When Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), in a famous scene from La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown, Sergio Sollima, 1966), places three bullets on a log for three bandits who are chasing him, we can immediately guess the outcome. But this is not a sort of bravado move, a manifestation of superior dexterity or an act of mockery; rather, this is how the outstanding character of Corbett seeks justice, and it is what will determine his disposition for the rest of the movie: the idea that everyone deserves a chance. There’s a noble quality behind the tough exterior of this gunman that makes this a particular kind of feature: one that subverts ideas of bad guys and good guys, relativises several things along the way and always keeps its central struggle interesting. This is a film about the decency of a man fighting against injustice and political corruption – a good metaphor for the hardships Italy went through during Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, a period that was particularly important for Sollima.
What makes this film one of the best spaghetti westerns out there is both of its main leads’ character development. Yes, we have bullets and knives flying, the spectacular landscapes and the usual tension that the best of the genre can offer, but Sollima bet on a script that allowed its characters to be unique. Corbett might seem like a trigger-easy vigilante – a man eager to kill, just a hard presence with a gun – but, as the movie goes forward, we’re aware of how his character not only struggles to understand his nemesis, but how he also gets personally involved with him and his particular history. Cuchillo (Tomas Milian) may seem like a clumsy, funny evildoer, but his background as the target of a political plot, a scapegoat and an abused man is also discovered through the film. This gives the viewer a unique perspective on what is initially a chase for justice but soon turns into a struggle for the ultimate rebellion: one against a greater power.
A moral landscape: the symbology of the three bullets is fundamental in order to understand the motives behind Sollima’s work. If Corbett has to be an avenging vigilante, he will give a certain number of opportunities to whomever he will, in the end, put a bullet between the eyes of. This is why he misses several chances to catch the bandit, and, in the end, winds up being helped by him before becoming his accomplice. For Corbett’s character, it is neither the number of bullets nor how fast he is able to draw his revolver that is most important; it is his obsessive search for justice, a fixation that, somehow, doesn’t eclipse his views on what’s wrong and what’s right. Cuchillo (one of the best roles by western favourite Millan) is vindicated at the end, even when, in our eyes, in the worst moments, he does seem to be an evildoer, a rapist and a thief. Such a vindication also places Mexico on the map, as if Sollima were making a western for our current times, seeking to stand up for the less powerful.
But what makes this particular film one of the best spaghetti westerns out there lies beyond its political commentary: the way that Sollima films the Spanish landscape is just remarkable. This constant tension between men and environment is particularly effective when the guns are drawn and the bullets fly: it’s a necessary break from a desert that tries to devour everything inside. Carlo Carlini’s cinematography (in gorgeous cinemascope) draws on the best elements of the landscape to place particular emphasis on the struggle of the individual. In addition to one of the score by Ennio Morricone, one of the master’s best – this makes for a experience unlike any other in the history of the genre.
In the light of current events (especially in the United States), the film seems all the more relevant today. Mexico might seem a no-man’s-land where the law is absent and violence is rampant, but on the other side of the border lies the real danger: a place of political corruption, deception and lies. By the end of The Big Gundown, the immigrant’s real value has been discovered, and the plot has unravelled. In a post-truth era in which immigrants are treated as the biggest danger within developed countries, it serves us well to reconsider our take on those people, especially when they are a fundamental part of the machinery that runs the engine of any given country.
It’s also particularly refreshing to see the women in Sollima’s as multidimensional characters who work as their own agents. The Widow (Nieves Navarro), in charge of a group of bandits, is a seemingly despicable woman with a thirst for violence; however, deep inside, she is effectively alone, begging for some sympathy out of Corbett, some sort of companion for her inner loneliness. Elsewhere, there’s Sarah (Maribel Martín), the Mormon girl who seems playful and innocent at first, but who’s able to draw a rifle and shoot a bandit when she needs to; or Cuchillo’s wife, Rosita (María Granada), as mischievous as her husband, a prostitute worthy enough to protect her husband at the worst of times.
Whether we take Sollima’s masterpiece as a great political comment on the times or as one of the most endearing, action-packed spaghetti western films of the 1960s, one thing is sure: with The Big Gundown, Sollima places himself at the side of masters Leone and Corbucci, with his own unique patent in one of the most noble and exciting genres there is. Three bullets for three dead Sergios: men who will always be remembered for their unique contributions to the history of cinema.
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La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown, 1966 Italy/Spain 110 min)
Prod. Co: Produzioni Europee Associati, Tulio Demicheli P.C. Prod: Tulio Demicheli, Alberto Grilmaldi Dir: Sergio Sollima Scr: Sergio Donati, Sergio Sollima (from a story by Franco Solinas and Fernando Morandi) Phot: Carlo Carlini Ed: Gaby Peñalba Mus: Ennio Moriconne
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Luisa Rivelli, Fernando Sancho, Nieves Navarro