The Big Gundown (1966)

Genres - Western  |   Sub-Genres - Spaghetti Western  |   Run Time - 100 min.  |   Countries - Spain, Italy  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Bruce Eder

Most critics who didn't know any better used to dismiss the so-called "spaghetti westerns" of the 1960s as nothing but gory shoot-'em-ups. Sergio Sollima's La Resa dei Conti (aka The Big Gundown) shows, as much as Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, precisely how unfair that assessment was -- and while it might lack the scope and ambition of that Leone movie, it's just about in the same league in terms of the rewards that it offers. Even in it's heavily edited US version, which is missing 20 minutes of the original 105-minute Italian release, this movie is chockful of meanings and messages, as well as a lot of heart and even some humor (albeit of the "gallows" variety, once quite literally). Lee Van Cleef, fresh from his two Leone pictures (For A Few Dollars More andThe Good, The Bad & The Ugly), turns in a powerful performance as Jonathan Corbett, once a lawman and now a bounty hunter -- and the top man in both fields in his part of Texas -- who discovers that the powerful people who want to make use of his talents are actually more dangerous than many of the men he has been hunting. It is the mid-1870s, and the robber-barons of the southwest are asserting themselves and their wealth -- Walter Barnes' Mr. Brockston is just such a man, who has linked up with his opposite number in Mexico in hope of building a railroad that will link the two countries (and make Brockston and his allies even more powerful). But Corbett, sent by Brockston to bring in a Mexican criminal (Tomas Milian) who is wanted for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl (and is expected to bring him in dead) soon discovers that not all is at it seems -- that the man he's hunting, whatever else he may have done, may not have committed those particular crimes; and that this semi-official man-hunt may be hiding a much more sinister truth about Brockston and his family. He also discovers that the wealthy Mexicans treat their peasants, including the man he is hunting, worse than animals or slaves; and that Brockston isn't different from any of them, in terms of the people who work for him, including Corbett. It's all a reminder to the lawman (and the US audience, at least), of what it means to be an American, and the meaning of our revolution and the promise that the United States should offer to its neighbors and to people all over the world. Of course, this serious message -- which lies just beneath the surface -- is presented with a furious and graceful assembly of violent and exciting actual sequences, often laced with humor, which was what most audiences were paying to see back in 1967, when it opened around the world. They got a lot more than they bargained for, and the movie holds up astonishingly well, today regarded -- along with Leone's Clint Eastwood trilogy -- as among the finest of the spaghetti western genre. Indeed, seen decades on from its origins, The Big Gundown now compares favorably with such American-made genre classics as Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (with which it shares some aspects of its message). The Italian version, which runs considerably longer, has more depth and also more sustained violence -- that 105-minute edition was shown for the first time (with subtitles) in the United States in June of 2012 at New York's Film Forum, as part of a month-long retrospective on Italian westerns.