Shot in the mid-70s and released near the end of the decade, Shoot the Sun Down is a hard movie to pin down. While it has hints of other popular '70s Western modes, it never fully embodies them: it hasn't really got the opera of Spaghetti Westerns, it's not dreamy and lyrical like The Hired Hand, and it isn't mind-expanding like those acid westerns El Topo and Greaser's Palace. But it's still kind of... odd. After all, any movie that casts Christopher Walken in the Clint Eastwood hero role, no matter how young and handsome he still is, is not going to end up a traditional popcorn movie.
The setting is Santa Fe, 1836. (Coincidentally Santa Fe 1836 was the original title of the film. It seems like they sure traded up on that one.) Walken stars as Mr. Rainbow, a former soldier under Jefferson Davis who deserted because he got tired of slaughtering Indians. Early in the film, he is shown protecting a young Indian chief (A Martinez, of L.A. Law and a handful of daytime soaps) who is about to be beaten up by prospectors for suspicion of cheating at dice. Rainbow and the young chief sense a kindred warrior spirit, and this will not be their last encounter.
Also in town is an English ship captain (Bo Brundin), who claims he is looking to trade with the Indians. A buffalo hide trader called Scalphunter (Geoffrey Lewis, of High Plains Drifter and The Devil's Rejects) suspects the Captain is actually looking for gold, because actually... well, that's what Scalphunter is looking for. The Captain has a young woman with him (Superman's Margot Kidder, doing a credible English accent) who doesn't seem to want to be there, despite the Captain's promises of treasure and a better life.
And that's where their paths start to cross. The English woman tries to use her feminine wiles to get Rainbow to kill the Captain, claiming he has kidnapped her, but Rainbow refuses. Then, the Captain comes to Rainbow to clarify the situation: this woman is the Captain's indentured servant for 5 years. "You mean slave, don'tcha?" Rainbow asks. "It's all properly legal..." the Captain replies. Finally, Scalphunter tries to get Rainbow to join him in robbing the Captain of whatever treasure he's got stashed out there. Rainbow seems unmoved, but soon Rainbow, Scalphunter, the Captain, and the English Woman are all riding out of town together. Whether Rainbow joins them out of greed or infatuation with the English woman or just out of curiosity is not initially clear. But, as the film goes on, a love story develops between Rainbow and the English woman.
Both Walken and Kidder look exceptionally young and attractive in this movie. Just one look at them together and you buy their chemistry. In fact, the strongest element of the film is the wonderful cast. Lewis, who seems like he was born to be in Westerns, has a tricky job with the role of Scalphunter: often he is asked to be the comic relief, while also exuding various levels of villainous menace. A funny bad guy seems like a terrible idea outside of a comic film, but Lewis has such an effortless charm that he's able to pull off the dark and light moments while being utterly compelling.
The script, by first-time producer-director David Leeds and future Universal Soldier co-writer Richard Rothstein, unfortunately is a little on the flimsy side. After a confusingly fragmented opening 20 minutes, the story unfolds in a fairly unsurprising manner from there on out. The film does have a wonderfully unusual showdown scene at the end, but the buildup to it feels oddly draggy and overlong.
But, as with many '70s Westerns, the story almost seems beside the point. On top of the great actors, Shoot the Sun Down has fluid direction from Leeds and wonderful sun-baked cinematography (credited to the literary pseudonym "L. Strether" at the end, although the DVD box claims it is actually shot by Taxi Driver's Michael Chapman). This is not quite enough to overcome all the narrative shortcomings, but it certainly keeps the film highly watchable.