Met with an overwhelming number of lukewarm reviews upon its original cinematic release, and consistently relegated to little more than a footnote in the history of the spaghetti western genre, Giulio Petroni’s Da uomo a uomo (Death Rides a Horse, 1967) has largely been regarded with critical derision. Despite its domestic success in Italy in the late 1960s and a dedicated underground following, it would take another 30 years for the film’s legacy to be recouped internationally via the resurrection of the film’s visual signatures and Ennio Morricone’s musical score in Quentin Tarantino’s pastiche companion films Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004). For cineastes with a keen historical eye, Tarantino’s referencing of Death Rides a Horse playfully situates his film within the Italo-western tradition of transnational cinema, appropriating tropes from the Wild West and re-imagining them within a new context. Although Petroni, cleverly employing a filmic food metaphor to imply inauthenticity, commented that Kill Bill was a “cartoonish minestrone”,1 Tarantino nonetheless shone a light on the distinctive cinematic style of the former’s film.
The first of five spaghetti westerns Petroni would contribute to the genre, Death Rides a Horse was largely inspired by a nostalgic impulse to recapture the narratives of his childhood. As Petroni stated in an interview: “What … intrigued [me] most in the idea of the West, was this aspect of adventure, of nature in its purest state. I was attracted by the idea to make an adventure movie that reminded me of the books I loved when I was a child.”2 Impelled by a narrative trajectory of revenge, the film is marked by the established iconography of a stark desert landscape traversing the boundary between the Old West and Mexico; bank heists and Mexican standoffs; the portrayal of a loner antihero; and the representation of hyper-masculinised characters and settings that exist outside the conventions of domesticity and stability.
In cinematically imagining the stories of his youth, Petroni engages in what Dimitris Eleftheriotis contextualises as the spaghetti western’s role as “fantasy tourism.”3 However, where the joining of fantasy and tourism suggests both artificiality and surface – a fault often levelled at the relentless and inconsequential violence of the action in spaghetti westerns – Death Rides a Horse is underscored by a psychological drive that is more commonly associated with the films of Sergio Leone. In Petroni’s hands, the confused morality, intense lingering gazes, fateful intersections and minimal dialogue of the genre are rendered significant through the themes of memory, trauma and retribution.
A variation on the visual leitmotif of the extreme close-up on the characters’ eyes during a stand-off unfolds in the film’s opening scene, in which the young Bill (played in adulthood by John Phillip Law) watches the brutal murder of his family at the hands of a band of outlaws. The act of bearing witness foregrounds the disturbing flashbacks that interrupt the action of the film, as Bill confronts his family’s murderers 15 years in the future. Alongside the exposed face of one of the perpetrators, Bill carries with him a signifier for each masked outlaw: four aces tattooed onto a bare chest; a scar inscribed into a forehead; a silver hoop earring; and a necklace with a skull pendant. These signs of trauma become etched in Bill’s memory and uncannily return as he meets the assailants in blood-tinged flashbacks, which Tarantino replicates to great effect in Kill Bill. While not exactly subtle, this enhanced signification transforms the gaze beyond a typical stare of antagonism to a site of trauma.
The only tangible relic of the murder of Bill’s family is a spur left behind at the scene of the crime, which the distraught Bill retrieves and keeps into adulthood. The spur not only links to the title’s reference to horses – which was altered from the direct translation of the Italian “Man to Man” – but also highlights the significance of objects to the film’s narrative and their connection to memory. In a parallel story to Bill’s journey, the film’s other protagonist, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), is introduced upon his release from jail after 15 years of imprisonment. Following a lengthy scene in which he remains silent, he finally speaks merely to request the return of his gun and the 27 bullets in his possession upon his arrest. The exchange of these items is met with a reverence in the film that is highlighted by the extreme zoom of the camera on the caress of the gun in Ryan’s hands, which is backed by the choral chanting, disjointed flute and pounding drums of Morricone’s musical refrain. The focus on objects not only further embeds the visual symbols of the western within the mise en scène, but also reveals the thematic concerns of the film. In their relation to memory and chance, the abandoned spur and Ryan’s gun and bullets function as irreversible inscriptions of traumatic violence and death.
Although arguably simplistic in their associations, the signifiers of Death Rides a Horse are characteristic of the spaghetti western’s preference for “object-relations over language use” that came “on the back of [a] wave of consumerism” in Italy in the 1960s.4 They also hark back to Petroni’s desire to capture the adventure stories of his childhood and to cinematically share them with the viewer. Indeed, the cathartic spectacle of violence promised in the voice-over of the original trailer – “When you’ve waited 15 years to find a man, it’s a shame you can only kill him once” – both addresses the viewer and places him or her at the centre of the narrative. In this vein, Petroni and cinematographer Carlo Carlini frame a number of the scenes with the actors performing directly to the camera so that the viewer is interpellated into the action. Lifted off the page of Petroni’s boyhood story books, imbued with the visuals of the American west and bathed in the blood of retribution, Death Rides a Horse brings an emotional resonance to the spaghetti western that deserves the cult status awarded by Tarantino.
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Da uomo a uomo (Death Rides a Horse, 1967 Italy 114 minutes)
Prod. Co: Produzione Esecutiva Cinematografica, Sancro International Film Prod: Henryk Chroscicki, Alfonso Sansone Dir: Giulio Petroni Scr: Luciano Vincenzoni Mus: Ennio Morricone Phot: Carlo Carlini Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Prod. Des: Franco Bottari
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli, Anthony Dawson, José Torres
- Eugenio David Ercolani, “Petroni on His Westerns (Interview),” The Spaghetti Western Database, 24 Feb 2017, https://www.spaghetti-western.net/index.php/Petroni_on_his_westerns_(interview). ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Dimitris Eleftheriotis, Popular Cinemas of Europe (New York: Continuum, 2001), p. 128. ↩
- Maggie Günsberg, Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2005), p. 191–7. ↩