For fans of spaghetti westerns, The Big Gundown is a must-see crowd pleaser.
Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966) was a smash hit in Italy, effectively turning Tomas Milian into a star and proving that Lee Van Cleef could shine outside of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollar Trilogy.’ Then, when it was released in the U.S. two years later, it pulled in over $2 million and the New York Times praised Sollima’s “visual elegance” and “attention to detail”, even though it was haphazardly cut from 105 minutes down to 85 minutes. Now that it is widely available in its original uncut state, more people than ever are viewing and praising The Big Gundown for its classic plot, topnotch cast, powerful themes, and its unforgettable Ennio Morricone score.
The story starts with a Texas railroad tycoon named Brokston (Walter Barnes) trying to hire the bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) to track down Cuchillo ‘The Knife’ Sanchez (Tomas Milian). Sanchez is a Mexican peasant accused of raping and murdering a 12-year-old white girl, and Brokston convinces Corbett, who has ambitious plans to run for U.S. Senate, that bringing such a man to justice would help his political campaign. Corbett accepts the job, but he begins to suspect that all is not as it seems when Brokston eagerly enlists a large posse lead by the gun-fetishizing Baron Von Schulemberg (Gerard Herter) to help in the hunt. Why would a powerful American industrialist expend so much money and time to catch a Mexican peasant? This is the question that both Corbett and the audience asks and eventually gets answered.
Although the manhunt story which takes on a cat-and-mouse rhythm of chasing and escaping is thrilling, it is the characters of Corbett and Sanchez that make the film great. While Corbett, at first glance, is the archetypical Van Cleef character—his eyes say more than his lips, he smokes a pipe, and carries his gun in a cross-belly holster—it becomes clear as the film progresses that he is different. Unlike most Van Cleef characters and the typical bounty hunter, Corbett is a moral man who analyzes his own actions and decisions. Sanchez, on the other hand, is brought to life by Milian as a completely original and vibrant character. He’s like a stray Chihuahua—all bark and no bite—that has a talent for both charming and surviving. Dressed in rags, smiling through layers of dirt, falsely accused of a atrocious crime, and armed with only a knife and sling-shot, Sanchez is the wittiest of rogues and is impossible not to root for.
Screenwriter Sergio Donati is who gets credit for these characters. Van Cleef and Milian have starred in over forty Spaghetti Westerns between them and have only reached such heights a handful of times, if at all. While their acting is no doubt topnotch, it is Donati’s writing, which contrasts the introspective moralizing of Corbett to the adrenaline-fueled actions of Sanchez, that carries these characters to greatness. The fact that Nieves Navarro, who first appeared in Duccio Tessari’s equally acclaimed “Ringo” films (1965), far surpasses all her other work with her role in The Big Gundown as an unforgettable lonely sadistic widow who is entertained at the sight of her hired brutes fighting and who plays sexual mind-games with Sanchez is a another testament to the quality of Donati’s screenplay.
Why don’t I give Sollima, who besides directing the film is also credited with writing it alongside Donati, more praise for the characters? I have two reasons: the first reason is that Run, Man, Run (1968), the film in which Sollima brought back Milian as Sanchez, wasn’t written by Donati and as a result is generally considered inferior to both The Big Gundown and Face to Face (1967), which Donati also wrote; and the second reason is that Donati—who it’s worth noting contributed to the near-perfect For Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Leone scripts—publicly complained that Sollima wanted “everything to have meaning,” and one of the few flaws of The Big Gundown and the characters of Corbett and Sanchez is that they sometimes get caught up speechifying.
But while Sollima’s desire for “everything to have meaning” may have slightly hindered Donati in developing the characters of Corbett and Sanchez, it surely aided in the development of The Big Gundown‘s political themes. Sollima portrays Sanchez as though he is a political prisoner on the run, a victim to a corrupt system controlled by white men like the bloodthirsty, power-hungry railroad tycoon Brokston. Sanchez, in fact, is in many ways a hero of a Mexican peon who becomes an unsuspecting revolutionary by standing up to the racist authority figures and challenging the power structure that allows them to exploit minorities and the working class. By having society’s other outcasts, such as low-wage workers at a horse stable, a group of traveling Mormons, and an order of monks at a monastery help Sanchez while he is running for freedom and then having him use of knife against his gun-wielding opponent in the film’s final showdown, Sollima emphasizes his role as a metaphorical civil-rights leader.
This last climatic showdown scene is accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s masterful take on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” The entire score, in fact, is brilliant. The chords making up the main theme song, titled “Run Man Run,” will pleasantly echo through your ear canals, and the music played while Sanchez runs from Corbett like a Chihuahua from a hawk increases the urgency of the sequences tenfold. As a composer, Morricone has no equal in the Spaghetti Western genre (or any film genre for that matter) and his score for The Big Gundown is one of his best.
If the film’s villains were a shade darker, the shootouts a bit bloodier, the camera movements more creative, and the editing a little tighter, Sollima’s The Big Gundown would be leading the pack made-up of my very favorite films in the genre, but it is instead running right behind them with the manic urgency that Milian’s Cuchillo ‘The Knife’ Sanchez maintains throughout the entire film. It is a must-see pleaser.