One of the most beautiful aspects of the spaghetti western is that its narrative/stylistic template was spare enough to allow filmmakers to interpret the genre as they saw fit. Sergio Leone was the first to take advantage of this opportunity and created a violent, unsentimental and cynical variation of the western that opened up all sorts of creative opportunities for ambitious filmmakers. One of the most gifted directors to offer a personalized slant of the spaghetti western was Sergio Sollima, who added political themes to the mix: The Big Gundown was his first film in this vein and it remains one of the spaghetti western’s best non-Leone entries.
Sollima co-wrote the script for The Big Gundown with Sergio Donati, who would contribute to the script for Once Upon A Time In The West a few years later. This duo uses a simple narrative spine for their story: bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is dispatched to hunt down Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican bandit accused of raping and killing a 12 year-old Texas girl. Corbett gives chase but Cuchillo proves to be a wily and resourceful foe, forcing Corbett to track him across the border into Mexico.
That’s where things get interesting. Corbett and Cuchillo start to develop an interaction through their skirmishes and Cuchillo challenges him to question the version of the events he’s been given, which causes annoyance for Brokston (Walter Barnes), the ambitious businessman who has hired Corbett in the hopes that his success can create some good p.r. for Brokston’s political and business ambitions. Corbett sees a new side of life through his misadventures in attempting to catch Cuchillo and the two develop a grudging respect for each other – but both will have to play their roles in the final confrontation that gives the film its title.
If you want to watch The Big Gundown for excitement, it delivers plenty of fun on that level. Corbett and Cuchillo make a fascinating pair of opposites and further benefit from having fantastic star performances to fuel these characterizations. Van Cleef is suitably intense yet cool as Corbett, handling his loner hero archetype with great subtlety and some wry comedic shadings. Milian makes an ideal opposite, infusing his characterization with a powerful sense grandeur: his comic timing is dazzling, he can summon up big emotions both humorous and fierce and brings a contagious sense of delight to his work. This duo has a great yin-yang chemistry and really create sparks in the scenes where they trade quips and philosophies.
The Big Gundown is also consistently engaging on a storytelling level, with Sollima and Donati creating a fast-paced narrative that doles out exciting setpieces with consistency. Highlights include Van Cleef having to fend off a gang of gun-toting thugs trying to shoot him down while he’s holed up in a ranch house and the three-part series of gun duels that climax the film. The writers also add a number of offbeat characters and subplots into the story, like a dude-ranch where a cruel yet alluring widow (Nieves Navarro) holds sway over the ranchhands and an Austrian Baron (Gerard Herter) who fetishizes the art of dueling and wants to test his skills against Corbett’s. Sollima directs the excitement with confidence and skill, using the Cinemascope frame to create epic visuals that pump up the inherent operatic tendencies of the spaghetti western.
However, it’s the political angle that truly makes The Big Gundown a distinctive film. Sollima and Donati take what could have been a simple “white hat vs. black hat” story and transform it into a commentary on how wealth and power can control what is perceived as the truth in society, how easy it is for the upper class to use the lower class a convenient patsy to protect itself and how unchecked ambition can lead to terrible, inhumane cruelty in the name of “progress.” The writers don’t allow these themes to languish in the background: instead, they are given voice by the characters in the common man’s language, with Cuchillo becoming a powerful mouthpiece for these ideas as he tries to change Corbett’s way of thinking. The results are revolutionary in the best sense of the word.
In short, The Big Gundown is both a grand spaghetti western entertainment and effective, plain-spoken political treatise whose themes and ideas remain relevant over forty years after its original release. If you’re a student of the genre, your education is not complete until you’ve taken this film in.