The Big Gundown BluRay review
Review of the 2023 Powerhouse Films Indicator Series release of Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown on BluRay.
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Jonathan Corbett (Lee van Cleef) is a professional bounty hunter with ambitions to turn his fame as a law and order man into a seat in the Senate. With the help of industrialist Brokston (Walter Barnes), he agrees to run. But Barnes makes his support conditional on hunting down a man, Cuchillo (Tomas Milian) who allegedly raped and killed a girl. Corbett agrees and sets out. He starts his hunt through Texas and Mexico, often missing Cuchillo by a hair, catching him and losing him again. The cat and mouse game provides ample opportunity for the peon to confront his chaser and give him food for thought. As he gets closer to the crook, the businessman and his gang (especially his foremen) get involved in the hunt themselves, and Corbett suspects that Cuchillo may not be guilty after all. Signs of this are mounting and he starts suspecting that he may be chasing the wrong man. To add to everything, the unscrupulous Austrian Baron von Schulenberg (Gerald Herter), a Brockson ally, has set his sights on Chuchillo, in a manner of creepy sportsman like joy of hunting, so the question is who gets to the Mexican first and what happens if Corbett isn't the first to take down the would-be criminal. With the chase nearing its finale, his suspicions harden and Corbett sides with the right one at the last moment to bring down the real killer in a big gundown….
The Big Gundown was Sollima's first entry in the spaghetti western genre - and what an entry. La Resa Dei Conti (The Settling of the Score, as it is called in the original) is a western full of suspense, great performances and unsurpassed music, a large-scale manhunt wrapped in great spaghetti western stylistic elements that aren’t trying to hide their reverence for the American idols. Milian and Van Cleef, two superstars of the genre, face to face (get it?) in this brilliantly directed film that can count itself among the A-grade of spaghetti westerns. The film is a must-see, fan or no fan, and in its uncut version, this masterpiece unfolds its true strengths. Even after repeated viewings, The Big Gundown loses none of its charm, because although the story is actually quite simple, Sollima manages to grab the viewer and Morricone’s music does the rest, as the hunt unfolds and the score is ultimately settled.
Among the things that make this movie stand out so much is Milian’s screen presence and the archetypal character played by van Cleef as his counterpart. It’s like a summit meeting of spaghetti western protagonists, and one that is a lot of fun. Milian playing the ragged bandit as if that’s what he was put on his earth to play (he’d reprise this character just shortly after in Run, Man, Run) while van Cleef creates his own monument as the great spaghetti western legend, Corbet being arguably the quintessential stoic gunfighter with a sense for righteousness but an even quicker trigger finger. Even though the script is excellent and full of smaller gold nuggets, from the gun wielding monks to Cuchillo’s charming wife to be, what probably hurts it a bit are the villains, which range from the somewhat bizarre Austrian sniper to the drunkard rapist, and next to Brokston, some one dimensional Mexican bourgeois financier or something. A bit more Baldi-esque drama in its conclusion wouldn’t have hurt, with the movie ending too upbeat and the story not taking a gloomy enough turn for my tastes.
The Big Gundown excels in its pacing, with little Odyssey-like episodes and encounters sprinkled throughout this chase of a movie, culminating in the two heroes riding off and saying goodbye in the dunes while Cristy’s “never never never” blares from the speakers. You find yourself with spaghetti western goosebumps and smack dab in the universe of the greatest of the genre and disappointed both that the movie is over and that Cristy was never hired to do a James Bond title song (what a crime). And lastly, as so often, it is the music that gives the film that special something. From Cristy’s bone chilling opening title song, which is probably unsurpassed in its rousing nature, to Morricone’s themes for different aspects of the plot and recurring themes in various alterations (the title theme is also played at the wedding, Cuchillo at one point whistles it, etc.) this movie is a prime example to the point of the spaghetti western being inseparable from its music and as is the case here, quoted the world over, giving this movie a life of its own in terms of cultural impact.
Powerhouse Films finally brings this bad boy to the UK within their Indicator Series of beloved classics. It comes with a reversible poster and an extensive booklet of about 80 pages of new and old writing on the film (which I didn’t have at my disposal for this review, but you can see some pictures of in our forums) and houses two discs. This edition is limited to 5.000 copies, I suspect a reprinting will lose disc two, the poster and the book. It's a Region B release. The major differences compared to the US release are the extras on the one hand, and the opportunity to watch the uncut version of the film with the remaining English dub enabled, on the other. And yes, no soundtrack CD or DVD version (who needs those).
The picture quality of this disc is – aside from the fact that it’s identical with the US release in this regard (and probably also identical if not very similar to the German BluRay, however I have heard some say the German disc is slightly inferior) – pretty solid all things considered. It is unfortunately not a new or even expensive 4K re-scan and restoration of this classic (this should be done at some point I think, hopefully sooner than later), but the 2K scan this is based on from 2012 is still quite solid and while not as eye popping sharp as some more recent restorations demonstrate the progress of restoration technology to be, it’s a satisfactory presentation of this film and it looks the part even on larger screens (which have the bad habit of making flaws more visible). Weaknesses are visible in some parts where the picture clearly is too bright, and there are a few shots and sequences where the restoration or the underlying material is obviously of lesser quality. But this is no news, as this was done in 2012. All in all: great, and sufficient, but I hope someone revisits this classic to make it fit for the UHD age at some point.
Same with the sound, and I always lamented the single channel mono considering Morricone’s great soundtrack. The only thing left is to blow up this track across all your speakers. It sounds fine, no hissing, crackling or anything, with some sufficient dynamics, but overall of course doesn’t quite deliver a theatrical experience as the monaural track here shows its limitations. The same applies to the Italian of course, both rather similar but neither knocks it out of the park. There are newly translated subtitles on here, however the hard of hearing kind is only on board with the shorter cut, so I assume the new translation is the one made for the Italian audio (including for when you watch in English, so for just the missing parts). The US release did not offer an option of watching the clearly preferable uncut version of the film with English audio. The English dub does not exist for the entire length of that version, but with a few bits and pieces left subtitled (like the German BluRay and DVDs have always done it) it is the better and in my opinion only true way to enjoy this movie.
The other versions butcher this movie and reduce The Big Gundown to a dumbed-down (especially regarding background and socio-political context) shoot-em-up, a small gundown, even though there’s not a whole lot of cutting that was done. Now, the “extended US cut” restores three scenes that were not seen in its US theatrical run but had been dubbed elsewhere so that’s the longest you can see this without subtitle interruptions. I believe these are two scenes with monks and Cuchillo in bed with his wife. These three aren’t in the “dumb down” category however. The rest of the stuff missing compared to the original cut have a lot to do with Corbet’s background, and the Barnes conspiracy, some of the politics involved and the treatment of the Mormons, among other things. In a nutshell: essential bits that make this story what it truly is, without it, it gets reduced to a chase and gunfights. Depending on which version you watch here, you get either the English or the Italian opening credits sequences by the way.
There are some really cool, and also new extras on this edition. First off, there’s Austin Fisher’s video intro on the context, symbolism and allegory of the film. Stephen Thrower is on there twice as well, with his two presentations building on Austin’s thoughts and going into the history, politics, symbolism and background of the film. All three clips together make for a fantastic background on the movie of course, in addition to what the commentaries and liner notes have to offer. I like that both try to go beyond the screen and more into context, which is something that’s often missing from American perspectives on movies, which tend to stick closer to what’s happening on screen (I’ll get back to that). From the US edition, a few (but not all) features are carried over: The well known Milian interview is of course great. Re-watching that brought me great joy, he is such a character. The Sollima featurette is also not new and an important historic document. You can see the verified list of all the features and technical specs of this disc on our overview page. In addition to the commentary track by C Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke on the extended US cut, which was included on the Grindhouse Releasing disc, there’s a new one here with Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman which covers length of the Italian theatrical version (you cannot chose which commentary to watch with which cut). The Joyner/Parke commentary is well informed, entertaining and enthusiastic. Joyner certainly dominating this track somewhat, which is often rather scene specific but at the same time often goes beyond what happens on scene. It’s a very well made track. Enlightening also beyond the movie and the specific stuff on screen, with many anecdotes and background on the industry or rather the distribution landscape at the time and the impact of the movie. The Forshaw/Newman commentary on the original version is actually the third track on Sollima movies, the other two they did were for the Eureka discs of Run Man Run and Revolver respectively (see also my review of the former). This one is not always as scene specific and of course the challenge here is to say something new about the movie, so on average their lively chat tends to go more towards how we look at it more retrospectively and the film’s impact or wider context, whereas Joyner and Parke stuck much closer to the scenes and the film’s reception when it came out. One factor to consider here is that here we have two Brits discussing a film, and with some caveat also two commentators that as far as I understood it may not have seen this theatrically originally. I found it to be much more analytical and reflective, rather than observational, than the older commentary and a refreshing perspective that to me showed a bit of a pattern here. With some exceptions I find US commentators to more often than not look at a piece of art more isolated, whereas European commentators are quicker to take a bird’s eye view and consider wider contexts and meanings. I may be wrong, but it reminds me a bit of sports commentary. Personally, I am less interested in how they shot this or that scene than knowing what it means, and why it was written the way it was written and what it may have to do with Sollima’s stint as a film critic, and so on. Both, however, great commentaries, and I devoured both in one sitting. There are a few more extras on here, like trailers and galleries.
Now, it’s not a perfect release (hardly any home video releases fit that adjective). As similar as this product is to it’s US-”uncle”, it is a bit of a shame not the entirety of that edition’s extras have been carried over. I don’t mind the soundtrack CD missing (who listens to CDs?), but there are some Donati and Sollima interview bits and possibly some other minor things I forgot, that are on the US-release but not on this one. So that’s a missed opportunity to create the perfect release, for sure. The image quality is not a homogeneous experience, and it has nothing to do with what was cut and what wasn’t, but it’s simply a 2012 job, and restoration tech has gone a long way since then. It’s a marvelous package all in all, a must have for any fan or newcomer, and that of a film that I consider not just among the best spaghetti westerns but also a personal favorite, a movie that offers the best of what spaghetti westerns could be and at the same time was remarkably American in a lot of ways, probably one reason it was so successful overseas. The Big Gundown deserves to be seen and re-watched on a big screen with the volume turned up, and what a time to be alive: now you can pair it as a double feature with Run, Man, Run. Verdict: Buy this.
- Buy now: From Amazon.co.uk | From Amazon.com.au | From Amazon.it | From Amazon.es
- See also: Run, Man, Run BluRay review
Written by Seb, published January 31, 2023. Screenshots scaled down, and humbly borrowed from bluray.com. The BluRay discs for this review were provided by Powerhouse.