‘The Big Gundown’ or — Bugs, Elmer and… American Foreign Policy?!
Sergio Sollima’s ‘The Big Gundown’ (1966) is one of the most unusual, atypical and unique Italian Westerns I’ve ever come across as whilst the set-up and structure — bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) must track down and capture the murderous Cuchillo (Tomas Milian) before he can escape back down into Mexico — is a generic, episodic chase tale everything Sollima and co-writer Sergio Donati hang off this slender and flimsy narrative is anything but frivolous and lightweight.
So as Cleef chases Milian and Milian gives Cleef the slip like a couple playing flirtatious love-games we’re treated to everything ranging from sadomasochism to religious hypocrisy, surrealism, the effects of the violence of war on a population, pop art imagery, political manipulation, electioneering, sexual perversion, the fluidity of identity, a subverting of gender roles, Vietnam, the Italian resistance plus the effects of U.S. foreign policy on South America. And that’s only just some of what’s going on here.
Not only that but the film is constantly, and mischievously, subverting every single Western trope and cliché it can get its hands on. This is most apparent with the journey Cleef’s character undergoes. At first he’s viewed, and views himself, as the hero who sticks steadfastly to the law, yet every time he intervenes in the name of justice he invariably makes every situation he stumbles into a million times worse (cough — Iraq?) to the point where even he starts to wonder if, in a wonderfully played moment of psychological shock, he might not be the good guy after all. In that respect it’s got an almost ‘I am Legend’ vibe running throughout and even though it doesn’t follow that idea to its logical conclusion (the movie, wisely, opts for a more upbeat ending rather than a depressing downer) it’s riveting to see Cleef’s bounty hunter experience actual growth and change (a rare thing in an Italian Western).
Tomas Milian’s Cuchillo is also given surprising nuance and depth with us, at first, finding him utterly repulsive only to end up… well, I won’t give too much away but it’s a load of fun discovering the truth about this ruffian and what he represents.
This continuous subverting of expectations and pulling the rug out from under our brains combined with a brisk pacing means ‘The Big Gundown’ blasts along at a furious rate of knots and always leaving you wondering what piece of unexpected novelty it’ll hit you with next.
A great example is when the film suddenly makes an extended detour into an isolated ranch that, at first, seems to be nothing more than the den of a gang of outlaws only to then be revealed that it’s actually the crazed sex-pen of an insatiable dominatrix (the way her dirty, rugged, kowtowed boys begrudgingly serve her guests tea like servile chamber-maids is hilarious). It’s like a sort of fucked-up version of Sam Fuller’s ‘Forty Guns’ (1957) or Lang’s ‘Rancho Notorious’ (1952) where a matriarch commands a harem of men except Sollima takes this concept to ridiculous extremes. It’s also one of the few Italian Westerns I’ve seen where sex and lust are actually at the forefront as opposed to being sublimated or simply ignored and that was something I found invigoratingly refreshing.
Visually the film is a full-on pleasure with it containing some wonderful compositions, clever camera moves, gorgeous landscapes along with some excellent costume and set design by the great Carlo Simi (there’s a chair decorated with some spectacular embroidery that Cleef sits in at one point that I was particularly taken by).
‘The Big Gundown’ is fantastic. It’s compelling, exciting, humourous, beautifully made, seriously smart, constantly subversive and like no other Spaghetti Western I’ve seen. Indeed, it seems to have more in common with the left-leaning political satires of, say, Elio Petri than anything by Leone. Yet for all the intellectual, psychological and cinematic games being played it still works exceptionally well as a straight forward chase movie. It just so happens to be one that’s packed to bursting with all manner of delirious and delicious delights.