Friday 29 July 2011

Sabata (1969)

In spaghetti westerns there are several films which featured characters who were so popular with audiences that they ended up spawning several sequels, both official and unofficial.  The best known of these is Clint Eastwood's 'Man with No Name' character.  He is followed, roughly in descending order of popularity and ubiquity by Django, Sartana, Ringo and Sabata.  Evidently badasses only have one name; super-badasses have none at all.  It makes sense when you think about it: Colin Django or Barry Sartana just don't quite have the same ring.

Sabata first appeared in Gianfranco Parolini's 1969 feature Ehi amico... c'e Sabata, hai chiuso! which more or less translates as 'Hey friend, that's Sabata - you're done!'.  Happily that was shortened to just SABATA for general release outside Italy. 

Lee Van Cleef as Sabata
Like pretty much every other 'hero' in spaghetti westerns, Sabata is a lone gunman with an eye for gold who is the hero by dint of being relatively more moral than the villains.  Sabata's USP is his inventiveness: he kills a man with a gun hidden inside a bag; he disguises himself as a portrait painting to kill some more men; he has all sorts of attachments to make his trademark pistol serve different functions.  And as if that wasn't enough to see off hordes of henchmen, he is a deadeye shot too - able to drop a horseman from 600 yards apparently.

So one tough hombre.  Not so tough, however, that he doesn't need a couple of allies.  You get this a lot in spaghetti westerns: a loquacious sidekick who makes up for the fact that the hero tends to be a man of few words.  In Sabata's case, he gets two: the corpulent knifeman Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and the acrobat Alley Cat (Bruno Ukmar).

Three amigos: (from L to R) Sabata, Alley Cat and Garrincha
Sabata is played by the great Lee Van Cleef who served his apprenticeship in two of the Eastwood / Leone films before getting his own leading role in the spaghetti western boom that followed.  It's good to see him playing a 'hero' for a change although again that's a relative term in these movies.  He exits holding mountains of cash and leaving dozens of bodies behind, having paid his friends to help him to do it, so he's no Robin Hood, let alone Shane.

It's these moral ambiguities, not to say outright cynicism that makes the spaghetti western so appealing.  The black and white morality of most US westerns goes right out of the window, to be replaced by scheming, treachery, corruption and carnage.  SABATA is also typical of the genre in that the villains are all authority figures: three pillars of society who steal money from the Army to finance the purchase of land that will increase in value with the imminent arrival of the railroad.

William Berger
William Berger, who plays Banjo, was one of the most prolific cult Euro actors of them all.  An Austrian, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s he racked up well over a hundred screen credits, working with directors such as Jess Franco and Mario Bava along the way.  Probably most familiar from his work in spaghetti westerns such as this one, Berger was nevertheless game for anything and even popped up in a couple of blaxploitation pictures in the 1970s.

SABATA was shot on location in Almeria in Spain and at the famous Elios Studios in Rome where, among others, DJANGO [1966] was filmed.

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