“Senor, you are an American? You like Mexico?” asks a chipper Hispanic boy. Bill Tate, jaded anti-hero of “A Bullet for the General” (1967), looks down at the smiling youth.
“No, not very much.”
It’s tough to imagine a more joyless and Machiavellian protagonist than Tate, a ruthless bounty hunter who makes similar characters in other spaghetti westerns look downright noble. Perhaps it’s because “A Bullet for the General” was early in a wave of Zapata westerns, a subgenre of spaghetti westerns with much more overtly Marxist underpinnings and extremely dark worldviews.
Set during the Mexican Revolution in 1913, Damiano Damiani’s film is at once a shameless action buddy flick and a daring social critique of capitalism. The film stars Lou Castel as bounty hunter Tate and El Chucho (Gian Maria Volontè, villain of the Leone’s Dollars Trilogy) as a Mexican bandit who frees him from the police while robbing a train. The two become fast friends, although Chucho doesn’t know that Tate’s rescue was staged as the first act in his play for 100,000 pesos. Tate is merely manipulating Chucho to get close to General Elias, the leader of the Mexican revolution. In his valise is a golden rifle bullet, which if properly applied to the right political skull, could make Tate a very rich man indeed. It would also forever end the dreams of closet-revolutionary Chucho and the oppressed Mexican peasantry.
Though the film opens with Tate blankly watching a firing squad gun down a batch of scraggly Mexican revolutionaries, its politics remain largely submerged within the action set pieces and character dynamics for the first 2/3. The early train robbery scene is a masterpiece of upping-the-ante on traditional westerns. The conductor pulls the engine to a stop as he comes into sight of an obstruction on the tracks: a crucified military captain still barely alive. Anyone who tries to help him is gunned down by the encircling bandits. Chucho is in charge of the attackers, and soon has the passengers riddled to rags with gunfire. Tate cuffs himself a dead soldier’s manacles and allows himself to be taken in by the thugs. They’re pleased to have what they presume to be an American outlaw in their company.
[Images: Crucifixion on a railroad track.]
The two lead men show plenty of chemistry, actually enhanced by the audience’s knowledge that Tate isn’t on the level and that both of the men are merciless killers. Chucho is enthusiastic and not very bright, an easy target for Tate’s manipulation, but the Gringo clearly warms to the companionship and brotherhood that Chucho offers. When Chucho finds Tate’s golden bullet, the bounty hunter claims it’s a lucky charm. The viewer can feel that their luck is soon to go down hill.
True to his hopes, the wagon full of rifles topped by the machine gun fetches a mouthwatering sum of $5000 for the small-thinking Chucho. He has fooled himself so well into thinking that he has supported the revolution with all his might that he is brought low when General Elias confronts him about abandoning the village. Apparently, the ill-trained, ill-equipped men that Chucho left behind were slaughtered in his absence. His brother Santo survived, and now jumps at the chance of getting his revenge. Chucho is so depressed and penitent that he agrees to be executed in the wasteland behind the camp. Meanwhile Tate loads his rifle on a nearby hillside.
Jump ahead to some time later and we see Tate collecting his bounty in gold (he turns down the paper money saying it’s “not the same.”) and returning to a fancy hotel. A drunk and distraught Chucho breaks in planning to kill his former friend, but Tate reveals that he has been waiting for him for several days. Tate is genuinely happy to see the only friend he ever made and readily splits the money with Chucho. In a state of shock, Chucho allows himself to be bathed, dressed and fed like a rich man.
Running between the tracks with the police in pursuit he whoops, throws off his hat and shouts back to the shoeshiner, “And don’t buy bread with that money, hombre. Buy dynamite!”
On the most superficial level, “A Bullet for the General” is an excellent revisionist western with regularly spaced action sequences that are clever and thrilling. Damiani knows exactly what additive touch will send a scene from cliché to inspired. Blowing a hole into a police fort by hiding explosives in a prostitute’s luggage too mundane? Why not synchronize the explosion with a cork popping off and have the prostitute take cover beneath her dainty parasol!
So whether you’re a fan of spaghetti westerns, buddy movies, dark anti-heroes, Marxist politics, moral crises or sprawling epics, this is a film that deserves your viewing.