After decades of languishing in relative obscurity, the 1966 Italian Western The Big Gundown seems to be all the rage this year with both Grindhouse Releasing and Explosive Media's special collector's editions of the Sergio Leone-inspired film that starred Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian. This review deals with the Grindhouse release (the Explosive Media special edition is primarily being marketed to European viewers.) Grindhouse, which was co-founded by the late Sage Stallone and Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski (The Hurt Locker), is dedicated to preserving films that have built a cult following or have suffered from lack of mainstream exposure. Consequently, the company has built up a loyal following of grateful retro cinema fans. After a two-year hiatus following Stallone's untimely death in 2012 at age 36, Murawski is carrying the torch and has recently resumed releasing some very interesting titles on Blu-ray. The Big Gundown has generally been acclaimed as the best of the non-Leone Italian Westerns. In fact, it's so good in comparison to the often awful other films in this genre, that it was said Leone himself was somewhat jealous of the movie's success. One reason for Leone's bitterness may have been that the movie starred Lee Van Cleef, whose career he had saved through the starring roles afforded him in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Gundown was shot after the former film and before the latter, but not released in the USA until after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The delay only enhanced the film's appeal to American audiences, as GBU had proven to be a boxoffice smash and had made Van Cleef a household name. The movie was directed by Sergio Sollima who co-wrote the script with Sergio Donati, a collaborator of Leone's. The story concerns a bounty hunter named Corbett (Van Cleef) who is hired to track down and kill a Mexican peasant named Sanchez (Tomas Milian) who allegedly raped and killed a 12 year-old girl. Corbett is pressured into taking the job by Brokston (Walter Barnes), a rich and influential rancher who convinces Corbett that slaying Sanchez would pave the way for a successful political career. Corbett realizes that Brokston simply wants a crony in the state house to do his bidding, but nevertheless agrees to take the assignment. Tracking down Sanchez proves to be more difficult than he anticipated. The charismatic and self-reliant wanted man engages Corbett in a cat-and-mouse chase across the countryside, narrowly avoiding capture at several points. When Corbett does manage to get the drop on him, Sanchez manages to outwit his captor and escape. When he is finally cornered, Brokston and a small army of men turn up to ensure that Sanchez is executed- but Corbett reveals some startling information that leads to unexpected and violent developments.
Director Sollima presents a visually arresting film with an intelligent script, better dubbing than most Italian Westerns of this period and fine performances with Van Cleef and Milian playing well against each other in the manner that Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood did in their collaborations with Sergio Leone. The film is enhanced by yet another great musical score by Ennio Morricone, who composed the music for so many films of this period that he must have perfected a way of doing so in his sleep. The production rises above other films of this genre and if the movie never quite reaches the level of Leone's work, it can certainly be compared favorably. I would rank it, along with The Five Man Army, as the best non-Leone work to be found among the European Westerns. Sadly, when the film was released by Columbia in the USA, studio executives butchered the original cut. Some of this was to do with pacing and emphasizing action over dialogue-heavy scenes. There was also concern that Sollima's penchant for heavy-handed left wing political analogies to contemporary society. In any event, the result was that there have been numerous hybrid bootleg versions of The Big Gundown circulating for many years.
The Grindhouse release is superb on every level beginning with a stunningly beautiful transfer that presents the film in a nearly flawless state. The Blu-ray special edition affords Citizen Kane-like analysis and presentation to the film. The mammoth 4 disc collector's edition would require an entire day of binge viewing in order to properly appreciate all the variations of the film that are presented here. In fact, it would be too confusing to attempt to explain all the nuances in this space. However, here is a sample of the highlights:
Blu-ray presentation of the original uncensored English language edition of the film that includes three scenes which were originally edited out.
Blu-ray of Sollima's original director's cut under its original title, La resa dei conti
DVD of a 95 minute "expanded U.S. cut"
Bonus CD of Ennio Morricone's original soundtrack recording of the score.
A fascinating selection of in-depth interviews including Sergio Sollima and Tomas Milian, both of whom provide very interesting perspectives on the film and their careers in general. The Milian interview, shot last year, makes it clear that this is a man who has attained great respect in the international film industry, as illustrated by clips from some of his other major movies including the Oscar-winning Traffic. Milian tells very amusing stories about working in the Italian cinema during its glory days and mingling with the likes of Fellini and other major forces in the industry. There are also interviews with Sergio Donati who regards Sollima with affection even though he says they eventually had a feud that led to them parting ways professionally. Donati also discusses his relationship with Sergio Leone and why the famed director had resentment toward The Big Gundown.
There is also a wide variety of original trailers and TV spots plus a major selection of original production stills and international advertising materials. If you're as big of a geek for this type of material as I am, you'll be most grateful for its inclusion.
There is a also a feature length commentary by film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke, both of whom do yeoman work on describing interesting insights into the making of the film and the the personalities involved. The only drawback is that neither man introduces himself at the beginning of the commentary track so it becomes a bit confusing as to who you are listening to.
Joyner also provides excellent liner notes in the accompanying collector's booklet in which he comprehensibly lays out the differences in the various versions of the film. The booklet also contains an essay on Morricone's score by Gergely Hubai.
In summary, Grindhouse Releasing has outdone itself with this presentation of a very esteemed cult Western. For my money, its the best independent video release of 2013.