At the end of the 1960s, the spaghetti western boom was at its peak and producers were looking for the next ‘Man With No Name’ or ‘Django’ to capitalise on the genre’s ability to print out money relative to the low cost of production. Several new franchises found success, including the ‘Sartana’ series, which was kicked off with If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death. That film’s director and co-writer, Gianfranco Parolini, wasn’t called back for the sequels but instead was hired to launch yet another series, with Sabata.

Lee Van Cleef had already become a big name with his roles in the last two Dollars films, as well as a couple of starring roles in titles such as The Big Gundown and Day of Anger. Sabata was a chance to give him a character he could make his own and, indeed, the film proved to be very successful, spawning another two films. The second didn’t star Lee Van Cleef (the reason why I’ll get to later) but the venture still got the producers what they wanted just before the popularity of the spaghetti western began to wane into the 70s.

Eureka have targeted The Sabata Trilogy as their latest release and, being a spaghetti western fan, I couldn’t resist checking it out. My brief thoughts on the films and discs follow.

Sabata

Director: Gianfranco Parolini
Screenplay by: Gianfranco Parolini, Renato Izzo
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla, Aldo Canti, Franco Ressel
Country: Italy, Spain
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1969

Sabata opens with the theft of $100,000 of Army money from a bank in the town of Daughtery, Texas. The authorities claim to not be able to track down the culprits but the wandering gunman Sabata (Lee Van Cleef) quickly intercepts and kills the thieves, bringing the money back to the army. He’s rewarded for his efforts but smells a rat and soon discovers that the wealthy Stengel (Franco Ressel) had engineered the robbery, alongside a small group of local officials, who hoped to use the money to buy cheap land that would soon become valuable once the railroad came through.

Whilst Stengel ties up the loose ends to hide his involvement in the robbery, Sabata and his friend Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) step on his toes and continue to demand more money from the villain in return for the remaining evidence at their disposal.

Stengel hires a string of gunslingers to stop Sabata, but his sharp eye, quick wit and array of gadgets continue to prove too much for them. There’s one man though, Banjo (William Berger), whose allegiances are unclear, that might prove to be Sabata’s undoing.

I thought Sabata was a lot of fun. The plot is your usual generic spaghetti western setup of evil rich landowners screwing over a town whilst a clever sharpshooter makes life difficult for them. However, perhaps influenced by the success of the James Bond franchise or maybe even the Wild Wild West TV show, Sabata manages to set itself a little apart from the spaghetti western crowd through its use of clever tricks and gadgets.

Most notably, Sabata himself has a tiny gun that’s easy to hide but manages to house four barrels in front and three hidden ones in the grip. It’s utterly ridiculous in an engineering sense but is undeniably cool on screen. Sabata also pulls off some neat tricks, such as shooting out the legs of a chair to make a rude saloon patron fall in his soup. The accuracy of his shooting is, again, unlikely to be physically possible with the quality of weaponry back then and the range he shoots at, but it gives the character and film a fun, comic-book feel. The spaghetti westerns were often cited for making the west more ‘realistic’ in their dusty, dirty production design and makeup but, as Sabata demonstrates, elsewhere the films veered pretty far from any sense of reality.

Van Cleef is another big selling point for the film. As always, he’s as cool as a cucumber, whether gunning down bad guys in ever more inventive ways or delivering sharp quips to put them in their place. There are some fun side characters too, such as the awfully stereotypical yet enjoyably larger-than-life Carrincha, played by Ignazio Spalla, one of the few actors to appear in all three films here (albeit in different roles).

Sabata looks great too. The production values are a little above many similar spaghetti westerns and it’s dynamically shot with plenty of movement and great use of depth and occasionally quite unusual angles.

The film is a touch too long for such lightweight fare, but it’s loaded with action, stylish camerawork and fun tricks, so wins out in the end.

Film:

Adiós, Sabata

Director: Gianfranco Parolini
Screenplay by: Gianfranco Parolini, Renato Izzo
Starring: Yul Brynner, Dean Reed, Ignazio Spalla, Gérard Herter, Sal Borgese, Franco Fantasia
Country: Italy, Spain
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1970

Adiós, Sabata was not originally intended to be a Sabata film, it was going to be an ‘India Black’ film, hoping to start a new franchise headed by Yul Brynner. However, following Sabata‘s success, the producers changed the title, probably during or just before shooting. With having the same director and writers behind it and a similar style (likely incorporated following the change), the film nevertheless works as a Sabata film, despite the change of lead actor.

Adiós, Sabata sees the titular character (now played by Brynner) get involved in the stirrings of revolution in Mexico. Guerillas hire Sabata to help them steal a wagonload of gold from Emperor Maximillian’s Austrian and French forces. He does so, but the wagon comes back filled with sand. Deducting that the Austrian Colonel Skimmel (Gérard Herter) has the gold, Sabata tries to steal it again, teaming up with a team of revolutionaries led by Escudo (Ignazio Spalla), as well as the suspicious and greedy artist Ballantine (Dean Reed), who has access to Skimmel.

Despite the Mexican Revolution backdrop, this is another comic-book style romp with a high body count and plenty of fancy sharp-shooting and gimmicks (check out the guy who slings metal pellets at his enemies using his foot!). The camp factor is ramped up a lot here too, not only in Brynner’s tasselled and chest-baring outfit but in bizarre touches like the “flamenco of death” that’s danced before Escudo executes traitors to the cause. There’s even a scene where Sabata and Ballantine butt heads over their piano skills and end up playing a duet together!

However, though I still enjoyed Adiós, Sabata, it isn’t quite as polished as its predecessor. For starters, the cinematography is less stylish and inventive (other than a wild spinning camera sequence when the team first thinks they’ve got their hands on the gold). I felt like Brynner was phoning it in a bit too, in comparison to Van Cleef, who was probably still relishing the lead roles he was getting in this period, after languishing in minor and villainous parts for over a decade prior.

The film does boast a fine score by Bruno Nicolai though. It’s very reminiscent of the Dollars scores but doesn’t fall too far short of them. Nicolai conducted most of Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks for a while, which might explain the similarities. Reportedly, Morricone got annoyed at Nicolai borrowing a lot of his musicians for his own scores and the pair fell out.

The climax is suitably explosive too and, action-wise, the film fires on all cylinders. I just couldn’t help but compare Adiós, Sabata to what came before and it didn’t quite match up. It’s still well worth a look though, so long as you don’t mind the high-camp elements.

Film:

Return of Sabata

Director: Gianfranco Parolini
Screenplay by: Gianfranco Parolini, Renato Izzo
Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Reiner Schöne, Giampiero Albertini, Ignazio Spalla, Annabella Incontrera, Aldo Canti
Country: Italy, France, West Germany
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1971

Return of Sabata sees Lee Van Cleef back in the titular role. The film opens with Sabata using his sharpshooting skills as part of a circus sideshow. When arriving in the town of Hobsonville with the act, he bumps into an old army buddy, Clyde (Reiner Schöne), who’s now running a casino there.

When one of the circus performers is found dead and another disappears, along with the circus funds, Sabata decides to stick around in Hobsonville, to figure out what happened. Clyde has a longstanding debt to him too, so Sabata figures he could cash this in whilst he’s there.

In town, Sabata soon discovers it’s being bled dry by the McIntock family, led by Joe (Giampiero Albertini). When Sabata refuses to pay their extortionate taxes, he rubs the family up the wrong way and becomes a target.

I felt the Sabata series had run out of steam by this point. The opening scene is refreshingly different, with a slightly surreal atmosphere that adds giallo stylings to a sequence reminiscent to the introduction to The Man With the Golden Gun. However, soon after this, the film sits back on the usual formula with several returning players and plot points. You’ve got your usual mix of gimmicky trick-shooting, corrupt landowners, an old ‘friend’ who can’t be trusted, a rambunctious Greek chorus from Ignazio Spalla and acrobatics from Aldo Canti (whose skills I forgot to mention earlier). I wouldn’t have minded, but somehow the ingredients don’t quite add up here.

Most notably, for me, I found the storytelling rather messy and clunky. There’s not much of a flow to the film, with scenes feeling a little randomly forced in. As such, it feels too long. All three titles could have done with a slight trim, but here I was actually losing interest at times.

There feels to be less effort put in too, with fewer memorable set pieces, other than the aforementioned opening and an explosive climax.

The lack of a strong villain doesn’t help matters either, though Van Cleef is his reliably cool self and appears to still be having fun in the role.

Overall, Return of Sabata is much of the same but just doesn’t gel like the others and felt like a slog at times. The film has its moments but is certainly the weakest in the set.

Film:

The Sabata Trilogy is out on 18th October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka. The films look decent. There’s some very minor damage and dirt here and there but largely the images are pleasing with nice colours. There were some rather soft shots in Adiós, Sabata in particular, but these were likely focus issues with the original footage.

Surprisingly, there are no Italian audio options, with only English language presentations available. Personally, I tend to lean towards the English tracks on spaghetti westerns, particularly those with American stars, so it doesn’t bother me, but purists might baulk at not having a choice.

The 3-disc Blu-ray set includes:

– O-Card Slipcase
– Reversible Sleeve featuring original poster artwork for each film
– 1080p presentations on Blu-ray from High-Definition transfers
– English audio options
– Optional English SDH Subtitles
– Sabata – Brand new feature-length audio commentary by author/critic Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
– Adiós, Sabata – Brand new feature-length audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Mike Siegel
– Return of Sabata – Brand new feature-length audio commentary by authors C. Courtney Joyner & Henry Parke
– New video pieces on each film by Austin Fisher, author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema
– Trailers
– Stills Galleries
– PLUS: A Limited-Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by Western expert Howard Hughes [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]

Austin Fisher’s 10-15 minute pieces on each film are essential additions to the set, putting the titles in context as to when and why they were made.

Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw are honest about Sabata‘s daft nature in their commentary. They don’t pretend it’s a masterpiece but still find many qualities in the film and have lots of interesting facts to imbibe about those involved, as well as offering a discussion on its place in the genre. It’s an enjoyable and informative track.

Mike Siegel’s commentary on Adiós, Sabata is very good too, digging deep into the backgrounds of those involved in the film. Dean Reed’s story is particularly fascinating, though Siegel gets rather political and spends a little too much time on it, veering away from the film for a very long stretch.

C. Courtney Joyner & Henry Parke’s Return of Sabata commentary helped me better appreciate the film, though I feel they went a little too easy on it. It’s an enjoyable and informative track nevertheless, that has some interesting thoughts on the development of the spaghetti western boom in general.

The booklet contains an essay that discusses, in considerable detail, the films of Gianfranco Parolini. He worked extensively in Italian genre movies since the early 60s and the films mentioned here sound like a lot of fun, so hopefully some more titles will make there way to Blu-ray over time. There’s also an essay on the Sabata films that provides some useful context.

Overall then, it’s a decent package for a fun set of spaghetti westerns.

Disc/Package:

The Sabata Trilogy - Eureka
Films
Disc/Package
4.0Overall:
Reader Rating: (2 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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