||Sabata (1969) was a Spaghetti Western character who technically appeared in a couple of movies out of Italy from director Gianfranco Parolini, only he directed another between those two that was retitled into the franchise thanks to its similarities to the first one. Lee Van Cleef was your man in the title role for those two official entries, while Yul Brynner "took over" for the middle one, but for many Van Cleef was the definitive star for these, since the part appeared to have been tailored to his particular set of skills. In the opener, we find out next to nothing about Sabata, he is very much the mystery man who rides into town and cleans it up, or at least finds something to exploit and if that means killing off the corrupt authorities, so much the better for the townsfolk.
Van Cleef had, of course, become a leading man in Italy after slaving away in supporting roles - sometimes without any lines - since the early nineteen-fifties, with a few classics to his name, notably High Noon. He had such a distinctive look, the feral features, the permanent sneer, that he was a natural for the villainous roles, but it took Sergio Leone to cast him in For a Few Dollars More and suddenly he had his career second wind, earning the main roles in a number of European flicks that he took full advantage of. Some of these were more complex than others, and it had to be said Sabata was not the deepest of personalities an actor would bring to the screen, but Van Cleef's natural charisma and obvious relish he was taking in this stroke of luck lifted the material.
The plot, such as it was, had Sabata foil the robbery of the town bank's safe and thanks to his superhuman sharpshooting skills despatches the gang who committed the crime, though he has an idea that there is more to them than meets the eye. He's right: the town leaders orchestrated the robbery and now as Sabata demands a reward, they're going to bend over backwards not to give it to him. He has the help of two misfits, tubby Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and acrobatic Indio (Aldo Canti), though he's not sure where he stands with watchful musician Banjo (William Berger in an unlikely ginger wig), who in this gimmicky effort hides his gun in his instrument. It may have been lightweight stuff, but there were plenty of reasons to enjoy its indulgences and conceits.
The gadgets in these movies were probably inspired by James Bond, and Yul Brynner in 1970's Adios, Sabata had not one but two fancy guns, one Van Cleef's pistol and the other a rifle with an unusual loading set-up that doubled as a cigar holder (!). As is well known, this movie was originally nothing to do with the character, but the original Sabata had done so well that it was an obvious marketing choice to rename it internationally under that moniker - Brynner had originally been named Indio Black in it. Mind you, even if this title was not the initial plan, there were definite similarities as if director Parolini was ripping off himself, and the plot resembled a collection of Italian Western cliches strung together merrily so that it did not matter who was taking the lead in it.
But of course, it did, and while Brynner was well into the coasting phase of his career, his immense charisma was such that he merely had to show up, don the fancy costume (fancier than Van Cleef's) and say the lines (he dubbed himself for the English language version) and the illusion of a performance was present and correct. But Brynner was not alone on the screen as Sabata tries to track down a cache of gold in pre-revolutionary Mexico (the left-wing Italian filmmakers were always interested in this era, hoping for a revolution of their own in Italy), as another interesting name was in the cast, Dean Reed. He was a huge star behind the Iron Curtain, a rock 'n' roll singer who espoused Marxist views yet hailed from the United States, from which he had been in exile.
While he was in Europe, Reed tried to become a movie star and Westerns were his forte, this being probably his highest profile role in the West. Sadly, his life ended in mysterious circumstances in the mid-nineteen-eighties when supposedly the KGB assassinated him as he tried to get a US pet project off the ground, though the details remain murky; a biopic has been in development hell for some years. Because of this, Adios, Sabata has as much interest for film buffs as the first instalment, and if it ends in a bridge demolition a la The Good The Bad and The Ugly, well, there were only so many ideas going around, weren't there? A rare Western where Austrians are the villains, this was rather long-winded but when it came to his brand of cartoonish action, once again Parolini delivered.
He was back for 1971's Return of Sabata, which after Adios, Sabata performed well at the box office, saw fit to rehire Van Cleef for the part that may not have been a signature role, but had done very well indeed for him worldwide from recent years. Parolini, billed as he was in all three of these efforts as "Frank Kramer", an anglicised alias that must have fooled precisely nobody about the series’ nation of origin, was in as playful mood as before, though if anything this threequel was closer to a spoof, as the Spaghetti Westerns of the seventies began to lean towards. It could just about get away with being taken seriously, but Van Cleef exhibited a cheeky smirk and grin throughout that appeared to indicate he was privy to a private joke not everyone was in on.
So he was having fun, and no wonder when these Italian Westerns had saved him financially and made him a household name, or a household face at least, across the globe, every movie actor's dream. Funnily enough the year before this he had been in one of the sequels to The Magnificent Seven, another link to Brynner and evidence he was bankable in America, where he was able to star in a number of Westerns as the lead, a far cry from his debut where he may have looked memorable, but was not given any lines. As this revival of Sabata, you could sense his confidence, though he was too professional to allow that to move over into smugness, and he remained the best reason to watch what was, when you boiled it down, a somewhat daft plot, and well-worn at that.
Not that the other Sabata movies pretended to be anything but riffs on existing Western themes and familiar scenes, they just amplified them to degrees veering towards the ridiculous, yet if you responded to the devil may care attitude towards being sensible, they were very enjoyable. In Return of Sabata, the action was largely confined to one town set, and a set that was very familiar to fans of this type of work, or at least from this part of the world. The plot had our hero battling wryly against a corrupt authority once more, getting framed for murder and even getting a love interest (Annabella Incontrera) which he had shown no interest in before. Series regular Spalla, in all three as different characters was present as were two acrobats, Parolini's fondness for visual trickery well to the fore once again. It went on too long as it was too much enamoured of its smarts and undercutting the conventions while embracing them anyway, but it was good to see Van Cleef as the dapper gunman for a second time, and his arsenal was something to witness.
[Eureka's 3-disc Blu-ray set of The Sabata Trilogy has these special features:
O-Card Slipcase | Reversible Sleeve featuring original poster artwork for each film | 1080p presentations on Blu-ray from High Definition transfers | English and Italian audio options | Optional English SDH Subtitles | Sabata - Brand new feature length audio commentary by author / critic Kim Newman | 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].]