HCF REWIND NO. 142. A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL AKA QUIEN SABE, WHO KNOWS? [Italy 1966]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME:113 min/ 103 min/ 77 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
During the Mexican revolutionary war, mercenary American Bill Tate finds his ride interrupted when the train’s military passengers are massacred by a marauding gang of revolutionary bandits led by El Chuncho, who, along with his slightly insane religious brother El Santo, robs the rich to give to the poor and takes weapons off the government’s army to sell to the revolutionary army. Bill helps El Chuncho when he shots the driver of the train, who was trying to drive it off. Claiming to be a wanted man, Bill asks to join the gang and is accepted. Despite being total opposites, El Chuncho and Bill form a bond and Bull becomes more and more involved with the revolution…
A Bullet For The General is regarded by many as one of the greatest spaghetti westerns. Ignoring for the time being Sergio Leone’s films, I would also claim The Great Silence and Face To Face as being better too, and maybe a few others if I think about it. It’s still a fine adventure which is heavily political but does not let its polemics interfere with the entertainment aspect. It has certain similarities with Leone’s brilliant, later A Fistful Of Dynamite, but is actually only one of many spaghetti westerns which dealt with the Mexican revolution. Usually firmly leftist in point of view, they often had an American or European character exploiting the situation as a commentary on capitalism. They also often featured two main male characters who, though different in many ways including usually their ultimate goal, formed a fraught alliance. A Bullet For The General was one of the first of these. It was directed by the very up-and-down in quality but diverse filmmaker Damiano Damiani, who apparently found it so hard working with two awkward actors, Gian Maria Volonte and Klaus Kinski [who had both just been in For A Few Dollars More], that on one occasion he supposedly pulled Volonte from his horse and kicked him around to show who was in charge!
This film has existed in several version including one running just 77 min long , and I can’t see how a version that short could work. In fact, I’d like to see the legendary 135 min version that some have mentioned. The version on the R2 Argent spaghetti western box set, from which these three reviews are derived, runs 113 min and is certainly longer than the version that used to turn up on UK TV. A Bullet For The General is generally a very well paced film, moving swiftly but allowing time for a very accurate sense of time and place, and it only weakens a little bit towards the end, though it’s brave of a film like this to have no major action scene in the last half an hour. The many sequences of gunplay benefit from nice touches of humour like a woman who tries to shield herself from all the bullets with her dainty parasol, and are interestingly far less bloody than normal, though death is still treated as an ugly business. The first half of the film is fairly light-hearted as our bunch of revolutionaries go around attacking soldiers, taking guns, and giving the land to the peasants, but things than get far more serious with divided loyalties, betrayal, and one major character revealing himself as certainly not all he seems rearing their ugly heads.
In some ways this is almost a male romance between two unlikely partners; a Mexican revolutionary who loves, drink, cigars and women, and an American with no ideals who doesn’t drink, smoke or womanise and only cares about money. The script gets us to switch our preference for one to the other, while not giving us the expected romance between Bill and the main female character Adelita, even if it’s obvious they have feelings for each other. The film is clearly behind the revolutionaries, to the point of finishing with a rousing call to arms: “Don’t buy bread, buy dynamite”, though it refuses to make them angels. They frequently shoot people in cold blood and, in perhaps the film’s best scene, invade the house of a rich landowner and exhibit naked greed not much better than that of the rich folk we are asked to despise. The film even dares, in a very funny but pointed scene, to depict some of the peasants as being rather stupid.
Damiani’s direction isn’t as stylish as Corbucci’s let alone Leone’s, but it’s very smooth. Volonte usually played his bandito characters very broadly and so it is here, but you can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on-screen, and he makes up for the dull performance by Lou Castel, though admittedly Castel looks very cool in his constantly unruffled suit and fedora. Kinski is memorable as a grenade-throwing priest though is not in the film enough, while twice-Bond girl Martine Beswick has one of her best roles as Adelita. The English dubbing is mostly quite good. Sergio Canevari’s production design is very elaborate for such a modestly budgeted production and Luis Bacalov’s score, which Ennio Morricone had a hand in, much better than Django’s. Even if you disagree with it’s left-wing politics, A Bullet For The General is intelligent and has clearly been put together with a considerable amount of care, even if it’s not quite the masterpiece some claim.