A rare spectacle: The Big Gundown
Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown is a pivotal film in the genre of Spaghetti Westerns. Unlike, the usual ‘buddy’ westerns featuring two opposite characters who end up working towards a common goal, majority of The Big Gundown is about Lee Van Cleef’s search for a heinous criminal. However, it is this journey which becomes an investigation into how we perceive crime, the economic forces which dictate social actions, and how an individual makes a judgment on fellow human beings. Sergio Sollima along with Sergio Donati adapted a story by Franco Solinas (known for The Battle of Algiers), and Fernando Morandi to create a rare spectacle, one which delves on a range of issues from race, crime, to class divide which afflict our society.
The creation of ‘Others’
While human morality might vary over cultures one feature that remains unchanged is the need to create the other. This other is defined in terms of what we are not. This becomes especially useful when discussing crime; as these acts can be attributed to entities that wear human skin like the rest of us but engage in immoral and repugnant activities. This other is the manifestation of human failures, something the rest of us are incapable of doing or even thinking about.
Thief, rapist, murderer, molester, arsonist, etc. are not merely job descriptions of undesirables. These words help create an alien, an outsider who lies in the abyss of darkness and is summoned by forces of evil to strike down upon innocents.
This alienation inevitably shows in the law books of a country. Britain had Margaret Thatcher era's Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988 that prohibited "promotion of homosexuality" by teaching or publishing material. Here the danger that the homosexual and his ways pose to society was being combated against. Over years, societal attitudes have changed but this need to create the other hasn't gone anywhere.
A person suspected to belong to a particular undesirable category of the other opens themselves to fear, anger and hatred.
In M (Fritz Lang, 1931), Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) becomes the subject of ridicule, mockery, and indictment of the kangaroo court comprising of individuals with a special understanding of the law. Those judging him are criminals who have "… From six weeks in Tegel prison to 15 years in Brandenburg". Yet, the fact that he is a child murderer makes him worse than the rest of them. The resolution that his well-educated jury and judges come to is that by eliminating the evil-doer, the evil itself can be eliminated.
Now, in eyes of societal morality, this principle of elimination generally doesn't hold up. (Most) People don't approve of offenders being put to death for the crime of theft. But there are certain offences where this morality gets flexible in the manner in which justice is served.
Crimes against children, especially those of a sexual nature, are taken as a special slight against the societal establishment. The inability to protect our dependants is not only a frightening prospect, it might also shake the very belief in the establishment, which is supposed to protect and provide for us.
The societal judgment in such cases (even before a court of law has been able to arrive at justice) is swift, perhaps as a psychological defensive measure. This was very well explored in The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012), where Lucas becomes the target of a mass hysteria arising out of a wrongful accusation of sexually harassing a child.
The image of this degenerate is so vile, that even the strongest and most inhumane of villains in cinematic history and the very idea of their evil has been painted in a light far away from this real menace. It is very rare that the two end up meeting.
The ‘other’ in The Big Gundown: Pre-supposed criminality, and dilemmas
The quick execution of justice in dealing with such elements doesn't do away with such crimes, even if it provides a sense of satisfaction to the community at large for some time. This is because the root cause of a crime isn't understood or addressed.
These absurdities are addressed in The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1966) where a bounty hunter, Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) goes after Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican thief. The crime for which the latter is being hunted is the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.
What begins as an obvious hunt for the villainous Cuchillo, turns into a cat-and-mouse game between the experienced Corbett and the wily thief. The character of Cuchillo is built in an interesting fashion before the audience.
His very first sequence on-screen shows him putting one over Corbett in a clever fashion. This stands in stark contrast to the first appearance of some other prominent characters who are known to have committed similar offences against children. Hans Beckert's introduction in M is in the form of an evil shadow that hovers over little Elsie and the ghastly poster which announces the murder of several children in the past. The arrival of Comanches in The Searchers (John Ford, 1958), becomes known to the audience as the camera pans from a mid-shot to a close-up of Lucy's face and she lets out a hysterical scream of terror.
However, the criminality of this other is also hinted at very soon. Corbett tracks him down hiding in a Mormon settlement. He is beside himself with anger after learning that the criminal is alone with little Sarah, a 13-year-old girl. In the next shot, Cuchillo is shown goofing around with the girl. Suspenseful music plays as the suspect invites the innocent girl to play in the water with him. In one sequence, he grabs her feet, even as she is reluctant, the next shot is an unclear view from a bush nearby, where the audience can hear the girl telling him to stop. ("No, no! No, don't.")
The very next shot however clarifies that he isn't attacking the child; at the same time, it shows that his attention is in the nearby bushes where Corbett is supposedly hiding. It isn't clear if he changed his tact after observing Corbett, or was merely goofing around.
But the scene goes on to establish a couple of things, firstly, that Cuchillo is still merely a suspect and hasn't done anything (on-screen) which should make one indict him and hunt him down like an animal.
Secondly, the scene ends by creating a moral dilemma in The Big Gundown's world. After saving Sarah, Corbett tells the Mormon preacher, "…At least, I got here before he hurt your daughter." The preacher is a bit surprised "My daughter? Sarah? Sarah is my fourth wife!"
This hunt and the dilemma act as a contradiction to the societal anger that develops around the central plotline, i.e., the tragedy of the young girl.
The assailant indeed needs to be apprehended and brought to justice, however, the manner in which Cuchillo is hunted down based on the testimony of just two men makes one understand the kind of world he lives in.
Cuchillo understands that Corbett isn't looking for explanations, he just wants to catch and put him to justice. ("I'll hunt you down and kill you like the rotten beast you are.") And given his status (Mexican and lower class), there is little chance that he'll get justice. His guilt is established by these very characteristic features. ("…They told you I was guilty and right away you start running after me. You are the beast because you didn't ask if it's true or not…")
The dilemma sits in the fact that in a story where this heinous criminal is being hunted down, an old man (The Mormon Preacher) is married to a 13-year-old girl. This revelation is meant to sting Corbett as well as the audience. Whereas we are following the tragedy of the young girl, another girl is blissfully married to a much older man. Thus, it is shown that such unions might find societal sanctity in some corners of The Big Gundown's world.
This is the same society that is to indict the poor Mexican for his criminal past readily. With these developments, the movie seeks to examine the very basics of a crime and how it's dealt with. For besides the obvious element of the criminal's psyche, there is the social structure (built primarily upon an economic system) that defines and punishes a crime.
Let us now retrace our steps and go back to the first time this tragedy is announced in the film.
Corbett was present at a wedding, where Brockston was goading him into harbouring senatorial ambitions. Brockston would love to have a strong ally in Corbett, since he has economic investments which need to be dealt with. The happy occasion is disrupted by the announcement of this crime.
Even as a posse is being built to capture the culprit, Brockston sees an opportunity in this tragedy.
He appeals to Corbett's sense of justice and ego to capture the Mexican. When the sheriff offers to make Corbett his deputy, Brockston directs the latter to take that offer. The bounty hunter, who has so far been established as a reluctant mover on his political ambitions, understands why Brockston wants him to wear the star. ("…shine brightly on your plans?")
The crime against the little girl has already been commodified. This commodification is educated by the unbridled capitalism which informs this world.
This economic system is further explored in the form of an event present in this film. Otherwise unrelated to the main plot, its significance lies in its ability to inform us about the factors which determine societal morality and the actions of characters in this world.
While escaping from Corbett, Cuchillo runs into a ranch that is owned by a beautiful widow (Nieves Navarro) and operated by her strong helpers. Corbett soon tracks him down to the place.
The ranch, which was the representation of hope and civilization in face of the peril posed by the Indian tribes in The Searchers; a space of peace, family, and cordial ties is built very differently by the writers of the film.
Instead of being the ideal American institution protecting the Western civilization, the ranch here sits in disarray. It’s very first appearance shows us the ranch-hands killing off another man (possibly a new competitor). They also bear grudge against the arrival of newer rivals such as Cuchillo and Corbett. The widow, for her part, doesn't seem to mind the new entrants. She even wishes for Corbett to stay and help her handle the farm. ("We need a man, a real man of strength, a man like you. Stay here, Corbett")
This conduct, however, is not a product of some arbitrary state of affairs. The relations which the widow-helpers share is not a permanent one but subject to changes in the manner in which the farm is handled. (i.e., Economic activities are carried out)
The widow, though, the owner of capital, doesn’t really have any means to keep an iron grip over the ranch-men.
To an outsider, it might seem that the ranch exists in a state of balance, but there is always a conflict. The ranch-hands would like to maintain their present status as workers with largely independent movement. The widow isn’t satisfied with the current situation and yearns for greater control.
The hands despise any newcomer (who can compete for the widow’s affections), but especially someone like Corbett, because he is offered a chance to handle the ranch. The erstwhile free ranch-hands are threatened with the possibility of a new master.
The ranch in itself, can be looked at as a mini-economy. Entry of someone like Corbett is not merely arrival of a new competitor in terms of winning affections of the widow. His arrival as an overseer/master etc. can change the very manner in which productive activities are carried out. He is an expert gun-wielder, who can control and re-organize the work of ranch hands.
If he manages to alter the productive forces of the farm, it can lead to social upheaval in the farm, and a change in social relations between the ranch-hands (workers) and the owners of capital.
There is a strong possibility that with Corbett’s arrival, their freedom (to do as they will) might be severely compromised. This fear is exploited by the wily Cuchillo, as he sets them up against Corbett.
This economic domination over social actions holds for other incidents in The Big Gundown's world as well.
Brockston's daughter is married to Chet, and Brockston continues with the union despite being aware of Chet's ways. This is so because it will help in the railroad project which will guarantee millions to Brockston. So, even though he might state that he loves his daughter and might even believe that he loves her, his daughter's marriage is no more than a commercial transaction.
In these circumstances, his daughter is no more than a commodity for trade. On the face of it, this is a familial relationship and a matrimonial event, however, in reality, this is a relationship Brockston must enter into, to ensure his economic survival.
What makes Cuchillo a condemned man?
Let us now return to the idea of crime in this world. While, it is a very black-and-white offense of assault and murder of an innocent child, which would enrage all of us; we are gradually informed that crime doesn't sit in isolation from other forces at work. Cuchillo has been easily derided and condemned as a rapist-murderer. This is based on the testimony of two men; but what if Cuchillo wasn't a poor Mexican with a criminal record? Would he still be given this condemnation without at least a fair trial?
With respect to his criminal record, there is an interesting schism between societal and legal judgment. Whereas the law is supposed to look at one offense at a time and decide on an individual's culpability, society gives an important place to an individual's past conduct in deciding on his guilt.
As stated earlier, in the matters of offence for which Cuchillo is accused, it is the fear of the harm that the criminal can continue to cause that forces the authorities/public to take swift action. This is but natural, and Corbett and others can't be faulted for going after Cuchillo with an intention to stop him from committing further offences.
But capturing Cuchillo doesn’t equate to assuming that he necessarily committed the crime.
This is where the other factors come in.
As a Mexican, Cuchillo is not only a representation of the other but also an outsider. This convergence is an interesting one. Any entity, identity, faith, etc. which is deemed disagreeable to one's way of life is deemed as an outsider.
One can see racist conceptualizations which seek to run an intellectual discourse on connecting crime and race. Thus, one sees terms such as 13/52, 13/90 across the internet. While, the purported intention is to warn against violent crimes, the real motive is to fan racial stereotypes or views.
Now, it is entirely possible that a crime is racially motivated but it takes a certain leap of common sense to reach the conclusions mentioned in the above paragraph. Even a cursory reading of fact-checkers on these concepts reveals an alternative understanding of the matter at hand, for instance, how poverty has an important role in crime.
No crime sits alone without an understanding of socio-economic elements or the psyche of an individual. Some might find it easy to indict Cuchillo based on his race; however, in truth, there is little racial unity on display in The Big Gundown. When Brockston is angered at Corbett's inability to capture Cuchillo, he rebukes him and tells him that now they'll employ Brockston's methods to capture him. ("…this two-bit Mexican won't get away from me.")
Brockston’s Mexican host isn't offended by the demeaning of these people, because after all he also intends to participate in the railroad project. When Brockston seems a tad bit concerned about his host's enthusiasm in acting against Cuchillo ("…I understand he is a Mexican just like you are…"), he reassures that there is an important difference between him and the likes of Cuchillo.
The class difference.
At an earlier stage in the same scene, Brockston doubts whether their Mexican host understands their language. But by the end of the scene, his triumphant face indicates that he and the Mexican ally are speaking the same tongue.
This class difference reflected through the poverty of Cuchillo is perhaps the most determining feature of his 'otherness' and what makes him an 'outsider' in society. The presence of a better class status could help him be in a better position in the economic system, which in turn, would change how the law deals with him.
It is also the powers that are bestowed in the hands of Brockston due to his class status, that he seeks to pull in all his resources to shut down this matter once and for all by hunting down and eliminating Cuchillo.
What is interesting is that Brockston has many ways of tackling with this threat, yet he necessarily chooses to silence him. To begin with there won’t be many takers for Cuchillo’s version, and with the money at his disposal, Brockston could buy the silence of a number of sheriffs and judges. However, Brockston is a hunter who enjoys his hunts. He has already gotten rid of an impediment (Chet’s friends) earlier in the movie.
But his impatience in dealing with this matter is informed by what could possibly happen if Cuchillo’s version is believed, even if chances of the same are minimal. The repercussions could make him lose his family’s trust, his reputation in the society will be tarnished, and most importantly, the rail-road project will go out of his hands.
Cuchillo's continued survival can be a threat to him and his family's prestige, goodwill, capital and existence.
Like Rosaria in A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani), who is ready to wield a gun and take on the bandits, because they threaten the continued wellbeing of her family (and their lands, which are means to keep Don Felipe's family rich and the peasants poor); he is ready to strike down Cuchillo by employing ten-fold or even, hundred-fold resources after the initial setback (i.e., Corbett's failure to capture Cuchillo).
How Corbett turned from hunter to saviour
Though Cuchillo mocks Corbett at one stage questioning his abilities, it is Corbett's very presence that ends up saving his life. ("I could've killed him several times, Brockston. But something seemed wrong…")
Instead of shooting first and then thinking which many would've done with respect to such heinous crimes, Corbett studies the situation and then makes his judgment. His reluctance, both in terms of his partnership with Brockston and this hunt for Cuchillo, is based on him assessing the circumstances correctly. This movie is as much about his journey and experiences which help him arrive at the right conclusion.
In the very beginning, he is confronted with the dilemma of little Sarah, and meets different characters from the wise and helpful to the rotten. He even uses the force of law to strike a man and forcibly seize away his horse to pursue Cuchillo. This action of his would've been given the name of stealing in any other circumstance. But given his socio-economic situation, and the badge of deputy, he can easily explain away this instance as him fiddling with the moral line but never crossing it.
However, he's soon made to realize how close he has come to give up on his beliefs. At a monastery, Brother ‘Smith & Wesson’ warns Corbett against crossing the line. Though he is talking about physically crossing the border to go into Mexico to catch Cuchillo, the spirit of his argument is that Corbett becomes as bad as Cuchillo once he crosses that line. And this isn't based on any legal instrument, i.e., the law Corbett will break by going inside Mexico, and trying to capture Cuchillo outside his jurisdiction.
So far Corbett's quest for justice has worn the shades of impartiality because he has acted under the guise of law, once he crosses the line it will become a personal matter, one where he will be without salvation. (Because vengeance will be his sole guide)
Brother Smith & Wesson, who knows quite a lot about men who carry guns, informs Corbett that in time a pistol's weight "…always changes a man."
Though Corbett doesn't quite quit his quest for Cuchillo, he still tries not to become a madman with the gun. Later, he seeks to use the assistance of the Mexican authorities and studies the conduct of his allies and Cuchillo carefully before arriving at conclusions.
His conduct and approach are a mixture of his efficiency- where Corbett, a flawless bounty-hunter, drives away any obstacle from his goal with his business-like perseverance, and his spiritual journey along the terrains of The Big Gundown- where he is made to acknowledge the many facets of life.
The Big Gundown is a study into how justice operates under the wheels of capitalism, and how this economic system plays a role in determining the position and attitudes of different characters in the world. For all of Cuchillo's bad luck, he is eventually pursued by an individual who is on a unique journey of his own and isn’t blinded by bigotry, pre-judgment, and hate.
Even when Corbett starts off by believing in the version of the ugly crime constructed in front of him, he takes a step back to read and understand the bigger (political, economic, and social) forces at work and tries to ascertain the real truth even if the majority won’t believe it.
This is what changes the game for ‘The Knife’ and their unconventional bond ends up saving the day in The Big Gundown.