Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Except with Bullets

I knew I’d be looking at a tortilla western or Zapata western in this series — maybe more than one. The Italians visited the Mexican Revolution a fair bit, either because their Spanish locations and swarthy extras made it a natural fit, or because, unlike Hollywood filmmakers, many of the writers and directors could get behind a leftwing revolution con mucho gusto.

Having enjoyed some Damiano Damiani in the past — THE WITCH/LA STREGA IN AMORE (1966) is fascinating, GIROLOMANI, IL MONSTRO DI ROMA (1971) is fascinating but maybe doesn’t quite come off, I was excited to see what he could do with the genre. Spaghetti westerns are frequently unbeautiful, even the best ones frequently partaking of that orange pancake makeup approach that gives this series its title; but the Damiani movies I’ve seen are lustrous.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL aka QUIEN SABE? hits the ground running — Lou Castel as the smart, dangerous Americano is cool and ambiguous. We meet him buying a train ticket. “Do you like Mexico?” asks a cute little boy. “No,” he smirks, “Not very much.” With his long, angular head, like a child’s coffin, he’s a unique presence.

The train is soon held up by bandit-revolutionaries — the line here is less blurred than eradicated. They are led by Gian Maria Volonte, backed up by Klaus Kinski as his half-brother (?), a fanatical, grenade-throwing priest, and pistol-packin’ Martine Beswick. The latter two sporting faces you don’t expect to find under a sombrero. Alex Cox, an enthusiast for the genre, does bemoan the fact that there’s only one instance on record of a Mexican being cast as a Mexican (Gilbert Roland — and with him you get a less stereotypical performance, I bet).

Written by Franco Solinas and Salvatore Laurani, the film rapidly arrives at a compelling situation: the train, carrying troops and weapons, is stopped by an officer tied to the tracks. Anyone who gets out of the train to rescue him is picked off by snipers on the hills bordering the track. The soldiers in the train are picked off too. The alternative is to advance and run over the officer, something the officer in charge of the train isn’t willing to do.

During all this, Volonte’s excitable, childish Anthony Quinn act is really hateful. His boyish enthusiasm is meant to be likeable, possibly. Yet we’re involved in the soldiers’ horrible dilemma, so this jovial madman, who sees it all as a big joke, is unbearable. But it’s something the movie overcomes. By pairing him with Castel’s cool dude, who dresses like an American gangster, we get something theoretically comparable to Eastwood and Wallach in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. What transforms it is politics — Volonte is at least somewhat motivated by sincere revolutionary fervour, while Castel has an entirely hidden agenda of his own — and sex. This becomes uncomfortably obvious to both men when Volonte’s El Chuncho kills a friend who has attacked Castel’s Bill “El Nino” Tate. He can’t explain why he’s done it. He’s not very bright or very articulate. But he seems to sense it. And so does Tate.

Fortunately, there are lots of violent missions to carry out — both their overt ones, and Tate’s private one, which brings things to a head. It’s all really interesting. Cox identifies it as the first western with a gay subtext that’s inescapable. I think RED RIVER might beat it out there, but the Volonte-Castel love story is more central here. (The Monty Clift-John Ireland love story might have been more prominent in RED RIVER if Howard Hawks, who was responsible for it, hadn’t drastically cut down Ireland’s role, peeved that Ireland had taken up with a female co-star he’d had his eye on).

Music is by Luis Bacalov, a good choice if you can’t get Morricone or Ortolani. Alex Cox is particularly keen on the film’s art direction — I think you never really believe an Italian western is happening where it says it is — even the undeniable presence of Monument Valley in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST feels like a trick — which it kind of is, since we’re in Spain the rest of the time — but this is a pretty convincing Mexican revolution.

Cox gets very irate about the opening VO, which didn’t bother me at all. Unnecessary, perhaps, but these things can have an atmospheric value, giving a spurious documentary sheen to fictionalized settings and action.

The film’s two titles are both good — A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is quite literally what Castel is carrying. It’s a golden bullet, as in DJANGO KILL. A favoured image (see also RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL) which literally combines the two obsessions of the genre, money and violence. Alex Cox has pointed out that the spaghetti western hero from Leone on is not too interested in sex or love or justice, and money is secondary, but killing is ALL-IMPORTANT. QUIEN SABE? (WHO KNOWS?) is a key line of dialogue that really resonates in the film, and seems to stand in for everything poor dumb El Chuncho can’t verbalize.

Volonte’s appearance in the film made this one of the few Klaus Kinski pictures where Kinski wasn’t the director’s biggest problem (Kinski was TWICE in movies where people plotted to assassinate him, he was such a pain). Volonte, objecting to his costume, showed up on set naked. Damiani got angry with him and shoved him off his horse. I’m not sure if this was all the same incident or two different occasions.

But Volonte is really good, and Castel, more subdued, is a great acting partner for him. The movie has some of the best acting I’ve seen in a spaghetti. (The leads in the Leone films are always iconic, and James Coburn reacting to the firing squad in the rain at night in the uneven DUCK YOU SUCKER gives the greatest reaction shots of his career.)

Kinski is very fine also, though with him it can feel as much a triumph of physiognomy as acting. But at a certain point, the two are inseparable. Beswick has less to do, and her best scene is hampered by her worst facial expressions, but it IS an interesting scene. Some of the bandits want to rape a rich woman they’ve captured. Beswick’s “Adelita” is all for this. She was raped at 15, so why should this woman be spared. It’s a depressing but believable sentiment. Compare it to DUCK, YOU SUCKER! where Leone seems to consider rape as an amusing form of class revenge. Here, the unacceptable views are at least coming from a character, not (seemingly) from the filmmaker.

Big spoilers now — Volonte’s El Chuncho has a serious case of star worship about his General. Ushered into the man’s presence, he is promptly sentenced to death for abandoning a village he’d earlier liberated. Heartbreaking interrogation where Chuncho, an honest man, is talked into proposing his own execution. Here, Volonte starts to be absolutely incredible. Your heart breaks for the murderous bastard.

Kinski volunteers for the job of his brother’s executioner (he would), but is killed by Tate/Castel, who is fulfilling his true mission, to get close to the General and assassinate him.

El Chuncho now follows Tate back to his spymasters, planning to murder him, but then learns that he’s rich — Tate has set aside half his huge fee for him. He takes the bandit to get a makeover and to get laid. El Chuncho goes along like a man in a dream. He had intended to avenge the general, but suddenly he has everything he could ever want, including Tate’s friendship.

It flashed on me suddenly what this reminded me of: the section in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where she becomes the lover of her rapist, because she can’t process what he did to her. Volonte plays everything with exactly the right sense of concussed daze. In his new city clothes, he’s like a strange shaggy child.

And then he wakes up. Tate can’t understand why El Chuncho suddenly wants to kill him. Neither can El Chuncho. Who knows? But, the deed done, El Chuncho recovers his revolutionary fervour, so it’s a happy ending. But you have questions, which is good.

A proper movie! It transcends its genre while still providing the pleasures associated with its genre. And while DD’s closeups don’t have the iconic/comicbook impact of Leone’s and his epic sweep isn’t as epic or sweeping, his less explosive style allows for more depth.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL stars Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano; Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald; Sister Hyde; Cesare Borgia; Man Friday; and Dr. Choma Kruvajan.

12 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Except with Bullets”

  1. “Quien Sabe?” was a favorite of RainerWerner Fassbinder,who obviouslyloved the gay subtext, and Lou Castel — who he cast in “Beware of a Holy Whore”

  2. Makes sense!

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Apart from the misguided THE GENIUS and same other films, Damiani has done some interesting work in crime films such as DAY OF THE OWL with Franco Nero, Claudia C. and Lee J. Cobb, THE CASE IS CLOSED. FORGET IT! with Franco and Riccardo Cucciola, and CONFESSIONS OF A POLCE CAPTAIN with Franco and Martin Balsam. Damiani appears as an actor in THE MATTEOTI AFFAIR (non-subtitled on youtube) with Franco in the title role, Vittorio DeSica, Mario Adorf brilliant as Mussolini,. and Riccardo doing his Gramsci performance yet again.

  4. architekturadapter Says:

    “Quien Sabe?” is top five “Spaghetti western” level. The first in the “Tortilla”-section and (according to me) the only one of the revolution-westerns who is really captivating and impressed me. I’m not very much interested in the ones with the “simple, clever, rude pean” (often played by Tomas Milian – not a bad actor). Most of the following Tortilla westerns switch in an uneven way between cruelty and comedy. (Same probleme with most of the “Circus westerns” – anyway, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer entering the arena, the cause was lost (if I may say so.)

    Reading your lines I was wondering why I’m so found of actors like GM Volonte and K Kinski ? Is madness requirred to give astonishing performances ? Anyway, both are amazing in this (and most of the other movies they did).

    Are we going to read about “Face to Face” ? “Requiescant” ? “The big Silence” ?

  5. Tony Wiliams Says:

    Another film also worth looking up is another Solanas scripted- TEPEPA with Milian, John Steiner, and Orson Welles. Another subtitle for this thread could be BULLETS DON’T ARGUE, the English translation of one of the first recognizable Italian Westerns LE PISTOLE NON DISCUTONO (1964) starring Rod Cameron.

    Milian (despite the tendency to don wigs and beards) and Volonte could deliver different types of performances as the former’s role in LA LUNA revealed and the latter in WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY and TRODO MODO (both directed by Elio Petri. Volonte also played Vanzetti in SACCO AND VANZETTI with Riccardo Cucciolla playing the former. RC but did not make any Westerns to the best of my knowledge.

  6. Seen Tepepa, but only on VHS, an upgraded rewatch is indicated.

    I’m crazy about Volonte in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. What a film!

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    Volonte is brilliant in Petri’s INVESTIGATION as with all the films he did with the director. Koch Video has the full 2 hour version of TEPEPA.

  8. And Damiani, whatever troubles he had with him on this movie, kept working with him. Really need to see more Damiani, just maybe not A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    Definitely so. D’s Nero collaborations are certainly worth seeing. Franco co-dedicated JONATHAN AND AND THE BEARS (Castellari) to Corbucci with whom he had a falling out over COMPANEROS. Like some of his other films, THE GENIUS fell short of what he could achieve. Even Petri had some problems with Volonte on one of the films they worked on.

  10. Jean-Pierre Melville grandly announced, “Volonte is not a Melvillian actor!”

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    No, but he was a Damiani and Petri one.

  12. I think Volonte is great in Le Cercle Rouge, but apparently he was hard work, plus Melville was a right-winger and Volonte a firebrand lefty.

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