A largely unrecognized or even unheard of Italian western set during the Mexican Revolution, 'A Bullet for the General' rightfully belongs in that pantheon of excellent genre films alongside other such greats as 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' 'The Great Silence,' 'The Big Gundown' and of course, Leone's 'Man with No Name Trilogy.' The story, co-written by Franco Solinas who in that same year earned an Oscar nomination for 'The Battle of Algiers,' is an intelligent, contemplative tale on a pair of bandits working to profit from the war by selling stolen weapons to revolutionary leaders. Concealed underneath lies a sagacious political commentary on a foreign power's involvement in another country's affairs.
Much of the action and drama centers around the friendship of the two men and the hidden agendas which undermine their puzzling, often misunderstood bond. El Chucho, marvelously played by Gian Maria Volonté, is the leader of an outlaw group robbing trains and military forts of their guns, hoping one day to finally come across a machine gun. On one such raid, he comes across an American in handcuffs and affectionately calls him "El Niño" (Lou Castel) because he looks so young and innocent. Their initial meeting is a wonderful display of wordplay which makes their alliance that much more believable and ironically haunts their final goodbyes because nothing is really said.
The rest of the gang, which features Martine Beswick (Bond fans will recognize the lovely Ms. Beswick from 'Thunderball' and 'From Russia with Love') and Klaus Kinski as Chucho's priest-like brother, are rightly suspicious of the "gringo," growing increasingly apprehensive as his bond with their leader only strengthens with time. The mystery behind the two men mutually enjoying each other's company makes up a great deal of the narrative's gripping nature. As the backdrop of revolution continues to mount with one scene after another of native people struggling in poverty and with an appetite for democracy, the pair seems to ignore the suffering around them although they claim to fight for the cause. In spite of their differences, they share one personality trait: both are driven by greed and money, which tends to blind Chucho throughout the course of the film.
The American appears to stand on some high moral ground, as seen during a confrontation between a wealthy landholder and the villagers who rose against him, but it's clear he has other, more sinister motives at heart. If his endless pestering to see Gen. Elías (respected Mexican filmmaker Jaime Fernández) isn't enough of a clue, then the single gold bullet in his bag should. Chucho's liking him is even more interesting because it's never explained, yet he desires the gringo's approval at every turn. Does the El Niño remind him of someone? Does he represent Chucho's secret aspiration for a better life of material things and affluence? Why does he so badly want to be the foreigner's equal?
Even when the intentions of El Niño are actualized and Chucho's final words linger in the air like another mystery waiting to be solved, these questions remain, which makes 'A Bullet for the General' such a wonderfully engrossing epic of the genre. Also known as 'El Chucho, quién sabe?' in other parts of the world, the film is one of the first in the subgenre called Zapata Westerns (named after the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata), which are basically Spaghetti westerns with clear political themes. And in this production from Damiano Damiani, who went on to direct another great western in 'A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe,' the story is a mild observation on the US's interventions in other countries during that period, represented by the ingratiation of El Niño into Chucho's gang.
Either way, the film is one of the greats in Italian western cinema and anyone with an interest in the genre should watch it immediately.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Blue Underground brings 'A Bullet for the General' to Blu-ray as a two-disc special edition. Sitting comfortably on opposing panels, the BD50 disc contains two versions of the film while the DVD-5 features a two-hour documentary on Gian Maria Volonté, and both are Region Free. The difference between the two cuts — one dubbed "International" while the other "U.S. Version" — is about three minutes of the movie's opening sequence. At startup, viewers are asked to choose the version they wish to watch, which then switches over to a main menu window with full-motion clips, music and a title card depending on the selection.
As with many of the releases from Blue Underground, 'A Bullet for the General' makes its way unto Blu-ray with a great-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1). It doesn't quite feel film-like, and some scenes are softer than others, but it remains a vast improvement to previous home video editions. The thin grain structure often appears digitized and unnatural, and the application of noise reduction in a couple shots here and there is more apparent than normal.
On the whole, however, the high-def transfer is satisfactory, with plenty of visible details and excellent contrast. Blacks are deep and penetrating with sharp definition of the minor objects in the shadows. Bright colors and cleanly rendered secondary hues make the film seem fresh and energetic. Even with some minor reservations, the overall presentation looks great.
If choosing the US release of 'A Bullet,' then the only audio option is the English DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack made for it. But when watching the international cut, fans can enjoy a lossless mix in either English or the original Italian. I find the latter track the better of the two. Something about the English version sounds narrower and flatter.
The Italian cut feels broader and with a more expansive imaging, generating an attractively robust soundstage. Dynamics and acoustics are detailed with sharper upper frequencies. The low-end is also deeper and fuller, providing Luis Enríquez Bacalov's musical score and actions scenes with explosions the appropriate weight. Dialogue is precise and perfectly audible in the center, in spite of the obvious ADR work performed, making this high-rez track the way to go when watching this classic Zapata western.
Special features are ported from the previous DVD release.
A largely unrecognized or even unheard of Italian western set during the Mexican Revolution, 'A Bullet for the General' is the intelligent, contemplative tale of a pair of bandits working to profit from the war by selling stolen weapons to revolutionary leaders. Featuring an excellent performance by Gian Maria Volonté, the film is one of the better motion pictures of its particular genre. The Blu-ray comes with a much-improved picture quality and an excellent selection of audio options. For cult enthusiasts, this is a must-own classic, for others it is highly recommended.