Years ago when I was connecting names to genres and movies, Lee Van Cleef was one of those faces a youngster doesn’t easily forget. Death Rides a Horse quite frequently would play on late night television and he’s the only reason I tuned in to this spaghetti western from director Giulio Petroni at the time. I do believe it’s my earliest recollection of the slit eyed western baddie turned cult hero of Euro cinema. As far as the movie’s musical composer, Ennio Morricone? I would have had no idea who that was and probably at that time could have cared less.
Here I am a good thirty years on and seeing this western for the first time since that teamed Lee Van with the young upstart, John Phillip Law in this tale of revenge that puts our two leads on a mysterious collision course. In truth I recalled very little about the film other than a few images and the mystery surrounding the uneasy alliance between the two. This oater has long been an easy one to locate since it’s on countless bargain bin western collections here in Canada. Still, I’ve always avoided it as I do many of those budget label transfers. All this brings us to the fact that I purchased a blu ray player that plays titles from overseas and since Death Rides a Horse was put out by MGM abroad, I ordered it and gave it a long overdue look.
The tale is one of revenge when a child sees four men kill his father then rape and murder his mother and sister. From the corner of their cabin, he sees distinctive scars and jewellery on each individual and as the cabin burns up, another figure pulls him from the pyre before the gang of five men ride on. These are the haunting memories that John Phillip Law will grow up with while the hunger for revenge seethes inside.
While fifteen years have passed, Lee Van Cleef is introduced to us as he is released from a long stretch in prison. He makes it clear that he’ll be hunting down four ex-partners who owe him money and left him behind in a shady double cross. When Van Cleef kills a couple of hired guns assigned to put him six feet under, Phillip Law gets a lead from the dead men that prompts him to follow Van Cleef towards his destiny.
They’ll share an uneasy alliance as they make their way from town to town though Van Cleef essentially begins to look upon Law as a son, and someone he can mentor. The same can be said of Law looking to Van Cleef for guidance and a way to stay alive as they tangle with baddies like Anthony Dawson among others. Each in turn will get the upper hand over each other when it comes time to save the other from angry mobs and back shooting vermin. Still to come will be Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega. If you don’t know the names, but have seen your fair share of Euro westerns, then you’ll recognize these boys.
By the time the final reel comes about, the film will even venture into The Magnificent 7 territory which is a bit ironic since Lee Van would take over the Yul Brynner role as Chris in 1972’s The Magnificent 7 Ride.
If one isn’t exactly a fan of the spaghetti western and primarily familiar with only the Leone films, then Death Rides a Horse might offer you a surprise. It’s got a good story that recalls 1947’s Pursued and might be as close to a Noir like tale as the Spaghetti western ever achieved. Van Cleef proves here that he could be far more than a Clint Eastwood co-star though I do believe he stayed on far too long in the genre, or at least overseas. Not to pick on Law, but he’s the weak link here and maybe that’s because he’s attempting to play an Eastwood like character. Personally, I think he just comes off stiff as a board. Recasting? Take your pick of any twenty something Hollywood up and comer looking to moonlight for a few weeks on location in Spain.
Plenty of action, a good story and for fans of the American western, this one isn’t quite as ludicrous as many of the subsequent spaghetti oaters that come to mind like The Grand Duel among others as the genre played itself out. I’d easily recommend this one to those who may have casually brushed aside the Italian era of westerns.
Now scroll back to the top and follow that Lee Van Cleef link to see him reunite with his young co-star here for a television ad that frequently played in Canada years ago.