Retro Review: ‘Death Rides a Horse’
In the sub genre of the “Spaghetti Western” one actor could always be counted on to deliver as a memorable performance as a cold-blooded villain, Lee Van Cleef. Whether he was going up against Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin, his beady eyes, hooked nose, trademark pipe, and distinctive facial hair became seared into the memories of the collective audiences. But in 1967, director Giulio Petroni cast him against type as an anti-hero serving as a reluctant mentor to a young man wanting vengeance in Death Rides a Horse.
As a boy, Bill was the only surviving witness to the brutal murder of his family by a gang of thugs, and all his life he carried with him certain visual clues as to the identities of the men responsible. As an adult he becomes and expert gunfighter for the sole purpose of gaining his revenge. During his quest he crosses paths with Ryan (played by Van Cleef) who was framed by the same gang who killed Bill’s family, and since this is a Spaghetti Western, he too wants a measure of revenge. The two discover that the men they are after are now important wealthy men in their community making their mission that much more difficult. The film eventually comes to its climax in the desert during a sandstorm where Bill and Ryan engage in a shootout with the last of those who wronged them.
In a wise move, much of this film is void of dialogue exchanges, as Petroni uses striking visuals as well as the expressive faces of his two protagonists to tell this story. This style of filmmaking is on perfect display in the haunting opening scene as a young boy witnesses his father gunned down while his mother and sisters are attacked while the sounds of crashing thunder and pouring rain dominate the soundscape. That is not to say that screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni did not write good dialogue; on the contrary the verbal exchanges between characters are loaded with memorable one-liners which astute cinephiles may recognize from other films paying tribute. In providing Lee Van Cleef the platform to make the leap from character actor to leading man, this could not have been more perfect. No longer is he the cold and calculating baddie, Van Cleef portrays an aged and world weary man who is acting as a mentor to a brash yet talented protégé. Though not adored by many mainstream critics (Roger Ebert gave the film one star but wrote about how he personally enjoyed it) film fans hold this movie as one of the best of the Spaghetti Westerns. Themes which are hallmarks of the genre such as; revenge, aging, fighting as an underdog, and teaching the next generation are all on prominent display in this picture.