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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Euro Western Cinema Classics: A Bullet For Sandoval (1969) review


George Hilton (John Warner), Ernest Borgnine (Don Pedro Sandoval), Alberto de Mendoza (Lucky Boy), Leo Anchoriz (Friar Converso), Gustavo Rojo (Guadalupano), Jose Manuel Martin (One Eye)

Directed by Julio Buchs

The Short Version: One of the best of the latter period Italian westerns and one of the darkest. George Hilton's finest performance, he was often confined to less serious, comedic portrayals, but delivers a grandly tragic showcase of a soldier who has lost everything and decides to take it out on those he feels are responsible. A very good western picture for fans and newbies alike.

John Warner, a Confederate soldier, learns that his girlfriend is soon to have his baby. He deserts his regiment the night before a great battle to be by her side. Captured and about to be executed, he escapes with the help of two friends. Upon his arrival at Sandoval's home, he learns that she has died giving birth to their child. Her father, Don Pedro Sandoval, blames Warner for her death. He forces him to take the child, sick from an outbreak of Cholera, to leave and never return. The child dies soon after. Grief stricken, Warner swears revenge on Sandoval and forms a gang of vicious thugs and deserters. The group rampage across the land until the fateful meeting with Sandoval. During a violent battle, the military corner Warner and his gang in a coliseum for a final, grim showdown.

Hilton, who seemed to be more at home in overly silly comedy westerns such as ANY GUN CAN PLAY (1967), MAN CALLED INVINCIBLE (1973) or playing less than serious roles in MASSACRE TIME (1966) and RED BLOOD, YELLOW GOLD (1968) occasionally dabbled in serious roles like THE MOMENT TO KILL (1968) and THE RUTHLESS FOUR (1968). But here, he evocatively portrays a destroyed and broken man who has nothing left but hate. The scenes leading up to the moment Warner joins "the Dark Side", you get the impression he has tried very hard to do the right thing but people around him refuse to allow it. Most notably Sandoval who holds nothing but contempt for Warner. I would assume this is to be a racist angle since Sandoval is a Spaniard and Warner is American.

The outbreak of a deadly disease is unusual for this type of film and adds a desolate, hopeless backdrop to the films first half. After that, it becomes a revenge story with lots of action and shootings. The first half is undoubtedly very dramatic and grim leading up to the point where Warner totally decides there's nothing left to live for, but hate and revenge. This downward spiral begins when Warner tries to get the occupants of a small town to give him some milk for his sick child. The villagers refuse when they learn the baby is sick from the Cholera outbreak. Warner goes over the deep end.

This point is fully realized as Warner buries the dead infant leaving his humanity behind and "living" only for revenge not just against Sandoval, but against mankind. If the Army had only granted him the chance to see his girlfriend a final time, if the town had only helped him save his infant and if only Sandoval had accepted him then maybe things would not have ended up the way they did.

Hilton is excellent in this role and perfectly captures the melancholy and dread you would expect for a man who has totally lost his sanity. Even though by this point, he is clearly not a hero nor an anti-hero but you still feel sympathy for him regardless even in the face of the cruel events he participates in. Much has been made of Warner's and Sandoval's final confrontation. The title, "Bullet for Sandoval", is a bit of a misnomer. When the two finally meet, they engage in a knife fight above a holding pen housing a rampaging bull.

Sandoval is mortally gored by the animal and Warner just watches as the bull mutilates him. First, the films original title is not A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL, second, by allowing Sandoval to be mauled by the bull, the hate within Warner is visualized further. Instead of putting a bullet into Sandoval, relieving him of a more violent, less dignified death, Warner decides to watch his hated enemy succumb to the powerful weight and fury of the wild bull.

Borgnine is also very good as the somewhat unhinged Don Pedro Sandoval. He has nothing but hate for Warner which is incited further with the death of his daughter. Even though I felt he was totally wrong for the part as he doesn't sound anything at all like a Spaniard, he was probably chosen for his marketability from the controversial THE WILD BUNCH (1969). The ending when the last four desperadoes march right into their doom is reminiscent of Peckinpah's finale.

Regardless of the peculiarity of him playing a Spanish patriarch, Borgnine does a fine job making you despise him. Sandoval and Warner share a lot in common in the film as both lose everything over something so minuscule. All because Sandoval refused to accept him as a husband for his daughter, many lives were either destroyed or lost throughout the films running time. In fact, the remainder of the cast is made of similarly lost souls such as cutthroats, deserters and a fallen priest who all join Warner's band of killers.

The ending is handled quite well as the military finally catch up with Warner and his band cornering them inside a coliseum. The group are surrounded in the center with the soldiers lined all around in the seats of the arena. Realizing there is no escape, the gangsters go out guns blazing ending the film on a major downer. Interestingly, the original Italian poster gives the ending away, but there's little doubt as to how it will end up what with all the tragedy from start to finish. The score by Gianni Ferrio succeeds in enhancing the gloomy aura put off by this Italian-Spanish co-production.

Director Buch's perfectly captures an atmosphere of dank hopelessness and dread not only by filling his movie with sadistic, heartless characters, but also the presence of Cholera which assists in the frightened nature of some of the individuals in the movie giving weight to their actions. In fact, the film begins unlike a typical western appearing at first glance like a horror film as we see a field littered with corpses and a man cutting a ring from a dead man's fingers. Buch's film seems to revolve mostly around the nature of hate and in that he succeeds as everybody seems to hate somebody in the movie. It's not a perfect film by any means and the final third of the film never quite matches the downbeat theatrics of the opening 30 to 40 minutes. This isn't to say the latter portions are any less good, only the action scenes take over peppered with the earlier, more despicable nuances.

Supposedly, it was rumored that Fulci co-directed this film with Buch's but that has been found to be just that, a rumor. Fulci directed five westerns total and this wasn't one of them. The US DVD is quite nice quality-wise, only it's missing something like 10 minutes. Mostly dialog, the cut scenes are present on a Spanish VHS, but from what I understand, add immeasurably to the exposition. Hopefully, a new version will surface with this additional footage as it could only enhance this already unappreciated and highly recommended gem, one of the last and best, serious spaghetti westerns.

This review is representative of the VCI DVD

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