The Making of the Italian West: Part 12

Sartana Westerns

A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Italian West Part XII, Sartana

More articles by Phillip López Jiménez


At the same time as The Zapata Westerns were happening, a new character creeped onto the scene via a dusty cloud and clad in black. His name…Sartana!

Gianni Garko as Django in 10000 Blood Money (1967)

Sartana was played Italian actor Gianni Garko in a total five Sartana pictures, six if you count the “prequel” 100 On The Black or as it’s sometimes referred to as Blood At Sundown, which is on the title of the collection I have a three disc set of 10 Sartana’s, five official films and five knock offs, all with varying quality unfortunately. A new remastered set is supposed to be released later this year, with 2k transfers and tons of extras.

Who or what, exactly is Sartana? Is he a gunslinger, Magician or a ghost perhaps? I guess the answer would be all of the above, at least in the first picture. As I go on to discuss more about each picture, who he is, what he wears, and what he shoots remain the same. He wears a black suit, white shirt and a black cape.

His weapons are a Winchester and what I believe to be a Sharps & Hankins four barrel Pepperbox pistol. I say I believe because I haven’t come across a lookalike in my research, it could be they recreated one for the film as these are fairly rare, especially the Remington Elliot which had six barrels and only a 1000 were produced. Sartana used other weapons over the course of the films as well, smoke bombs, playing cards, an Organ, and even a Robot!

If you take in his first appearance as the evil Biblical Cain like brother Sartana Liston who, Spoiler Alert: was killed at the end of 1000 On The Black, he’s walking this world as a ghost righting wrongs, perhaps redeeming himself? Some clues to this, since this question is never answered, can be the winds that always appear when he comes and goes, his laugh that is similar to old time radio’s The Shadow.

“You look just like a scarecrow.” (click to play)

And after a bad guy tells him “You look just like a scarecrow.” his first line of dialogue in If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Death is “I am your pallbearer!” This really was only in the first film, he wasn’t so spectral in the other pictures.

Vintage movie posters for ‘1000 dollars on black’ also known in Germany as as ‘Sartana’

The truth about this mystery is that 1000 On The Black played very well in Germany where it was called simply Sartana. So when it came time to make a sequel the producers wanted to make the dead protagonist the hero, that’s one story at least. Gianni Garko was called in to reprise his role but he didn’t want to do any vengeance type pictures and recommended a James Bond approach and a character that was more debonair than grungy like Eastwood’s stranger.

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By 1968 the genre was losing steam and horror pictures were starting to compete for box office dollars, with pictures later like Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill and in 1970 Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would usher in the Italian Giallo craze, which would last until the end of the 70’s. The Sartana pictures marked the beginning of the more tongue in cheek Spaghetti Westerns,  leading to the more comedic films like The Trinity pictures, a trend director Sergio Leone knew would mark the end of the genre. People started goofing on the title by calling it If You Meet Sartana Tell Him He’s An Asshole!

In 1966, a Spaghetti called 1000 On The Black (1000 Dollari Sul Nero) on screen title Blood At Sundown directed by Alberto Cardone (Albert Cardiff) was released. Now, this is not an official Sartana picture but it must be mentioned because of Gianni Garko (here credited as John Garko) and his character Sartana Liston.

1000 Dollari Sul Nero ($1000 On The Black, Blood At Sundown)
Director Alberto Cordone, Writer Ernesto Gastaldi, Vittorio Salerno
Staring Anthony Steffen, Gianni Garko, Erika Blank

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I’m not going to spend too much time on this title but it’s a good place to start if you want to believe that Sartana is a ghost angle. The story here is about two brothers, Johnny Liston and his brother Sartana Liston (played by Anthony Steffen and Gianni Garko respectively) Johnny has just come back from a twelve year prison sentence after he was set up by his evil brother Sartana. He goes back home only to find that Sartana has taken over the gang and stolen his woman and resided over by his manipulative mother. Johnny meets blonde haired hottie, Joselita Rogers, played by the beautiful Erika Blanc of Kill, Baby, Kill, the daughter of the man Johnny was accused of murdering.

Bullwhip scene

The film is violent, grungy and Shakespearean. I love how Garko’s Sartana sadistically uses a bullwhip like Bruce Bennett in the film Fiend of Dope Island.

Movie trailer featuring Bruce Bennett in the film Fiend of Dope Island

The film is also littered with plenty of the usual Spaghetti Western actors; Sieghardt Rupp, and Carlo D’Angelo. Most of the sets are the usual Spanish locations in Almeria. One really cool location is an Aztec temple!

An Aztec temple in the States? Sartana and his gang have their hideout in this temple, I thought this was really cool even though it’s very inaccurate. I also thought this must be a left over set from some exotic epic that had recently been shot there. After some research I figured it’s the German film Treasure of The Aztecs directed by the great Robert Siodmak and starring Lex Barker during his Winnetou phase, which had been partially shot in Spain.

The disk I view this film from is Sartana: The Complete Saga the transfers aren’t very good but what was interesting is that one the films it doesn’t jump to the menu but rather straight into If You Meet Sartana…Prey For Death. Which makes Sartana’s intro a bit startling and actually kind of works, I’m sure that wasn’t intended though. At the end of the picture a title card reads:

 Thou shall not hate thine brother in thine heart.
Leviticus 19:17

If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Death (1968)

Director Gianfranco Parolini (Frank Kramer) Writer Renato Izzo, Theo Maria Werner, Gianfranco Parolini

Staring Gianni Garko, William Berger, Fernando Sancho and Klaus Kinski

“I Am Your Pall Bearer.”  -Sartana

In my opinion the first Sartana picture, If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Death is the best of the lot.  The plot has a lot going on as there are so many twists and turns and manipulations by everyone involved that it can be hard to follow, but like just about every SW is about a quest for gold and whose going to end up with it.

“I feel as if a ghost were following me.” (click to play)

When we first meet Sartana he is riding behind a prairie schooner as one of it’s passengers says “I feel as if a ghost were following me.” (This is an interesting comment if watched back to back with $1000 On The Black.) Her husband responds by telling her that the gentleman, Sartana (again played by Gianni Garko), must be an insurance agent working for the company who owns the transport. The schooner is ambushed and the couple are shot as well as Sartana,  in a slow reveal we see that the shooter is a mysterious man named Morgan, played by eccentric German actor Klaus Kinski making what is little more than a cameo. His men ride up to the scene and we see Sartana was just feigning death and blows them away with his Sharps Four Barrel Pepperbox and a Winchester.

Later a two bankers (Gianni Rizzo and stage actor Sidney Chaplin whose father was Charlie) load up a stagecoach with a safe filled with what else…gold. They make a deal to have it stolen with General Jose Manuel Francisco Mendoza Montezuma De La Plata Perez Rodriguez but you can call him “El Tampico” which is a recurring joke along the lines of The Princess Bride, Tampico is played by the ubiquitous Fernando Sancho (who was Italy’s go to guy for playing stereotypical Pancho Villa types) This stagecoach too gets ambushed by a gang whose leader is a man named Lasky, played by Austrian actor William Berger (if Berger’s voice sounds familiar it’s because he was responsible for dubbing Lou Castel’s voice in Bullet For The General) Lansky ambushes his gang, kills them all and takes the safe only to learn it’s filled with rocks, there never was gold in it to begin with! When he realizes this, a tune plays, it’s from Sartana’s pocket watch  (an obvious nod to Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer in A Few Dollars More.) but Lansky can’t see where it’s coming from.

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Back in town Lansky goes and collects his money from the bankers who arranged transport of the gold and figures they just wanted to collect insurance money. Now ya see what I mean about it having a lot going on with the plot, as The Dude would say “”A lot of in’s ‘n’ out’s and what have you’s.” 

Lasky goes downstairs to play some cards when Sartana shows up. This is where we get to see Sartana shuffle cards like a magician and we meet Dusty a cantankerous old man who’s  the town’s undertaker and Sartana’s confidant shades of Fistful of Dollars (also of note, dust is always present when Sartana arrives) Sartana kicks ass at the table and takes everyone’s money and leaves only to have the players confront him.

He quickly beats them in a draw by quickly putting a cylinder Into his Sharps. Sharps pistols were single shot, but Sartana’s also has a five bullet revolver and the cylinder is painted with card suits! The rest of the picture is all the characters back stabbing each other with Sartana in the middle, one step ahead of everyone.

Director Parolini keeps the action moving briskly and keeps Sartana spectral and mysterious and even philosophical. Sartana has a nice moment with his elderly confidant, Dusty, who we learn was once an award winning sculptor before having to build coffins to make ends meet. Sartana looks at an old trophy of Dusty’s and says…

Life takes a lot out of you…it’s hard to take the right road and stay on it, Dusty. Stick to art if you’re good at it. A prize like this is worth aimin’ at…”

At the end of the film Dusty says “Wait! You still haven’t told me who ya are.”

Sartana’s reply is “The First Class Pall Bearer!” He rides off into a cloud of dust laughing, which reminded me of old-time Radio’s The Shadow.

In fact Sartana’s outfit is very similar to The Shadow’s and director Gianfranco Parolini said not only was the character influenced by the then phenomenally popular James Bond but also by Lee Falk’s Mandrake The Magician, who uses illusions and magic tricks to thwart evil,  many consider Mandrake The Magician to be the first superhero comic and his popularity was world wide.

Click to hear Piero Piccioni’s “Sartana” theme

The soundtrack by Piero Piccioni is less Morricone and more Quincy Jones and reminds me of The Ventures at times. I remember getting those double CD Classic Italian Soundtracks Spaghetti Westerns in the late 90s and grooving to these tunes, there are several volumes, and wanting to see the films associated with the music, fortunately DVDs made that possible. I still listen to those disks quite often.

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

“a Cloak, A hat. Anyone can pass as Sartana.”

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969) (a.k.a Sartana the Gravedigger)

I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)
(Sono Sartana, Il Vostro Becchino,  Sartana The Gravedigger)
Director Giuliano Carnimeo (Anthony Ascott),  Writer Tito Capari
Staring Gianni Garko, Frank Wolff, Klaus Kinski
Music Vasil Kojucharov here as Vasco, Elsio Mancuso

In this picture the plot is much more simple.  Sartana, who seems to no longer be a spectral stranger but is now known to everyone, is accused of robbery. After someone dresses up like him and robs a bank he must clear his name and find the people who set him up, the problem is, he now has a $10,000 price on his head and every pistolero wants to pump him full of lead including Hot Dead (played by Klaus Kinski)

Frank Wolff as Buddy Ben

Along the way he has help from friends like Buddy Ben (played by American ex-patriot Frank Wolff, best known as Brett McBain in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West. Here he’s dressed like Ward Bond from John Ford’s The Searchers)

Later our man Sartana is captured after a shootout with some card players who were also involved with the robbery. He’s thrown in jail where he cleverly escapes with a spoon, his hat and his belt. Before he leaves though, he gets some info out of another of the bank robbers that is in the same jail house. After the prisoner is assassinated by one of his own Sartana is again cuffed and taken away to another town. On their way they stop to eat and Sartana makes another great escape, this time like Mandrake The Magician with card tricks and mesmerism!

Director Gianfranco Parolini

Director and co-conspirator of If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Death Gianfranco Parolini did not return, nor does he ever to the world of Sartana.  He does however, re-invent the character in his next picture Sabata with Lee Van Cleef as the titular character; he’ll go on to successfully direct three of those pictures, which I’ll write about in a later installment. Director Giuliano Carnimeo, like Sartana, proves he has a few tricks up his sleeves too, as this film is more light hearted and fun (I do prefer the first one though). This would be his sixth picture and fifth SW, he co-directed the comedy Panic Button that stared Maurice Chevalier and Jayne Mansfield. Here he adds a lot of light humor and some clever action scenes.

“Might be he’s the one behind our holdup” with that Eastwood inflection

Gianni Garko returns to the role more debonair, thinner and looking a lot like Richard Chamberlain or James Franciscus. His voice is different as well, in the previous picture he sounds a bit English, but here he has a bit of an Eastwood twang. Overall I Am Sartana Your Angel Of Death is a solid B western that’s lots of fun and Garko’s charismatic performance just adds to it, it’s more Wild Wild West which makes it unique in away.

-Phillip López Jiménez

Next up: I Am Sartana Trade Your Guns For A Coffin minus Gianni Garko!

             Gianni Garko returns in Have A Good Funeral My Friend Sartana Will Pay

             Light The Fuse Sartana Is Coming

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