Two Blus from Blue

The spaghetti western is one of those rare instances when a change literally saved a genre. Previously, filmmakers and TV suits had drained the once dynamic cinematic style of all its vigor and vitality, running the cowboy and enemy set-up deep into the realm of redundancy. But by adding a level of realistic violence and strict morality/cautionary narratives, the Italians and the Spanish, as well as other foreign aficionados, fashioned the oater into a pre-post modern motion picture preamble. Everything that would come out in the next few decades – the gangster and crime films of the ’70s and ’80s, the gory horror films of the same era, the over the top action and black/white hat histrionics within such spectacles – could be found in its b-movie make-up. There’s even elements of arthouse and other independent movements present. Within this aesthetic update, there were many greats – Leone, Corbucci, Petroni, Tessari – and with the release of two obscure examples of the revisionist horse opera, two more names should be added to the list.

Indeed, Damiano Damiani (Bullet for a General) and Giulio Questi (Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot! ) aren’t usually mentioned among the luminaries they shared cinematic space with, but their output argues for skill and vision on par with said peers. As with many within the exciting subgenre, they came to the approach as a means of achieving some commercial cache. The late ’60s saw a supply and demand boom, and many who wanted into the business found an avenue with the spaghetti western. In Damiani’s case, his time in the category was a mere jumping off point for a longer, legitimate career behind the lens. For Questi, his sequel in name only to the Corbucci classic led to an equally engaging take on the emerging giallo genre. After Death Laid an Egg in 1968, however, his creative career was sporadic, at best. Now Blue Underground gives us a chance to see these lost classics in all their high definition, and the results should rewrite the rulebook when it comes to who best delivered the ultraviolent six gun goods.

Bullet for the General (dir. Damiano Damiani, 1968)

During the Mexican Revolution, a bandito named El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) leads a gang of likeminded vigilantes on raids throughout the region. Among them are his ultra religious brother Santo (Klaus Kinski) and a fetching female named Adelita (Martine Beswick). After robbing a train of its weapons, with the plan to sell them to revolutionary leader General Elias (Jaime Fernandez), El Chuncho is befriended by American passenger Bill ‘Niño’ Tate (Lou Castel). He wants to ride with the daring desperados. At first, he agrees. But as motives come into question, El Chuncho becomes suspicious of Tate…and visa versa.

Even the spaghetti western had subgenres, and director Damiani bested one of the most elusive with he offered up this fine Zapata effort. Named for the famed revolutionary, these films usually took on the archetypes as well as the corrupt government entities that caused the chaos. Bullet for the General is no different, the subtext of squalid, subhuman struggles of everyman modified to a place at home on the range. Damiani clearly wants to question everything, to challenge the motives on all sides as well as to explore the interpersonal dynamic between such ‘brothers in arms.’ The revolution backdrop provides the impetus for what we see, but Bullet for a General also lives within the byplay of its well drawn and complex characters. We aren’t used to seeing people pass beyond the stereotype in this subgenre, but Damiani’s knack for finding depth turns everyone into someone to consider and contemplate.

As El Chuncho, Volonte is terrific. He brings the right among of anger, slow burn sadism, and collective courage to his performance. This brazen bandito is supposed to guide us through the entire blood-spattered experience, and by playing both with and against type, he navigates the gruesome gunplay expertly. Something similar could be said for Kinski. We are so used to seeing this Herzog survivor chewing the scenery that when he doesn’t here, it’s like a revelation. While not laid back, this isn’t the madman that made his favorite director hide in fear. Damiani adds his own sense of craft to the proceedings, turning what could have been a knock off into a masterwork of its own right. Bullet for a General may not live up to the expectations for those who think Once Upon a Time in the West is the final word on the spaghetti western, but in its own unique and highly effective way, it’s just as good.

Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot! (dir. Giulio Questi, 1967)

When a band of Mexican and American bandits are ambushed by one of their own, they are forced to dig their own graves and are shot on sight. There is only one survivor, an enigmatic man referred to as The Stranger (Tomas Milian) who goes out looking for the madman (Piero Lulli) responsible. Arriving in a town called The Unhappy Place, our anti-hero discovers that his job is more or less done. Before long, however, he must face off against Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel) and his group of muy macho banditos. They all want the money that The Stranger and his gang were after in the first place. So does the desperate citizenry of this weird Western outpost.

In the next few months, Quentin Tarantino, student of the entire spaghetti subgenre, will be offering up his own unique “sequel” to the legendary Corbucci masterpiece Django. Entitled Django Unchained, it uses the name, and the electrifying vibe, of the character and his coffin dragging dynamic to begin what is bound to be a homage heavy entertainment experience. Something similar happened to Giulio Questi when he made If You Live…Shoot! Though his main character had no name (he is referred to as “The Stranger”) the producers wanted a clear commercial association. With Corbucci’s film practically printing money, a moniker reconfiguration was in order. Thus Django Kill got its marketing match, and the film world got a sublime, surreal, horror/western mash-up. From the unreal opening which finds out hero crawling out of the body strewn mass grave that he helped dig to the first entry into a town known as “The Unhappy Place” (and boy does it live up to its label), we are overwhelmed by macabre. The horse opera stuff seems strewn about, suggestive in nature.

This doesn’t mean that Django Kill fails in its primary goal. This is a fine spaghetti western with a lot of the tropes we expect from the type. The amount of violence is commiserate with a callous cautionary tale such as this, as are the various villagers who seem lifted out of a Fellini imitation of John Ford. Byt Questi also adds subtle elements which really subvert the type. Sorrow and his gang are viewed as veiled homosexuals, their embroidered outfits and gang rape of a male youth indicative of such a sloppy, bigoted inference. Similarly, the town, which is supposed to be a sanctuary filled with scared innocents, is actually worse that anything The Stranger came across while on the trail. They are a vile and villainous bunch. When taken in total, Django Kills…If You Live, Shoot! becomes that critical rarity – a formula type that transcends expectations while triggering both emotional and ethereal reactions. We are fascinated by this excellent film. We also realize what a forgotten gem it truly is.