Death Rides a Horse is one that Spaghetti Western fans (and fans of Lee Van Cleef) would thoroughly enjoy. The FILM is most watchable (read below about the DVD and possible hopes for a Region 1 letterbox DVD release), and Van Cleef is at his best in this one, playing a thug who is betrayed by his com padres. We usually see him playing the ultimate bad guy in most of his films, with his knife-deep stare filling the screen. At times, though, Van Cleef exposes his compassionate side for just a tease, and then just as quickly masks his inner humanity behind The Stare, as he plays Ryan, who arm-wrestles throughout the movie with stubborn youngster Bill (John Phillip Law), who has forsaken his lady and his life by embracing only revenge – and a single spur – after watching his father murdered, only to then bear witness to his mother and older sister brutalized at the hands of an out-of-control gang, greedy for gold.
The match-up between Ryan and Bill is one that plays itself out quite well, as Ryan acts as surrogate father, dishing out advice through some memorable quotes, teaching young Bill with his words and actions. Bill’s anger is worn heavily on his sleeve, while Ryan steadily and calmly works out his own dishes of revenge, suppressing his anger even better than his empathy for Bill, which he touches on even as the pair first meet. Phillip Law was okay, but not thoroughly convincing as a bitter young man who witnessed his family’s killing. Every once in a while, he might could have done just another take or two, but it’s an easy pill to swallow since Van Cleef balances him out.
I wouldn’t want to go deeper into reviewing the movie, except that there’s a nice plot twist somewhere inside the film. Many of the actors seen in this 1968 film have been in films by the great Sergio Leone. It seems that there was a core of actors who performed in a number of Italian Westerns, and for good reason: the chemistry was there. Add a good dose of Ennio Morricone film scores, and you have the potential for a quite watchable film. Most spaghetti’s would be overcooked and unpalatable if not for Morricone music, which acts as an unseen, yet incredibly talented main character.
Once in a while, the dialog (like Bill’s off-balance delivery: “I’ll find out who he is. If he is who I think he is…get ready to get mad”) detracts from the slow and steady pace of Death Rides a Horse (that line makes me want to Kill Bill, myself), but the overall storyline works well enough to entertain Spaghetti Western fans. There are very few plot holes to pick at in the film, which has an air of dread or darkness throughout much of its length. A lighter moment always seems to pop in just when the viewer might like to come up for air (like a character who offers Bill a kiss).
For those concerned about bad or unbelievable endings, Death Rides delivers without disappointment.