Film Review: The Big Gundown

The U.S. premiere of this surprisingly thoughtful 1960s spaghetti western gives an opportunity to reflect on the genre.

The Big Gundown, originally released in the U.S. in 1966 in a shortened form, begs the question as to whether any spaghetti westerns (westerns set in the Old West but filmed in Italy), other than the Sergio Leone ones, are any good. Historically, the critics’ answer may often have been no, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t now worth taking a look at this lost, oddball subgenre. The Big Gundown is just one highlight of a unique series presented this month at New York’s Film Forum repertory theatre.

Spaghetti westerns represent the best indicator of how Hollywood cinema impacted world cinema just as “foreign” films became more and more accepted as mainstream American entertainment in the mid-1960s. The cross-breeding of genres, techniques and even languages makes some of these films fascinating artifacts even when the productions themselves are subpar. Given European cynicism about American imperialism (missing from the John Wayne films on which spaghetti westerns are based), they hold up much better than one might think.

Film Forum has assembled some of the best examples, including the Leone classics (e.g., A Fistful of Dollars, the official first, starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name), the wildly surreal Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot!, the quietly poetic Great Silence, and the overtly political Tepepa (co-starring The Big Gundown’s Tomas Milian and Orson Welles!.

The Big Gundown, another high spot in the series, is being shown in its full-length format. Lee Van Cleef’s Texas senate candidate turned obsessed bounty hunter is a much more complex character in this long version, wrestling with his conscience about the outlaw Mexican (Tomas Milian) he is pursuing on a child-rape charge. Director Sergio Sollima (and co-writer Sergio Donati) anticipates the raw, unexpected emotional journey of Michel Duchaussoy’s distraught hero in Claude Chabrol’s This Man Must Die (1969). Van Cleef even provides shading to his characteristically super-cool stoicism. Sollima and his widescreen cinematographer Carlo Carlini make great use of the vast, pseudo-Texas landscapes (actually Spain, not Italy, in this case). Best of all, Ennio Morricone’s score combines everything from his canonical Leone guitar-horn-chorale riffs to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” to the crazy, campy theme song, Nina’s “Run, Man, Run.”

It might take the clout of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez to ever get an "ostern" film festival (also known as "easterns," the lesser-known East German counterparts to spaghetti westerns). In the meantime, it’s about time to reconsider the dismissed, decidedly strange “western all’italiana."