Dead Men Ride (Anda muchacho, spara!) premiered in Italy on August 8, 1971 and would return less than stellar box office revenue in Italy. 1971, of course, was the year that changed the Italian western genre forever: the highest grossing film in Italy belonged to the comedy-western They Call Me Trinity (Lo chiamavano Trinità…), which was released in late December 1970. This Terrence Hill, Bud Spencer film would alter the course of the Italian westerns. A genre founded on repetition, of course, followed willingly along, leaving stale Sergio Leone copies. The genre pre-1971 was in dire need of a shake-up as the glut of repetitious films had sent the box office for these films on a frightening slide downwards. What had started as basic copies of American westerns to fill the void was left behind when the American big screen westerns had grown in scope and size in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but had shrunken its output because of the televised westerns that took the box office for “B” westerns and effectively killed it.
So as the sword and sandal film craze died down, the Italian and Spanish producers noticed the want for these films in their homelands and eventually abroad, and began to put together western films. At first, these films were strict copies of American westerns until one film forever altered the course and started the Italian western craze that would last up until the mid-1970s. That film, of course, being A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964), was totally beyond the scope of what any western had ever dared to show on screen. Showcasing how the hero or anti-hero in this film is not morally opposed to doing whatever it takes to earn money was a startling wakeup call.A Fistful of Dollars was a vicious film for a world perched on war in Vietnam and the social and political uprisings that would mirror the growing onscreen hostility. While the likes of John Wayne were still riding the range in his morally correct, pro-American style, the Italians were taking the ideal of the western and reconstructing it in their own vision.
While the successive films in the genre eagerly followed with open copying of the Leone films blueprints first in A Fistful of Dollars and then For A Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965) and lastly in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1969, with some replication of the Leone movies coming to the point of out and out plagiarism. But Leone had started the whole cycle of copying when he lifted large chunks of the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo (1961).
Dead Men Ride borrows heavily from the Leone films. While the introduction of the slapstick comedy that the Trinity films introduced into the genre can be lamented, the fact is that the genre was imploding with the endless imitations and cheaper, drearier variations on Leone’s themes. That’s not to say that there are not numerous gems within the genre, where the narrative and or the action allowed the film to transcend its genre limitations and rise above its repetitious nature. Films like Django (1966), Django Kill… If You Live Shoot (Se sei vivo spara, 1967), The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968) and numerous others would become classics of the genre.
Dead Men Ride seems to encompass all the three major plot devices that Christopher Frayling speaks of in his seminal book on Italian westerns, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. In his book, Frayling takes a basic schematic of westerns first presented by the author Will Wright and introduces plot variations to three common Italian western plot devices. The three are ‘foundation’ narratives, which introduced a stranger into the middle of two warring factions; the ‘transitional’ plot, where a historical backdrop is introduced to widen the scope in a historical context; and the ‘Zapata-spaghetti plot,’ which introduces a non-Mexican participant and a Mexican in a partnership that is fraught with apprehension and centers around the Mexican Revolution.
Dead Men Ride introduces the ‘stranger’ into a besieged town… on a mission for revenge and to find gold. The stranger must place himself in the middle of a one-sided battle between the poor Mexican peasants and the rich gringos. Which also places the film in the context of a mini-revolution, as the stranger helps the small Mexican mining village out from under the oppression and the cruel tyranny of the ruling gringo clan. The stranger is an escapee from a prison labor camp named Roy Greenwood (Fabio Testi), who brings with him the knowledge of the workings of the town and the gold that can be had. Roy had initially escaped with Emiliano (Massimo Serato), who was chained to him but had died on the difficult trek after divulging all the town’s secrets. The forced prison labor of breaking rocks was a common plot device, used to wonderful effects in such movies as Minnesota Clay (1964), A Long Ride from Hell (Vivo per la tua morte, 1968), And God Said to Cain (E Dio disse a Caino…, 1970), among others.
Roy essentially wants revenge for his beloved friend Emiliano with the gold as a secondary motivation, linking the pursuit of monetary gain to the Leone films. With Testi channeling Clint Eastwood in his looks, mannerisms, and his lack of dialogue, even right down to the leather device he uses on his shooting hand. The adorning of the leather to the hand of a gunfighter signifies a professional gunfighter in these films, and Roy Greenwood is no exception, killing in various inventive ways. This appears in other westerns, including the magnificent Robert Hossein film Cemetery Without Crosses (Une corde, un colt…, 1969). Speaking of Cemetery Without Crosses, that film’s legendary table scene, which was directed by Leone with his friend with Hossein’s blessing, is more or less recreated in Dead Men Ride. Both Cemetery Without Crosses’ Manuel (Hossein) and Roy Greenwood are somber spectators to an unfolding dinner scene, each film allowing the men to enter the enemy camp after displaying their prowess with a gun.
The villains of this piece are three men who live together in a gated mansion and run the local town with an iron fist. They pay the poor Mexicans well below market value for the gold they mine and keep them suppressed by disarming them and killing the ones who try to make off with gold to purchase arms. Three men, Lawrence (Ben Carra), Newman (Romano Puppo), and Redfield (Eduardo Fajardo), have come across this legendary wealth, which is told in flashback when they railroad Emiliano and take up their nefarious affairs. Within the mansion lives a beautiful woman named Jessica (Charo Lopez), who is the daughter of Cosorito (Jose Calvo), who aided the escaped Roy and entrusted him with gold to help in his quest for revenge. Jessica is used sexually by both Newman and Lawrence and even uses her body to secure the keys to release the badly beaten Roy. This film has numerous breast bearing and simulated sex scenes, an occurrence that was not frequently used in these films, though Jessica’s plight does mirror Marisol’s (Marianne Koch) from A Fistful of Dollars.
With no knowledge of who Roy is or what his motivation is, the three men are at his mercy to a point, but Redfield, the most cunning and intelligent of the three, uses Roy to help him kill off his two partners, so he can have all the gold to himself, all the while keeping his hands clean. Eduardo Fajardo had a vast acting career including appearing as a slimy, oily villain in a fair share of westerns, most notoriously in the Sergio Corbucci film Django, as the overtly exaggerated racist Major Jackson. Because of Fajardo’s Redfield, Roy is in the crosshairs of Mortimer (Jose Nieto), the sheriff, who the three men payoff to “clean the town up.” A number of other elements from A Fistful of Dollars appear: such as the violent beating of the hero, who displays remarkable therapeutic properties; the protagonist watches the gold as it is escorted out of town by a cavalry escort and is then highjacked by a gang of bandits; and finally, Jose Calvo, whose character assists Roy after his escape, played a similar role in A Fistful of Dollars.
The director Aldo Florio only helmed six films, including 1966’s Five for Revenge (I 5 della vendetta, 1966), that besides an excellent cast including the American Craig Hill in the lead, fails to rise above mediocrity. The cinematography on Dead Men Ride is handled adroitly by the great Emilio Foriscot, which gives the film a broader, wider sense in terms of its scope. Foriscot is best known for his brilliant work on the giallo films Blade of the Ripper (Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh, 1971) and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (La coda dello scorpione, 1971). The music by the legendary Bruno Nicolai reminds one of his fantastic work on the Sartana films. The film’s star, Fabio Testi, is its real draw, though his well established career includes credits to over a hundred films, including arthouse classics like The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il giardino dei Finzi Contini, 1970).
Dead Man Ride, while borrowing from spaghetti westerns past, is a strong effort mainly because of the combined efforts of Testi and Fujardo. Nothing new here to see… but it takes all its influences and presents then in the film in a fresh and exciting way, that keeps the action going and the viewer constantly entertained.