmth overwhelms some of the solid white and light green elements (Blue Underground’s Deep Red transfer had a similar problem), but does very well by the red highlights, and is a lovely contrast to the occasionally violet-tinted night sequences. Details are largely consistent throughout, though Damiani and Secchi tend to pull focus a bit tighter than Leone while filling their 2.35:1 widescreen vistas. Close-up textures are among the strongest details (you can’t count threads, hairs or pores on the DVD copy), but I’m also impressed with some of the decorative background patterns. There’s very, very little in the way of CRT scanning noise, or obvious signs of DNR on this image. Occasionally the grain appears to be a bit mushy (especially in the starker backgrounds), and there are a few dancing edges, but overall digital noise looks pretty natural, and the sharpened details show little sign of enhancement effects. The only time telecine effects are particularly noticeable are in some of the deepest background details. So far as basic print damage goes the Blue Underground techs have done a fine job cleaning things up, leaving only occasional flecks of white, a few black blotches, and one or two ragged reel changeovers.

 Bullet for the General BU Blu-ray
 Bullet for the General AB DVD

Audio


The previous Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVD releases of A Bullet for the General have included only the English dub track, not the original Italian dub, so fans can mark this release as an upgrade in terms of video beyond just the uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio capabilities. Once again, I must stress that the bulk of Italian films from the era were filmed without sound, and the bulk of spaghetti westerns feature international casts, often speaking their own languages at each other during the filming process, so both the English and Italian tracks (along with any other language tracks) are post-dubbed. The choice of language track here is purely a case of personal preference. There’s very little difference in the overall volume and distortion levels of the two tracks, though the dialogue on the English track tends to be a bit softer and natural. Both tracks feature minor distortions on the highest volume levels, and the louder action sequences tend to get a bit mushy with activity, but there’s nothing unexpectedly ‘damaged’ on either track that I noticed. Luis Enríquez Bacalov is the penultimate spaghetti western composer behind Ennio Morricone. Bacalov largely worked off the genre defining sounds Morricone created for Fistful of Dollars, but developed his own flavour with Django, The Grand Duel and this film, which Morricone acted as musical supervisor for. The unique defining element of this particular score is that it has an even more sizable Latin influence than most spaghetti scores. The action themes in particular recall Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story music at times. Both tracks treat the score very well, including enough supportive bass, and warm overall fidelity.

Extras


The first disc in this two disc collection starts with A Bullet for the Director (5:00, SD), an interview with director Damiano Damiani, who discusses his intent on satirizing the western genre, his affection for Leone’s westerns, and allegory. Disc one also features a US trailer that does whatever it can to paint the film as more like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1:50, HD), the international trailer (4:30, HD), and a poster and still gallery.

Disc two features a feature length documentary entitled Gian Maria Volonté: Un Attore Contro (1:52:20, SD), all about the life and times of the apparently controversial actor. Volonté was a political activist, a beloved craftsman, and by most accounts an utter mad man who was notoriously difficult to deal with on set. The film covers his difficult early life, the bulk of his acting career, including footage from his early stage and television appearances and his better known major motion pictures, and is structured around the shadow of his sudden death on the set of Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses' Gaze in 1984. This includes interviews with film historian Ferruccio Morotti, directors Theo Angelopoulos, Francesco Rosi, Damiano Damiani, Paolo Taviani, Peter Stein, Carlo Lizzani, Margarethe Von Trotta, and Giuliano Montaldo, actors Harvey Keitel, Erland Josephson, Giorgio Albertazzi, Lou Castel, Piera Delgi Esposti, Roberto Herlitzka and Ennio Fantastichini, along with about a dozen other friends and relations whose names shot by too quickly for me to write them down. The section most pertinent to Bullet for the General comes around the 30 minute point, when Damiani and Castel discuss some of the problems Volonté had on set, including a period of filming where he became convinced his horse was persecuting him.

 Bullet for the General BU Blu-ray
 Bullet for the General AB DVD

Overall


Once again, I wouldn’t recommend spaghetti western virgins get started on their journey watching Bullet for the General, but it is one of the genre’s best, and an important film in the Zapata western subgenre. With all my talk of the film’s significance I almost forgot how good the last act is, easily among the best of any western, regardless of country of origin. Blue Underground has done very well with their source material, crafting a handsome widescreen transfer, and supplying the previously unavailable Italian audio track. The extras include the studio’s usual brief interview and promotional material stuff on the first disc, plus a separate disc featuring a feature length documentary about the life and work of star Gian Maria Volonté. More Blu-ray westerns please, Blue Underground!

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blue Underground Blu-ray screen-caps.


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