Monday, October 30, 2023

A BULLET FOR SANDOVAL (1969) (VCI Entertainment Blu-ray Review)


Label: VCI Entertainment 
Region Code: Region-Free 
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 101 Minutes 15 Seconds 
Audio: English or Spanish PCM 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: Julio Buchs
Cast: George Hilton, Ernest Borgnine, Alberto de Mendoza, Leo Anchóriz, Annabella Incontrera

The John Buchs (Django Does Not Forgive) directed civil war era Italian/Spanish co-production A Bullet for Sandoval (1969) opens on dark Civil War battlefield where a Union soldier is skulking around looting valuables and gold fillings from the fallen soldiers before being shot dead himself by confederate soldiers posing as corpses. It's a grim opening to what continues to be a pretty bleak euro-western. We're then introduced to Confederate soldier John Warner (George Hilton, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh) who gets news that his Mexican girlfriend Rosa is giving birth to their child, upon hearing this he chooses to become an Army deserter and be with the woman he loves. 

Slipping across the border into Mexico he rushes to be by her side only to be told by her father Don Pedro Sandoval (Ernest Borgnine, Willard), who loathes him, that she died while giving birth. The grieved father refuses to let Warner see her body, but demands he take their bastard child and never return. Both men hate each other, Sandoval hates gringos and blames his daughter's death on Warner knocking her up, while the Warner loathes Sandoval for refusing to allow him to marry Rosa earlier, both men believing the other to be the reason their beloved Rosa is no longer alive. 

Warner, now joined by a fellow deserter (Alberto de Mendoza, Horror Express), as well as a fallen friar (Leo Anchóriz, The Blancheville Monster) they pick up along the way, attempt to care for the baby, but it is sickly and they find no one willing to give them shelter or milk to care for it properly because the locals fear the cholera epidemic sweeping through the territory. The baby soon succumbs to the cholera and Warner buries the child alongside any compassion he has left for the human race, becoming an outlaw he amasses a gang of bloodthirsty, cutthroat lowlifes and embarks on single-minded spree of vengeance aimed at those who he blames for the death of Rosa and their child, culminating in a mano y mano knife fight (oddly not a gun duel given the titling) between himself and Sandoval. It's basically a flick about two guys consumed by their hate for one another, both men twistedly sympathetic in their own ways marked by personal tragedy and loss, but neither ends up the hero nor even anti-heroes for they've been so consumed by it.  

The cast is terrific, after you get past Borgnine playing a Mexican his character is richly textured, he plays a man grieving the loss of his daughter well, but he's polluted by hate for gringos and a sense of honor that taints the deserved grief. The same applies to Warner, when the film starts out he seems like a decent man trying to do the right thing, risking execution to make an honest woman out of the woman he loves, but foiled by the hatred of her father, fate, and the cholera outbreak. A once decent man who buried that decently with the corpse of his baby, and who only exists afterward for cathartic vengeance.  

There's not a lot of gory violence here but it's still pretty grim stuff, the gory stuff comes towards the end when Sandoval and Warner finally come face to face, agreeing to a knife fight at the edge of a bull pen inside a dull fighting stadium, followed by an even more bleak finale that I thought was pretty stunning. The film is well served by some attractive lensing by cinematographer Francisco Sempere (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) that captures the scenically rugged Spanish locations quite nicely and a solid spaghetti western score by Gianni Ferrio (Death Walks at Midnight), the film only slightly marred by some slower-pacing in the middle section, but still quit e a gem of Italian/Spanish downbeat western with some heavy Leone and Peckinpah influence. 

Audio/Video: A Bullet For Sandoval (1969) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from VCI in 1080p HD framed in 2.35:1 widescreen, advertised as being "produced from new 4K scans of the 35mm negatives". The source is is solid shape, there are minor imperfections that show-up but nothing egregious. Depth, contrast and clarity are certainly not it;s best attributes, it can be a bit murky at times, and there appears to have been some digital clean-up and grain manipulation applied. Colors also seem muted, and whatever restoration has been applied has not revived the colors to the original vibrancy, though this is not a vibrant flick by any means, but what we get is not unpleasing, it's just not what I would expect from a 4K restoration from the 35mm OCN as advertised. 

Audio comes by way of either English or Spanish PCM 2.o with optional English subtitles. I preferred the English track (I didn't want to miss any of that venomous Borgnine performance!), it was a bit shrill in the higher ranges but the Spanish track seemed a but muted/compressed by comparison. Notably, the English track does feature some newly dubbed sequences that did not previously have English dubs. These do stick out a bit, I think the better option would have been to include just leave the original Spanish dialogue with English subtitles during these sequences, but the new dub is not too offensive either. 

Extras include a fascinating Audio Commentary by actor/director/writer Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy), an expert on Spaghetti Western films; the 3-min U.S. Theatrical Trailer, plus the 2-min Original Spanish Opening Credit Sequence with "The Desesperados" title card. The single-disc release arrives in a sturdy standard keepcase with a single-sided sleeve of artwork.

Special Features:
- Audio Commentary by actor/director/writer Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy), an expert on Spaghetti Western films
- U.S. Theatrical Trailer (3:19) 
- Original Spanish Open (2:29) 
- New Extended Englisg Dialogue Sequences Produced by Dan Wood, Composter and Sound Designer 
- First time on Blu-ray, produced from new 4K scans of the 35mm negatives

Screenshots from the VCI Ent. Blu-ray: