A Bullet for Sandoval (1969)

Dir: Julio Buchs - Cast: Ernest Borgnine, George Hilton, Alberto de Mendoza, Antonio Pica, Gustavo Rojo, Leo Anchoriz, Anabella Incontrera

A Bullet for Sandoval

During the Civil War, Confederate soldier Hilton becomes a deserter when he wants to be with his Mexican fiancée, who's about to have his baby. When he arrives at her parental home, the girl has died in labour and Hilton is told by her father (Borgnine) to take the baby and leave the premises immediately. In the meantime a cholera epidemic has broken out and when farmers refuse to give milk to the baby, Hilton loses his child too. Outraged by grief and anger, Hilton assembles a marauding mob and starts terrorizing the region, both sides of the border, challenging both the Confederate Army and Borgnine to hunt him down.

Made relatively late in the European western craze, A Bullet for Sandoval clearly tries to breathe new life into the genre. Both Hilton and Borgnine are presented as two-dimensional characters, influenced by the people they travel or live with. At first Hilton seems the hero of the movie and Borgnine the villain, but Hilton's behaviour is quite extreme, even for an anti-hero, and we learn that Borgnine really loved his daughter and that he is a man of honour, who doesn't want to break his word. Like Phil H. has pointed out on his weblog Son of Django, the film's story is more in line with classic Spanish drama, that is concerned with redemption rather than bloody vendetta Italian style. Actually the film was not meant to be a western at first, but an adventure film about Spanish bandoleros, bandits that were active on the Spanish country side during the campaign of Napoleon in the Iberian peninsula. The script was originally based on a tale called Los niños de Ecija, with some elements taken from a folk tale called Los siete Bandoleros. I guess Spanish moviegoers, familiar with those tales, would have had a lot of sympathy for Hilton if he had been presented as a bandelero, after all those bandoleros were some kind of 'resistance movement'. But with the prospect of an international release, the producers decided to transfer the story to the American-Mexican border, causing much confusing among international audiences.

The film seems influenced by Peckinpah too. There are many flashes of Mexican street life, the gritty opening is reminiscent of Major Dundee, and the violent conclusion will most certainly remind viewers of The Wild Bunch. It's unlikely that director Buchs had already seen Peckinpah's film (completed shortly before), but Borgnine might have told him about it. Borgnine spoke some Spanish and according to Hilton he became good friends with both him Hilton, and director Buchs. Many sources list Lucio Fulci as co-director, but that is a mistake: Fulci was not involved in this Buchs movie, but in another one: The Man who killed Billy The Kid (1967).

Both the melodramatic opening and the anti-heroic conclusion, set within and around a bull-ring, are well-directed and exciting. The knife-fight between Hilton and Borgnine, and (especially) the subsequent scene with Borgnine trapped in a bull's cage are gripping highlights. Hilton, better known for his more light-hearted parts, gives one of his best dramatic performances and Borgnine even overcomes the handicap of his nationality; he is virtually the only American in the cast, so it seems bizarre to pick him to play the Mexican Don, but he plays his part so fanatically that most people won't have trouble to accept him. Still, A Bullet for Sandoval is a rather uneven film. The script is so convoluted that halfway the movie a voice over is added to explain what is exactly going on (and some of Hilton's henchmen are). In this aspect it is of course not very helpful that all available releases are cut, some of them quite drastically. The best way to watch the movie is the VCI disc; it's not uncut, but you'll be able to follow the story and the film is presented in widescreen.

The English title, 'A Bullet for Sandoval', is quite bizarre: watch the movie and you'll agree with me that 'A BULL for Sandoval' would have been more appropriate. The Spanish title 'Los Desesperados' is more appropriate (it's a film about desperate men), but not very spectacular. The Italian title is a bit over the top, but certainly spectacular: Quei disperati che puzzano di sudore e di morte (Those desperate men who stink after sweat and death).

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