Sunday, September 30, 2012

Seen It (Again): A Bullet for the General (1966)

Welcome to my second "review" of  Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General. I first watched, and wrote about, this film back in January 2011 a time during which I had just been bitten by the Spaghetti Western bug. This morning, after reviewing essays written by my AP Language & Composition students, and in anticipation of the afternoon's cross-country running meet, I was inspired to rewatch the DVD with a slightly different "eye" and thought perhaps it warranted some updated commentary review. In class, we have been discussing the identification of literary and rhetorical concepts at work in the real world. With a deeper look it is fairly easy to connect the dots and see them active in the reel world, too.

DVD Cover.
A Bullet for the General (1966) (also known as Quien Sabe?), was among the earliest entries on my mental "must-see" list due primarily to two significant selling points: first, its having been being hailed by more than one critic as "one of of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns of all time," and secondly, the presence of the charismatic Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté, recognizable to American film goers from Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

Damiani's film is the rare Spaghetti Western that is not really a "Western" at all, given its setting South of the border in Mexico. Truth is, Bullet falls more neatly into a subgenre of the Spaghetti Western it helped to start, the Zapata Western. "Zapata Western" is a nickname given to Spaghetti Westerns which were set in and around Mexico and dealt with overtly political themes.

The film happens to star one of my favorite genre actors, Gian Maria Volonté,  here playing Mexican guerrilla bandit/arms dealer, El Chuncho. As is nearly always the case, there is a twin archetypal silent gringo character, Bill Tate, played by Lou Castel, though more frequently referred to by other characters as either "Gringo" or "El Nino." The plot deals with the American agent of the Mexican government (Castel), intervening in the Mexican Revolution of 1913, by attempting to manipulate a bandit leader (Volonte) into helping him assassinate a revolutionary general. El Chuncho is aided by his brother, El Santo, a Mexican mercenary draped in monks robes, played by actor Klaus Kinski.

El Chuncho. El Nino. El Santo. If you're getting the sense that this film plays like some crazy Mexican Hogan's Heroes, with it's eclectic cast of characters--you are not far off. At a deeper level, the subversive intentions of Colonel Hogan's gang of political prisoner's is also reflected in the overall plot of the movie, too. Each actor performs their role with such relish, that one almost buys (at least I did) that maybe Damiani, who considered this a political film rather than a genre one, was really onto something... though his "message" is intermingled with just enough gore, gun fights and exploitation-style hi jinx to allow it to pass as a Spaghetti, or nascent Zapata, Western.

What made A Bullet for the General "political" in Damiani's eyes were the overt references to the ongoing Vietnam War. It is this analogy that makes the film (and its consideration) of special interest to myself, as an AP Composition teacher. Castel's character, El Nino, representative the CIA's interventions in Latin America, is somewhat symbolic of the United States presence in Vietnam. This subtext sets the tone for future sub genre entries, though just how much of the intended political meaning reached non-European shoes is debatable as film were re-edited for markets that might be offended by the (figurative) content. The turn at the end brings home the message and reveals Damiani's possible sympathies for the Vietnamese.

For a "legitimate," albeit spoiler-laden, review originally published during the film's American release in May 1969 check out this article from the New York Times here, or a review of the recent Blue Ray re-release from here.

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