A Bullet for Sandoval stands out as an unsung gem in the wave of revisionist westerns emerging around 1967. Starring Ernest Borgnine at the height of his gruff powers, this dusty tale of revenge and morality offered a bold counterpoint to the romanticized western myths of decades past. Led by Borgnine’s complex anti-hero, A Bullet for Sandoval provides a gripping exploration of violence begetting violence that still resonates today.
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John Warner ain’t Josey Wales
Directed by Julio Buchs and co-written by Leo Anchóriz and Buchs, the film centers on John Warner, a confederate soldier who deserts to search for his family following the Civil War. When his wife and son are murdered by a gang of Union soldiers, Warner becomes consumed by revenge under his new alias “Sandoval.”
Years later, Sandoval runs into one of the culprits who has become a wealthy cattle baron named Don Pedro Simeon. Playing a dangerous game, Sandoval infiltrates Don Pedro’s gang posing as an outlaw gun-for-hire. But his schemes for vengeance soon entangle others, including a young widow and an idealistic Mexican revolutionary.
Borgnine delivers one of his most complex performances as Sandoval, eliciting both empathy and condemnation for his endless pursuit of retribution. While criticized as “sadistic” by some at the time of release, Borgnine’s gravitas elevates Sandoval into an anti-hero grappling with morality. The film pulls few punches in depicting the savage violence of Sandoval’s world, but uses it to indict the human lust for vengeance.
Co-lead Alberto de Mendoza provides an understated counterpoint as the wealthy Don Pedro, who proves more complicated than he first appears. Veteran actor Leo Anchóriz, who co-wrote the script, also stands out as a former priest tangled up in Sandoval’s schemes. Filmed on location in Almería, Spain, the production took advantage of the region’s desert landscapes that made it a popular shooting destination for westerns.
A Bullet for Sandoval fell between the cracks
While overlooked among Spain’s flowering genre cinema scene of the era, A Bullet for Sandoval demonstrated how the western could powerfully tackle relevant themes. Sandoval’s bitterness reflects the divisions of a post-Civil War America still struggling with open wounds. His blind rage offers a cautionary tale on cycles of violence fueling further conflict. Released in 1969 as the Vietnam War still raged, the film’s underlying message warned against using past bloodshed to justify continued fighting.
Beyond tackling anti-war sentiments, A Bullet for Sandoval also subverts macho western archetypes with rare feminist perspectives. Don Pedro’s young widow Estella, played compellingly by Luciana Paluzzi, openly challenges the limited roles for women in this world. She condemns expectations that she obediently marry whoever inherits her deceased husband’s land and wealth.
Estella’s defiance and resolve in the face of constant danger makes her one of the most progressive female characters found in genre cinema of the time. She emerges as an unlikely moral compass who tries to pull wayward men back from violence. A Bullet for Sandoval ultimately carries a heavy dose of melancholy, with Sandoval forced to confront the fruitlessness of his endless revenge.
Final thoughts on A Bullet for Sandoval
While overshadowed by Leone and Corbucci’s breakthrough works, A Bullet for Sandoval proved Julio Buchs could deliver a distinctly gritty spin on the classic western formula. Borgnine added another memorable anti-hero to his rogues gallery after acclaimed turns in The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen. Over 50 years later, the film’s messages warning against hate-fueled violence still ring painfully true. With all the cynicism of a revisionist western but glimmers of humanity, A Bullet for Sandoval warrants rediscovery as a gritty meditation on morality.
The VCI Blu-ray comes with the spanish language version of the film. You also get the extended English dialogue sequences and the US trailer. The big winner on the set is the Alex Cox commentary. He’s like Scorsese, but for cult films. Pick this one up.