THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966)

THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966)
THE_BIG_GUNDOWN[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n post-Civil War Texas Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is a renowned bounty hunter. He visits the home of wealthy entrepreneur Brokston (Walter Barnes). The occasion is the wedding of Brokston’s daughter. During the celebration Brokston proposes to finance a campaign for Corbett to run for U.S. Senate. As a Civil War hero and a former sheriff, Corbett has the background needed to win the election. Brokston has designs to build a railroad through Texas into Mexico and he needs a politician to champion his cause. After the wedding, word comes that a local 12-year-old girl has been raped and murdered by Mexican thief Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian). Rather than form a posse, Brokston assigns Corbett the job of finding Cuchillo before he escapes into Mexico.

Director Sergio Sollima was a veteran of sand and sandal epics and spy movies when the popularity of Italian-made westerns led to his work in the genre. The social commentary of the screenplay is an element that Sollima used to good advantage by displaying the lives of pioneers and peasants in his choice of shots.

The character of Cuchillo represents the plight of the peasant against the rich and powerful. His life as a petty thief is merely a method of survival. He is a liar, a joker, and a trickster. Although accused of a heinous crime he’s funny and entertaining. He’s also ingenious in his methods of escaping capture. Even Corbett begins to develop a grudging respect for his survival skills. Tomas Millian’s portrayal is exceptional and it is one of the true delights of the film.

Though he’s a bounty hunter, Corbett is not a pure mercenary. He is a true believer in justice and he always gives his quarry a fair chance. He also lets Brokston that his loyalty can’t be bought by funding a political campaign. Through the process of tracking Cuchillo, Corbett begins to think there may be more behind the manhunt than Brokston is letting on. Corbett is tough but he’s also thoughtful and fair. The shadings of the character make Van Cleef’s performance arguably the best of his starring roles.

Sollima uses the moving camera extremely well. In the action scenes he does a great job of not repeating himself visually. There are several standout sequences including an opening showdown between a trio of robbers and Corbett, a face-off between Cuchillo and a bull, and a chase of Cuchillo through a cane field. As entertaining as the story is, Sollima and co-writer Donati (who also collaborated with Sollima on Face to Face as well as with Sergio Leone on Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck You Sucker) explore themes of the eternal struggle between the lowly common man and the powerful rich.

The 110-minute European version is a true treasure because now we can properly judge the artistry of the writing, direction, performances, and score. The longer version shows Corbett to be a judicious and fair man rather than the money hungry mercenary he appears to be in the U.S. version. The portrayal of Cuchillo, the peasants, and the pioneers are richer in the longer version. Columbia’s cut of the U.S. version took out important story points and complexity of the characters in favor of action. To understand the reasoning behind the studio’s cuts, it’s important to understand that most Italian westerns were intended to play on double bills and at drive-ins. Shorter running times meant more showings per day and larger boxoffice.

Shot before The Good, The Bad and the Ugly but released a year later in America, The Big Gundown along with Leone’s film made Van Cleef a star in European westerns and action films. Milian’s performance was so successful that Sollima directed him in the sequel Run, Man, Run (1968) with the Cuban-born actor again playing Cuchillo. This led to more westerns and action films for Milian as well. Both Van Cleef and Milian became international stars and were later able to capitalize on that success in America.

The score by Ennio Morricone is quite beautiful with a title song “Run Man Run” sung by vocalist Christy. The lyrics of the song (obviously intended for the Cuchillo character) advise “run, man, run… ‘til you find a place where they never never never, no never no they’ll never lock you in.” The melody of the song also serves as an instrumental leitmotif that repeats several times throughout. Morricone quotes classical sources such as Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and uses Beethoven’s “Für Elise” as both a source cue and as a quote within a showdown cue. Morricone also uses choral voices for a Mormon wagon train and a solo acoustic guitar in personal scenes with Cuchillo to good effect. As one of Morricone’s finest western scores, the restored soundtrack CD of The Big Gundown is a wonderful addition to the discs of the movie itself.

Extras:

  • Original soundtrack CD by Ennio Morricone.
  • Blu-ray and DVD of expanded U.S. release version.
  •  Interviews with director Sergio Sollima, actor Tomas Milian, and screenwriter Sergio Donati
  •  Audio commentary by Western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke
  •  Liner notes by C. Courtney Joyner and Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai
  •  Still galleries, trailers and TV spots
  •  Subtitle option discussing Morricone’s score and differences in the European and U.S. versions
  •  Comprehensive cut-by-cut list of differences between original European version and the U.S. release version

The 2K restoration of both the European version and the extended U.S. version is stunning in its sharpness and richness of color. The dialogue track and particularly the music are full and clean. The European version is in Italian language with easy-to-read English subtitles. The commentary track on the U.S. version by screenwriter/western novelist C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke is enlightening in its detail about the film’s relationship other Italian-made westerns. There are also observations about character and appreciations of Sollima’s style. A subtitle option covering the score goes into detail about instrumentation, orchestration, and Morricone’s choice of performers used for specific cues.

Interviews with director Sollima and writer Donati add detail about how the pair collaborated on the screenplay and about the film’s place in Italian western history. Milian’s interviews are particularly revealing not only about his long and still active career but also about his working methods. The only extra one could wish for would be an interview with Van Cleef but he unfortunately passed away in 1989.

Undoubtedly this is among the best restorations I’ve ever seen and the and the extras are without equal in my experience. Kudos to Bob Murawski, Chris Innis, and their collaborators at Grindhouse Releasing for this exceptional package.

DIR: Sergio Sollima. PROD: Tulio Demacheli, Alberto Grimaldi. SCR: story by Franco Solina and Fernando Morandi, screenplay by Sergio Donati and Sergio Sollima. CIN: Carlo Carlini. ED: Gaby Penada. SCORE: Ennio Morricone. CAST: Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian,Walter Barnes. Color. Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1. Running time: Original Italian version 110 min./Expanded U.S. release version 95 min. Genre: Western. Columbia Pictures. Blu-ray/DVD/CD release by Grindhouse Releasing: grindhousereleasing.com.