Death Rides a Horse

Roger Ebert gave it one star. Rotten Tomatoes gave it two. I kind of enjoyed it.

Death Rides a Horse is one of the Italian-produced spaghetti westerns from 1967. It contains two spaghetti staples – career villain Lee Van Cleef and a distinctive score by movie legend Ennio Morricone.

Roger Ebert’s review sums up Lee Van Cleef’s presence perfectly:

Van Cleef’s face, in closeup, has the lean, hardened, embittered expression of a man who has either (a) been pursuing his lonely vengeance across the plains of the West for 30 years, or (b) realizes he will be making spaghetti Westerns the rest of his life. These two feelings are nearly indiscernible.

The film plot is not complicated. It does, however come with a twist. A predictable twist, but a twist nonetheless.

A young Bill sees his father killed, then his mother and sister raped then killed by a gang of marauders. Young Bill grows up bitter and focused on one thing – revenging his family. He becomes singularly focused on his marksmanship, becoming an expert shot and potentially deadly assassin.

Lee Van Cleef as Ryan

Fast-forward 15 years and enter John Phillip Law as the baby-faced and naive adult Bill. Law can carry himself well most of the time, but his “mean sneer” looks more like his underwear is riding uncomfortably high. Both Law and Van Cleef deliver their dialogue in unconvincing cardboard style.

We see Van Cleef’s character, Ryan, being released from prison after 15 years. See the twist yet? Physically, Van Cleef is perfect in this role. A hardened man, suspicious of everyone, Ryan is also a man on a mission. He’s going after the men who double-crossed him and put him in jail. See the twist yet?

Bill and Ryan seem to chase each other from one town to the next, apparently working off the same hit list. See the twist yet?

Eventually penned into a fort and having to defend themselves, they are forced to work together. The twist, of course, is that Ryan is a member of the gang that killed Bill’s family. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

Loaded with the spaghetti western’s trademarks: cheesy cliched dialogue delivered by actors who want to be the next Clint Eastwood; great live scenery combined with obvious stage sets, stereotyped and romanticized characters, Death Rides a Horse is still an enjoyable watch for a few hours.

John Phillip Law as Bill

Death Rides a Horse has some unmistakable influences on Quentin Tarantino’s film “Kill Bill”. Tarantino is a big fan of the spaghetti westerns. The story arcs are generally similar, with a single survivor avenging deaths after honing themselves into a deadly accurate killing machine.

One of the more memorable lines from Death Rides a Horse that Van Cleef delivers, chiding Bill who is recklessly pursuing his targets is “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold… The way you’re going you’ll end up with indigestion”. Tarantino begins his movie with the quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, but credits it as an “Old Klingon Proverb” in a nod to Star Trek.

Another interesting similarity is the cinematic style of the flashback scenes in both movies. In Kill Bill, the Bride flashes back to past trauma and superimposed over the whole flashback scene is a close-up of The Bride’s eyes. We see the same thing in Death Rides a Horse when Bill flashes back to memories of his family being killed.

The most interesting connection, however, is that Ennio Morricone also scored Kill Bill, and recycles the haunting Death Rides a Horse theme as the recurring musical theme in Kill Bill.

You can watch or download Death Rides A Horse from the Internet Archive.

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