Vigilante justice ran rampant in the wilder pockets of the West. While honest, founded lawmen strode through the dusty plains, there were those few who took justice and righteous actions into their own hands. For good or for ill, Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), is one such man. The Big Gundown follows this unofficial judge, jury and executioner as he cleanses the lands of villainy. Tied to political popularity, his hard-nosed style and unofficial ambitions fall to the wayside somewhat so he can pursue the aristocracy that has taken him under their wing. Old habits die hard, of course, The Big Gundown follows Corbett hunting down a Mexican criminal, who has murdered a girl and fled the scene.
Key to this role is the reverence and fear held for Corbett. His appearance and the message of justice he cruises along with are stuff of legend to the vagrants and small-time tyrants occupying the dirty towns and refreshing forests. While it may steal much of its finale and build-up from For a Few Dollars More, the intervening moments of Corbett uncovering the truth of a horrid murder is more than enough to separate The Big Gundown from the films it looks to borrow from. Should it be much of a surprise that a Cleef-led western borrows from his heroics elsewhere? No, not particularly. The spaghetti westerns at their height of popularity stole and appropriated several key themes throughout its tenure at the top. Cleef just happened to be there in the eye of the storm, following up narrative themes of justice, with threads of chilling, cold-blooded murder to help it along the way.
Not uncommon to a Cleef-starring western, The Big Gundown offers strong writing and stronger performances. Tomás Milián and his seemingly antagonistic role as Manuel “Cuchillo” Sanchez provides much of the necessary narrative growth, especially in the early moments. Not wanting to spend too little time with him, director Sergio Sollima offers some comedic turns that feel relatively out of place. They don’t quite ruin the pacing, but they do nothing to serve the severity of the story. Brutal humour follows, taming a bull and being thrown around as if he were performing a stunt from Jackass feel rather out of place considering the brilliance of tense shoot outs and well-rounded, morally grey characters.
Dirtier and darker than other westerns of the time, The Big Gundown follows a just man pursuing an unjust monster. His lead is confused, the crimes he cries out for are far removed than that of his real charge, yet, to some degree, Corbett is justified in hunting the man down regardless. It all stems from their initial, sudden encounter, and the manipulation of others that finds them fending off one another for a great deal of the first act. The Big Gundown only gets better from there, with fantastic staples of the genre given an effective flourish that, if anything, will provide Cleef fans a wholly good and endearing role, rather than one that has been submerged in villainy and self-interest.