A Bullet for Sandoval Blu-ray Review: Grim, Dark Revenge Western

Spaghetti Westerns are marked by their high drama, brutal and sometimes over the top action, and morally ambiguous heroes. But sometimes the ambiguity moves from shades of gray to just successive layers of black. That’s what happens to John Warner in A Bullet for Sandoval.

Warner is committed to two things: fighting for the Confederacy, and his Mexican lover, Rosa. When Rosa’s brother finds him in camp and tells him he must come to meet the son he didn’t know he had, he picks which one he loves most. He deserts.

Warner is almost immediately captured but promises the brother he will go to Rosa. He deserts again, killing some guards and taking some accomplices with him.

But when he gets to Rosa, she has just died in childbirth. Her father, Don Pedro (Ernest Borgnine), is furious. Furious Warner got Rosa pregnant out of wedlock, and furious she died giving birth to a bastard. He gives the baby to the utterly unprepared John and sends him away. After a few days on the road, turned away from everywhere that could possibly help, John’s baby son dies. And John vows revenge.

That revenge starts with the haciendas that turned him and his starving baby away, fearing disease. He and his two friends shoot up the place and commence to committing murders and massacres along the border. By the time we’ve hit the 30-minute mark, sympathetic (and kind of pathetic) John Warner is dressed all in black, and keeps company with deserters, a lay monk turned thief, a murderer, and a child rapist. Sympathy wanes.

Eventually, his attention goes back to Don Pedro, whom he has promised to kill. As the film progresses, John Warner looks less like an avenging angel than a nasty thug. Don Pedro grows less a patriarchal monster and more a grieving father. It’s not a particularly subtle shift, but the film is clever in how it frames Don Pedro in a more sympathetic light as the story moves on. Borgnine’s performance is particularly effective as a rough man who doesn’t want to acknowledge the depth of his hurt.

A Bullet for Sandoval doesn’t have the bravura camera moments or emotional extroversion of some of the great Sergio Leone movies. But it is still stylish, and beautifully shot. Also, though it fits in with contemporary Spaghetti westerns, it is not an Italian film. Director Julio Buchs is Spanish. The film was also shot in Spain, but that was true of most Italian westerns, as well. The costumes look particularly good. They must have found a structural engineer to design the ladies’ outfits that always look on the verge of completely falling off their chests, but never quite getting there.

The style ramps up into high gear in the finale in Mexico, where the camera work becomes less conservative and some of the action less realistic. The film’s plot is simplistic to the point of being kind of hard to describe. There are not wheels inside wheels here, but rather events that come one after the other, not quite randomly but without the precision of a really good story.

This release has been sourced from the original uncut negative. After a fairly rough, grainy opening sequence shot at night, the picture quality picks up immensely. The cinematography has a sun-drenched, slightly washed out look that fits the material. Released in Spanish as Los Desperados, that version was about 10 minutes longer than the U.S.-released A Bullet for Sandoval, so some new music and budding had to be included for section that weren’t in the English version. The new voices do stick out, unfortunately, but it’s probably lucky we have anything there at all, given all the original actors are, I believe, deceased (and it’s 53 years later.)

A Bullet for Sandoval might be considered a mid-tier European Western. It’s well acted, though a lot of the side characters aren’t that memorable. Ernest Borgnine is particularly good playing a heavy who becomes more sympathetic as the story goes on. It allows its characters some surprising shades, and the gunfights are swift and brutal. If the story were more polished, it would be a top tier film.

A Bullet for Sandoval has been released on Blu-ray by VCI Entertainment. There’s a commentary on the disc by Repo Man director Alex Cox, who’s also an expert on Spaghetti Westerns. The disc also includes Spanish dialogue soundtrack for the film, and a trailer.

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Kent Conrad

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