Helmed and penned by Sergio Sollima with co-writing by Sergio Donati, The Big Gundown is a rollicking spaghetti western. The 1966 film is sometimes considered a “Zapata Western” in that it functions as a political allegory, with a particular focus on the everlasting conflicts between the wealthy class and the peasant class.
Sollima’s flick isn’t afraid of getting a little loud, with the blaring and colourful opening credits making an immediate impression. The title song is apparently called “Run, Man, Run!” and features the singer Christy belting it at the top of her lungs in a rendition that recalls some of the wilder 007 themes. The Ennio Morricone score takes off from there, blasting the viewer into the world of The Big Gundown.
Lee Van Cleef stars as Jonathan Corbett, a famed bounty hunter who is almost set to retire when the tycoon Brockston (Walter Barnes) wants to hire him in a political capacity to help ease the construction of a railroad from the United States to Mexico. At a wedding party for Brockston’s daughter, Corbett is tasked to track an accused rapist and murderer named Cuchillo (Tomas Milian).
Corbett finds that tracking Cuchillo is more challenging than he anticipated. He gets close a few times and even converses with the Mexican rogue, who chastises the bounty hunter for immediately believing in his guilt. Cuchillo continues to head to Mexico, while Brockston turns to other forces to accomplish his goals.
The Big Gundown tracks its characters through various border towns and trails, settling in at the homestead of a widow (Nieves Navarro) with several working men in her employ. She’s a hot number and she attempts to seduce Corbett, but he ain’t having it. He refers to her as a “Queen Bee” and suggests that she’d never be happy with just one dude. He’s probably right.
Other characters paint the landscape of Sollima’s world, including Antonio Casas as Brother Smith and Wesson. The monk is so named because of his awesome skills with a gun. He demonstrates his talents for Corbett, then tries to dissuade him from his pursuit by telling him that crossing the border to Mexico makes him no better than the man he tracks. There are moral costs, after all.
Van Cleef plays Corbett as an intensely determined man and that’s a good thing. He’ll stop at nothing to bring in his man, but there are some skeletons in his closet. Cuchillo is right when he accuses him of not stopping to think about guilt or innocence, which speaks to Corbett’s inclination to trust the wealthy, “proper” members of society over dirty rotten rogues.
Milian brings energy and fire to Cuchillo, playing him as an amusing scoundrel. He’s introduced with a 13-year-old Mormon girl, which immediately arouses moral suspicions. But when the identity of the young woman is revealed, the comic underpinning of the scene becomes apparent along with a neat little stab at Joseph Smith’s followers.
Corbett and Cuchillo play a fun game of cat and mouse throughout The Big Gundown and Sollima has them gradually develop mutual respect. This comes in handy when the true nature of Brockston is exposed and when the heinous “Baron” (Gerard Herter) steps into the spotlight. Corbett and Cuchillo have more in common than they realize.
The Big Gundown is criminally overlooked, but it really does deserve placement alongside the films of the Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. It has the political weight and the raw skill, with Carlo Carlini’s cinematography coming up with some really stunning stuff. A scene that puts Corbett inside a house taking down a horde of bad guys makes great use of the windows, for instance.
Featuring a gangbusters performance from the marvellous Tomas Milian, some dynamite shootouts, gorgeous cinematography, a scorching Morricone score with one hell of a theme song, and more than a few sizzling babes, The Big Gundown is a treat for Italian western fans.