The Making of the Italian West: Part 14

with Lee Van Cleef as Sabata

More articles by Phillip López Jiménez

In the last couple of posts I’ve discussed the Sartana pictures, the first four with Gianni Garko as the titular character, here I am going to go over another series of pictures created by Sartana originator Gianfranco Parolini called Sabata!

After the success of his picture If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Your Death, Gianfranco Parolini teamed up with Italian producer extraordinaire Albert Grimaldi, best known for some of the best SW’s like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary as well as art house films like Fellini’s Satyricon, and together they made three of the most incredibly fun and unique westerns in the genre; Sabata, Adiós Sabata and finally The Return of Sabata.

A Familiar Character With A Twist

Sartana, the black clad avenger with a Sharps and Hankins four barrel Pepperbox Pistol is some what reinvented in the form of Sabata. Sabata wears the same black suit and black cape, and a wide brimmed Gambler Hat. He too carries a four barrel Derringer with some customizations, more on that later, and a rifle with different barrels. The idea for the outfits and arsenal of weapons  for both Sartana and Sabata originally came from the character, Colonel Mortimer from Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More, so who better to play Sabata than that actor himself, Lee Van Cleef!

After The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Lee Van Cleef was a hot commodity in Italian westerns and became a huge star internationally so he stayed in Italy for a time and made several great SW’s like The Big Gundown, Day Of Anger,  Death Rides A Horse to name a few, before jumping on board for Sabata. Van Cleef would describe these pictures as “James Bond in The West.” That pretty much sums up these films; just like Sartana, though Sartana is more of an avenger righting wrongs giving greedy people their due using trickery, manipulations and double crosses, which Sabata does as well, but Sabata is flesh and blood and Sartana, well…there was some doubt if he was human or a spirit at least that’s how I interpreted it.

Gianfranco Parolini

Director Parolini started out as a set designer and it shows, especially in the Sabata pictures with their bigger budgets. His town’s aren’t the desert wastelands of Leone, his town’s are populated with people from all walks of life, and elegant and well dressed sets. He made his directorial debut with Samson, his first western was Left Handed Johnny West and made several Kommissar X spy pictures, often using the pseudonym Frank Kramer, before going on to do if You Meet Sartana…Prey For Death and Sabata. Sadly, Gianfranco Parolini past away a couple weeks ago on April, 26 2018. 



Sabata (1969)

Director Gianfranco Parolini (Frank Kramer)

Writers Gianfranco Parolini and Rinato Izzo

Music Marcello Giombini

Staring Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla (Pedro Sanchez) Linda Veras, Franco Ressel

 The picture opens with some Calverymen loading up cash from a bank all quietly being watched by a man in black whose smoking a pipe, our man Sabata (Lee Van Cleef) accompanied by a very groovy and catchy theme song by Marcello Giombini. Stumbling out of a bar is the first of one of Sabatas helpers, Carrincha played by Ignazio Spalla, who had changed his name to Pedro Sanchez since he mostly played a variety of Mexican bandits, and his stoic friend the acrobatic Native American Alleycat (Nick Jordon) whose up on the roof.

Sabata walks into a saloon, one we’ve seen a million times in almost every SW but here it looks very elegant thanks to production and costume designer the great Carlo Simi whose list of credits is enormous, including most of  Sergio Leone’s pictures, Sabata seeing that the craps dealer is playing with loaded dice he quickly makes his presence known, by whipping out his four barrel Derringer with wooden grips with and S engraved in them and making good use of them, no killing…not yet. He shoots out the legs of a patrons chair and gives a knowing glance to man playing a banjo, William Berger who here bears a striking resemblance to Kris Kristopherson around this time Berger had been rooming with Rolling Stone guitarist Kieth Richards, which could explain his red mop top.

He plays a hand of craps winning for an old man who was being cheated. He than leaves the table and walks over to a little hottie saloon girl Jane, whose sitting on a player piano and is played by the beautiful blonde Italian actress/model Linda Veras best known as Penny Bannington in Sergio Sollima’s Run, Man, Run (reviewed in the earlier Zapata Western part of this series of blogs) ever the bad ass he motions her to move aside, then flings a coin into the slot of the piano. Here we know that Sabata is no ordinary gunslinger but rather a slick character in a Bondian way!

click for scene

While all this is happening the calvarymen are knifed, in a scene with some acrobatics, and the safe with the money stolen. The town in panic rush toward the bank. These outside shots in the evening are beautifully light and shot by cinematographer Alessandro Mancori. Nice warm tones from lanterns on faces and cool blue tones light up the background buildings to suggest moonlight. One can see Parolini is working with a much bigger budget than in Sartana, in fact everything about this production is top notch.

The next day Sabata goes after the safe and brings it back to town, there he sees The Virginian Bros. The World’s Greatest Acrobats…”St. Louis maybe…” says Sabata; but the banker and local business men don’t seem very appreciative…hmmm. “These men aren’t from around here.” “St Louis maybe.” Seems like Sabata has been on the trail. Sabata collects the reward and talks with Carrincha again. This time he joins forces with him and his friend alleycat who leaps off the roof of a building and does an impressive somersault over a prairie schooner!

Burt Lancaster The Crimson Pirate (195

Director Parolini was a huge fan of Burt Lancaster pictures like The Crimson Pirate and he has lots of acrobatics in these pictures. He then goes to the hotel where he encounters the saloon girl Jane and Banjo who walks over to him with little bells on the fringes of his chaps, similar to the bells on Klaus Kinski’s spurs in If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Death. Sabata, I don’t hardly recognize you anymore” he says “because I didn’t keep the money…?” Banjo vigorously plays his instrument and Sabata shoots off a string, “You were out of tempo.” Again Bond like quips.

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Now we get to some plot and just like with the Sartana pictures there’s a lot of ins and outs and what have yous. The deal was that a rancher named Strengel, (played by Franco Ressel who looks quite like Conrad Bain from Different Strokes and a familiar face in Italian Cinema including Have A Good Funeral, My Friend…Sartana Will Pay.) was trying to steal the $100,000 that was to go to the army so that he could buy the land that the railway company must use to move through, until Sabata brought it back. But Strengel also has partners Ferguson and Judge O’Hara involved. (Gianni Rizzo another very familiar face in SW’s, his last film was the Sean Connery picture 1986’s In The Name Of The Rose) Again this plotting is very similar to Parolini’s Sartana mold. Strengel threatens the judge after he confessed that he wants out and tells his goons to whack the Virginia Bros. They had used their acrobatic and knife throwing skills to steal the money that Sabata eventually returned.

So the games are on, Strengel still wants to steal the money back and Sabata is going to manipulate everyone involved to reap the rewards. When Sabata sees that Strengel’s goons are getting rid of the Virginia Bros wagon he says “Get away from that wagon!” “Who the hell are you?” Carrincha responds, ala Sartana,  “could be your Pallbearer!”

Strengel sits reading Thomas Dews pro-slavery treatise ‘Inequality Is The Basis of Society’ as the last of his goons comes in to tell him the job is done. Strengel study is filled with medieval weapons and armor. He takes out an old dueling pistols and the room has a couple of silhouetted metal cutouts of dualists with holes in their heir hearts, the idea is that each shooter stands behind it. Strengel cheats at this and kills his man.

Outside is Sabata, he takes a shot inside to draw Strengel out. Once outside Sabata let’s Strengel know he has The Virginia Bros wagon which would be positive evidence against him and tells him he can have it for ten grand. He agrees but tells him he has to come over to deliver it. The wagon goes on it’s way with Sabata telling him to not try any tricks “’ll be shooting at the wind.” we see he has a phonograph playing inside of the wagon, pretty clever since the phonograph was a relatively new invention at the time! Strengel fires away blowing the wagon up!

Later in a brilliantly staged moment Strengel has more goons go after Sabata in his hotel room. Sabata can hear that they’re on their way and he grabs a painting of a woman that on the wall “sorry lady.” And slaps the canvas out of the frame. When the goons come in they look around and see what looks like a mirror with Sabata in it and shoot at it as he blasts away behind them. These types of fun tricks are all through the film.

Later in a fun bit we learn the real reason Banjo always has a Banjo slung around him. Some boys from Texas have been lookin’ for ol’ Banjo, “Too Bad you have to die so far from home!Banjo blasts away with his…well, banjo, that has a  Winchester cleverly mounted inside it.

This was a nice bit, similar to Roy Orbison’s tricked out guitar in Fastest Guitar Alive another James Bond inspired, albeit, American western in which the great Roy Orbison plays a confederate super spy, that had come out a couple years earlier.

With Banjo now the toast of the town Sabata decides to make a deal with him, but Banjo betrays him “What side are you on?” “I’m on the right side!” Replies Sabata, Banjo shoots into the leather bag Sabata is holding but Sabata is unfazed, he keeps firing until we see that sand is in the bag.

“You wouldn’t kill me for five thousand dollars. How much are they paying you?” Sabata fires his Derringer then reveals three more barrels in the Pistol grip, that’s a bad ass weapon! He doesn’t kill him for “The ways of The Lord are infinite!”

Sabata leaves and goes to Strengel ranch where they all chase him. In a fun action scene with Giombini’s music blaring, Alley Cat dressed as Sabata leads them into a canyon and we get to hear the ubiquitous “It’s A Trap!” Alley Cat runs over to a plank that leans across a log. Sabata shoots a rope that’s holding another boulder which then drops onto the plank and launches Alley Cat into the air where he does a somersault onto the edge of the canyon! Carrincha tosses more dynamite and Sabata tosses it shot-put style, causing an avalanche and trapping Strengel’s men! This sequence I find to be the liveliest part of the film director Parolini clearly loves the circus style atmosphere and also a love for American movie serials. This is type of adventure that makes me sit up in my seat.

In the big climactic ending there are somersault, dynamite, massive shootouts and even a mine car shoot out, though nowhere near the rollercoaster chase of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.

One can tell right away that Lee Van Cleef is having a ball with the role, with his sneers, smiles and smirks, he just chews up the scenery. This may not be his most important role but it seems to be his most star-making role as it showed that he could carry a film on his own.


This is a good time to talk a bit about the score composed by Marcello Giombini. Giombini mostly scored soundtracks for sword and Sandals, Spaghetti Westerns, and giallo and horror pictures one of his last was for Joe D’Amato’s gore epic Anthropophagous. Sabata is perhaps his best and most popular. The theme is catchy as hell, with its rockabilly twangy guitar and blaring trumpets, with a touch 60s bossa nova. Other parts of the soundtrack has Bach style organs with the twangy guitar. There is a 3 disc soundtrack available with all three Sabata Soundtracks. Giombini on Spotify

What’s really cool about the picture is that everything seems like it could’ve happened. There’s nothing out of the ordinary, like Sartana’s Robot Alfie. Banjo’s rifle guitar, Sabata’s multi-barreled Pistol (though, I can’t quite figure out how the barrels in the hand grip could work, but I’m sold on it) I’ve always found it fun to watch people launch in the air to do somersaults and other physical stunts. All in all Sabata is the most fun Spaghetti Western of the genre, there’s never a dull moment and the acting from all the players is very good, which can sometimes be difficult to tell when dubbing is involved and Lee Van Cleef and I believe William Berger dub themselves, Berger was from Germany but moved to the states where he went to the Actor Studio and did some Broadway work before moving to Italy and he often dubbed other actors voices in Italian productions, such as Lou Castel’s voice in Bullet For The General.

Sabata was an instant success when released in Italy on September 16th 1969 and every country it open in shortly after and became one of Italy’s biggest hits that year. In 1970 after having a big success Lee Van Cleef pictures like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides A Horse United Artists released it in the States and it became Lee Van Cleefs most popular post-Leone Western picture. The ad campaign had a very cool image by artist Jack Thurston (I have the Australian daybill) Mr. Thurston illustrated quite a few icon movie posters like One Million Years B.C. Paperback books as well as the first issue of Starlog Magazine, he passed away just over a year ago on April, 27 2017.

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The September 3 1970 New York Times Roger Greenspun  said Sabata,” which opened yesterday at the DeMille and neighborhood theaters, is a very long, hugely eventful, moderately bloody, immoderately inventive, generally good‐humored Italian Western that succeeds in a lot of the areas that better, or at least more serious, movies tend to ignore. As heroic fiction, it is stronger on colorful success than on noble character, but it is so energetic and at the same time so tactful about its achievements that I find it impossible not to credit most of its ideas at face value—and sometimes a little more.

Like most big hits, producers wanted more and two “Sequels” followed both directed by Gianfranco Parolini The second one stared Hungarian actor Yul Brenner as Indio Black, but in the U.S. version he’s called Sabata so the film was called Adiós Sabata, but technically it’s not really a sequel and then there’s a third picture which brought back Lee Van Cleef to the role The Return of Sabata.

As for Lee Van Cleef Sabata brought more attention to him in America where he could now commanded f 400,000 a picture, he made El Condor for director John Guillerman, most famous for Towering Inferno and Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong, but it wasn’t well received in America and was successful in Europe but not as much as Sabata. He continued to make more italian westerns making pictures all over Europe but his agent felt he stayed in Europe too long and missed out on making more American films, though he did make an iconic appearance in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York which is essentially a spaghetti western set in a dystopian future. His last few pictures were for Italian director Antonio Margheriti and Fred Olen Ray in pictures like Code Named:Wild Geese and Armed Response and he stared in the short lived TV series The Master were he played an aging Ninja master. Sadly, in 1989 Lee Ban Cleef passed away in his home of a heart attack he was sixty-four, throat cancer was listed as a secondary cause of death. He is buried at Forrest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills.

Phillip López Jiménez

Next: Adiós Sabata and The Return Of Sabata.

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Sources: Once Upon A Time In The Italian West: The Filmgoer’s Guide To Spaghetti Westerns by Howard Hughes


Wikipedia m