From Eureka Entertainment’s Master of Cinema range comes The Sabata Trilogy. Three spaghetti westerns spanning 1969 to 1971. Releasing the films under the name Frank Kramer, director Gianfranco Parolini displays the influence of Sergio Leone‘s work in his tales of a morally grey gunslinger coming to town to right wrongs, just not always for the right reasons.
In 1969’s Sabata, Lee Van Cleef is the titular lead. He comes to the town of Daugherty, in Texas, where a gang of thieves disguised as soldiers steal $100,000 of Army money. After chasing down the thieves and recovering the money, he is given a $5,000 dollar reward. Whilst relaxing in the town, he comes to learn that a local man, Stengel (Franco Ressel) and a judge had staged the robbery in order to purchase land where the railroad is due to be built; thus its value will soon increase.
With Sabata in possession of the wagon containing the money, he is able to use this to negotiate a bigger pay-off from Stengel, and what follows is a game of cross and double-cross involving Sabata, Stengel, and the mysterious Banjo (William Berger), a quiet man always carrying said instrument, and somewhat reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica character in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Brutal and violent for its era, it is easy to see an alternative world where the popularity of Westerns endured for a longer period and Sabata became an enduring figure, in the vein of a James Bond or Indiana Jones. His first appearance is evoked in the slow and now iconic first reveals of both of those characters. He is an unusually smartly dressed gunman, with a couple of distinctive weapons and an almost supernatural accuracy – something referred back to in the third film. This is a terrific film from a character who, perhaps, could have lasted much longer in pop culture.
Perhaps one of the reasons he didn’t last is that the brand was diluted somewhat by the second entry, Adios Sabata. Much as with some of the Die Hard sequels, this didn’t start life as a film in the same series and it shows. Lee Van Cleef is replaced by Yul Brynner, and the character bears only a passing resemblance to the man we met in the first film. Actors reappear playing different characters, Sabata is no longer the dapper-dressing killer from the first film, and the plot – involving Mexican revolutionaries hiring him to rob a transport of Austrian gold in order to buy weapons – is really not too interesting in its execution.
The tone is equally gritty, but more political, and feels a world away from the more adventure-laden feel of its predecessor. The music is composed by somebody different, with Bruno Nicolai replacing Marcello Giombini. In and of itself this is not a bad thing, with Nicolai having a decent CV, which includes one of the Django sequels, while Giombini can point to such classics on his resume as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead. It all adds to the feeling, however, that we are watching something different entirely.
Finally, we have Return of Sabata, with Van Cleef back, Giombini back, and a work that feels more of a piece with the first entry. This time he begins the film, in decent bait and switch scene, as an attraction in a travelling circus, using his aforementioned marksmanship to entertain. He encounters a former subordinate from his time in the Army, who still owes Sabata $5,000. Staying in town to collect on this debt, he runs into a local landowner, Joe McIntock (Giampiero Albertini), who is imposing high taxes on local citizens.
As with the first film, our morally grey lead ends up intervening to do good, just not for altruistic reasons. The tone of this is far lighter and more playful than the last Van Cleef entry, and the series does feel like it had outstayed its welcome by the final reel. It also clear to see 1970s influences starting to show in the fashion choices – despite it being a period piece. What we are left with is one terrific western – a film that really does leave the viewer wondering what this series could have gone on to be – and two so-so entries.
Special features are fairly consistent across the three discs. Each features a commentary: the first by Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman (again, as is often the case with this range, if you don’t know who they are, this set will not tell you), the second is a solo effort by Mike Siegal (who does tell us a little of himself), and the third by authors C. Courtney and Henry Parke. None are particular standouts though; as with the films themselves, the first is the strongest, the second the most forgettable. They are perfectly decent efforts in all cases.
The other features are three interviews, one for each film, with Austin Fisher, who has written books on Italian cinema and the spaghetti western. Lasting between 11 and 15 minutes, these are very similar to the interviews conducted with Tony Rayns on Eureka’s sets for Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Johnny Guitar. They are fine, and he is a decent guide to the influences on the filmmaker, these films, and on just why they all turned out the way they did.
This is augmented by trailers, and promotional materials (lobby cards etc.) for all three movies. Finally, there is the accompanying booklet that Eureka have a track record for doing so well. Coming in at 36 pages, there are two essays by Howard Hughes, another contributor returning to this line. ‘Circus Maximus’ deals with Parolini’s career as a whole, while ‘With the Greatest of Ease’ focuses solely on the Sabata trilogy. This is pretty much in-line with the average standard of the booklets put into these releases.
The Sabata Trilogy feels like one of the less essential offerings from this range. The bonus features are decent, rather than good or great, the films themselves have only a reasonable picture quality – being somewhat soft in places – and only one of the actual movies is really any good. For that film alone, however, it may be worth your time.
The Sabata Trilogy is out on Blu-ray on 18th October from Eureka Entertainment.