Herbert L. Strock directed enough episodes of television shows like "Cheyenne," "Sugarfoot," "Bonanza," "Maverick," "Colt. 45," and "Bronco" to know his way around westerns. The low-budget oater "Rider on a Dead Horse," starring John Vivyan, Bruce Gordon, Kevin Hagen, and Lisa Lu, is an ironic, entertaining, black & white sagebrusher about avaricious prospectors, savage Apaches, a cunning bounty hunter, and a desperate Asian woman who wants to go to San Francisco. Some critics have compared it with a Spaghetti western because the villain shoots first and doesn't ask questions afterwards. One of characters is a bounty hunter without compunctions. The action occurs largely in stark, rugged, inhospitable terrain like Euro-westerns in Spain, and greed is a pervasive theme as it is in Italian westerns. The title tune is rather lame. Frank V. Phillips' cinematography is crisp, clear, and evocative. Like Strock, Phillips confined himself primarily to television shows for the most part of his career. He lensed his share of western television shows, too. Lucy Lu plays an English speaking girl from Canton who claims that he knows how to handle men. She has been living out west for three years. A current of racism courses through this western.
The two gritty prospectors—Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon of "The Buccaneer") and Adam Hayden (John Vivyan of "Imitation of Life")--are pretty handy with their six-shooters. Barney is particularly good with his revolver. After he pays off their African-American partner, Sam Taylor (Charles Lampkin of "Twilight of Honor"), Barney brandishes his Colt's revolver and shoots Sam in the back without a qualm as the unsuspecting African-American rides away with two bags of gold. Barney doesn't display a shred of remorse for murdering poor old Sam in cold blood. This western draws its grim title from its title sequence that depicts Sam's corpse clinging to its horse as the steed gallops throughout the credits before gravity detaches Sam's body from the animal. Afterward, a cautious Hayden inquires if he is next. Barney seats his six-gun in his holster and reminds Hayden that he would be lost without Hayden. "Why I couldn't go ten miles in this broken country without getting lost." They carry out forty pounds of gold a piece. Hayden and Barney break camp. Hayden explains that Apaches have been watching them since they came out to prospect for gold. He points out smoke signals rising from mountain tops between them. Hayden recommends that they strip everything that they can live without to stay ahead of the savages. They unload their rifles and smash them. I didn't think that was very smart. Not only do these hombres shatter their long guns, but they also turn their horses loose and set off on foot to the town of Lost River.
Later, greed gets the best of them during their journey to evade the Apaches. They tangle with each other in a tough fistfight when they spot Sam's horse. The fistfight is imaginatively staged with perspectives from each man's point of view during the slugfest. After their fight, Barney wings Hayden, leaves him for dead, and rides off to town. A thirsty, woebegone Hayden stumbles through the desert and encounters a friendly Asian girl, Ming (Lucy Lu of "One-Eyed Jacks"), at a railway work camp. She is an entertainer. She nurses him back to health because Hayden assures her that he has money. Ming wants half of Hayden's money. She tells him that her name means 'Perfect Flower.' Meantime, murderous Barney cuts a deal with Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen of "Gunsmoke in Tucson"), a bounty hunter of sorts, to help him capture Hayden and see him strung up. Barney double-crosses Hayden, frames him for Sam's death, and tells Jake that Hayden has a thousand dollars on his head. Jake decides to set out in pursuit of Hayden. Hayden tells Ming, "A man with a gun is all the law he needs." Reluctantly, Hayden agrees to buy Ming a ticket for San Francisco. What sets Ming apart from most women in westerns is her ability to stand up for herself and take what she wants. Before Ming and Hayden set off for Lost River, Hayden demands that she return his firearm. What Hayden doesn't know is that Ming has removed the bullets from his gun.
As they are trudging through desert, Hayden sneaks up on Jake and gets the drop on him. Unfortunately, Hayden discovers that he is packing a pistol without bullets, and Jake—"just a business man"—takes Hayden into custody. Ming knows that money is the only thing that "impresses" Jake. Hayden explains that they extracted $200-thousand out of their gold mine and Barney back-shot Sam. Jake cuts another deal with Hayden and decides to ride out after Barney and the gold with dynamite as their secret weapon to use against the Apaches. At the same time, he lights a fuse to a stick of dynamite that will blast Hayden to death. Resourcefully, Hayden manages to defuse the TNT and reconfigure it to blast open his cell block door. When Ming tries to stab Jake, the bounty hunter forces her to leave, and she finds Hayden who has escaped from Frye's calaboose. Hayden gets the drop again on Frye and leaves him with one bullet but enough dynamite to blow half of the Apaches off the mountain.
"Rider on a Dead Horse" reminded me of existentialist westerns like Budd Boetticher's Randolph Scott oaters and Monte Hellman's two Jack Nicholson horse operas. The finale is reminiscent of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." "Silver River" scenarist Stephen Longstreet derived his savvy screenplay from James Edmiston's story who wrote the westerns "Day of Fury" and "Four Fast Guns." The dialogue is serviceable and sometimes clever. Uneasy alliances between men and women who don't trust each other shift back and forth throughout this gritty western that turns out to far better than you'd think.