PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'The Big Gundown' Has a Cat-and-Mouse Rhythm of Chasing and Escaping

For fans of spaghetti westerns, The Big Gundown is a must-see crowd pleaser.

The Big Gundown (La Resa Dei Conti)

Director: Sergio Solima
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Thomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Nieves Navarro, Gerard Herter, Maria Granada
MPAA Rating: NR
Studio: Produzioni Europee Associati
Year: 1961
US Release Date: 1968-08-21

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.