The Grand Duel
(a.k.a. The Big Showdown)

Director: Giancarlo Santi
Lee Van Cleef, Alberto Dentice, Jess Hahn

It's interesting to take a look at the motion picture industry in a number of aspects. One such interesting observation has to do when the industry, having gone to the well too many times on a specific kind of movie, finds that audiences are tired of that type of movie and are starting to stay home instead. Take the Disney studio, for example. Although you probably know that before they released The Little Mermaid they had made plenty of animated movies, the popularity of their new animated movies had been luke warm for several years before that new movie had been released. The success of that movie encouraged Disney to make more animated movies with more or less the same features - musical numbers, two lovers struggling to be together against all odds, weird comic relief sidekicks, etc. And for a time, that worked; each subsequent Disney animated movie seemed to outgross the previous one. Things peaked with The Lion King, a critical and financial smash hit. But then slowly, things started to go downhill. Although Disney still had some animated hits to come (like Mulan and Tarzan), for the most part they weren't as successful as their animated movies a few years earlier. Audiences seemed to be getting tired of seeing the same elements in Disney animated movies over and over. In desperation, Disney took some radical leaps, making animated movies with stories and situations unlike what they were known for. But for the most part, movies like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Home On The Range failed to attract significant audience numbers.

Eventually, Disney did find its groove again, though they had to pretty much abandon hand drawn animation in favor of computer animation, as well as having to find new kind of stories to attract modern audiences. You have to praise Disney for not giving up - some kinds of movies eventually pretty much (or completely) die out despite the best efforts of filmmakers. For example, there is the deceased genre of male explorers finding long lost civilizations consisting only of man-hungry women (like the Zsa Zsa Gabor movie Queen Of Outer Space). It doesn't take much thought to come up with the reason why new and modern entries wouldn't fly with audiences today. But one certain genre that has lost much of its popularity that I really want to talk about is the western. As you probably know, the western really lost its popularity in the 1970s. Though on more examination, the western really started to slowly die in the 1960s for a number of reasons. Movie studios (both domestic and foreign) did start to notice this, and what they did to try to milk a few more drops out of the dying genre is pretty interesting. For example, one thing that started to happen in westerns was that they began to get a lot more violent and bloody. European westerns certainly did that; the Clint Eastwood Dollars movies were blasted by many American critics at the time for supposedly being really violent. (Wonder how those critics would have reacted to the notorious Cutthroats 9.) And the Americans eventually got into the act with violent westerns such as The Wild Bunch.

Another ingredient that started to be added to westerns in the late 1960s to the early 1970s was humor. Though there had certainly been humorous westerns before that period, the comic western really bloomed in this period, from the Trinity spaghetti westerns to American efforts The Grand Duellike Blazing Saddles and Support Your Local Sheriff. In the past, I have covered for this web site examples of violent or comic westerns from this specific period. But while The Grand Duel is a western from this period that puts in a new spin, it is not filled to the brim with comedy, nor is it an especially violent western. Instead, it takes the western genre and gives it a more modern spin with its story. Not by setting the movie in the present day, but by having its story be more or less a crime thriller. That certainly makes it different from typical westerns of its time - or any other time. Another thing that attracted me to the movie was that it was available on Blu-Ray, an option rare when it comes to spaghetti westerns. Lee Van Cleef (The Magnificent Seven Ride!) plays a sheriff by the name of Clayton. At the start of the movie, Clayton is on a stagecoach headed for the desert town of Gila Bend, but just before the stagecoach gets within city limits, it is stopped by several armed residents. It seems that a man by the name of Philipp Wermeer (Peter O'Brien), who had recently been jailed after being accused of killing the head of the powerful Saxon family, has escaped and is hiding somewhere nearby. Not only is Wermeer being pursued by the murdered man's three sons, a number of bounty hunters are in the area hoping to catch or kill Wermeer for a big reward that has been promised. Clayton manages to get into town, and shortly after manages to save Wermeer from being killed by the various gunmen. What follows is an often deadly game as Clayton tries to keep Wermeer alive and prove his innocence, while the bounty hunters and the Saxon brothers try to kill Wermeer.

When you've got a movie headlined with a big cult star like Lee Van Cleef, the temptation upon writing a review of the movie is to first talk about that star. But while Van Cleef is definitely a big part of The Grand Duel's overall success, I thought for a change I would start by bringing attention to the people behind the camera, such as screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (The Violent Professionals) and director Giancarlo Santi. First, I will start with the screenplay. The Grand Duel's story, as I mentioned earlier, is often akin to that of a modern day crime thriller, with its themes of being on the run and gathering evidence to prove innocence. This alone gives the movie some fresh interest, but there are other interesting things about the thriller angle. It unfolds not in a conventional format - the character of Philipp Wermeer is already on the run when the movie starts, and we learn little by little as the movie progresses as to who he is and how he got into this situation. To the movie's credit, this slow revelation does not make the story confusing at any moment - we in the audience have a pretty good idea of what's going on at any moment, even if we don't know all of the details. However, maybe because of this gradual explaining, the surrounding story elements do seem somewhat slow at times. It takes almost half of the movie before the movie's prime antagonists (the Saxon brothers) first make an appearance. And Wermeer more than once manages to escape from the clutches of Clayton determined to fix his predicament by himself despite Clayton giving indications that he is on Wermeer's side and wants to help. Had the two protagonists stuck together right from the start, this certainly might have fixed Wermeer's situation a lot sooner, but that would have only helped the entire package to be leaner and swifter.

Another problem with the story concerns the question of who really killed the Saxon brothers' father. It leads in the end to a surprise for everyone involved except for the audience. It's so painfully clear who the culprit is (there isn't exactly a long list of suspects), that the Saxons' fussing about and the repeated flashbacks to the murder become silly and obvious padding. Director Giancarlo Santi does at least give those flashbacks some style with some striking black and white photography, and while he is unable to do much more with the sometimes slow mystery angle of the movie, he does add some spark elsewhere to compensate. The look of the movie is quite striking, for one thing. The various buildings look very run down, with debris in the dusty streets and the surrounding landscapes parched and eroded. There is an untamed feeling, one that suggests that lawlessness really does plague this land. Also, Santi composes some really striking shots here and there, showing at various camera angles multiple people and/or things all together at once. You can see the influence of Sergio Leone, a director Santi worked under three times before this movie. But Santi also puts in some touches of his own that are just as eye catching. This is most evident in the action sequences. While there isn't a terrible amount of action in The Grand Duel, what there is does manage to stand out. There is a real feeling of a burst of energy in these sequences, with the participants running around and doing various acrobatics. At the same time, you do feel the participants struggle during the action. Although they may be pulling off great stunts, you all the same feel they are fighting for their lives or for a much superior (and much desired) position than they are in at that moment, and as a result this sweat and strain injects some serious excitement as the bullets are flying.

Also, Santi manages to direct his actors so that they make some pretty memorable characters. Among the supporting cast, Klaus Grunberg (Fire, Ice, And Dynamite) playing Saxon brother Adam is the standout, coming across as a nasty piece of work in his first scene. But of course, the actor in The Grand Duel that you probably want most of all to get a report on is Lee Van Cleef. In some aspects, Van Cleef was an unlikely actor to play a hero - he was balding, and his remaining hair was mostly grey. But Van Cleef compensated for traits like those by giving his characters (including this one) great confidence. When a bartender tells him that his saloon is closed, Van Cleef all the same orders a drink without raising his voice, yet at the same time showing in his tone that he's not to be messed with. When someone up close points a gun at him, he casually hangs his travel bag on the person's gun as if it was a coat hook, and instant cows the gunman with a simple look in his eyes. His sheriff character is a little cruel at times (he plays around a little with the Wermeer character as this innocent man is fighting for his life), but at the same time you get a sense that in the end Van Cleef will do the right thing and correct the wrongs that have been committed by others. He is a truly magnetic anti-hero. It's a little odd, then, that the movie at times seems to treat Van Cleef as a supporting player. There are several lengthy chunks of the movie (mostly in the second half) where Van Cleef is offscreen or isn't given that much to do when he does appear. While this problem added to the others that I earlier brought up do hold back The Grand Duel from being one of the all time great spaghetti western, it is all the same a solid entry in the genre and manages to show enough of why Van Cleef was a spaghetti western superstar. And with the movie being very affordable to buy on DVD and Blu-ray, you have no excuse as to why you should not check it out.

(Posted September 26, 2021)

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Check Amazon for "Spaghetti Westerns: The Good, The Bad, And The Violent" guide

See also: A Bullet For Sandoval, Keoma, Navajo Joe