A couple of nights ago I caught Sergio Solima’s The Big Gundown on Encore’s Western channel. I had seen it back in the late 60’s when I was a kid, in one of the movie palaces that had gone exploitation/blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western in post-riot Washington, D.C. It’s difficult to find on DVD, and is rarely shown on television, so I was excited to have the opportunity to watch it again after so many years. I had good memories of this one, and I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed; in fact, after this viewing, my regard for it has only grown stronger.
The Big Gundown stars Lee Van Cleef as Corbett, a bounty hunter/quasi lawman who’s hired by a corrupt railroad baron to capture and kill Cuchillo, (spunky, feral Tomas Milian, Pacino before Pacino) a Mexican accused of the rape and murder of a child. This was Van Cleef’s first role after Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and though he would later sleepwalk through many sub-par Italian Westerns, he gives one of his most charismatic performances here. The man had steel and presence. As for the direction, Sergio Solima is not as highly revered as Leone, but this is a film that can stand alongside the work of the Maestro. It’s that good.
Like Leone, Solima shot in Scope (locations were in Italy and Spain), and his widescreen compositions in Gundown are painterly and stunning. Equally impressive is Solima’s take on capitalism, race, and class and his use of cinema as a political tool. But the film is never slow or didactic. It works as a rousing actioner, and also as a highly original entry in the genre. The section where Corbett ventures deep into Mexico (and has a terrific fist fight in a brothel) exhibits an ethnic realism previously unexplored in these types of films. Solima also creates a monocle-and-cape clad Prussian villain, predating Peckinpah and Leone, both of whom used essentially the same character in, respectively, The Wild Bunch and Duck You Sucker.
The Big Gundown really hits its stride in the final reel as Cuchiilo is chased through cane fields and a rocky landscape by the hunting party. Here, Ennio Morricone’s theme (available on A Fistful of Film Music, the definitive collection) is rousing and wildly inventive, combining Duane Eddy twang with vocals, strings, and horns. Spoiler alert: after the climax, where Corbett and Cuchillo join together to avenge the men who have set them up, they agree to go their separate ways, with Corbett heading north and Cuchillo going south to his homeland. The implication is that they will take the learned message of brotherhood and tolerance back to their people. I got chills watching Van Cleef and Milian on horseback, riding across the dunes at full gallop, the front of Van Cleef’s hat blown up by the wind as Morricone’s magnificent score came forward. It is a beautiful sequence and a fitting ending to a thrilling film.