Big Gundown: Deluxe Edition, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe loves this new Blu-ray and never, no never, no never lets them win...
Note: This review will repeat some information from my review of Blue Underground’s A Bullet for the General Blu-ray release, because it is difficult to separate the two films on contextual level.
Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is a notorious bounty hunter/pseudo-lawman with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions only after collecting his reward. His antics come to the attention of a powerful lobbyist named Mr. Brockston (Walter Barnes), who offers to back Corbett’s senatorial run in exchange for the capture of Manuel 'Cuchillo' Sanchez (Tomás Milián), a Mexican bandit that stands accused of raping and murdering a young girl. As the manhunt begins, the normally cool-headed Corbett is flummoxed by Cuchillo’s ability to escape his grasp and eventually starts to wonder if Brockston’s accusations might have been fabricated.
Towards the middle of the original spaghetti western cycle, filmmakers like Damiano Damiani and Sergio Sollima began using the genre as a basis for social/political allegories. Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s earlier films established a subtextual political slant, but they were more concerned with paying stylistic homage to classic American westerns than making statements. Damiani and Sollima established the ‘Zapata western’ subgenre with Bullet for the General (aka: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe? or just Quien Sabe?, a more appropriate title that translates to Who Knows?) and The Big Gundown (aka: La Resa dei Conti, which translates to The Showdown), respectively. Named for Emiliano Zapata, a famed Mexican Revolution general that stood alongside Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco, Zapata westerns are largely set during the Mexican Revolution, utilizing the historical conflict as an allegory for then-modern (mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s) left-leaning politics.
Despite the two films being released the same year, 1966, most historians/fans/critics credit Sollima's The Big Gundown as the Zapata subgenre kick-starter. The film is rooted in the success of Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965), the prototypical master & apprentice spaghetti western. This dual protagonist structure would become a common theme throughout future spaghettis and one of the defining traits of the Zapatas (something that followed through into Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). Securing Lee Van Cleef was the first step and, seemingly, the only one the Hollywood backers (United Artists) really cared about, because they mostly left Sollima alone during the production. For the younger half of his protagonist team, Sollima chose Cuban heartthrob Tomás Milián, who had just appeared in his first western, Eugenio Martín’s The Bounty Killer, the same year. Milián was cast in a Clint Eastwood-inspired role, but Sollima was dead set on making Cuchillo warmer and more likable than the monosyllabic Man with No Name. He also wanted his bandit to be comical creature and a valid representation of the Mexican culture that was challenging Van Cleef’s gringo bounty hunter, Corbett.
Cuchillo’s popularity led to a new genre character trope – the fool. Many dual protagonist spaghettis revolved around a mentor/student relationship Van Cleef and Eastwood established in For a Few Dollars More (Van Cleef was cast in a similar capacity in Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse and Tonino Valerii’s Day of Anger, both 1967), but, following The Big Gundown, Zapatas like Corbucci’s Compañeros (1970) and post-post-modern comedies, like Tonino Valerii & Leone’s My Name is Nobody (1973), began pairing outsider white guys (often older) with loose cannon bandit types. Just as Van Cleef made a career out of playing mentors, Milián became the prototype fool and even carried the character type into a series of poliziotteschi (Eurocrime) movies, though those characters were usually more of a lone wolf type.
Damiani’s Bullet for the General, which was released only months after The Big Gundown, doesn’t get the same credit as Sollima’s film. It’s often overlooked that Bullet for the General screenwriter Franco Solinas wrote the original story Sergio Donati and Sergio Sollima based their Big Gundown screenplay upon (he is not credited on the final print). It’s possible that both films were adapted from roughly the same source and that Salvatore Laurani, who (stick with me here) wrote the original story Solinas based the Bullet for the General script on, is the accidental mastermind behind the entire Zapata western subgenre. A long tradition of not crediting screenwriters, secondary directors, actors and even composers in Italian filmmaking renders complete crew recognition impossible, but it’s at least clear that Solinas is a connecting factor. His participation in both politically left-slanted projects makes perfect sense, especially considering he also co-wrote an Academy Award-nominated screenplay for the brazenly political The Battle of Algiers with director Gillo Pontecorvo ( also in 1966). Solinas wrote two more Zapata westerns – Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968) and Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa (also starring Milián, 1969).
Both The Big Gundown and Bullet for the General wear their politics on their sleeves. There’s very little subtlety behind the messages, even though the films usually take place something like seven decades before they were released. The major difference isn’t the messages, but how they’re delivered. Damiani’s film benefited from an appearance by Gian Maria Volonté – the villain from both Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More – but it was not a crowd pleaser. Its earnest melodrama and dark, ambiguous ending kept it from the kind of box office Sollima would generate with The Big Gundown’s more traditional approach. Like Leone, he plays on original genre conventions, masking the social commentary in a well-structured and often funny adventure story that works just fine without the subtext. 1966 was also the year Leone released The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (which has some minor plot points and character beats in common with The Big Gundown) and Corbucci released Django (which shares The Big Gundown’s desolate and muddy settings) and Navajo Joe, and Lucio Fulci released Massacre Time, making it a watershed year for Italian-made westerns.
Sollima’s early career was divided into three genre parts. First, he found success with a series of Eurospy movies – Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell (1965), Agent 3S3, Massacre in the Sun (1966), Requiem for a Secret Agent (1966) – before making a trilogy of spaghettis – The Big Gundown, Face to Face (1967), and Run, Man, Run! (1968). All three films starred Milián and are considered essential entries in the Zapata subgenre. Face to Face (aka: Faccia a Faccia) is a more solemn film than The Big Gundown, while Run, Man, Run! (aka: The Big Gundown 2) is a direct sequel that revolves around the further adventures of Cuchillo (minus Corbett). Following this, Sollima had arguably his biggest success with a pair of star-studded poliziotteschi – Violent City (starring Charles Bronson & Telly Savalas, 1970) and Revolver (starring Olvier Reed, Fabio Testi, and Ray Lovelock, 1973). Revolver wasn’t the biggest hit, but it might be the most mature and dramatically complex poliziotteschi I’ve ever seen. Both films must’ve also had an influence on William Friedkin’s The French Connection.
Like many Italian cult films, The Big Gundown has had a sordid release history in North America. It was originally cut from 107 to 93 minutes for its theatrical release stateside, then was cut further to 89 minutes for television (I’ve seen a decent print of this version on Turner Classic Movies). None of the three cuts have ever seen release on R1 DVD. In Europe, though, The Big Gundown has had a great release history, especially in Germany, where Koch Media released a special edition DVD and Explosive Media released a loaded Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Grindhouse Releasing’s new Blu-ray marks the first official US release on a digital format. Grindhouse – who theoretically built their transfer from scratch, not from Explosive’s version – has included both an ‘extended’ 95-minute US version and the entirely uncut 110-minute version, which includes a breif shot that was removed from the German release due to print damage. This shot has been reinstated on both versions here and is almost impossible to miss. From about 17:57 to about 18:06, the camera cuts over Van Cleef’s shoulder as Milián sneaks by him in the guise of a barber. This shot is fuzzy and appears to have been optically zoomed, because of the strange framing and increase in the size of film grain.
It’s difficult to choose one cut over the other, because each has its strengths. The Italian version is clearly the director’s preferred version and features a number of plot points that are glossed over in the shorter cut. Much of this is relegated to the beginning of the film (Corbett’s honor is much better established via a shootout ritual and a visit to the sheriff’s office) and this is the footage I miss most while watching the American version. On the other hand, the shorter cut still makes sense and the tighter structure makes for a more ‘efficient’ viewing experience.
The back of the box brags that Grindhouse has done a full 2K restoration of the 95-minute American cut and the results are absolutely spectacular. Whenever spaghetti westerns get a Blu-ray release, my immediate impulse is to compare it to MGM’s Sergio Leone releases. Those versions had larger budgets than Grindhouse, but their results were mixed, from the excessively grainy Fistful of Dollars to DNR’d The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Grindhouse has clearly cleaned the film of its more extensive print artefacts, but they haven’t erased the essential texture of the grain. Besides some random shots, details are even, limited more by the film stock and/or shallow lenses than Blu-ray production issues. The palette is more vivid and diverse than the largely yellow and brown, washed-out SD versions. The improvements are most apparent in the natural skin tones, a richer blue sky, and poppier greens and reds. Only the richest warm hues show any sign of macro-blocking effects. Contrast is dynamic, which helps sharpen the hue and detail differentiations during the film’s darkest moments. There’s a hint of haloing on some of the darker edges and some viewers might find the black levels a bit crushed, but neither really stand out to my eyes. The promotional materials don’t claim that the 110-minute cut was also restored via 2K scanning, but I really can’t see any difference in the image quality, even when I seek out the scenes deleted from the US release and when I’m looking at still screencaps.
The Big Gundown was the first of many collaborations between Sollima and composer Ennio Morricone. It also might still be the best. The opening title song, titled The Big Gundown on some soundtracks, but credited as Run Man Run ( Corri Uomo Corri in Italian[/I]) when accompanied by female singer Christy on vocals (a frequent Morricone collaborator that can also be heard singing ‘Deep Deep Down’ for Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik), is high on the list of Morricone’s most stirring themes. If the music isn’t done right, the entire film suffers, so the quality of these Blu-ray soundtracks are vital. I’ll start with the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English dub that accompanies the US cut and verify that Leone’s score sounds rich and warm enough to pass for a stereo track. There’s little distortion, even at the highest volume levels, making for a clear and immersive experience, compared to previous versions, which were muffled and kind of flat. The English language dub is a bit smoother than the Italian dub and features Van Cleef speaking with his own voice (ADR’d, of course). The lip-sync is constantly off and the volume levels alternate a bit, sometimes within a single sentence, but the crackle of aspirated consonants is limited.
The Italian dub that accompanies the other disc is generally the same in terms of musical fidelity and, though the lip-sync is still off and the crackle is a little harsher (these films were recorded without sound), the overall dialogue volume/clarity is a little more consistent. I can’t quite get over how inappropriate Van Cleef’s dubbed voice is, myself, which makes me wish that Grindhouse would’ve given the option for English dialogue on the Italian cut (besides the bits that are only available in Italian, of course). This was something Anchor Bay and Blue Underground had done with Italian releases for years and I’ve always found it was easy to get used to. On the other hand, the Italian track does feature more ambient sound in crowd scenes, creating a slightly more immersive environment. This version also includes a beautiful vocal choir that Morricone himself wrote as the Mormons first leave town. This sounds fantastic and effectively disappears into the background as characters begin speaking again.
Grindhouse has also provided a 2.0 Dolby Digital mono music and effects only track, available on the 95-minute cut and a stereo music only track on the extended cut.
The extras begin on disc one with an audio commentary featuring western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke. This is a friendly track that covers every nook and cranny of the production, along with the history surrounding the Italian film industry at the time, yet it rarely feels overstuffed, nor is it difficult to keep up with the discussion.
Disc one also features:
- Sergio Sollima Remembers The Big Gundown (29:00, HD) – An off-the-cuff 2005 interview with the director that covers his version of the genre’s history and some of the film’s behind-the-scenes tales.
- Tomás Milián: Acting on Instinct (29:50, HD) – A 2001 interview with the actor, who covers his entire career, including his stardom in Italy and appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
- Tagliatelle In Los Angeles: Sergio Donati Interview (12:00, HD)– A 2013 interview with the film’s writer, who discusses his career in spaghetti westerns with emphasis on the movies he made with Sollima.
- Sergio Sollima: Struggles Against Genre (28:00, SD) – An elongated version of a Sollima interview that appears on David Gregory’s 2005 documentary, The Spaghetti West.
- Another Sergio Donati interview (11:50, SD) – A slightly more personal interview with the writer from his kitchen table.
- Promotional still galleries
- Three trailers
- Five TV spots
- Sollima, Milián, and Donati filmographies
The Italian version disc features a text-based commentary (this mostly pertains to Morricone’s music, but also marks some of the changes between cuts) and trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing movies. All of this supplemental footage is great, but I was much more excited for the inclusion of the film’s complete original soundtrack on CD. The tracks have already been moved over to my iPod. I suggest not listening to the title track while driving. It makes you feel too heroic and you will speed.
Please also note that, even though I haven't added them to the DVDActive system, there are at least four Easter eggs hidden among the menus.
Having The Big Gundown on North American digital home video is a reason to celebrate all on its own. Grindhouse Releasing has done us many better by releasing a significantly improved HD transfer, the longer Italian cut for the film, a solid series of extras, and the original Ennio Morricone soundtrack. All things considered, this might get my vote for the most exciting Blu-ray of the year. Let’s hope Blue Underground can do something similar when they release Corbucci’s Compeñeros sometime next year.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 10th December 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English and Italian (separate discs), Music and Effects Tracks
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Two Cuts, Historian/Critic Commentary, Text-Based Musical Commentary, Sergio Sollima Remembers The Big Gundown, Tomás Milián: Acting on Instinct, Tagliatelle In Los Angeles: Sergio Donati Interview, Sergio Sollima: Struggles Against Genre, Bonus Sergio Donati Interview, Promotional Galleries, Trailers, TV Spots, DVD Copy (US Cut Only), CD Soundtrack
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sergio Sollima
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Fernando Sancho, Nieves Navarro
Genre: Action, Adventure and Western
Length: 110 minutes
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