The Sabata Chronicles

From The Spaghetti Western Database


The character of Sabata was created for the movie Ehi amico... c'è Sabata, hai chiuso! (in English simply called Sabata). It was producer Alberto Grimaldi who came up with the idea for the movie. In 1969 the production of spaghetti westerns was plummeting, but the first Sartana movie, If you meet Sartana, pray for your death had done remarkably well. The first Sartana was a tongue-in-cheek affair, violent but playfull, a sort of 007 goes spaghetti. The hero was depicted as a man with almost supernatural shooting abilities and weaponry closer to a Bond movie than a spaghetti western. Gianfranco Parolini, the director of the first Sartana movie, was at odds with his producers and therefore gladly accepted Grimaldi's offer to direct an alternative Sartana movie.

The Director

Before entering the film business, Gianfranco Parolini had tried to earn himself a living as a writer of cheap detective novels (he claimed to have written more than a hundred of them). He then started working for a producer called Giuseppe d'Amato, first as a jack-of-all-trades, then as a second-unit director (1). Finally he got the chance to direct his own movies. His first movies were fairly unremarkable pepla, but in 1965 he made his first Kommissar X movie (Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill); the film was very successful and launched a series.

The Kommissar X movies were inspired by James Bond (and a popular series of crime fiction novels about a secret agent called Jerry Cotton). Parolini didn't like the movies very much, but they gave him the opportunity to develop his own style (2). With Tony Kendall and Brad Harris, who both appeared in the series, he also made The Three Fantastic Supermen, a comic strip style of movie combining (according to one reader on Imdb) elements of Batman, The Green Hornet, Mexican wrestling movies and spy-capers. His first spaghetti western as a director, Johnny West il mancino, was a rather traditional affair, but in Pray for your Death and Sabata he successfully adapted his unrestrained, frantic style to the universe of the western, resulting in what eventually would be described as his 'circus westerns'.

The Actor(s)

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By 1969 Van Cleef had become one of the greatest money makers of the genre. But he had little or no experience with the more light-hearted approach to the genre and was also skeptical because the half-serious, half-tongue in cheek Beyond the Law had been the least successful of the movies he had recently made, taking only 1 billion dollar at the box-office (Day of Anger had taken 3 billion, Death Rides a Horse close to 2 billion). Parolini took him to a showing of his previous movie, Five for Hell, a sort of comedy version of The Dirty Dozen. Lee didn't understand a word, but the cinema was full of young Italians who apparently had the time of their life (3). Lee concluded that it was time for a career move...

There might have been another reason to accept the part. The characters he had played since his Leone-days, had all been derived from one of the most iconic characters in the history of the western, Colonel Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More, the aging bounty hunter who entered a partnership with a younger colleague. All films, including The Big Gundown, had paired Van Cleef with a younger actor, but at the same time the characters had been far removed from the sophisticated, gentlemanlike ex-army colonel. Jonathan Corbett had been a marionette in the hands of more powerful people, while the others had been rather shady, or even shabby (Cudlip from Beyond the Law) types. With each movie making less money than the previous one, the formula seemed time-worn. Sabata would bring back the Colonel Mortimer uniform and also some of his class and charm.

Van Cleef would appear in the first and third entry in the series, but not in the second, the semi-official Adios Sabata. Lee was asked to star in it, but rejected the offer for some reason (4). He was then replaced by Yul Brynner, whose character would only be called Sabata in the international English language version, and Indio Black in the Italian version. However, lip reading viewers have noticed that the actors who mouth their lines in English, seem to say “Sabata”, not “Indio”, so the rebaptism took place while the film was still being shot.

The Character

Like Mortimer, Sabata has a rifle with an extendable barrel, and the device is used early on in the first movie, in a scene very reminiscent of an early scene in For a few Dollars More. But Sabata is a more abstract creation, a character with no depth, hardly any background. As a person, Colonel Mortimer probably is more vulnerable than any other avenger of the Italian western. He really suffers from the loss of his sister, who committed suicide after being raped by the maniac Indio. In Sabata, the movie, we enter a fantasy world with a superhuman hero, a man who cannot be killed, or truly hurt.

Like Sartana, Sabata is presented as a seemingly a-sexual creature, only interested in money and playing games. He's not a womanizer, which is quite a remarkable thing if we realize that the Bond movies were a major source of inspiration. This aspect is attributed to another character, the most memorable of them being Banjo, played by William Berger (who also appeared in the first Sartana movie). Like Sartana, Sabata has a preference for miniature firearms and the ability to see through schemes that are so complicated that people often don't understand them after repeated viewings of the movies. While being at the center of things, he often behaves like a bystander, amusingly watching how the chaos he created, is aggravating (5). He seems to anticipate all possible moves from his opponents or double-crosses from his friends and partners. If he's dead, he will rise.

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William Berger 'Banjo'

The First Movie: Sabata (1969)

Sabata accidentally witnesses a bank robbery, in which a load of army money is stolen. He kills the robbers and takes the money back into town, but then discovers that the people behind the robbery, are three respected citizens, the judge, the banker and a rancher called Stengel, the most dangerous of the three, a homosexual sadist who has a private room in which he executes people. Sabata is assisted by a foul-mouthed town drunk called Garrincha, and an acrobat by the name of Alley Cat. An old acquaintance of him, a red-headed womanizer called Banjo (who hides his rifle in his instrument), is the man in the middle, who has his eyes on the money too.

Sabata did even better at the box-office than Pray for your Death and also beat the second Sartana movie, I am Sartana, your Angel of Death, released the same year, and directed by Giuliano Carnimeo. It also did very well abroad. I remember watching the movie in a Dutch cinema filled with teenagers, who (like those Italian teenagers watching Five for Hell) seemed to have the time of their life. Luckily it was dubbed in English and subtitled in Dutch, so we could understand every word of it.

A few things might have helped the movie on the international market. The first Sartana movie had only received a limited release (in Holland it only got some late night showings) and the Trinity movies were still in the pipeline. Furthermore the tongue-in-cheek approach had made rating boards more lenient. It got a '14 certificate' while so far most spaghetti westerns had received an '18 rating', preventing younger audiences from watching them. As a result, to many Sabata must have looked more original than it really was.

A New man in Black, Yul: Adios Sabata (1970):


The second Sabata movie, Adios Sabata, is set in Mexico and, as said, does not star Lee Van Cleef, who was replaced by Yul Brynner. But it tells a story that is very close in structure to the original movie, with several actors in identical roles (and a few other actors in similar roles). Sabata is asked, by a guerrilla leader, to rob a wagon load of gold from the Austrian army with the help of a small group of revolutionaries. The wagon, however, is filled with sand instead of gold. Behind all this, is the evil Colonel Skimmel of the occupying forces, who wants the gold for himself.

The monocle-wearing Skimmel, played by Gerard Herter (the European pistolero in The Big Gundown), is a good replacement for the homosexual sadist Stengel. Sal Borgese is also memorable as a sort of Diego Maradona avant la lettre, who fires tiny cannonballs with his feet. In true Sabata style, the film offers a couple of new fantasy weapons, such as a lever action rifle with the horizontal magazine carrying seven cartridges and one cigar, and (how nice) a model ship with mini cannons firing real cannonballs, as lethal as they are small.

If people still have the idea the movie feels alien to the series, it's probably because of Brynner's performance. Like Sabata, his Indio Black is a mysterious gunman spiraling his way through a labyrinthine plot populated with foes who may be friends, and friends who may be foes, but Yul's acting style is less easy-going than Lee's. And instead of Lee's laconic smile, we get Yul's granite face.

Lee is back: Return of Sabata (1971)

The premise is roughly the same as for the first movie, and with Lee returning, we would have expected a top notch Sabata. But no. Sabata arrives in a Texas town and stumbles upon a case of corruption and extortion, involving a local dignitary and (in this case) a clan of Irish immigrants. We get a squeeze gun and a rolling gun drum but for most part the film is no more than a collection of (often awfully unfunny) jokes, as if Parolini is really presenting us a circus movie, that is: a series of circus acts. It also lacks a good villain. There's no Stengel or Skimmel here, only an Italian actor playing an Irishman. Moreover Van Cleef gets out of character by courting the beautiful Annabella Incontrera. As Kevin Grant puts it, he behaves more like an aging Lothario here.

And yet it has its place in the pantheon of western oddities, thanks to the wonderfully ambiguous opening scene, with Van Cleef, bathed in spooky green and red lights, eliminating several opponents. The proceedings are witnessed by a tribunal. What is this? Has Sabata become a state executioner? When the opponents are all down, a door opens, clowns come in, and … it becomes clear that we have witnessed a circus act. The postmodernist aspects of the genre had never been expressed in a more double-dyed way …

Other Sabata films

As was common with successful Spaghetti Western franchises, such as the Dollars Trilogy , Django or Sartana, several other movies had the name Sabata in their title to cash in on the popularity of Parolini's movies. These included Wanted Sabata, directed by Roberto Mauri starring Brad Harris, and Arriva Sabata!, directed by Tulio Demicheli starring Peter Lee Lawrence, both made in 1970. Abre tu fosa, amigo, llega Sábata..., made in 1971, and starring Richard Harrison, has the name Sabata in the title but features no character that could ever be identified as a relative of the man in black. The same goes for Watch Out Gringo! Sabata Will Return, made in 1972, directed by Alfonso Balcázar and Pedro Luis Ramà­rez and starring actor George Martin. None of these are considered part of the "official" series.

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  • (1)
  • (2) Kevin Grant, Any Gun Can Play, p. 261-262
  • (3) Marco Giusti, Dizionario del western all'italiana
  • (4) It's not quite clear why Lee refused to star in it; it's sometimes said he didn't like the screenplay, but Alex Cox thinks he asked too much money; see: Alex Cox, 10.000 Ways to Die, p. 277. Glenn Ericsson of DVD Talk has suggested that Lee preferred to star in a Magnificent Seven sequel; this would have been The Magnificent Seven Ride, but that movie was made two years later.
  • (5) See also Kevin Grant's comments on this aspect of the character: Kevin Grant, Any Gun Can Play, p. 264

--By Scherpschutter