Guilio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse marks Lee Van Cleef’s fifth outing as a beady-eyed gunslinger in a Spaghetti Western, a sub-genre of the outlaw-ridden world that would come to represent the sort of villainy inherent in such a gaze. While five isn’t a glaring amount of films to have under his holster, it’s a heavy number when taking into account the level of hollowness mixed with stern stoicism that accompanies each role. Black brimmed hat sitting low atop a dusty brow, its face carved with an expression of grim desire. It’s a look Cleef has owned, and rightfully so, engraining himself into a world made grand in scope by Italian maestro Sergio Leone. Though Leone is a director who creates worlds, life cast behind Cleef, who for better or worse, needs no set-piece to do the devils work. What separates Petroni’s Western from others aren’t the plumes of smoke that drift across the sand after a shootout, but the outlaws journey who carry a redemptive factor unseen in previous Westerns.
After witnessing the brutal massacre of a family at the hands of four masked men, we are placed fifteen years later with a training montage of Bill (John Philip Law), the sole survivor of the massacre, as well as the release of Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an aged prisoner. These two events coincide for a reason, demonstrating the power of man and the consequences of their actions; one is a revenge hungry victim of trauma, the other a battered yet steadfast outlaw, who swallowed years behind bars by the hands of his traitorous gang. Each one represents different walks of life, though in a world where justice is easily cocked back like the hammer of a gun, the path they walk can be difficult to separate, as the vast wasteland consumes their identities.
One wears a green buttoned shirt, a black bolo tie hanging loosely from a neck that keeps a taciturn expression from rolling off its shoulders. His nature is stern and naïve – a caged boy on the verge of manhood who counts his steps on his path to revenge, making him blind to the world in front of him. The other walks with a staunch frame that hangs slack, not because of uncertainty, but largely in part to a conviction and awareness of his journey to redemption. Looking at each individual, it would be easy to dismiss both as spiteful cubs in wolves clothing, but at the heart of their vengeance is a hero’s journey that has been calculated for fifteen years, for better or worse.
Generally, the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, is believed to be a call to adventure, felt from an outside source that tugs at a character longing to escape. It’s a template that became widely popular within film after mythologist Joseph Campbell described the narrative structure in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell, who fleshes out the century old pattern, describes it as involving “fabulous forces” where a “decisive victory is won.”
This journey garnered appeal after George Lucas referenced Campbell’s work as an influence, though the journey itself can be seen as early as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Wild West hasn’t been without its take on Shakespeare however; Yellow Sky helmed The Tempest with a shadowy narrative that had Gregory Peck in the role of Ferdinand, and Enzo G. Castelleri directed The Wild and the Dirty (also titled Johnny Hamlet) in 1968, giving Shakespeare’s most popular play a more overt western spin. Much like Hamlet, the hero’s journey runs wild in the west, becoming a fundamental theme in Petroni’s film.
We are imparted with a sense that Bill remains isolated between his world and the expanse of the West. One world exudes comfort and harbors hate, his families plot resting feet from his front door as a reminder. The other a landscape that welcomes the looming figures of his trauma. From the onset of our journeyman’s training, it’s clear that from the moment he was left alone outside his parents burning cabin, he began plotting his revenge, this event acting as a call to enter an unknown land. It’s a revenge that Ryan tells him has filled his heart with too much hate, and given the narrow path he plans to follow, he may be right. Though this hollowed out being that he has shoveled full of rage only exemplifies his true nature: one whose cold and callous demeanor highlights the good in humanity.
When he stumbles across a group of women being battered around by thugs, it’s his relived trauma that pushes Bill into action. Unlike his previous traumas, shown stylized in red, the images of that night flashing before his eyes, we are left to assume that this is what drives him during this very moment. It’s a method – very much like the rape itself – that goes implied rather than demonstrated – an atypical cue in Spaghetti Westerns, which oversaturate stories with visual violence over implied chaos. It’s where our journey becomes a hero’s kind, one that finds Bill utilizing his skill and relived trauma for a greater purpose than revenge, befriending aged outlaw Ryan, who comes from a different, yet similar, place.
Carved out from the hollows of a stone prison, Ryan breaks from his shackles, a free man with a similarly narrow path of revenge paved in front of him. Chiseled by time, grey hairs matching the silver of his spurs and wisdom held as true as his aim. As a guard escorts Ryan out, he tells him that he hasn’t seen him smile, not once, and if he keeps that up, it’ll land him right back in prison. See, Ryan has been training for fifteen years behind bars, and while it may have been a different kind of training than Bill’s, it ultimately brings him down a similar path. When he goes to pay respects to Bill’s deceased family, Ryan comes face to face with a youthful mirror image of himself, one that aids him in his heroes journey.
There’s a dynamic between the two gunslingers that plays out in the vein of Leone’s epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the motifs of each collide into a necessity for company; a reliance on the dichotomy of man. There’s even a rescue from the clutches of the law, mirroring the relationship between Eastwood’s Blondie and Eli Wallach’s Tuco. While nowhere near as vile and grating, the two represent a commonality between interests, representing a selfishness that’s abhorrent in man. However, what separates each film is the bond between Bill and Ryan, which develops into a father/son relationship, each seeming to grow in spirit and understanding.
When Bill discovers the secret that has remained locked away, perhaps kept somewhere in the prison Ryan toiled in, he is unable to commit to the path of revenge he’s paved. Perhaps it’s because it lies behind him, the body-count higher than what the unknown world whispered to him each night for 15 years. Perhaps it’s because he’s still that little boy, eyes poked between the splintered wood of his parents’ home, the murder’s gunshots still ringing in his ears as he witnesses his future sprawled out before him. As Bill walks off, searching further into the torrid terrain, not for revenge but perhaps a restart, he tosses aside the hate that has filled his heart. Behind him, an aged outlaw that, in another life, could have been his father, smiles for the first time in 15 years. Perhaps this, dusted and blistered, is what the hero’s journey looks like in the Wild West.