Death Rides a Horse (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: May 29, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Death Rides a Horse (Blu-ray Review)


Giulio Petroni

Release Date(s)

1967 (March 5, 2024)


PEC/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: B-
  • Audio Grade: B-
  • Extras Grade: B

Death Rides a Horse (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


There’s a class system when it comes to Spaghetti Westerns. At the top of the heap there are, of course, the Sergio Leone films; next comes the best of the Leone imitators and the innovative and offbeat Spaghettis, films like Django, The Big Gundown, Day of Anger, My Name Is Nobody, The Grand Duel, etc.; and then everything else, Spaghettis that Hollywood trade papers would describe as “for indiscriminating audiences.” These films were typically all or co-financed by Italian companies and often shot on location in Spain, but frequently were co-produced with other European countries and sometimes had American financing, too. These countries included West Germany, though predominantly German Westerns, with their classical Western stories, visual style, and distinctive characters (often centering around the noble Indian Winnetou), were in a different class entirely.

In all three Spaghetti categories, I’ve found this Western sub-genre to be unusually sensitive to the viewer’s state of mind at the time insofar as really enjoying and appreciate them. I’ve seen Spaghettis I disliked on a first viewing that I loved seeing the same film again, years later, and vice versa. Such was the case with Death Rides a Horse (Da uomo a uomo, “From Man to Man,” 1967), an entry firmly falling in that second of three categories, which I first saw on an old PAL format DVD and really enjoyed. Watching it again via Kino’s new Blu-ray (albeit a reissue), I was much less enthusiastic, though my disappointment was colored by Kino’s use of a rather mediocre, obviously old video transfer.

The derivative film combines elements of Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (the tutorship/rivalry between the two main characters, who have similar goals), the Steve McQueen Nevada Smith (avenging a brutally murdered family), and even The Magnificent Seven (fortified Mexican peasants vs. outlaws climax). As a boy, Bill watches helplessly as his father is gunned down and mother and sister are gang-raped and murdered by three outlaws, Bill’s memory seared by distinctive characteristics of each outlaw (a tattoo with four aces on one’s chest, a facial scar on another, a distinctive earring worn by the third). As they set the house afire, a fourth outlaw arriving late, wearing a necklace with a silver skull, inexplicably saves the boy’s life. Fifteen years later, the now adult Bill (John Phillip Law) plots to avenge his murdered family, becoming a fast-draw marksman so skillful he makes Marshal Matt Dillon a rank amateur by comparison.

Meanwhile, gunfighter Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) is released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence, having been framed by the same outlaws. It’s also obvious to the audience but not Bill that Ryan is the man who saved him from the burning building. The two gradually converge on the first of the wanted men, Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson), now a wealthy saloon owner. Ryan recognizes that Bill, despite his skills with six-shooters and rifles, is blinded by his vengeance, and most of the film has them at odds despite working parallel courses as they next track down the second outlaw, wealthy banker Walcott (Luigi Pistilli).

Death Rides a Horse is, by Spaghetti Western standards, handsomely made. Of the more than 600 European Westerns produced between 1960 and 1978, the majority were done on the cheap, sometimes absurdly so, but this film has production values comparable to the first three Leone films, though director Giulio Petroni completely lacks Sergio Leone’s operatic visual sense. The opening sequence faintly echoes the murder of another family in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West; that this one is much more graphic but has one-quarter the impact is telling. Petroni isn’t even in the same class as other Sergios associated with the better Spaghettis, namely Sergio Solima and Sergio Corbucci.

What makes Death Rides a Horse play as well as it does is largely due to charismatic Lee Van Cleef, the longtime Western character actor in Hollywood who became a huge star in Europe thanks to For a Few Dolllars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Balding, squinty-eyed and ferret-faced, Van Cleef could play ruthless bad guys in his sleep, but Spaghettis launched a whole new career for the actor as a Western anti-hero. His appeal carries the film. (Amusingly, in their rivalry, Bill derisively refers to Ryan as “Grandpa,” this despite the fact that Lee Van Cleef was just 41 years old at the time of filming.)

John Phillip Law started appearing in Italian films around 1963, but his breakthrough role was as a handsome Russian sailor in the comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). Watching that performance, you’d think this guy was going to be one of the great film stars of all-time. Instead, Law quickly returned to Europe, to star in films like this one, Danger: Diabolik, and Barbarella, among others. Though he worked continuously until his untimely death in 2008 at 70—he seemed ageless—he must have had a bad agent, bad luck, or something. His Hollywood films (Hurry Sundown, Skidoo) were worse than his European ones.

In Death Rides a Horse, as in his other Euro-productions, generally, Law is cast for his striking good looks rather than his abilities as an actor: tall, handsome, blue-eyed blonde. Here, as in other Italian films, he’s lean and determined, but stoic (almost inexpressive) and, unlike Eastwood’s Stranger character, utterly humorless—qualities completely the opposite of his nervous sailor in Russians Are Coming, where he was instantly enormously likable, and exceptionally good in that comedy’s romantic scenes.

The spillover of Leone associates helps some. Ennio Morricone’s music isn’t as striking or memorable as his scores for Leone, though it’s a pretty good one and certainly distinctively his. Writer Luciano Vincenzoni co-wrote For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly but apparently had a falling out with Leone and ended up here.

Kino’s Blu-ray of Death Rides a Horse is underwhelming. Previously released by them in 2017, the transfer looks considerably older, perhaps dating back another 15 or more years. Film in two-perf 2.35:1 Techniscope, one expects a certain graininess, but this video transfer is dull with blah color throughout. Minor but consistent speckling is in evidence throughout, and there’s severe damage on the left side of the frame for several seconds at the 61:07 mark. Further, throughout the first three reels (or about 30 minutes), weird stationary white specs are present at the extreme left-center of the frame and also about one-third from the right side of the frame near the top. One assumes U.S. distributor United Artists didn’t have or retain access to the original camera negative and this is some kind of printing error. (Ironically, similar artifacts turn up throughout Law’s film The Russians Are Coming.) The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) also disappoints, with a fair amount of distortion, most obviously during the choral portions of Morricone’s film score. Not noted in the packaging is that release includes an alternate DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono Italian track with optional English subtitles. It’s a little stronger though less desirable for most viewers since Law’s and Van Cleef’s own voices are present on the English track. Region “A” encoded.

A trailer is included but the only substantial extra is an informative audio commentary track by filmmaker and genre enthusiast Alex Cox.

Viewed in the right frame of mind, Death Rides a Horse is a satisfying Spaghetti Western better than most, handsomely produced if derivative and unimaginatively directed. The video transfer, however, is disappointing.

- Stuart Galbraith IV