Blu-Ray Spotlight: A Bullet for Sandoval
VCI releases this Italo-Spanish spaghetti western starring George Hilton and Ernest Borgnine.
Fans of Italian spaghetti westerns will be either peripherally familiar at the least with other neighboring countries’ efforts in getting in on the genre game after the decline of those pictures in the US, in this case Spain with Julio Buch’s A Bullet for Sandoval, or known overseas by its original title, Los Desesperados.
Sandoval is the latter of three westerns helmed by Buchs, and is considered in most circles to be his best if not most interesting. George Hilton stars as John Warner, a confederate soldier who learns of his girlfriend’s pregnancy and deserts his company to marry her before she gives birth. Her father, Don Pedro Sandoval (played by Ernest Borgnine) despises John and does not approve of their union. However, the town she stays has been stricken with an outbreak of cholera and has been taken along with many other townspeople. John takes their son and goes on the run in an attempt to raise him, enlisting the help of other roaming individuals who join in with John’s desire to enact vengeance on Sandoval for his transgressions against him.
Sandoval is a film that cannot be truly discussed without broaching the highly depressing points of its story that move its plot forward; addressing the ever-present and increasing probabilities of death and its apparent lack of concern for the innocent or deserving then allows beats that mostly get treated as “spoiler moments” for most filmgoers to flow past that label. I say this because the film doesn’t truly become a revenge western until after John Warner’s flight from his late girlfriend’s residence, newborn in tow, and then even some time after when the child is found to also have been afflicted with cholera and passes away.
This is the ignition point for John and what makes him dig his heels in and recruit others for the sole purpose of putting Don Pedro in the ground. In his commentary track for this release, director Alex Cox illustrates that it takes inspiration from the 1936 American western The Three Godfathers and reverses it, which makes it far more interesting than just a simple revenge picture based on a feud the audience is told exists without seeing a prior origin point. And the treatment of death as stated above never becomes less probable for anyone in this story. By the end credit scene A Bullet for Sandoval proves itself as really quite an unsung hard-hitting masterpiece of the genre, albeit endlessly tampered with in post production with the original intended cut by Julio Buchs sadly most likely lost forever.
VCI presents A Bullet for Sandoval in anamorphic 2.35:1 from a 4K scan of the original uncut negative. The uncut negative in question is more of a compromised cut between the US version and scenes from the original Spanish version added back in, although as much as could be found. It must be noted here however that there was talk of this release including two different cuts of the film. There is in fact an English and Spanish language version, but the length of each version remains the same at 101 minutes.
The image presentation is very pleasing to look at, but the scan quality doesn’t entirely seem to be as robust as what 4K scans typically look like. For comparison on the same disc, I switched between the opening sequence of the film and an extra included of the original Spanish cut’s opening and found the details and overall look of the Spanish version clip to be markedly superior. Colors resonate deeper, especially blacks and dark blues, and the decaying greys lay on top of its palette in an alarmingly vibrant way while still portraying a more than believable lifelessness.
The film’s look, other than the alternate opening, is very much in line with this look and attitude, however its colors are more muted, almost murky, and some details come across as a smidge fuzzy. This may no doubt be the result of the print used and as such refers to the slightly more vibrant look of the alternate opening, although that is a nighttime sequence and it’s unclear how its daytime sequences may have looked in comparison. However, this is more of a nitpick as it is the first time this film has been released on a high definition format, region free no less.
One more note: in switching between different audio tracks both on the menu and during the film, there was some noticeable jittering of the image that isn’t part of the print’s minor present jump cuts. This may have been the disc overloading the memory of the device I was using, so as a cautionary reminder it’s recommended that you restart if you are the type to jump into a commentary track right after the film is over.
As is present on the uncut negative, VCI presents Sandoval in two linear PCM mono tracks: an English and a Spanish dub, with one optional English subtitle track that can be used with both language tracks. The Spanish dub presents the elements at the time of recording for Spanish-speaking audiences, but the English dub is partially patch-worked. Most of it includes the original dubs that the actors performed at the time of the film’s release, but in including previously cut scenes and sequences, brand-new dubbing and sound design had to take place to make this release work.
The new portions of dialogue recorded for the English dub is unfortunately immediately noticeable and partially distracting, sandwiched between parts that were not previously cut out of the film. It’s magnificent that such a project was undertaken but some may wish a little more care and homogeneity between the actors voices was observed in the recording process. The sound design and Foley art is seamless, however, and fits more in line with the film’s mono audio mastering whereas the replacement dubs punch up louder than the existing ones. The balance between the score, Foley, and dialogue are otherwise ideal and dialogue is presented in a manner that is perfectly intelligible.
This release of A Bullet for Sandoval comes with a few special features, most of which have been mentioned above as it pertains to the film and its experience. Here is the complete list of extras on the disc:
- Commentary with Alex Cox, Actor, Director, Writer and expert on Spaghetti Westerns and director of Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986): Cox has quite a command of the subject of Italian and Spanish westerns and dispenses much of what he knows about Sandoval during its runtime. The commentary track is less constant throughout and more like sitting down with Cox as certain things he sees and hears brings up topics that could either be just a short tidbit or a longer period of speaking during the film. He talks at length about the intricacies of how many times the film has been altered once director Buchs had moved on from it, and also mentions the process of how the English dialogue recording came about.
- Original Spanish Opening: A remastered clip of the very beginning of the film, from a 4K scan of its elements and including the original Spanish credits, including the title Los Desesperados (3 mins 19 sec)
- Original US Theatrical Trailer (2 mins 29 sec)
A Bullet for Sandoval is a film that a simple blind buy with an affinity for westerns in general may not be enough. But familiarity and enthusiasm within revenge westerns more specifically bleaker, like those in the vein of Django (and its numerous spinoffs) would be a more reliable indicator of whether Sandoval will thrive on your shelf.
It’s a curio of sorts for the Ernest Borgnine fans, as the legendary character actor plays the titular villainous character but with doing some partial stunts on camera. There is a knife fight between Sandoval and Warner on top of a narrow walkway about the bull cages in a bull ring that is one of the best sequences in the film. This is also Borgnine’s only Italian and Spanish western film appearance.
The bleak nature of the film does not in fact stand in the way of what unfolds as a transgressive masterpiece in the world of spaghetti westerns. Casual viewers will enjoy the simplistic approach and mildly violent moments, and with the inclusion of previously absent scenes there raise some questions surrounding where some characters have come from. But as this is all there is left of the original film it’s a marvel that we have as much of it as we do. This release comes highly recommended.
Disclaimer: MVD Visual has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.