Schlock & Awe: Sabata

There’s nothing I like more than a good (or even not so good) Spaghetti Western, if my writings for this here column are any indication. I just never really seem to get enough of them in a way that used to be reserved for zombie movies. Italian westerns were grittier, more violent, and somehow much sillier a lot of the time than their American counterparts, and that’s part of their charm; made in the ’60s and ’70s, when the pool of American westerns had all but dried up, westerns made through Italian, Spanish, and West German money were churning out Sergio Leone ripoffs by the hundreds; as long as they had one recognizable American star, they were good to go. No one’s career became as revitalized as a result than character actor Lee Van Cleef, and one of his crowning achievements in film is the 1969 gadget-heavy Spaghetti, Sabata.

This is one of my very favorite non-Leone, non-Corbucci Spaghetti Westerns, simply because of the sheer off-the-wallishness of it. It was co-written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (credited as the super American-sounding Frank Kramer) and represents the weird excesses of the genre done in the best way possible, thanks in no small part to producer Alberto Grimaldi who also produced some of the best in the mid-’60s, like For a Few Dollars MoreThe Big Gundown, and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, all of which starred Lee Van Cleef also. Sabata took the genre and added a bit of fantasy/comic-book stuff, with Sabata himself having an arsenal of gadget weapons and his allies having strange superpowers. And perhaps my favorite part is the Italian title: Ehi amico … c’è Sabata. Hai chiuso!, which roughly translates to “Hey buddy… That’s Sabata, you’re finished!” How bizarre.

The narrow-eyed Van Cleef plays the titular marksman and gambler who comes to a town in Texas to foil a bank robbery and learns that the heist was planned by the leaders of the town, who all want to sell the town to the railroad at the expense of all the peaceful people living there. Sabata decides he wants to blackmail them and the top man in town, Stengel, hires a number of mercenaries and bounty hunters to kill Sabata, including the thoughtful outlaw Banjo (William Berger), named that because he has a rifle hidden inside his precious banjo. Sabata uses a number of different specialty weapons and keeps the company of a stoic Native American who can literally leap on top of tall buildings in a single bound, and a fat alcoholic Civil War vet who throws knives insanely accurately through all the booze.

The set up is really simple, and not particularly inventive; Sabata, a stranger who has his own set of morals and is out for money, comes into a highly corrupt town run by highly despicable people and inadvertently does the right thing and cleans everything up while trying to outsmart and outgun everybody. We’ve seen similar things before. What sets the movie apart is the tone. There’s a weird sense of fun to this movie that isn’t in many Spaghetti Westerns, despite the heavy violence. The upbeat score is much more in the vein of adventure than it is about hard-edged grit. This also isn’t a revenge movie, so that really lessens the need for dourness. Van Cleef plays everything 100-percent straight, and in fact everybody does, which allows for the more ridiculous elements of the plot to somehow skate by.

My favorite character in the film, aside from Sabata himself, is William Berger as Banjo, surely a reference to the 1954 Nicholas Ray film Johnny Guitar, about a nameless gunman who walks into town playing a guitar. (The same thing was referenced in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 with the character of Harmonica.) Banjo doesn’t seem to be involved too much at first, but the fact that genre-staple Berger is playing the character, and he seems to be omnipresent, leads the audience to believe he’s very important. Which he is; he eventually reveals that he’s been hired to kill Sabata, but he walks out into the city street for the duel with nothing but his banjo. “What’s this guy doing?” you ask yourself, but those questions are answered when the man cocks the banjo and then we find out that he has a modified Winchester rifle built into the instrument. Ha HA! Quite the rapscallion, that Banjo.

As far as smarmy, sniveling villains go, Stengel, played by Franco Ressel, is one of the best. It’s set up that he’s the wealthiest man in the territory and, like a lot of these bad guys, he is actually good at shooting. He’s set up an obstacle course of sorts for himself in his mansion where he can practice his sharpshooting skills on mechanical dummies and pop-outs. It’s sort of like the Xavier School’s War Room. The film ends with a confrontation between Sabata and Stengel in this room, and it looks as though our antihero is done for, but they don’t call Sabata “The Man with Gunsights for Eyes” for nothing. It’s a highly memorable and sort of psychedelically-shot sequence that really stands out. While all Spaghetti Westerns are required to have a duel to end the movie, none but this one have it indoors and with clockwork things. This is, of course, AFTER a huge gun battle in which the entire town explodes at night. Some great set pieces in this movie.

While not the most groundbreaking of films, Sabata succeeds in being a here of a good time and one of the most gun-fighty of the traditionally bloody genre. Lee Van Cleef continues his streak of being in awesome westerns, where he can play both good guy and bad guy with the same level of believability. His career was all but over in the United States, where he generally played the third baddie from the left, but over in Europe, he got to be the lead, and you can tell he reveled in every moment of it.

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