A Bullet for Sandoval Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: November 7, 2023
Audio: English and Spanish LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 101:15
Director: Julio Buchs
Civil War Corporal John Warner (George Hilton) deserts the Army to be with the woman he loves and raise the child they’re expecting. A series of tragedies unfold and Warner turns to vengeance against his lover’s father, Don Pedro Sandoval (Ernest Borgnine), who blames Warner for the loss of his daughter. (From VCI’s official synopsis)
As I’ve already discussed on countless spaghetti western reviews, a large number of what we know as Italian-made western movies were, in fact, European co-productions, most commonly made by Italian filmmakers in Spain with multinational casts and mixed Italian, German, and/or Spanish funding. So many of them are listed as Italian-Spanish co-productions that I think the fairest way to separate spaghetti westerns from paella westerns is to defer to the nationality of the credited director – i.e. A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) is spaghetti, because it was directed by Sergio Leone and The Seven From Texas (Spanish: Antes llega la muerte, 1964) is paella, because it was directed by Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent. A Bullet for Sandoval (Italian: Quei disperati che puzzano di sudore e di morte; Spanish: Los desesperados; aka: Vengeance is Mine, 1969) is a good example of a film remembered as an Italian western that was made predominantly by Spanish filmmakers.
Director/co-writer Julio Buchs was a Spaniard and he co-wrote the film along with two other Spaniards, Federico De Urrutia and José Luis Martínez Mollá, and an Italian, Ugo Guerra. The film was also shot in Spain by a Spanish cinematographer named Francisco Sempere. Art/set decorator Giuseppe Bassan was an Italian, later known for his production design on Dario Argento movies, and it is unlikely for Spanish westerns to score stars the size of George Hilton and Ernest Borgnine, but the main reason that it is so often cited as an Italian production was the rumor that Lucio Fulci was the film’s real director. These rumors have since been proven false, but were so prevalent that multiple sources cited him as at least co-/assistant director over the decades. It’s not exactly clear where the rumor began, though it probably had something to do with the fact that Fulci had directed Hilton in Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu... tempo di massacro, 1966), which was the first western for both of them. There’s also the matter of Fulci actually being an uncredited co-director on at least two films – Giovanni Simonelli’s Hansel and Gretel (1990) and David Keith’s The Curse (yest, the one with Wil Wheaton, 1987)*.
A Bullet for Sandoval might also be mistaken for an Italian film, because its basic story is generic enough to confuse with a couple dozen other Eurowesterns, but the actual script is better constructed than most and gives itself a little boost by snagging a few plot points from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As I’ve noted before, the spaghettis that borrowed from non-western sources tended to set themselves apart from a very busy field, beginning with Fistful of Dollars’ adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai thriller Yojimbo (1961). Enzo G. Castellari’s Johnny Hamlet (Italian: Quella sporca storia nel west, 1968) is the more famous Shakespeare western and Bullet for Sandoval isn’t exactly Romeo and Juliet in cowboy hats – the tragic romance is a subplot, rather than the main focus – but it pulls just enough of the familiar tale to spice up the familiar western trappings.
It’s also interesting that Buchs uses the Civil War as a backdrop, but doesn’t split the Montague and Capulet conflict across North vs. South battle lines. Instead, the War is just additional backstory for our Romeo counterpart, John, played by George Hilton, who is kept from marrying Juliet (an unseen character who dies off-screen) when he’s arrested for desertion. The whole movie has a very episodic quality, shifting from a Romeo and Juliet-themed War western to an Odyssey-like fugitive road movie with shades of Richard Boleslawski’s Three Godfathers (1936, based on the 1913 novel by Peter B. Kyne), all in a matter of about 30 minutes, before finally settling into a groove as a bleak revenge story. Even then, there’s a stopover for a subplot about a father and daughter trying to make their way back to a gold claim. It’s a little much, as if the filmmakers have crammed an entire novel into an hour and 41 minutes (noting that the US cut was scaled back to 89 minutes), but it never grows stale, which is what really counts. One of the best comparisons is, ironically enough, Lucio Fulci’s similarly episodic road western Four of the Apocalypse (Italian: I quattro dell'apocalisse, 1977), which is, perhaps, another reason for the misattribution.
Hilton (real name: Jorge Hill Acosta y Lara) was a Uruguayan soap opera star who moved to Italy in the early ‘60s and quickly became a household name, thanks in large part to appearances in nearly 20 westerns. A Bullet for Sandoval ranks below the likes of Massacre Time and Castellari’s Any Gun Can Play (Italian: Vado... l'ammazzo e torno, 1967), but it’s at least as good as Giuliano Carnimeo’s Sartana's Here... Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin (Italian: C'è Sartana... vendi la pistola e comprati la bara!, 1970) and Maurizio Lucidi’s Halleluja for Django (Italian: La più grande rapina del west, 1967), both of which are well-liked by spaghetti western fans. He’s joined by secondary lead and paella western favorite Leo Anchóriz, who gives the film’s best performance as a lapsed-priest-turned-bandit, and Argentinian-born Alberto de Mendoza, who can also be seen alongside Hilton in a couple of Sergio Martino gialli, as well as Perversion Story (Italian: Una Sull'altra, 1969) and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna, 1971), directed by, you guessed it, Lucio Fulci.
American star Ernest Borgnine, who plays the main antagonist, doesn’t really need an introduction, but it’s worth noting that he didn't make a lot of movies in Europe. A Bullet for Sandoval was one of only two Eurowesterns he ever appeared in, the other being the English-made Hannie Caulder, directed by Burt Kennedy (1972). Borgnine was at the center of several films that inspired European clones and homages, including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (a Sergio Leone favorite, 1954), Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), so he would’ve been a ‘get’ for the production, regardless, but, in a stroke of luck, A Bullet for Sandoval was made the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), a film that changed the trajectory of Hollywood westerns the same way Fistful of Dollars had for Eurowesterns (if you squint, the two films kind of share an ending, too). Unlike a lot of the aging American stars who found themselves making genre pictures in Europe during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Borgnine doesn’t phone it in and doesn’t seem to be fighting through a hangover, either. His part is sort of an extended cameo, but he really gives it his all, chewing scenery and even ending the film on a spirited fistfight with Hilton.
* Other movies that Fulci is rumored to have secretly co or ghost directed include Gianni Martucci’s The Red Monks (Italian: I frati rossi, 1988) and Andrea Bianchi’s Massacre (1989).
** Not to mention its two English language titles are either meant to evoke Damiano Damiani’s Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?, 1967) or are literally the same as Giovanni Fago’s Vengeance is Mine (Italian: Per 100.000 dollari ti ammazzo, 1967).
Like many Eurowesterns, A Bullet for Sandoval had an iffy stateside copyright history and was available on VHS from multiple budget companies during the rental store days. Surprisingly, there only seems to have been two DVD versions – a pan-and-scan disc from 905 Entertainment and a non-anamorphic disc from VCI (reissued as a double-feature with Any Gun Can Play). VCI is also the company behind this 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray debut. I know that VCI doesn’t have the best track record, but they’ve definitely taken steps towards improving, such as their recent Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) 4K UHD, so I approached this remaster with an open mind and was mostly rewarded for my efforts. The one advantage studios like Arrow and Synapse still have is in their grading process and this particular transfer could’ve done with a few more trips to Ye Olde Gradation Oven. The dynamic range is just a bit too flat, especially during brighter sequences. Still, VCI did a nice job cleaning things up without going overboard with DNR or sharpening, like their Night of the Bloody Apes (1969) disc. It helps that they’re working from negatives and not a blobby print source, which is more than we can say for a couple of even smaller companies putting out spaghetti western Blu-rays recently. There’s a slight sheen of what is either scanning or compression noise (probably a mix of both), but other print and digital artifacts are pretty minimal, though detail levels do fluctuate, depending on the quality of the negatives.
A Bullet for Sandoval comes fitted with English and Spanish dub options, both in uncompressed LPCM mono. Although a full English dub was reportedly prepared by the filmmakers, VCI only had access to the shorter US version, so a handful of of scenes have been ‘patched’ with new English dub dialogue under the direction of composer/sound designer Dan Wool, a regular collaborator of spaghetti western superfan and Repo Man (1984) director Alex Cox. It’s a good effort and I genuinely appreciate the work, but I found the sudden change to new dub actors and the artificial distortion layered over their performances more distracting than a changeover to Spanish dialogue might have been for the scenes without English dub material. I’ll acknowledge that the language flip is probably more problematic for people that haven’t been primed by decades of hybrid audio DVDs. Wool’s efforts are much less distracting whenever a non-lead character performance is concerned or dialogue isn’t necessary at all. It’s also still worth listening to the English track for the original dub performances, including Ernest Borgnine himself (except the one time he’s dubbed by an impersonator for this revamped track).
Italian-born Gianni Ferrio was among the most prolific spaghetti western composers not named Ennio Morricone or Bruno Nicolai. His impactful score, which blends elements of the Morricone and ‘50s Hollywood schools of sounds fuller on the remixed English track, perhaps also attributed to Wool’s efforts.
Commentary with Alex Cox – The aforementioned spaghetti western superfan and filmmaker takes a look at A Bullet to Sandoval, which isn’t really covered in his epic genre tome 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Italian Western (Kamera Books, 2010). Cox is a prominent expert on the subject and a personable speaker, but his commentaries are usually stop & start affairs, so be prepared for that. Overall, there’s plenty of good information here, including comparisons to other European westerns, the careers of the cast & crew, and evidence of what might be additional edits made by distributors (aside from the already known Spanish, Italian, and US cuts), meaning that a truly complete version of the movie might no longer exist.
Spanish opening credits (2:28, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.