A pale, blond Englishman will stand out in the Mexico of the early Twentieth Century, especially driving a car, a rare sight in this land struggling with its revolution. He is Doctor Henry Price (John Steiner) and has ventured out into this remote region to track someone down, the bandit leader Tepepa (Tomas Milian) who has been caught by the authorities and their Colonel Cascorro (Orson Welles) and now awaits execution by firing squad. Price contrives to meet the Colonel in a restaurant where he has been regaling his underlings with his anecdotes, pausing briefly to order one to shoot a revolutionary dead before he attacks him, and he is interested in Price's claims of research into criminality and faces, so off they go to see Tepepa...
Orson Welles may have been a big star for most of his adult life, but unlike many male stars of his era he didn't make many Westerns, and indeed this was his sole effort in that vein. To be fair, you cannot exactly imagine him riding around on horseback six guns a-blazing, Stetson planted on his head, and that certainly wasn't what you were offered by director Giulio Petroni here, as Orson played the bad guy in Mexican Army uniform, and considering the immense girth he was carrying the notion of placing him on a horse would be cruelty to animals unless you wanted to watch the erstwhile Citizen Kane trotting about on a shire horse which might conceivably carry that weight.
Although how would you get Welles up on the steed in the first place? A logistical nightmare, so the most we saw him doing in this as far as transport went was pootling around in a car, though not the same one the doctor uses at the beginning since for no good reason that explodes then hurtles over a cliff face (rather than doing the hurtling first and the exploding second). We have to surmise that has happened because of Tepepa who was failing to drive it at the time, he having been rescued from the hail of bullets by Price who has his own motives for not allowing the Colonel to get his meaty hands on him, though we don't find those out until the film is reaching its conclusion; that said, it's not too difficult to work out given there's often a woman in the past of such characters.
And besides, Petroni presented a bunch of flashbacks littered throughout to point us in the right direction. However, the name to watch in the credits was not his but that of Franco Solinas, a genuinely intriguing figure in the arena of European cinema since he was wont to introduce provocative political statements into his scripts, and not in a thump you over the head with wearying polemic fashion either. His persuasion was to the left, as was the case with many a writer in Italian movies which would see Marxist theory plonked down in all sorts of works that sometimes didn't especially need it, yet with Solinas he made you think organically from the plot and rarely seemed awkward. Here the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, so attractive to so many Spaghetti Westerns, likewise brought out somewhere near the best of him.
That was all very well, but such writings really needed a solid cast to bring it to life, and in the title role Tomas Milian was really the man to go to for your swarthy, morally ambiguous, borderline criminal folk hero in efforts such as Tepepa. He was obviously enjoying himself, playing all that to the hilt, and made an interesting contrast with the more subtle menace of Welles and the hard to read diffidence of Steiner, a British actor who found his welcome in Continental movies thanks to his distinctive, whip-thin appearance making him a natural for unnerving baddies. That said, in this he was if anything the main character, more often than not required to carry the emotional heft of the plot as it works towards each of the three leads finding their ultimate fate, though not necessarily how you would expect. In truth, this probably dragged itself out longer than was strictly necessary as the action was doled out rather cheeseparingly, although the final ambush was explosively impressive and the trio of stars were never less than charismatic. It just didn't quite earn its epic stripes, good as it was. Music by Ennio Morricone.