In 1939, Stagecoach, starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford, added to the impressive list of films from that stellar year. Thirty years later, this kind of western, which set some of its standards for years to come, is hardly recognizable in Sabata. This is a Lee Van Cleef vehicle, and he is great in the lead. But the movie is highly stylized, and at least one character, Stengel (Franco Ressel), appears so thoroughly corrupt, in a wholly European fashion, as to be a source of wonder each time his presence graces the screen. Instead of Levis, or its 19th century equivalent, he wears a robe. But the fact is, he is not out of place in a western made in Italy and Spain.
Stengel, it turns out, is a voracious reader. He loves to peruse “Inequality as the Basis of all Society” in his spare time. Are the Europeans pandering to us? Because equality and inequality have meanings here they will never have over there. Nevertheless, Stengel is the incarnation of evil in this context, and Sabata is the latest incarnation of anti-heroism in 1969, a rather turbulent year in terms of relatively recent US history. Some moviegoers think it easier to relate to almost any time frame other than the sixties, which feel more dated to those who lived through them, and probably would rather not be reminded. A conspicuous zoom shot of three horseback riders linked to soaring music probably is a turn-off today, but was a standard innovative technique back then.
Stengel might be a bookworm, but his eyesight is as good as the best gunslingers around him. In this western, bullets are sometimes used to make statements or simply express emotions, not always so profound. In one shot, Sabata shoots at Banjo just to shake him up, telling him that he is “out of tempo”. In another, Banjo gives Sabata a flesh wound in his neck, only to be able to say, “now we’re even”. This kind of shooting, so very precise, is fairly excusable. But what about Carrincha (Pedro Sanchez), a trumpeter who won a medal at the Battle of Richmond? He is always glorifying and romanticizing the confederacy — another element that observant European western-makers no doubt picked up on (in American films) to give their versions authenticity.
Banjo has a darling companion, but it is not her but the money that causes all the commotion, which includes dynamite and a Gatling gun. There is action to spare in this film, as well as duels. And it has extra features, such as Alley Cat, whose acrobatics are neat to watch. But those who might have been led to expect more camaraderie will be disappointed. Every man for himself is more the leitmotif.