“The Criterion of cult” is a phrase that genre movie fans often throw around when discussing which video companies do the best, most fan-conscious job of creating special editions for overlooked films. There are plenty of worthy competitors out there but the company who was really bucked for the “Criterion of cult” honor this year is Grindhouse Releasing. 2013 found them scoring big with fans via jumbo-size special editions for An American Hippie In Israel and Corruption.
However, their most epic achievement in 2013 is their final release of the year, The Big Gundown: this quadruple-disc, multi-format mega-set finds the Grindhouse crew really throwing out all the stops for the benefit of the cult-flick fanbase.
For starters, you get a variety of options for watching the film: there is an “extended American cut” of the film presented in both blu-ray and DVD versions, plus the full-length European edition presented on an additional blu-ray. The blu-rays of both cuts were viewed for this review and both look and sound impressive. The anamorphic image is boldly colored and rich in detail in both versions, giving the film’s look a modern clarity without sacrificing its lovely, vintage “Technicolor” celluloid look. Fans should also note that the U.S. cut offers an extended version of this edit, reinstating three scenes previously left on the cutting room floor. Both cuts are different in pacing, storyline elements and character presentation so it’s well worth watching each version.
English mono audio is included for the U.S. cut and Italian mono audio with English subtitles for the European cut, both presented in lossless form on the blu-rays. Each sounds pretty robust for a vintage mix, with the dialogue clear and Ennio Morricone’s sagebrush-opera score having the right amount of punch. And that’s not all for audio: there is also a mono music and effects track for the U.S. cut and a stereo score-only track for European cut. In short, Grindhouse left no stone unturned for audio options and fans of Morricone’s scores will be grateful for the extra tracks.
The expansive presentation of the film is supported by an array of extras that explore its many layers. Things start with a commentary track on the U.S. cut by filmmakers/historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke. Their comments create an enthusiastic, highly detailed appreciation of the film. The two men discuss the cuts made by Columbia and whether or not they’re effective, the career histories of the cast members, thoughts on Sergio Sollima’s visual techniques and application of poltiical content and sophisticated analyses of Cuchillo and Corbett in the context of spaghetti western character archetypes. They’re never at a loss for something interesting to say and best of all, they’re fans of both Italian and American westerns so they can comment in a meaningful way about the differing approaches to plotting and themes in these two styles.
There is also a text commentary track on the European version of the film. It is designed to comment on Morricone’s score and does so nicely: it offers analysis of Morricone’s musical choices and Bruno Nicolai’s arrangement techniques, discusses the differences in score cues between the U.S. and European versions and gives brief bios for all of Morricone’s musical collaborators. That said, this text track offers even more info by discussing the differences in film editing between the U.S. and European versions of the film, giving all the specifics on the deletion, reworking and redubbing of scenes as well as offering commentary on the motivations behind the different edits. It’s a great source of info and an ideal visual accompaniment for anyone listening to the score-only audio track.
Next up is a quintet of featurettes collecting interviews new and old with three key creative figures in The Big Gundown. The first is an interview with Sollima from 2005 about the film. His discussion includes how difficult it was pre-Fistful Of Dollars to sell Italian producers on the idea of making westerns, how he reworked the main characters from an existing treatment while writing the script and how hard it was to sell producer Alberto Grimaldi on using Tomas Milian as one of his leads. He also reveals how Cuchillo’s use of a knife was inspired by a scene in The Magnificent Seven and tells a funny story about shooting a scene involving a difficult horse.
An interview with Milian from 2012 follows. It’s a fairly expansive chat that has him talking about his early days training at the Actor’s Studio in NYC, how Italy became both his home and his career base as an actor and some interesting detail on his instinctive, emotion-driven approach to acting. The Big Gundown gets a nice chunk of the conversation, with Milian revealing how racism influenced his approach to Cuchillo and how the film was an important turning point in his career that helped him get away from “intellectual” roles and into more visceral, challenging work. It’s a delight to watch because Milian is as uncompromising and witty as his performances are.
The third featurette is a 2013 interview with screenwriter Sergio Donati. It’s brief (under 12 minutes) but he reveals how his working relationship with producer Grimaldi led to working with Sollima as well as how he and Sollima grappled over how explicit the political themes should be in the dialogue. He also finds time for a funny anecdote about how star Lee Van Cleef was afraid of horses, a great irony for a star of westerns.
The remaining two pieces offer additional interviews with Sollima and Donati. These come from David Gregory and are extended versions of interviews used briefly in his cable t.v. documentary The Spaghetti West. There is a little bit of overlap between these pieces and the other interviews with these gentlemen on thsi set but they remain worth watching because they allow both men to speak in a more broad sense about their experiences making spaghetti westerns.
Sollima reveals his distaste for the “spaghetti western” expression, offering a philosophical explanation why, and also discusses how he considers his films to be ideological instead of political as well as his thoughts on why the genre died in Italy. He is both highly intellectual and highly animated, a unique but winning combination. Donati tells some great stories about Sergio Leone, including how he turned down the chance to write A Fistful Of Dollars, and also offers some interesting thoughts on how American pop culture influenced the filmmakers of post-World War II Italy.
If that wasn’t enough, Grindhouse Releasing offers an extensive collection of promotional materials. 20 black-and-white promotional stills kick this section off, followed by collections of posters, pressbooks and stills broken down into sub-galleries for the U.S., Italy, France and other international territories. They offer an interesting glimpse into the differences in marketing for each country, including how the U.S. posters misleadingly referred to Van Cleef as “Mr. Ugly” to cash in on the success of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (fans know he was actually the Bad in that film, not the Ugly!).
Also included in the promotional materials are a variety of trailers. Two U.S. trailers are basically similar in their editing, offering a dialogue-free series of action highlights, but they differ in how one spot uses the “Mr. Ugly” tagline. An Italian trailer is just as silent and violent as the U.S. trailers but is more of a bullet-riddled tone poem set to the film’s theme song. A collection of five black-and-white t.v. spots round this area out, all either focusing on Van Cleef or the film’s action setpieces.
That’s a lot of extras but this set of The Big Gundown still has more to give: a color booklet offers around twenty pages’ worth of liner notes, consisting of an essay on the film by Joyner and pieces on the different edits of the film and Morricone’s score by Gergely Hubai. The blu-ray for the European cut of the film includes the always-fun Grindhouse Releasing trailer reel. The DVD-Rom portion of the DVD includes a comprehensive list of editing differences between the two cuts of the film. Best of all, there’s a fourth disc: it’s a CD that offers a 25-cut soundtrack album for the film. It sounds great and is as complete as the best import CD of the soundtrack currently available, so that’s another reason for Morricone fans to love this set.
In short, even fans of The Big Gundown probably didn’t hope for a special edition this generous. Grindhouse Releasing has created their best release to date here and the embarrassment of riches it provides will leave fans of this label excited to see what they’ll do in 2014. Clearly, any other companies who want to compete with Grindhouse for the “Criterion of cult” honor are going to have to step up their game.
To read Schlockmania’s film review of The Big Gundown, click here.