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

A Fistful of Spaghetti: Killer Kid (1967) & Massacre At Grand Canyon (1965)

This column covers the Good, the Bad & the Mediocre of the Spaghetti Western genre. This entry is a double feature for two obscure Italian westerns; one contains a rare heroic turn for a popular Mexican actor known for his villain roles, and the other has a fascinating role call of behind the camera technicians.


Anthony Steffen (Killer Kid/Capt. Morrison), Giovanni Cianfriglia (as Ken Wood; Ramirez), Fernando Sancho (Vilar), Liz Barrett (Mercedes Hernandez)

Directed by Leopoldo Savona; Production Manager: Sergio Garrone

The ruthless and cruel Captain Ramirez hunts down and kills revolutionaries in his search for The Saint, the righteous leader of the Mexican insurrection against the Federales. Adding complications to Ramirez's pursuit, a group of American gunmen secretly steal weapons from US encampments to be sold to the freedom fighters. Killer Kid, the most dangerous gunfighter in the west, bides his time in a military jail. He manages to escape and soon ingratiates himself in the company of the elusive Saint ultimately joining them in their fight against Ramirez. However, one of the Saints men, Vilar, doesn't trust the American ace gunfighter whose motives and actions are shrouded in mystery.

"This film is dedicated to the Mexican people who in humble valor allowed for the birth of a modern, independent, democratic republic." So begins this 1967 Italian western; a Zapata shoot'em up whose only real political underpinnings are in that opening statement. With such a bold and patriotic statement to begin the film, Savona's movie never quite reaches classic status settling instead for a typical western affair saddled (haha) with a convoluted plot. The opening statement attempts to elevate the film with minor political underpinnings which are subsequently lost amongst the usual six gun shenanigans.

However, a handful of scenes are deftly managed by the director such as a nice scene involving the Kid and his love interest, Mercedes, the niece of the Saint. The Kid gives a grand speech about his change of heart in regards to the peasants who fight for a righteous and just cause. This scene is accompanied by a very nice romantic musical piece by composer Berto Pisano. There are a few other nicely orchestrated sequences that manage to lift the film above the average spaghetti sagebrush saga, but never quite proves itself worthy of the company of such noted classics as Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1967) and Corbucci's THE MERCENARY (1968). A fair number of characters and minor sub-plots litter the hot and arid landscape depicted in this picture. The title character, for example, is as complicated as the plot itself.

Anthony Steffen essays another one of his archetypal western hero roles which only required him to remain silent much of the time with an occasional sly grimace to carry his performance. He's best when playing characters such as these and as wooden as he often is, Steffen could turn such a performance to his advantage. Having starred in some 27 westerns, Steffen also displayed a good amount of flair in the quirky and fun A MAN CALLED APOCALYPSE JOE (1971) which, like KILLER KID (1967), was also directed by Savona. This is definitely one of Steffen's better movies. Like his other colleagues who enjoyed domestic popularity, Steffen crossed over into other genres for films such as THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (1971) and THE KILLERS ARE OUR GUESTS (1974). He will most probably always be remembered for his prolific career in Euro westerns.

Former sword & sandal actor/stunt man Giovanni Cianfriglia has a larger than usual role here as the main antagonist--Captain Ramirez. Cianfriglia is a strong presence during the first 30 minutes or so but then disappears midway through showing up for the bombastic finale. Formerly Steve Reeves's stunt man, he also got to play the main villain in HERCULES THE AVENGER (1965) in which he dueled with British born Reg Park. He did get to partake as the lead hero in the Italian superhero /spy action films SUPERARGO AGAINST DIABOLICUS (1966) and its lesser sequel, SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS (1968). Cianfriglia was gifted with a great look but although his career spanned 40+ years covering every genre, he never made it as a leading man, but remains one of the most recognizable faces of Italian genre cinema.

Fernando Sancho is a sight to behold here as Vilar in a role that's one of the best he was ever given. An unusual turn in that he plays a good guy and a somewhat complicated good guy at that. In addition, he gets quite a bit of screen time and mucho dialog almost taking the film away from Steffen with his lively and spirited portrayal of the anxious and hot-tempered Vilar. His characters name sounds like a variation of the word 'vulgar' and it suits him perfectly.

The film itself seems to have had a decent budget at least bigger than a lot of these movies. Savona and his cinematographer do a fine job capturing some great scope shots in addition to some well handled character interplay and several nicely choreographed action scenes. Although there are a couple of sloppy bits here and there such as one of the soldiers leaping from the blast from an explosion just before the detonation takes place. The hideout for Sartana's gang seen in BLOOD AT SUNDOWN (1967;no relation to the popular series character but also played by Gianni Garko as a villain) is used here for one scene after the insurgents have fled their initial sanctuary. That film, incidentally, also starred Anthony Steffen and may have been shooting at the same time as KILLER KID (1967).

KILLER KID (1967) is a slightly above average film with a number of elements to set it apart from the run-of-the-mill entries of the genre. A last minute script change cripples the film and is a bit jarring, but no doubt this was due to Steffen's prima donna behavior. The script contains surprisingly more intricate characters than generally afforded these movies and it's one of Steffen's better films of his career; not a classic, but worth the trip for spaghetti fans.

This review is representative of the R2 Koch Media PAL DVD


James Mitchum (Wes Evans), Jill Powers (Nancy), George Ardisson (Tully Dancer), Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Sheriff Cooley), Ferdinando Poggi (Ace Manson)

Directed by Sergio Corbucci
(Stanley Corbett) and Albert Band; Second Unit Director: Franco Giraldi; Camera Operator: Stelvio Massi; Music by Gianni Ferrio; Director of photography: Enzo Barboni

Returning home after two years of hunting down the men that murdered his father, Wes Evans comes home to take back his job as sheriff as well as find solace in the arms of his betrothed. Upon reacquainting himself with old friends who thought him to be dead, Wes learns that his girlfriend, Nancy, has married Tully Dancer in his absence. He also learns that a range war between the Dancer's and the Whitmore's over Red Grass Valley has resulted in bloodshed between the two factions. Although the land rightly belongs to the Whitmore's, the Dancer's claim the territory was tricked right out from under them. With the violence between the two families escalating, the neighboring town of Ariba Mesa is caught in the middle. The Dancer's decide that to take the Whitmore land, sheer numbers will not be enough; the might of the Manson brothers is recruited to seize Red Grass Valley. However, Wes Evans isn't about to let that happen.

Sergio Corbucci, who later found fame after further changing the European Western landscape with the release of DJANGO (1966), had his first go at the genre with MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1964). The polar opposite from his later western productions, the film bears more of a resemblance to the sprawling American western, a genre to which some 20+ European imitation westerns had already been seen on Italian cinema screens MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON being one of them. However, it seems Corbucci had very little to do with the direction of this film, although he was given sole screen credit; something that was a regular occurrence in Europe at the time. Incidentally, the plot point of two factions of warring families would also be utilized in Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), a device that was lifted from Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961).

Whatever his level of input actually was, Corbucci's penchant for maimed and disfigured characters does rear its head here--a man who lost his leg in a gunfight with one of the Dancer's after Harley Whitmore had sold him a plot of land on Red Grass Valley. Despite its rather plain jane approach to the form, the film is much bigger in scope than many of the countless Eur-oaters that followed. There's a livliness to the film that makes it a moderately enjoyable watch.

The film also seems to share a number of the same locations as seen in the popular German western WINNETOU films from Karl May. Enzo Barboni (who later went on to a successful directorial career himself) captures the beautiful vistas and mountain landscapes seen here which again, captures the flavor of the soon-to-be-replaced style of American western popularized by actors such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Speaking of John Wayne, there is a popular running gag in his 1971 film BIG JAKE whereupon everybody he comes into contact with says, "I heard you were dead". This gag was also implemented into John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) as an homage to BIG JAKE (1971) but the same gag is heard in MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1964) as a number of people say the same thing to Mitchum's character upon his return to Red Grass Valley and Ariba Mesa.

James Mitchum, the spitting image of his father, takes the lead here as Wes Evans. He seems confused most of the time but comes through in a number of scenes. It appears that James did not dub his own voice for this movie but would do so for THE TRAMPLERS (1966) directed by the co-director of this film, Albert Band. Mitchum doesn't have a lot of range, but makes up for it with charisma and the wiry actor handles action much better than others seen in these movies. Mitchum can be seen in the moonshine movie, THUNDER ROAD (1958) where he played the on screen brother to his off screen father, Robert Mitchum. He also featured in one episode of the US western show HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL (1962) as well as the shockingly bad schlockfest MONSTER (1979).

George Ardisson plays the villain, Tully Dancer and appears to indulge himself every second of screen time he has nearly stealing the film away from Mitchum whose name value is just barely enough to carry the film. Ardisson was great portraying bad guys but had a look that could lend him to playing protagonists, too. He also plays the heavy in Antonio Margheriti's atmospheric Gothic horror yarn, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964) and the sidekick to Hercules in HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961).

Giacomo Rossi-Stuart will also be familiar to fans of Italian cinema having appeared in just about everything from sword and sandal films (WAR OF THE TROJANS ;1962), to horror (KILL, BABY, KILL!;1966) and war pictures (CHURCHILL'S LEOPARDS;1970) among them. Stuart was a nasty villain in two films in Michele Lupo's gladiator trilogy, THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS and SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD (both 1964).

Far more interesting than the film itself is the behind the scenes staff. It's a veritable who's who of superlative Italian filmmakers. Viewers will recognize luminaries such as Franco Giraldi, the 2nd Unit Director here. Giraldi went on to his own successful career in westerns with the box office successes of SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS (1965) and the even more successful SEVEN WOMEN FOR THE MACGREGORS (1966), two films that predated the comedy western formula that would take over the genre in the early 1970's spearheaded by DP/director, Enzo Barboni.

Stelvio Massi serves here as a camera operator and would go on to a career as a head cinematographer. He would also undertake a successful career as a director most memorably in the Italian crime genre. The aforementioned Enzo Barboni would gain enormous fame after the Euro western would change yet again in 1970 with the release of THEY CALL ME TRINITY, a film that would not only resonate in Italy, but internationally as well.

Composer Gianni Ferrio contributed many scores for the genre but his compositions for MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON (1964) imitate the American style and aside from the main theme song and a brief cue here and there, the score never strays from the American western formula. Curiously, the film sports two different musical tracks as well as different sound effects depending on which track is selected on the Koch Media DVD. The English version sports the traditional sounding gunfire and other foley effects familiar to fans of the genre while the German track sports sound effects that are more reminiscent to US westerns.

While probably not for everyone, Sergio Corbucci (sort of) makes a grand entrance into the spaghetti western arena with a big, American fashioned entry that, while not indicative of his later works, foreshadows great things to come from the master filmmaker.

This review is representative of the Koch Media R0 PAL DVD.

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