It is a dark and stormy night, and a large amount of cash is being guarded by three lawmen; however, they are unaware that they are surrounded by a gang of bandits. They are picked off one by one, but the bandits' thirst for violence is still not slaked and they break into the house nearby where a family live. Soon they have raped the women and shot the lot of them - but not all, for the youngest son hides and survives thanks to a mysterious figure who saves him. Time passes and the boy grows into a man, Bill Meceita (John Phillip Law), but the hurt he feels does not abate: fifteen years later he needs revenge.
Surprisingly due to the popularity of this title, Death Rides a Horse was the only spaghetti western that Law made during the heyday of the genre; with his tall, imposing frame, steely blue eyes and tan you might have thought he would have been a natural for playing the gunmen of the Old West. His co-star, of course, was by this time an old hand at this sort of thing: Lee Van Cleef playing Ryan, the morally ambiguous ex-convict who is also out for revenge having been recently released from prison.
And what do you know? They're both out for revenge against the same people. In a script written by Luciano Vincenzoni, the conventions are adhered to pretty strictly, but for fans that's much of the attraction. Bill and Ryan take turns to act out the plotlines, making for an episodic film as a whole, but their paths do cross giving the rivals a chance to get one up on each other, usually leaving one without a horse as the other rides off to carry out his personal mission.
Nevertheless, it's a good natured rivalry as there's no question of them shooting their opposite number in the vengeance stakes - not until the dramatic finale draws them together, at any rate. Before that, there's a general cynicism descending over the characters as the bandits from the prologue turn out to now be in positions of power. First in the firing line is Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson), who is now respectable and a big player in the local community, but that won't stop Ryan from attempting to take him down at any cost.
Yet the real villain is Walcott (Luigi Pistilli), the most influential of them all, and well into his plans to, um, liberate a huge amount of cash and gold from the citizens who look up to him. That cynicism is actually a bruised romanticism, as our heroes can still win out against the corrupt system that they're stuck in the middle of, although there's a twist that may be a try at muddying the moral waters, but is really the justification of one character as one of the good guys. You can see why Death Rides a Horse has a warm reputation among its defenders as it provides just about everything you'd want from a spaghetti western, so if it looks a little drab and leans too heavily on cliché, that can be overlooked. Music by Ennio Morricone, adding to the film's status.