The last few days have seen much talk from everyone about 'fake news', and media attacks centered on the politics of personal destruction. This is hardly a new phenomenon in human history. Even Pope Francis earlier this week spoke of scandal-mongering as a sin to which all of us are susceptible. When it becomes a problem with people in positions of responsibility, real damage can be done.
Media in the past often dealt with these themes in film. Our feature film for this weekend is one of the better ones on this topic. It is a Western from 1966 titled The Big Gundown and stars stalwart Western actors Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian.
Van Cleef plays famous Texas Ranger turned bounty-hunter, Jonathan Corbett. The film opens with Corbett delivering one his most famous lines "It's a bad day for outlaws,' before bringing four fugitives to justice. Corbett returns to town a hero; and is invited to a party hosted by a railroad tycoon named Brokston. Brokston hopes to interest Corbett in becoming a Senator and introduces him to his influential friends, including Baron von Schulenberg, his personal bodyguard who's killed 23 men in a duel.
The party is interrupted by two local men who announce that a 12 year-old girl has been found brutally raped and murdered. They claim that the murderer was 'Cuchillo' Sanchez (played by Milian), a former soldier in Benito Juarez' revolution, who's taken refuge in America. Sanchez is a rather shady character and flees towards Mexico. Brokston offers Corbett the Senate nomination and a handsome reward if he captures Sanchez; and so the chase is on.
Corbett finds Sanchez to be his most formidable quarry; and the pursuit soon becomes personal on two levels. One is Corbett's professional honor and reputation for always getting his man---which Sanchez doesn't make easy, escaping Corbett's grasp more than once. The second is Corbett's personal sense of justice and morality. His encounters with Sanchez throughout the film begin to make him suspicious as to the Mexican's actual guilt. The film then takes on both the aspect of an adventure and a mystery. Is Sanchez really guilty, or the victim of 'fake news'? Corbett will have to catch him to learn the truth.
The Big Gundown is rated by Western film fans as one of the best ever, though not as famous as some. The characters are realistically drawn---especially Tomas Milian's---and the viewer can really follow and empathize with both his character and Corbett's. It actually spawned two less-famous but still above-average sequels.
Corbett's character in particular evinces a much-maligned quality in some circles today: a desire for social justice. In contemporary Manosphere quarters, a Social Justice Warrior is a pejorative term. In fact, there are several scenes where Corbett's character is contrasted against the Manosphere 'Alpha' archetype and shows that our forefathers, at least, considered justice to be a positive aspect of masculinity. Milian's character is that of a once-idealistic revolutionary turned fugitive; and the directors skillfully progressively portray how society dehumanizes him (especially in scenes that cast doubt on his guilt). In all but one of Sanchez' escape scenes there a dehumanizing aspect involved: first, he assumes a false identity, second he begs like a coward; third involves an encounter with a rattlesnake; another he is made to wallow in a pigsty; and the last chase scene has him running through a field before mounted horsemen like an English foxhunt. In the one different escape scene, he tells Corbett:
"Yes I run, but can I stop running long enough to explain myself without getting killed? Let me tell you something: something that will give you a big laugh. I didn't kill that little girl. But it so happens, I know who did---and you will know too, if you don't know already. And when you learn that, you'll be the one who's running. And you'll see it was a lot more fun when you're the hunter than it is when you're the prey."
Mystery, adventure, action---great musical scores and a strong moral message, it's hard to find a better Western than The Big Gundown. This is a rare film of its genre in an epoch when amoral heroes were first being introduced into Westerns (and action films generally): a hero seeking justice for its own sake is a refreshing change. The film is available on DVD but not currently on any free-download sites.