After completing Duck, You Sucker! (1971) for Sergio Leone, James Coburn stuck around Italy for his second spaghetti western directed by Leone’s protégé Tonino Valerii. Set amidst the American Civil War, A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die finds Union Colonel Pembroke (James Coburn) dishonourably discharged and branded a coward after having mysteriously surrendered Fort Holman to Confederate Major Ward (Telly Savalas) without a fight. Out for revenge, Pembroke gathers a gang of rapists, murderers and thieves, plus burly good guy Eli Sampson (Bud Spencer), supposedly intent on retrieving a cache of captured confederate gold buried at Fort Holman. But as Eli observes, no man would endure such danger, treachery and punishment just for gold.
Curiously while Telly Savalas gets to speak in his own voice, James Coburn has been distractingly dubbed. The loss of the great man’s distinctive tones is one of several missteps that mark this as a distinctly second-rate spaghetti western. On the surface this seems more ambitious than most Italian efforts from this period when the genre was in decline, as it actually opens with a flash-forward to the bloody finale and credits play over photographs from the Civil War. But what unfolds is a fairly run-of-the-mill Dirty Dozen goes West, disjointed and riddled with awkward camera set-ups and frankly cack-handed editing.
Tonino Valerii made the remarkable The Price of Power (1969) - a spaghetti western allegory about the Kennedy assassination - followed by co-directing Leone’s comedy western classic My Name is Nobody (1973), but is all at sea with this ropey scenario. The script concocted by three writers including western and giallo horror specialist Ernesto Gastaldi, is unusual in that it often ignores tortured hero Pembroke in favour of the array of scumbag supporting players who generally badger and abuse him. Where Clint Eastwood might crack their skulls, Coburn’s enigmatic lead endures their abuse until a plot twist reveals all but still fails to engage. Thereafter, Valerii grinds through the tedious business of infiltrating the fort, with an array of spectacular explosions and would-be tragic deaths that leave little impression since Pembroke’s gunslingers are a wholly reprehensible bunch.
It’s up to Bud Spencer to inject some welcome levity. By this point a big star in Europe thanks to his Trinity westerns alongside regular sparring partner Terence Hill, Spencer relishes his bits of comic business. These include an amusing scene wherein Eli distracts nosy Confederate soldiers by proclaiming the war is over. Pretty soon the whole town starts dancing (!) while Coburn and company sneak away. Coburn even does a little soft-shoe shuffle on his way out, possibly an attempt to alleviate his boredom with a humdrum role. Bizarre non-sequitors like having Eli blow raspberries at regular intervals or the tobacco-loving confederate who shoves his pipe back in his mouth before dying, sit uneasily with elements of cynical sadism - as when Pembroke’s men machinegun surrendering soldiers. Given the talent involved this really should have been more memorable, yet like the big showdown between Coburn and Savalas proves dispiritingly banal.