The Big Gundown Blu-ray Review (originally published 2013)
Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is a notorious bounty hunter/pseudo-lawman with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions only after collecting his reward. His antics come to the attention of a powerful lobbyist named Mr. Brockston (Walter Barnes), who offers to back Corbett’s senatorial run in exchange for the capture of Manuel 'Cuchillo' Sanchez (Tomás Milián), a Mexican bandit that stands accused of raping and murdering a young girl. As the manhunt begins, the normally cool-headed Corbett is flummoxed by Cuchillo’s ability to escape his grasp and eventually starts to wonder if Brockston’s accusations might have been fabricated.
About two years after Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) set off the spaghetti western cycle and less than a year after Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) altered its trajectory into the realms of hyperviolence and nihilism, a pair of films established the social/political potential of the genre. With their anarchic, rock ‘n roll slants, Leone and Corbucci’s earlier films could certainly be read as political, but the bulk of the Italian western output was still concerned with recreating the tone and aesthetic of Hollywood westerns, not making political statements. The two films in question were Damiano Damiani’s Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe? or just Quien Sabe?, a more appropriate title that translates to Who Knows?) and Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti, which translates to The Showdown) and they instigated the short-lived, but vital Zapata western movement.
Named for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata – a famed Mexican Revolution general that stood alongside Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco, who still inspires real-world Mexican politics to this day, most notably the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) – Zapata westerns were set mainly during the Mexican Revolution, utilizing the historical conflict as an allegory for then modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s) left-leaning politics. They also tend to revolve around a pair of unlikely protagonists that are forced to pool their resources to combat a greater evil. The use of the Mexican revolution as a proxy for modern politics was originally lifted from pro-American, vaguely anti-communist Hollywood westerns, such as Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954) and Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata (1952). Previous Italian westerns, especially Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios (Italian: Texas Addio, 1966), which was released just before The Big Gundown, followed this lead, purely for the sake of profit over political ideology.
The Big Gundown is rooted in the success of Leone’s second film, For a Few Dollars More (Italian: Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965), which acts as the prototypical master & apprentice spaghetti western. This dual protagonist structure would become a common theme throughout future spaghettis and one of the defining traits of the Zapatas (something that followed through into Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained , in which a German expatriate frees a slave and trains him to be a bounty hunter). Securing Lee Van Cleef was the first step and, seemingly, the only one the Hollywood backers (United Artists) really cared about, because they mostly left Sollima alone during the production.For the younger half of his protagonist team, Sollima chose up-and-coming Cuban star Tomás Milián, who had just appeared in his first western, Eugenio Martín’s The Bounty Killer (Italian: El precio de un hombre; aka: The Ugly Ones, 1966), the same year. Milián was cast in a Clint Eastwood-inspired role, but Sollima was dead set on making Manuel “Cuchillo” Sanchez warmer and more likable than the monosyllabic, so-called Man with No Name. He also wanted his bandit to be comical fodder and a valid representation of the Mexican culture that was challenging Van Cleef’s gringo bounty hunter, Jonathan “Colorado” Corbett.
Cuchillo’s popularity helped enforce a new spaghetti western character trope – the fool or peon. According to Once Upon a Time in the Italian West (I.B. Tauris, 2006) author Howard Hughes, Sollima recommended that Milián model his demeanour on Toshiro Mifune’s performance as enthusiastic bumpkin Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai (1954), marking yet another of many instances of Italian westerns referring to the work of Akira Kurosawa for influence. Other dual protagonist spaghettis tended to revolve around a mentor/student relationship, similar to the one Van Cleef and Eastwood established in For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef turned similar roles into his cottage industry, being cast in a similar capacity in two 1967 movies, Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (Italian: Da Uomo a Uomo), and Tonino Valerii’s Day of Anger (Italian: I Giorni Dell'ira; aka: Gunlaw). However, following The Big Gundown, Zapatas like Corbucci’s Compañeros (Italian: Vamos a Matar Compañeros, 1970) and post-postmodern comedies, like Tonino Valerii & Leone’s My Name is Nobody (Italian: Il mio nome è Nessuno, 1973), began pairing outsiders of European persuasion (often older, sometimes American) with loose cannon, almost always Mexican bandit types. Just as Van Cleef made a career out of playing mentors, Milián expanded his prototype fool in other westerns and carried elements of the character type into a series of incredibly popular poliziotteschi (Eurocrime) comedies in the ‘70s.
The Big Gundown and Bullet for the General are intrinsically linked by more than their political messages and 1966 theatrical dates. Bullet for the General screenwriter Franco Solinas also, along with Fernando Morandi, wrote the original story that Sollima and co-screenwriter Sergio Donati based their Big Gundown script upon. It’s possible that both films were adapted from roughly the same source and that Salvatore Laurani – whose original story Solinas based the Bullet for the General script on – is the actual and maybe accidental mastermind behind the entire Zapata western subgenre. A long tradition of not crediting screenwriters, secondary directors, actors and even composers in Italian filmmaking renders complete crew recognition impossible, but it is at the very least clear that Solinas, a self-proclaimed Marxist, connects the films. His participation in both politically left-slanted projects makes sense in the context of his wider career, as well, considering that he also co-wrote Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and an Academy Award-nominated screenplay Gillo Pontecorvo’s brazenly political The Battle of Algiers with director (also in 1966), along with two more Zapata westerns – Corbucci’s The Mercenary (Italian: Il Mercenario; aka: A Professional Gun, 1968) and Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa (also starring Milián, 1969).
There’s little subtlety or variance behind The Big Gundown and Bullet for the General’s political messages, rather, the difference is found in each film’s delivery methods. Gian Maria Volonté, coming off star-making appearances as the (separate) villains in both Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, gave Damiani’s film a boost at the box office, but it was otherwise not designed to be a Sergio Leone-type crowd pleaser. Its earnest melodrama and dark, ambiguous ending kept it from the kind of international success Sollima would generate with The Big Gundown’s more adventure and action driven approach. Like Leone, he plays with older genre conventions, masking the social commentary in a well-structured and often funny adventure story that works just fine for viewers that are unable to recognize or choose to ignore its politics. For reference, 1966 was a watershed year for Italian-made westerns, also seeing the release of Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Italian: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, which has some minor plot points and character beats in common with The Big Gundown), Corbucci’s Django (which shares The Big Gundown’s desolate and muddy settings) and Navajo Joe, and Lucio Fulci’s Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu... tempo di massacro; aka: The Brute and the Beast).
As he attempted to match the ever-changing landscape of Italian fad cinema, Sollima’s directing career can be divided into three parts, at least before he started directed TV series, miniseries, and movies from the mid-’70s into the ‘90s. First, he found success with a series of James Bond inspired Eurospy movies – Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell (Italian: Agente 3S3: Passaporto per l'inferno, 1965), Agent 3S3, Massacre in the Sun (Italian: Agente 3S3, massacro al sole, 1966), Requiem for a Secret Agent (Italian: Requiem per un agente segreto, 1966) – before making a trilogy of spaghettis – The Big Gundown, Face to Face (Italian: Faccia a Faccia, 1967), and Run, Man, Run! (Italian: Corri uomo corri, 1968). All three westerns starred Milián and are considered essential entries in the Zapata subgenre. Face to Face is possibly the most solemn of the pure message Zapata movies (this depends on if the reader considers Corbucci’s The Great Silence [Italian: Il grande silenzio; aka: The Big Silence, 1968] a Zapata or revisionist) and features Gian Maria Volonté in his greatest western role, while Run, Man, Run! is, as the alternate English language title The Big Gundown 2 suggests, a direct sequel that revolves around the further adventures of Cuchillo (minus Corbett). Following this, Sollima had his greatest financial success with a pair of star-studded poliziotteschi – Violent City (starring Charles Bronson & Telly Savalas, 1970) and Revolver (starring Olvier Reed, Fabio Testi, and Ray Lovelock, 1973). Both films likely influenced William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). His son, Stefano Sollima, picked up the torch and has directed numerous crime dramas for TV and theaters, including the Hollywood produced Sicario: Day of the Soldado in 2018.
Like many Italian cult films, The Big Gundown has had a sordid release history in North America. It was originally cut from 107 to 93 minutes for its theatrical release stateside, then was cut further to 89 minutes for television (a 135 minute version is also rumored). None of the three cuts have ever seen release on R1 DVD. In Europe, though, The Big Gundown has had a great release history, especially in Germany, where Koch Media released a special edition DVD and Explosive Media released a loaded Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Grindhouse Releasing’s new Blu-ray marks the first official US release on a digital format. Grindhouse – who theoretically built their transfer from scratch, not from Explosive’s version – has included both an ‘extended’ 95-minute US version and the entirely uncut 110-minute version, which includes a brief shot that was removed from the German release due to print damage. This shot has been reinstated on both versions here and is almost impossible to miss. From about 17:57 to about 18:06, the camera cuts over Van Cleef’s shoulder as Milián sneaks by him in the guise of a barber. This shot is fuzzy and appears to have been optically zoomed, because of the strange framing and increase in the size of film grain.
It’s difficult to choose one cut over the other, because each has its strengths. The Italian version is clearly the director’s preferred version and features a number of plot points that are glossed over in the shorter cut. Much of this is relegated to the beginning of the film (Corbett’s honor is much better established via a shootout ritual and a visit to the sheriff’s office) and this is the footage I miss most while watching the American version. On the other hand, the shorter cut still makes sense and the tighter structure makes for a more ‘efficient’ viewing experience.
The back of the box brags that Grindhouse has done a full 2K restoration of the 95-minute American cut and the results are absolutely spectacular. Whenever spaghetti westerns get a Blu-ray release, my immediate impulse is to compare it to MGM’s Sergio Leone releases. Those versions had larger budgets than Grindhouse, but their results were mixed, from the excessively grainy Fistful of Dollars to DNR’d The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Grindhouse has clearly cleaned the film of its more extensive print artifacts, but they haven’t erased the essential texture of the grain. Besides some random shots, details are even, limited more by the film stock and/or shallow lenses than Blu-ray production issues. The palette is more vivid and diverse than the largely yellow and brown, washed-out SD versions. The improvements are most apparent in the natural skin tones, a richer blue sky, and poppier greens and reds. Only the richest warm hues show any sign of macro-blocking effects. Contrast is dynamic, which helps sharpen the hue and detail differentiations during the film’s darkest moments. There’s a hint of haloing on some of the darker edges and some viewers might find the black levels a bit crushed, but neither really stand out to my eyes. The promotional materials don’t claim that the 110-minute cut was also restored via 2K scanning, but I really can’t see any difference in the image quality, even when I seek out the scenes deleted from the US release and when I’m looking at still screencaps.
The Big Gundown was the first of many collaborations between Sollima and composer Ennio Morricone. It also might still be the best. The opening title song, titled The Big Gundown on some soundtracks, but credited as “Run Man Run” (“Corri Uomo Corri” in Italian) when accompanied by female singer Christy on vocals (a frequent Morricone collaborator that can also be heard singing “Deep Deep Down” for Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik), is high on the list of Morricone’s most stirring themes. If the music isn’t done right, the entire film suffers, so the quality of these Blu-ray soundtracks are vital. I’ll start with the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English dub that accompanies the US cut and verify that Leone’s score sounds rich and warm enough to pass for a stereo track. There’s little distortion, even at the highest volume levels, making for a clear and immersive experience, compared to previous versions, which were muffled and kind of flat. The English language dub is a bit smoother then the Italian dub and features Van Cleef speaking with his own voice (ADR’d, of course). The lip-sync is constantly off and the volume levels alternate a bit, sometimes within a single sentence, but the crackle of aspirated consonants is limited.
The Italian dub that accompanies the other disc is generally the same in terms of musical fidelity and, though the lip-sync is still off and the crackle is a little harsher (these films were recorded without sound), the overall dialogue volume/clarity is a little more consistent. I can’t quite get over how inappropriate Van Cleef’s dubbed voice is, myself, which makes me wish that Grindhouse would’ve given the option for English dialogue on the Italian cut (besides the bits that are only available in Italian, of course). This was something Anchor Bay and Blue Underground had done with Italian releases for years and I’ve always found it was easy to get used to. On the other hand, the Italian track does feature more ambient sound in crowd scenes, creating a slightly more immersive environment. This version also includes a beautiful vocal choir that Morricone himself wrote as the Mormons first leave town. This sounds fantastic and effectively disappears into the background as characters begin speaking again.
Grindhouse has also provided a 2.0 Dolby Digital mono music and effects only track, available on the 95-minute cut and a stereo music only track on the extended cut.
Disc One (US Version):
Commentary with western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke – This is a friendly track that covers every nook and cranny of the production, along with the history surrounding the Italian film industry at the time, yet it rarely feels overstuffed, nor is it difficult to keep up with the discussion.
Sergio Sollima Remembers The Big Gundown (29:00, HD) – An off-the-cuff 2005 interview with the director that covers his version of the genre’s history and some of the film’s behind-the-scenes tales.
Tomás Milián: Acting on Instinct (29:50, HD) – A 2001 interview with the actor, who covers his entire career, including his stardom in Italy and appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
Tagliatelle In Los Angeles: Sergio Donati Interview (12:00, HD)– A 2013 interview with the film’s writer, who discusses his career in spaghetti westerns with emphasis on the movies he made with Sollima.
Sergio Sollima: Struggles Against Genre (28:00, SD) – An elongated version of a Sollima interview that appears on David Gregory’s 2005 documentary, The Spaghetti West.
Another Sergio Donati interview (11:50, SD) – A slightly more personal interview with the writer from his kitchen table.
Promotional still galleries
Five TV spots
Sollima, Milián, and Donati filmographies
Disc Two (Italian Version):
Text-based commentary – This mostly pertains to Morricone’s music, but also marks some of the changes between cuts.
Trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing movies
Disc Three – DVD copy Disc Four – Original soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone
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