By 1976, the year David Leeds would film 'Shoot the Sun Down' with Christopher Walken and Margot Kidder, the spaghetti western had largely run its course as a truly viable entity in the world of filmmaking – though there would still be plenty westerns to come that wore that particular hat, the subgenre itself had more or less run out of steam. So, rather than make a straight-up spaghetti western, Leeds instead turned his film into something of an homage to the subgenre, while adding a heaping helping of the counterculture movement to his script that was co-written by 'Universal Soldier' screenwriter Richard Rothstein.
Although filmed in 1976, it wasn't until 1978 that 'Shoot the Sun Down' found theatrical distribution, and by that time not only had the idea of the spaghetti western aged even more, but the film's stars had each gone on to much larger projects like Walken's Academy Award-winning turn in 'The Deer Hunter' and, of course, Margo Kidder was busy flying around with Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner's 'Superman: The Movie.' Naturally, all of these aspects overshadowed Leeds' much smaller, far more esoteric film that seemed at once to be nostalgic of two forms of filmmaking that were, perhaps, already on their way out with the film-going public. It's not astonishing then, that this would wind up being the director's one and only film in his filmography.
And that's a shame, as the Blu-ray release of 'Shoot the Sun Down' will certainly open this weird, cynical little western up to a whole new generation of film fans who'll likely find more to appreciate about it than audiences did upon its initial release. Now, is that to say the movie was ahead of its time – even after having been delayed for two years after wrapping principle photography? Well, maybe; but it's likely more a case of film buffs having their interests piqued by the idea of a young Christopher Walken wandering the American Southwest as a former soldier named Mr. Rainbow, while dealing with a disparate bunch, including a hopeless British indentured servant (Kidder) and a host of colorful Western archetypes like The Captain (Bo Brundin), Sunbearer, the Navajo (A. Martinez), and a mercenary known simply as Scalphunter (can you guess what he was after?), played by notable character actor Geoffrey Lewis.
The film brings these various characters together at the crossroads of the Southwest, in a tiny little town policed rather ineffectively by Federales – who are generally as corrupt as the itinerant folk wandering in and out each day. While Lewis' Scalphunter is busy propositioning The Captain to join him on his quest for Montezuma's Golden Wheel, Kidder's Englishwoman is using her feminine wiles to tempt Mr. Rainbow into killing the man lording over her, thereby granting her the freedom to travel to New Orleans and start anew. Rainbow, for his part, is just biding his time until he can make his way to Texas, to join up with the others defending the Alamo.
That knowledge of Mr. Rainbow's inadvertently suicidal plans places a portent of doom on the rest of the film, and considering the general misanthropy of is cast of characters, it's not hard to imagine that end as something resembling kismet. Here, Leeds and Rothstein paint a picture that ignores subtext early on, by having characters flatly state their purpose and intent through lines like "Indians is good business," or by referring to others as "chattel." This disdain for human life is seen again and again, through early acts of violence perpetrated upon Rainbow by a band of thieves, which he repays in kind with his then state-of-the-art Colt Patterson repeater – which is looked upon with great awe by those with knowledge of its existence. That contempt for life is paralleled through the desolate and unforgiving wasteland in which the characters travel that is explicitly referred to as "The Journey of Death."
In their script, Leeds and Rothstein examine the concept of the West through the lens of Manifest Destiny and then by refracting that notion through the prism of the counterculture movement. By name alone, Mr. Rainbow stands as the embodiment of such an association and through his rejection of antiquated norms and practices (he was once paid to slaughter Indians, and having left that, correctly sees himself as anything but a deserter), racial segregation, and, as the only character moving from West to East, the denunciation of progress for the sake of personal wealth or financial gain. This rebuff of the establishment naturally puts Rainbow at odds with everyone but the Navajo, with whom he is friendly. That association grants him access to their assistance once his inevitable conflict with Scalphunter and The Captain reaches a predictable boiling point.
'Shoot the Sun Down' takes an appropriately dream-like turn late in its story, placing the characters in a symbolically frozen desert hellscape worthy of Cormac McCarthy that furthers the deconstruction of the genre's archetypes and of the characters themselves. By this point, the film has vacillated and traded in its unambiguous political and social connotations for an implication that is more illusory and difficult to firmly pin down, enhancing the lurid unreality of the film's climax that deftly toes the line between adhering to genre conventions and spinning something new from them.
Leeds has since gone on to become a sculptor, while his cast has each found success in their own right. Had things worked out better for Leeds as a director, 'Shoot the Sun Down' might have gone on to become the first effort of a distinct voice exploring the boundaries and limitations of a chosen medium. Instead, this counterculture spaghetti western is remembered for its expression of raw talent that was waiting to be honed, but never quite got the chance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Shoot the Sun Down' comes as a single 25GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. This is a Kino release, so there are no previews ahead of the top menu, but there are several to choose from in the special feature menu.
Although it has been restored, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer only manages to deliver a terrific-looking image about half the time, while the other half, 'Shoot the Sun Down' consists of a grainy, speckled picture that has not withstood the test of time. This is, of course to be expected with a low budget film that took the long road to distribution and was likely regarded with little fanfare upon its initial release. As it stands here, the movie is about half and half with regard to a truly spectacular looking restored image that shows off some great scenery and a very young Christopher Walken and Margo Kidder, while the rest looks as though you were skipping through channels on a set of rabbit-ears in the mid-'80s. Of course this isn't the fault of the transfer itself, as Kino was likely working with the best of what they could possibly get their hands on, and considering the nature of what's on display, it's fairly evident they got a pretty good deal.
The image is at its best after the opening segment, when the various characters are on the "Journey of Death," and at that point, the picture is suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of clarity, some nice fine detail and a better than average contrast level that is dramatically different from what was presented before. The image does a terrific job of bringing the harsh desert landscape to life with the various beige-y colors of the desert all distinctly different, and yet bleeding into one another to create a unforgiving, brutal and far reaching environment a real sense of scope and enormity. Costumes also look very detailed and authentic – there's even a moment when the image is clear enough you can read a transcription on one of Mr. Rainbow's throwing knives.
Overall, this is an uneven image that is easily forgiven considering the film's age and status in the cinematic scheme of things. While it would have been nice to see every frame given a complete remastering, the image here does a very nice job with what it had to work with.
The LPCM 2.0 soundtrack is actually quite good for producing clear dialogue and reproducing the occasionally bombastic score with some sense of vigor and energy. For the most part, however, 'Shoot the Sun Down' has a mix that relies quite heavily on making sure the actor's dialogue is easily heard and free of things like hissing, pitch or popping that can sometimes pop up on a soundtrack this old. Thankfully, none of that is present, and the mix does a great job of making sure the tonal differences in everyone's voice comes through with the same kind of emphasis and clarity.
Sound effects are equally important – especially near the end of the film – but they come across as fairly standard for the time period, as gunshots, punches and explosions manage to ring out, but fail to resonate in the style many today would be accustomed. Still, the mix has a decent dynamic range that affords the film some sense of depth with regard to producing compelling sound effects and, more importantly considering the genre requirements the film's score. In that regard, despite sounding occasionally a little on the hollow side, the score is a treat for listeners.
'Shoot the Sun Down' isn't your standard western, as it attempts to deconstruct portions of the genre with varied levels of success. While the film will likely be attractive to those looking for an older oddity that features a recognizable cast, it's also notable for the way it plays with certain conventions of the format and for being the only film in director David Leeds' filmography. In that sense, the film will probably leave most viewers wondering "what if?" in terms of where his talents might have taken him, but it also leaves them with an interesting film that despite an iffy image and okay sound is definitely worth a look.