Cox’s Orange Pippins: Lee’s Rough Rider

THE BIG GUNDOWN is a really fun Italo-oater directed by Sergio Sollima and written by Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi and Sergio Donati, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian in the leads.

Alex Cox, who writes favourably about the film in 10,000 Ways to Die, is a big Bunuel fan, and I perceived a Bunuelian parallel with this one: Van Cleef is hunting Milian’s Mexican rascal, who is accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl. It’s basically The Fugitive, in terms of the plot dynamic. What’s surprising is that the movie doesn’t let us know that Milian is innocent for quite a stretch of the runtime. The parallel is with Bunuel’s excellent, underseen THE YOUNG ONE, which does the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD thing of having a Black man falsely accused of rape, but in this case confuses our feelings by not revealing his innocence until halfway through or so. In his memoir, Bunuel may be misremembering the film when he credits himself with making the Black man both good and bad — in fact he’s good, but we’re not allowed to know this for a while.

While we might guess, based on the incidences of misogyny in the genre, that the filmmakers figured their protagonist’s guilt was unimportant, but I don’t think that’s credible: Leone might shrug off rape on several occasions, but not child murder. I think it’s a bold and interesting strategy — our sympathies are with Van Cleef, we’re curious about Milian, and our negative attitude to him is undermined then reversed.

Not that the film isn’t breathtakingly cynical. At one point, anti-hero Cuchillo falls in with a Mormon wagon train — the weather immediately gets overcast and muddy. Van Cleef tracks him down and seems to be on the verge of rescuing the Mormon leader’s fourteen-year-old daughter from almost certain overfamiliarity. After Cuchillo has escaped, Van Cleef learns that the girl is actually the leader’s fourth wife.

Of the writers, Solinas, who co-wrote SALVATORE GIULIANO for Franco Rosi and BATTLE OF ALGIERS with/for Pontecorvo, wanted to write a political western, and succeeds subtly. Morandi was AD on that film, and they both went on to write Joseph Losey’s M. KLEIN. And Donati worked for Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. So it’s a really interesting mix of people (Italian movies seem even more apt than Hollywood ones to feature whole football teams of writers).

All this background comes from Cox’s book, where he says that the Solinas-Morandi draft conceived the Mexican fugitive as older, the American pursuer as younger — a Tuco-Blondie set. Sollimo and Donati flipped the ages so that Lee Van Cleef could be Corbett and Tomas Milian could play Cuchillo, young and reasonably attractive under the obligatory stubble and dirt,

The film should be political, but the references to Cuchillo as one of the “dogs of Juarez” don’t add up to much. And as Cox observes, for a tale of American adventurism — Corbett follows Cuchillo into Mexico despite it being out of his jurisdiction — it all turns out very nicely. Of course, Cuchillo is innocent (as charged) and the corrupt rich dude (Walter Barnes) and his son who’ve sicced Corbett on him are really to blame. Which is an implied social criticism, anyway. Spaghetti westerns are good that way — the villains are often wealthy businessmen and politicians who play with toy soldiers.

The chase story allows for picaresque developments — there’s a weird episode involving a sadistic female landowner (Nieves Navarro as “the widow”) who is so beyond-pathological she seems more like a character from Greek myth — someone Odysseus would have some trouble with. And Van Cleef’s realising that Milian has been framed coincides with a miniature political awakening in Mexico, where he’s reduced to the status of prisoner and pauper. And there are entertaining novelties like the Austrian duelist, complete with monocle, who LVC has to square off against.

Cox rightly appreciates the plotting, stating that it deploys “genuine reversals rather than the contrivances of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.” Sometimes I wonder if he even likes Leone, but in fact he’s just clear-eyed about his weaknesses: tackling the DOLLARS films and OUATITW, he’s both extremely critical and wildly enthusiastic. Anyhow, the twists in TGTBATU may be contrived, but they make the contrivance amusing — Clint being saved from hanging by a cannon-blast that destroys the entire building is a bravura moment and I can’t understand anyone not enjoying it. Van Cleef being tricked into thinking a rattlesnake has bitten him, so that Milian can escape, is clever, but still depends on the serpens ex machina showing up at just the right time.

Cox is a very opinionated commentator, which can be bracing, but he baffles me when he (rightly) praises Morricone’s score, then (wrongly) complains about the “hideous, screeching vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, and the diabolical song, ‘Run, Man, Run.'” I first knew this movie via its soundtrack, several tracks of which appeared on the LP of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY I bought when I was twenty. Enjoying Dell’Orso’s soprano seems to me a necessity if you’re going to appreciate spaghetti westerns in general and Morricone scores in particular. Cox obviously finds enough to enjoy without liking this component, but I can’t help but feel he’s flat-out wrong and ought to WORK ON IT. Personal taste is a weakness we should all strive to overcome. I like this and I don’t like that is what keeps us from broadening our minds. The only thing a canon is good for is leverage to convince us we might be missing something.

I also like the song — I like Morricone’s pop arrangements too, and I like the naked emotionalism of it. That’s a key part of the Italian western thang — deeply cynical stories about horrible violence, venality and casual betrayal, with soaring, romantic music. I think it’s also part of why English-language critics not only disliked the films for their inauthenticity and sadism, they were thrown by the weird two-tones-at-once approach, and concluded that the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing.

RUN, MAN, RUN is also the name of THE BIG GUNDOWN’s sequel, starring Milian sans Van Cleef, which I plan to watch.

THE BIG GUNDOWN stars Angel Eyes; Django; Porthos; Emanuelle; Zorro; Yevtushenko; and Stevens.

12 Responses to “Cox’s Orange Pippins: Lee’s Rough Rider”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Bravo, D.C! It is about time somebody took on Cox and your excellent critical review does this as well as interrogates the film superbly. As I’ve said before, Kevin Grant’s ANY GUN CAN PLAY is THE TEXT in this field. Also Sollima like Questi, fought in the resistance and the story was based on a real-life incident when the arresting officer actually killed a suspect he knew was innocent. I’m trying to track an interview Sollima gave about his past. Like the poliziotesschi, several of these Westerns do reflect actual incidents.

    http://filmint.nu/any-gun-can-play-essential-guide-to-euro-westerns-tony-williams/

  2. Thanks for that! I hope it’s clear that overall I like Cox’s book.

    I’m trying to track down the Grant book but it’s sadly quite rare.

    The one real-life incident I was aware of as inspiring an Italian western scene was thr massacre in the caves outside Rome that gets transposed to Mexico in Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! Alexander Mackendrick was involved in filming the trial of those involved, which turned into a riot and lynching — all caught on film, he claimed, but then the footage was lost.

  3. I’m always on the lookout for new westerns to add to my watchlist — this sounds really interesting. Lee Van Cleef in a starring role is definitely a plus!

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, The Grant book is now out in a second edition since the publisher sent a review copy to me last year.

  5. Yhe Grant book has just been revised and re-released contact Fab Press.

  6. “Personal taste is a weakness we should all strive to overcome. I like this and I don’t like that is what keeps us from boradening our minds. ”
    Note to self: Take the thought. Leave the typo. This resonates in light of some music-related discussions I’ve been involved with elsewhere: taste as a stumbling-block on the road to joy.

  7. I’m fixing the typo! Grammarly is supposed to catch things like that!

    Contacted Fan Press! We’ll see if I have the clout to get a review copy!

    Hope you enjoy the film, Shadow&Satin. It may be the best of LVC’s leading man roles.

  8. architekturadapter Says:

    I agree with your considerations about the song “run man run” and your point about the misunderstanding of (some of the) musique in spaghetti westerns by critics.
    There’s an interersting “deconstruction” of the main title by John Zorn (far from the Mireille M. interpretation – thanks for this one DE) :

  9. I love Zorn’s Morricone manglings, even more eccentric than the originals but just as fun.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I think Zorn’s generally great, but he normalizes Morricone.

  11. Well… normalized Morricone is still pretty far out.

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