The Big Gundown review
As a proud member of the Spaghetti Western Database forum I always give a rating on the site for every Spaghetti I watch. The ratings take the form of a simple 1-5 stars and until now my system has always been straight forward. 1 and 2 stars are awarded for awful or under par films, 3 stars are for solid, run of the mill, enjoyable fare, 4 stars are for the very good and 5 stars are strictly for Leone. This system is based on the fact that as much as I enjoy films such as Django, The Grand Duel and others, the work of Sergio Leone defies comparison and acts as a benchmark for excellence. No matter how good a film is it is unlikely to ever achieve the overall brilliance of the maestro and, as such, 4 stars is as much as you can get from me. To put it in a nutshell, there is Leone, then there is everybody else.
That system has just changed.
After years of trying, I finally got to see The Big Gundown (La Resa Dei Conti) and all bets are off. True, I have had the very good fortune of viewing this film on a big screen, with surround sound, in Italian (with english subtitles I hasten to add) at the Venice Film Festival so it would be fair to say the setting has been ideal to say the least. But I can honestly say that if the film hadn't been up to scratch none of the above advantages would have helped it. I also saw Navajo Joe at this festival and although I enjoyed it I wouldn't rank it as one of the better films in the genre. No, in reality The Big Gundown didn't need any help. It is a wonderful film from start to finish and is a testament to what can be achieved in genre film making with the right personel and the right approach. It is, in short, a 5 star film.
As it dawned on me that this was the case while I was watching the film I began to try and pinpoint exactly why it was making such an impression on me. There are, as you would expect, a number of reasons.
Sergio Sollima's direction is, of course, excellent. He employs stunning visuals without quite reaching the extreme style of Leone. Using instead thoughful framing that helps to heighten the tension of the story while always remaining interesting and innovative. But Sollima also outshines Leone in one key area which helps lift this film to its high level. His characters are genuinely multi dimensional and are shown to develop along with the storyline.
Now to be honest, as much as I love Spaghetti Westerns, character development (a key element in most adult drama of any worth) is not a feature commonly displayed. And Sergio Leone's films, as brilliant as they are, are no exceptions. They are memorable for their striking imagery, expert matching of visuals and soundtrack and their tight as a drum action sequences. His characters, however enjoyable, tend to be the same people at the closing credits as they were at the opening. They are cool but not neccesarily complex.
The Big Gundown is a different animal entirely. Of course we still have the exagerated gunplay, or knife play in this case, that we all love. And Lee Van Cleef's steely, gunsight eyes are just as piercing as ever. But during the course of this story his character, Jonathan Corbett, is forced to question his own actions and motives and ultimately to change his course. And the reason for this turnabout is the gradual uncloaking of his adversary's persona. A persona brilliantly portrayed by the ever dependable Tomas Milian.
Regular readers of these reviews will already know that I am a big Tomas Milian fan but I do not hesitate in saying that this is his finest work in the genre by far. His Cuchillo is both amusing and touching; showing a real depth of character rarely seen in genre films in general, let alone Spaghetti Westerns in particular. He plays the lovable rogue to perfection; never allowing his inner sadness to travel far from his face even when laughing in the those of his adversaries.
Credit must also go in no small part to Sergio Donati who penned the screenplay for laying out the framework for Milian and Van Cleef to play on and for Sollima to interpret. Donati has a long and illustrious list of writing credits in this genre to be proud of from For a Few Dollars More to A Fistful of Dynamite and Face to Face. The Big Gundown could easily be his best.
And last but not least, there is the spectacular soundtrack from Ennio Morricone; proving once again that he is the absolute master of the Spaghetti Western musical score. Driving, moving and dramatic his music here never fails to match the mood of the action and story and propel the audience into the world of the characters. The man is without peers.
So, you might ask yourself, if this film is so good, why has it taken a Spaghetti Western fan as committed as me so long to get around to seeing it?
The answer is simple. I have known of its reputation and wanted to see it for many years but have been constantly frustrated by the fact that it has had no DVD or video release in any english speaking market. It has never to my knowledge shown up on TV in the UK or been screened at any rerun cinemas. This, in spite of the fact that it appears in every top ten Spaghetti list ever published and is lauded by any fan who has ever seen it. And still to this day, no company has seen fit to give it life outside of Germany and Japan where it is offered for sale at prices which prohibit any normal mortal from being able to purchase it without selling at least one of their offspring into white slavery. In fact, I would still be ignorant to its wonders if I had not been lucky enough to wrangle this trip to Venice in order to see it. This, in my opinion, is a travesty of cultural justice of the highest order and should be raised in parliament at the very least.
But in the meantime, take my advice. Whether you have to beg, steal or pirate it. You have to see this film. It truly is one of the all time best and can stand shoulder to shoulder with almost any of Leone's work. And you can't get a greater recommendation from me than that.
--Phil H 12:53, 10 February 2008 (CET)