Spaghetti westerns often appeal to cult-film types who don’t normally go for westerns because they subvert the traditionalist vibe that is usually associated with the genre. Spaghetti westerns aren’t beholden to a “white hats vs. black hats” iconography and they frequently incorporate leftist political themes, a gothic atmosphere or a bleak commentary on human morality. A Bullet For Sandoval comes from the latter category, offering a existentially doom-laden story that feels like a murder ballad brought to life.
The plot is essentially a dance of death between two mutually obsessed opponents. John Warner (George Hilton) is a Confederate soldier struggling through the Civil War, hoping to be reunited with his love when it is all over. However, he is forced to go a.w.o.l. when he discovers she is pregnant with his child and terminally ill. He rushes to the home of her father, Don Pedro Sandoval (Ernest Borgnine), only to discover that she has died after childbirth. Sandoval was against his daughter’s romance with Warner so he kicks Warner and the baby out into the streets.
Warner tries to find help but is turned away at all places because the baby has cholera. The child soon dies and this pushes Warner over the edge. With the help of a few fellow outcasts, he forms a band of criminals and plots revenge on Sandoval and his sons. The two men snipe at each other as Warner and his men evade capture and close in. People on both sides of the dispute die as the two men inch their way towards a final showdown in an arena.
As the above synopsis hints, A Bullet For Sandoval is a grim piece of work. It focuses on the dark and morbid from its first moment, a haunting titles sequence where a crazed Union soldier pillages the corpses of Confederate soldiers by cutting off fingers to get at rings and prying golden teeth out of their mouths. The story presents a world where anything good or noble is snuffed out by pride and revenge – and once someone is overtaken by either feeling, it’s a disease that can’t be shaken.
Even when these characters achieve their vengeful goals, the end result is more heartbreaking than cathartic – a scene where Warner drowns a man who denied his child milk while his wailing wife watches in horror is truly unnerving stuff. Director Julio Buchs presents the story in an unflinching style that refuses to judge either Warner or Sandoval. Instead, their acts are presented in a dispassionate manner that makes the content all the more disturbing.
As for the performances, Ernest Borgnine doesn’t look very Mexican despite a little black dye in his hair and he doesn’t try for an accent in the dubbing. However, he communicates the rage and carefully-hidden inner turmoil of his character nicely and the result is a compelling performance. Borgnine could be a highly effective antagonist when he wanted to be (see Emperor Of The North Pole for proof) and he acquits himself nicely here. Hilton is not as convincing as Warner: the role demands operatic depths of rage and anguish in a few key moments that he can’t quite conjure up. That said, he is solid otherwise otherwise and makes a decent gunslinger.
In short, A Bullet For Sandoval weaves a sinister mood despite a few rough edges. It’s a solid pick for those who like their spaghetti westerns dark and despairing.