Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Zapata Westerns: The Short Life of a Subgenre (1966-1972)

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

Zapata Westerns: The Short Life of a Subgenre (1966-1972)

Article excerpt

Over six hundred European Westerns were made from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Most of the so-called spaghetti Westerns deal with the Mexican border in the American Southwest (Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona). Some of them are set in Mexico. Usually they are adventure films in which Mexico simply provides exotic color, a series of spectacular backdrops, or colorful exteriors. A group of Italian Westerns deals with overtly political themes. They form a subgenre and are called Zapata Westerns, as they take place during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

A Bullet for the General (1966), directed by Damiano Damiani, is the first of them. It tells the story of El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonte), a Mexican gunrunner, an uncouth "bandido" more concerned with the acquisition of money and women than any revolutionary commitment, and a young Anglo, Bill Tate (Lou Castel). Following a train robbery, Tate teams up with El Chuncho's gunrunners as they steal armaments for General Elias, a leader of the revolutionary army (Jaime Fernandez). Tate, apparently naive, who is christened "El Nino" by El Chuncho, is actually a hired killer for the Mexican government. He uses El Chuncho to reach Elias's camp and murder him. Adaptation and dialogue of A Bullet for the General were written by Franco Solinas, an important figure in the Italian political cinema of the 1960s. He was a Marxist writer who wrote or collaborated on several political films. His best known scripts are for Salvatore Giuliano (1962), directed by Francesco Rosi, about a notorious Sicilian bandit; The Battle of Algiers (1966) by Gillo Pontecorvo, a faithful depiction of revolution and terrorism; and Burn! (Italian title Queimada, 1969), a political drama directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Marlon Brando.

A Bullet for the General presents, for the first time, the two leading key characters of the Zapata Westerns: a Yankee or European outsider who is a laconic, cool, cynical opportunist and a Mexican, a rough, instinctive, energetic, flamboyant, noisy, talkative revolutionary peasant-bandit who gradually becomes aware of the importance of the value of ideals and becomes a "hero," a symbol of the freedom fighting of his people. The Anglo usually offers the Mexican technical assistance (guns, explosives, expertise) in hopes of finding gold or being led to his "hit." Due to Solinas's contribution, a political slant is put on the relationship between the gringo outsider and the Mexican "primitive rebel." The political resonance given to the confrontation between them is related to the concerns of Third World (specifically Latin American) politics. In Damiano Damiani's film the Mexican characters represent the polarities of Mexican culture: oppressed, illiterate peons, gunrunners, rich landowners, vicious army officers, and government troops as the villains. A Bullet for the General takes place between 1915 and 1916, during Venustiano Carranza's government. "Carrancistas" (as Carranza's followers were called) execute many of Francisco "Pancho" Villa's supporters, and Damiani's film opens with graffiti reading "Viva Carranza el Pacificador." The pre-title sequence establishes a realistic approach. Four Mexican civilians are lined up to be shot. A group of peasant women and children look on, crying and shouting. One of the condemned men yells "Tierra y libertad!" as the firing squad shoots, while a voiceover sets the scene: "From 1910 to 1920, Mexico was torn by internal strife. During the entire decade, the vast territory was devastated by bands of marauding bandits. Scenes of this kind were commonplace, as the various factions tried to dominate the others and bring order out of the chaos."

A Bullet for the General deploys an eclectic international cast. Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte portrays El Chuncho, whose great histrionic acting makes this movie unforgettable. He became a star due to the first two Sergio Leone "Dollars" films, A Fistful of Dollars" (1964, in which he plays Ramon Rojo) and For a Few Dollars More (1965, as the vicious bandit El Indio). …

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