Despite less-than-stellar reputations, the three film that comprise the official "Sabata Trilogy"** - Sabata (Ehi amico...c'e Sabata, hai chiuso!, 1969), Adios, Sabata (Indio Black, sai che ti dico: Sei un gran figlio di..., 1971), and Return of Sabata (E tornato Sabata... hai chiuso un'altra volta, 1971) - overall aren't bad for what they are, superficially good imitations of director Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, yet distinctive enough on their own. The first film is far and away the best, but Adios, Sabata is okay if unmemorable; Return of Sabata is pretty lousy, but not so bad to justify its place in Harry & Michael Medved's The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.
Sabata stars Lee Van Cleef in the title role, all but reprising his genteel Colonel Mortimer from Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965), and once again playing an agreeable if rat-faced and morally ambiguous master gunfighter. The film gets off to a great start, with Sabata (accompanied by Marcello Giombini's terrific title tune) arriving into the Western town of Daugherty during an elaborate and cleverly-staged robbery of $100,000 in Union Army funds.
Sabata, claiming to be interested only in the $5,000 reward, tracks down the robbers and returns the money, much to the consternation of the city's leaders, who had secretly funded the heist: Stengel (Franco Ressel), an arrogant, Oscar Wilde type with a disastrous comb-over; hard-nosed Ferguson (Antonio Gradoli); and Judge O'Hara (Gianni Rizzo, looking anything but Irish). Sabata quickly links them to the crime and blackmails them, and for most of the film they send one hapless assassin after another to kill Sabata while he in turn demands more money after each botched attempt.
Meanwhile, the enigmatic Banjo (William Berger), slovenly beggar Carrincha (Pedro Sanchez, nee Ignazio Spalla), and amazing acrobat Alley Cat/Indio (Nick Jordan/Aldo Canti) more or less ally themselves to Sabata, and though Leone-esque in their own way (Carrincha is like Eli Wallach's Tuco, but with scruples) they give the film what distinctiveness it has.
For audiences never exposed to a Spaghetti Western, Sabata probably comes closest to their image of what one would be like. It's mythic, fast-paced (if overlong), and grandly silly all at the same time, full of outrageous and utterly implausible gunfights, often incorporating high-tech (by 19th century standards) gadgets straight out of James Bond. In one scene for instance, Sabata, knowing he's about to be ambushed in his hotel room, knocks the canvas out of its frame, stoically hiding behind the frame pretending to be a portrait painting, gun drawn, as Stengel's men enter. Sabata uses a pistol with an extra barrel and bullets hidden in its handle, while Banjo lives up to his name with an instrument that doubles as a firearm.
After matching wits with Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), Lee Van Cleef was top-billed in a handful of Spaghettis, most famously Death Rides a Horse (Da uomo a uomo, 1968), before the enormous success of Sabata secured his place as a stand-alone star, at least in Europe. He's clearly having a great time and fun to watch. Pedro Sanchez/Ignazio Spalla is equally good and balances Van Cleef's character well as the fat, cigar-chomping Carrincha. Sanchez appears in all three Sabata films, is a delight in each, and though he played countless banditos in myriad Spaghettis, apparently had almost no career once the genre petered out. (****)
The story goes that as Adios Sabata was being filmed, star Yul Brynner was playing a character called Indio Black, but that after the first Sabata proved such an hit, it was decided to re-loop the soundtrack and change Indio's name to Sabata. This might be true, but I doubt it. For one thing, the leading and major supporting players all mouth their lines in English, and their lips seem to say "Sabata," not "Indio." Moreover, the movie's basic structure is almost identical to the first Sabata, with many of the same actors playing similar characters. Director/co-writer Gianfranco Parolini likewise carries over his fondness for gadgets (a model ship that fires real mini-cannons) and acrobatics.
In any case, this time Sabata (Brynner) comes to the aid of Mexican revolutionaries, a band led by Escudo (Pedro Sanchez/Ignazio Spalla), to steal a wagon loaded with gold by evil Austrian Col. Skimmel (Gerard Herter). As before, Sabata is accompanied (and sometimes double-crossed) by various eccentrics: in place of Banjo, there's piano-playing Ballantine (Dean Reed, whose fascinating, tragic career would make an interesting film), Joseph P. Persaud plays a revolutionary who does a "Flamenco Dance of Death," while his partner September (Sal Borgese) fires deadly little cannonballs with his feet, as if playing footbag/hacky sack.
The use of Brynner, sporting an all-black get-up more appropriate to Siegfried & Roy, gives the film a slightly more serious tone. His poker-faced delivery and steely-eyed stares are a stronger contrast to the lighter, broader performances that surround him, but Brynner is clearly in on the joke. Bruno Nicolai's superb if Morricone-influenced score adds to the slightly-less-comical tone. (***)
Return of Sabata marked the return of Lee Van Cleef (this time wearing a very phony toupee; he was without one in Sabata), but it's as if the film were put into production without a finished script. The basic ingredients are all there, but it really does play as if they made it up as they went along. The film gets off to a feeble start, a cheat with Sabata bathed in stylized lighting unconvincing shooting bad guys left and right. All this turns out to be staged for a wild west attraction that's part of a traveling circus, but the effect is as blah as the similar pre-title sequence that opens The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Even the gadgets and shoot-outs are lame, with Sabata using a miniature gun he hides in his palm (it looks like an overgrown joy buzzer) and a duel involving a seesaw!
The rest of the picture is just a mishmash of ideas, this time with Sabata trying to outsmart Joe McIntock (Giampiero Albertini), the outwardly pious and civic-minded head of Irish clan whose crippling town taxes are supposed to better his community, but which he in fact converts to gold and plans to skip town with when the time is right. Sabata is aided by the usual assortment of acrobats (Nick Jordan and Vassili Karis) and shady grifter types.
After two well-produced efforts with notably good scores, Return of Sabata looks cheap (with lots of sloppy, hair-in-the-gate camerawork) with music that, at times, would be better suited to an AIP biker movie. (This entry has a peculiar obsession with actor Van Cleef's partially missing finger, including a bad title song with lyrics like "Nine-fingered man, Sa-baaa-ta!") (**)
Video & Audio
The Sabata films were shot in Techniscope and all three are 16:9 enhanced and in their original widescreen shape. The transfers are very good and what flaws there are (see above) would seem inherent to the original elements. English language titles are used. The mono soundtracks are very good for what they are. All three films offer French audio with optional English subtitles, but not Italian. (It looks like everyone spoke or mouthed their dialog in English on the first two pictures, but not the third, an Italian-French-West German co-production where everyone probably spoke their native language on-camera.) There are no Extra Features, not even trailers.
The Sabata Trilogy might be considered a bridge between the darker Leone/Django-inspired Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer Spaghetti comedies of the '70s. Two out of three ain't bad, and even the third picture is bearable if only for the good will generated by the first two, and the fun of watching director Gianfranco Parolini's stock company trying their best. Fans of Hong Kong action comedies will especially want to catch these films, as they very clearly were a major influence on that genre. Recommended.
**Just as unscrupulous Europeans co-opted the name "Django" for innumerable rip-offs of that seminal Spaghetti, the success of the first Sabata led to several unofficial "sequels" apparently made without the consent of the original producers: Sabata the Killer (Arriva Sabata!, 1970), Wanted Sabata (1970), and Watch Out Gringo! Sabata Will Return (Attento gringo, e tornato Sabata, 1972).
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.