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Blast from the Past: A Bullet for the General

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When? 1966  |  What's it rated? NR  |  Where? DVD.

This classic 1966 Spaghetti Western will keep you guessing right to the end, as no one is quite who he or she seems.

It opens as a gang of bandits led by El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) robs a munitions train of its guns and are aided by passenger Bill Tate (Lou Castel), who they recruit and name "Niño," unaware that he's infiltrated their group with the intent to kill revolutionary General Elías (Jaime Fernández).

Directed by Damiano Damiani (Arturo's Island; The Most Beautiful Wife; A Genius, Two Friends, and an Idiot), written by Salvatore Laurani, and adapted by Franco Solinas, it's one of the so-called Zapata Westerns that depict bandits who are radicalized into revolutionaries when confronted by injustice. Other films in the subgenre include Duck, You Sucker! and The Mercenary.

EAT LEAD!:  Bill “Niño” Tate and El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) join forces to steal guns to sell to revolutionaries in A Bullet for the General, a classic Zapata Western, which is a subgenre of Spaghetti Westerns. - PHOTO COURTESY OF M.C.M.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF M.C.M.
  • EAT LEAD!: Bill “Niño” Tate and El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) join forces to steal guns to sell to revolutionaries in A Bullet for the General, a classic Zapata Western, which is a subgenre of Spaghetti Westerns.

Part of the fun of Spaghetti Westerns is how over the top they are, and in this go around, Volonté (For a Few Dollars More, A Fistful of Dollars) is clearly relishing his role as the bandit leader. He's an expressive actor with the right amount of swagger to pull off the role as the charismatic but violent and unpredictable leader. He immediately takes a liking to Niño, even favoring him over his own men. Much of the film examines their evolving and complicated relationship.

Most of Chuncho's bandits are in it for the money but when they arrive in a village run by a rich landowner supported by the Mexican military, they help liberate the town and begin training the peasants to fight back. Eventually, however, only Chuncho wants to stay and fight, the other gang members—now with encouragement from Niño—decide to take their guns and find the general so they can sell them and keep the money. This rift between Chuncho and Niño sets up the film's rather remarkable ending.

The film also features an incredible performance by Klaus Kinski (For a Few Dollars More, Nosferatu the Vampyre) as Chuncho's brother El Santo, a man full of religious fervor who believes the bandits' and General Elías' cause is just. He too, is drawn into the dramatic final moments.

This is not a perfect film. The pacing gets slogged down in the middle, but as an example of a classic Zapata Western, it's among the best. The film is also known as El Chucho Quién Sabe? The last two words translate as "Who knows?" 

It's a sly reference to cryptic characters within, who seem to have all manner of hidden agendas. It's also a reference to the final scene between Niño and Chuncho, and it sets up the classic last line, when Chuncho is running from the authorities and a peasant finds Chuncho's gold coins. Laughing maniacally as he flees, he extorts the peasant to buy dynamite with the money, not bread. Viva la revolución! (118 min.). 

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