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The Big Gundown (aka: La Resa dei Conti)
105 minutes 1966
Director: Sergio Sollima
review by Richard Bowden

If you thought Lee Van Cleef all but disappeared after playing a final, memorable, role in The Good The Bad And The Ugly in 1966, then this film will come as a pleasurable surprise. The Big Gundown was actually the first Van Cleef western after that masterpiece. In contrast to Eastwood, who made no more Italian Westerns but returned home to a starry Hollywood career, Van Cleef stayed on in Europe. While the relatively short-lived (1963 – c1969) spaghetti boom lasted, he made a few more relatively neglected films as a solo star in his own right – the best of which, like Sollima's, deserve to be much better known.
   In contrast to Leone's amoral universe, director Sollima was interested in creating a more committed, radicalised cinema, with much less regard for Western formula. Compared to his two other contributions to the genre (Face To Face (1967) and Run, Man, Run (1968), none of which feature Cleef), this film is the most immediately approachable to viewers used to Leone's work. Having said that, it still comes as a bit of surprise to experience the sense of anger and political awareness communicated through Sollima's co-written screenplay. Leone's 'Man With No Name' is just after gold, usually without real loyalty to any cause or clan. In contrast, Sollima's heroes regularly engage with society more fruitfully, and are obliged take a view on social justice. In this film for instance, Cleef's character is brought face to face with political expediency, economic exploitation and social prejudice.
   Cleef plays Jonathan Corbett, a bounty hunter offered a political office by the railroad baron Brokston - if he successfully hunts down the Mexican child murderer Cuchillo. At the beginning of the film, before taking this job, Cleef is 'neutral' in the Leone sense: he shoots down three outlaws who are gunning for him and (presumably) claims the reward. If this was a scene from one of the 'Dollars' trilogy, the actions of a bounty hunter would be their own justification. But now Sollima takes Corbett a stage forward, gradually making him conscious of the unjust society in which he moves and preys. The uncomplicated killing at the beginning of the film turns into a far more complicated, and significant, showdown by the end.
   Corbett doggedly pursues Cuchillo in turn through several layers of society: a peasant village, a Mormon camp, a petit-bourgeoisie ranch, and then into a revolutionary Mexico in the company of powerful men. Gradually he begins to understand the way his opponent thinks, and eventually they both end up sharing a prison cell together. Cuchillo then explains that his political past has made him a victim of Brokston’s hatred, and that the child sex murder case has been trumped up against him.


Corbett's gradual persuasion of Cuchillo's innocence, his 'education' in reality is, of course, the pivotal event in the film. Eventually Brokston and his sharp-shooting German bodyguard (a figure incidentally full of old-world arrogance and imperialism), his son-in-law Chet (who it turns out is the real killer), and some trackers, all combine with Corbett to finally hunt down the fugitive. This last chase starts tearing through a cane field - one of the most memorable climaxes in all Spaghetti Westerns. To Morricone's frantic music, Cuchillo is now pursued by men on foot and horseback, hounded like a wild animal, through the unharvested crop, then out onto the rocky hills where men (and motives) are exposed. In Sollima's film, this last, desperate, run becomes symbolic of a wider system and oppression, rather than just lawmen-after-badman. At one point, while his oppressors comb the landscape, the Mexican fugitive curls himself foetal-like in a crevice of rock - an apt posture if his personal misfortunes are actually the birth of something greater. At the end of the film Corbett's aid tips the scales and, to the stirring title music, the two ride off as comrades before separating, one North and one South. In these final few scenes, as they ride victoriously side by side then part, there is a strong sense of the two 'carrying the word' onwards - a feeling entirely in line with Sollima's philosophy.
   Sollima's somewhat elliptic and aggressive editing style adds to the disorientation and anger that this film is meant to convey. For instance, in the ranch episode, we barely see Cuchillo's theft, much less his discovery and exposure. Instead, there is a jump cut (rare in Spaghetti Westerns) to the punishment he is about to undergo, and the appearance of his persecutor. In this fashion Sollima elides any sense, or representation of, 'justice'. Its absence is mutely condemned.
   Of course, there is much more to enjoy here besides Sollima's radicalism. The earlier stages of Cuchillo's flight (like the child-bride incident at the Mormon camp) are necessarily episodic, but starkly memorable. Shot in 'scope, the film revels in the sort of dusty, widescreen composition so typical of the best Spaghetti Westerns at this time. Cleef is on top form, hardbitten, with a core of humanity. But perhaps Sollima's greatest achievement in this film is to introduce a polemic into a frontier drama, without alienating its characteristically conservative audience. It certainly still holds up well today.

Richard Bowden

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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