A Memorable Antihero
Tripwire’s contributing writer Simon Kennedy takes a look at spaghetti western The Sabata Trilogy out on Blu Ray now…
The Sabata Trilogy
Director: Gianfranco Parolini
Stars: Lee Van Cleef, Yul Brynner
If you are a fan of the Western, then you would have no doubt heard of Sabata. You likely also know the term spaghetti or Italian Western. If not, then it refers to those films of the Western genre, produced by Italian and German money, and often shot in the deserts of Spain. Sabata is an interesting film within both the genre as a whole and the sub-genre movement. In the Western genre, it underlined the dominance at that time of Italian cinema and the connection to the Western past through American actors. The late 60s were awash with Westerns from the region. Good Westerns at that. In 1969, it was at its pinnacle. Just as Easy Rider was revving up, the Western was riding out.
In Italian Westerns, it was released at the time of the antihero franchise. Leone’s masterful series of the unnamed man had started it. Ringo then came and displayed his skill with a pistol. Django had already cut through many a villain with his death-dealing coffin and even Sartana, that rough and ready hero of dealt death, had graced us with his presence. That film had been directed by Gianfranco Parolini no less, who a year later would helm the first film of The Sabata Trilogy. Alberto Grimaldi, the famed producer, saw that Parolini was free after being dropped from the Sartana sequels and had wanted to cash in on the craze. He saw the genre was going that way and he had already produced some of its classics like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Face To Face.
Lee Van Cleef led the first film, titled simply Sabata. Cleef was more than famous, and famous for Westerns. Having starred in Zinneman’s High Noon (famously sidelined due to his nose) and then in Sturges’ Gunfight At The OK Corral, before ending up in the greatest classic Western director, John Ford’s Liberty Valance. He moved to Europe and starred in Leone’s films For A Few Dollars More and then The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. But it was his standouts with Tomas Milian and Giuliano Gemma that brought him to Sabata. He would have jumped at the chance to play not only an antihero (he was typecast in the US and hated it) but also star in a very good Western. It is not known how much Cleef cared that Sabata has undertones of anti-capitalism or that it has a rather lobsided gay villain (played to the brink of homo-eroticism by Franco Ressel).
Eureka’s disc version 1080p version of Sabata leans more toward the sun-drenched than sun- bleached of previous outings. Its warm colours are fixed and the resulting subtle balances of light have benefited it all very much. It doesn’t blow you away but it is not supposed to. Austin Fisher would mostly agree with this sentiment. His video essay is excellent, as is the disc’s highlight, Kim Newman’s commentary on Sabata. This commentary is revelatory and resists empty factual recounting like so many others. He notes that Cleef, with the help of Parolini, injects swagger into his character. Sabata is another gunslinger but one that could kill you with a friendly line or two.
After the success of the original film, the oft-actioned sequel was created. Cleef didn’t return for the sequel, committed to a Magnificent Seven sequel of all things but Oscar winner Yul Brynner starred instead. Brynner plays a carbon copy of his Magnificent Seven character, very similar to what happened in 1973’s Westworld. Brynner had Western chops outside of this, as he had starred in 1964’s Invitation To A Gunfighter and 1968’s Villa Rides, but the success of the Seven (it inspired films across the globe including India’s most famous film Sholay), meant that the filmmakers couldn’t ignore this. Brynner himself seemed to like the idea of playing a charming, can-do guy with a habit of keeping on the right side of law and order. Just. Originally another film, Adios Sabata turned our hero into a comic book character with a little less roguish anti-hero and a lot more charming dispenser of justice. Albeit with a sadistic and comic villain.
Eureka has tightened up the sloppy standard definition version of the film that flopped around on a collection disc over ten years ago. This version has a few issues in the colour lock department (the browns and greys seem to bleed a little) but its at least viewable. You don’t have the awful, digitised images or that horrid, poor, dubbed version. The Mike Siegel commentary is the best thing on the whole set for several reasons but, if you know little of the Western, then Mike will fill you in completely. Names are linked to other names, which are linked to films and then linked to film makers. Excellent stuff. Fisher pops up again here, but this is less stimulating and feels like a little less compelling to get into.
The trilogy completes with Return Of Sabata. It sees a return for the star from the first film and for some, the Sabata. Coming off the back of three great films (depending on your age, ideological outlook, or adherence to certain vocabularies), Return Of Sabata gave Lee Van Cleef the starring role. He was already solidly established and would continue on with his craft but this is a significant entry in his filmography. Now William Berger doesn’t return from the first film but Ignazio Spalla does (he is one of the few to have done the whole trilogy). This time Sabata is less impenetrable and now he needs his friends as much as they needed him. It reveals more of Sabata’s backstory but also leaves the viewer in no doubt that Sabata is king of the sharpshooting ring.
Disc three of the set can probably be considered the best by a country mile for the quality of the disc. Again, the escape from the horrors of standardisation has been achieved. Removing that horror of blurred images, soft focused frame and horrid pan and scan qualities really improves . Yellows, browns, greens and whites are crisp. Finally a version I can watch without grimacing. The commentary here, looks at how Cleef career adapted and evolved, alongside that lovely fusion of western tropes that would appear into the late 70s. Fisher piece here feels bigger than it is. Its broad strokes and sweeps. Excellent over the previous dullness.
Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase [First Print Run of 2000 copies only] | Limited Edition Reversible Sleeve featuring original poster artwork for each film [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
1080p presentations on Blu-ray from High Definition transfers | English 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
PLUS: A Limited Edition Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing by Western expert Howard Hughes [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
Here’s the film’s trailer
A Memorable Antihero Tripwire’s contributing writer Simon Kennedy takes a look at spaghetti western The Sabata Trilogy out on Blu Ray now… The Sabata Trilogy Director: Gianfranco Parolini Stars: Lee Van Cleef, Yul Brynner Eureka If you are a fan of the Western, then you would have no doubt heard of Sabata. You likely also know
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