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Retro Review: THE COMPLETE SARTANA (1968-1970)


(Italy/West Germany - 1968)

Directed by Frank Kramer (Gianfranco Parolini). Written by Renato Izzo, Gianfranco Parolini and Werner Hauff. Cast: John Garko (Gianni Garko), William Berger, Sydney Chaplin, Klaus Kinski, Fernando Sancho, Gianni Rizzo, Andrew Scott (Andrea Scotti), Carlo Tamberlani, Franco Pesce, Heidi Fisher, Maria Pia Conte, Sal Borgese. (Unrated, 96 mins)

In the wake of Sergio Leone's groundbreaking trilogy of spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, the copycats came so fast and furious that it had to be impossible for audiences to keep up. Giuliano Gemma starred in a pair of RINGO films, Franco Nero had the title role in Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966), Tony Anthony played "The Stranger" in three films beginning in 1968, and Gianni Garko staked his claim to spaghetti fame as Sartana in a series that also kicked off in 1968. These official films spawned countless imitation Django, Ringo, and Sartana films, often with the characters crossing paths, but the five "official" SARTANA films have just been restored and released in a deluxe, extras-packed Blu-ray set from Arrow, because physical media is dead.

Never given theatrical releases in America, the Sartana films had some of the more playfully humorous titles in the genre, and things kick off with IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH. It's an incredibly convoluted but always enjoyable series of double-crosses and shifting alliances, as Garko's Sartana, who's more of a debonair wiseass than most of his genre brethren (Arrow's accompanying booklet with an essay by Roberto Curti likens Sartana to a western 007, and it's an apt comparison), involves himself in a mishap-filled pursuit of a chest of gold that no less than four separate sets of bad guys are attempting to obtain. There's outlaw Lasky (William Berger), a duplicitous bastard who mows down his own gang with a Gatling gun in order to keep it all to himself, only to find that the chest is filled with rocks; bandit and self-appointed "general" Mendoza, aka "Tampico" (Fernando Sancho, the genre's erstwhile "Frito Bandito," again cast radically against type as "Fernando Sancho"); corrupt bankers Stewall (Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie) and Hallman (Gianni Rizzo), who hired Mendoza to steal the gold in the first place while they stashed it away in the casket of the recently-deceased mayor as part of an insurance scam; and Morgan (Klaus Kinski), another outlaw who's unconnected to the gold until an impromptu and ill-fated partnership with Lasky pulls him in.

The familiar spaghetti tropes are all over the place and would establish the SARTANA formula seen in the four sequels:  a shipment of gold buried in casket (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), Sartana finding an unlikely ally in Dusty (Franco Pesce), the town's elderly, cantankerous undertaker (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), and Sartana's calling card of a chiming pocket watch (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE), just to name a few. Sartana also relies on some gadgety weapons that director/co-writer Gianfranco Parolini (aka "Frank Kramer") would use in his soon-to-come SABATA trilogy with Lee Van Cleef (in the first and third films) and Yul Brynner (in the second). The more political "Zapata" spaghetti westerns were starting to gain traction in Italy, and by 1968, the first SARTANA came too far into the craze to really do anything new. Still, Garko is a pretty badass hero and the film benefits from its many colorful--and frequently stupid--villains, though Kinski fans may be disappointed in his relatively restrained performance and limited screen time, as he's offed about 40 minutes in.

(Italy - 1969)

Directed by Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Tito Carpi and Enzo Dell'Aquila. Cast: John Garko (Gianni Garko), Frank Wolff, Klaus Kinski, Ettore Manni, Gordon Mitchell, Sal Borgese, Renato Baldini, Jose M. Torres, Rick Boyd (Federico Boido), John Bartha, Franco Pesce, Franco Ukmar, Samson Burke. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Gianfranco Parolini went on to make SABATA in 1969, prompting the hiring of Giuliano Carnimeo, who would direct the remainder of the SARTANA series under variants of his most frequent Americanized pseudonym "Anthony Ascott" (he'd go by "Jules Harrison" for his 1983 post-nuke EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000). I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH is sort-of a hybrid western/detective story, with a Sartana impostor orchestrating an elaborate, Joker-esque bank robbery involving a fake corpse and several henchmen wearing uniforms identical to those of bank security.The word is out that Sartana (Gianni Garko) is a wanted man and he's soon pursued by law enforcement as well as various bounty hunters, including a wily poker shark named Hot Dead (Klaus Kinski, having a little more to do than in the previous film but still underutilized). Sartana teams up with grubby sidekick Buddy Ben (Frank Wolff) to clear his name, find the fake Sartana, and figure out why his estranged friend and wanted outlaw Bill Cochran (Federico Boido) was posing as the corpse, and the trail leads quick-draw gunman and milk-drinking casino proprietor Baxter Red (Ettore Manni). Given his name, it should come as no surprise that Baxter Red is a red herring, but there's quite a few over the course of the film, with so many characters--including Sal Borgese as an on-the-take sheriff, Renato Baldini as a corrupt judge, and Gordon Mitchell as another bounty hunter--seeming to have it in for Sartana. Things pick up in time for its SCOOBY-DOO-meets-CLUE ending, but I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH is a sluggishly-paced sequel that's not nearly as enjoyable as IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH. Garko is still fun in the lead, Wolff has some amusing moments as Almost Tuco, and Carnimeo carries on the motif of Sartana being seemingly impervious to bullets, but the story just dawdles and takes forever to get to where it's going, and some of the music cues (a recurring harpsichord riff on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a doofus being introduced to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel") only contribute to the uneven tone of the film.

(Italy - 1970)

Directed by Antony Ascot (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Tito Carpi. Cast: George Hilton, Charles Southwood, Erika Blanc, Piero Lulli, Linda Sini, Nello Pazzafini, Carlo Gaddi, Aldo Barberito, Marco Zuanelli, Lou Kamante (Luciano Rossi), Rick Boyd (Federico Boido), Gigi Bonos, John Bartha, Antonio Casale, Furio Meniconi (Unrated, 92 mins)

The next three SARTANA sequels came in rapid succession, so rapid in fact that there's some dispute over their proper order. Based on its release date in its native Italy, the third in the series (and the third in the Arrow set) is SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN. These final three films hit Italian theaters over a four-month period from September to December 1970. Giuliano Carnimeo directed all three back-to-back, though Gianni Garko would sit out SARTANA'S HERE. His one-and-done replacement and the George Lazenby of the official SARTANA series was George Hilton, who would soon become a regular presence in the gialli of Sergio Martino, often teaming with the stunning Edwige Fenech. Hilton is a fine Sartana, though to use another Bond comparison, his Sartana could be deemed the Roger Moore-ish interpretation compared to Garko's Sean Connery. Hilton almost seems to be winking and smirking at times, especially when he's introduced throwing a canteen in the air and shooting it so it rains down and douses a lit fuse that's about to blow up some dynamite. The story is yet another baffling series of scheming double-crosses and backstabbing involving gold, this time from the mine of Appaloosa town boss Spencer (Piero Lulli), who's paying a group of Mexican bandits led by Mantas (Nello Pazzafini in the Fernando Sancho role) to rob his own shipments so he can horde the gold for himself. It's never quite clear what Spencer's ultimate plan is, but it doesn't really matter. SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN is fast-moving and Hilton fits in nicely with the slightly lighter but still generally serious tone, with an added quirk in that Sartana seems to have an obsession with boiled eggs. He ends up disguising himself as a Mexican peasant (a tactic used by Giuliano Gemma's Ringo in THE RETURN OF RINGO) to blend in Appaloosa and figure out how to play the sides against one another. Things are complicated even more with the arrival of dapper, white-suited, poetry-reading gunslinger Sabbath (Charles Southwood, best known as Winchester Jack in Mario Bava's spaghetti western ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK), with whom Sartana may or may not form a Leone-esque unholy alliance. A big improvement over the lackluster I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH, but Hilton moved on and Garko returned for the next film, which was in Italian theaters just two months later.

(Italy - 1970)

Directed by Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Giovanni Simonelli and Roberto Gianviti. Cast: Gianni Garko, Antonio Vilar, Daniela Giordano, Ivano Staccioli, Franco Ressel, George Wang, Helga Line, Luis Induni, Franco Pesce, Rick Boyd (Federico Boido), Jean Pierre Clarain, Roberto Dell'Acqua, Rocco Lerro, Aldo Berti, Attilio Dottesio. (Unrated, 93 mins)

After a brief sabbatical during which he starred as a gunslinger named "Santana" in a spaghetti western that was magically transformed into SARTANA KILLS THEM ALL thanks to dubbing, Gianni Garko returns to the SARTANA series with HAVE A GOOD FUNERAL, MY FRIEND...SARTANA WILL PAY, and it looks like he had some time embrace his inner EASY RIDER by letting his hair grow and sprouting a porn stache and sideburns. Storywise, this is more of the same, with Sartana getting involved in some shady real estate and property disputes, starting when Joe Benson (Attilio Dottesio) is killed by hired guns (who are in turn killed by Sartana, who pays for their funerals, hence the title), with the assumption that his land will be taken over by town banker Hoffmann (Antonio Vilar), whose mustache-twirling villainy should be obvious the moment he introduces himself as a banker. Hoffman is in cahoots with the sheriff (Luis Induni) and saloon girl Mary (Helga Line) to make a killing on Benson's land with the rumors that there's a secret stash of gold (of course), but they didn't realize he left everything to his niece Abigail (Daniela Giordano). Sartana teams up with Abigail--for revenge and romantic purposes--and engineers the requisite series of double crosses, which also involve Chinese gambling house owner and problematic 2018 trending Vulture piece waiting to happen Lee Tse Tung (George Wang), who's introduced being pulled through town in a rickshaw by bowler-hatted manservant, frequently bangs a gong, and never misses an opportunity to drop a "Confucius say..." bon mot. Once Hoffmann realizes Sartana is on to his scheme, he starts a rumor that cheating gambling house dealer Piggot (Franco Ressel) was killed by Sartana, which leads to the dead man's four vengeful outlaw brothers coming to town.

As usual, there's generous helpings of the kind of goofy humor and occasional sight gags that portend the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer westerns that would be shortly coming down the pike, and three films into his SARTANA stretch, director Giuliano Carnimeo finds his groove, and in collaboration with cinematographer Stelvio Massi, really step up his game when it comes to Leone-esque frame compositions and a few split diopter shots of the sort that would become synonymous with Brian De Palma a few years down the road. It's also got a rousing score by frequent Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai, and this, following the direction that George Hilton took the character, probably represents Garko's loosest portrayal of Sartana yet, especially when he pulls an ace out of his pocket and flings it across the room to extinguish a candle during his seduction of Abigail, a move that's pure 007 in spirit. But the story is still confusing as hell, which seems to be the norm for the SARTANA westerns, so you more or less have to just roll with it and assume everyone you see onscreen has ulterior motives that will become more preposterous as the film proceeds.

(Italy/Spain - 1970)

Directed by Anthony Ascot (Giuliano Carnimeo). Written by Eduardo M. Brochero, Tito Carpi and Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Gianni Garko, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), Massimo Serato, Piero Lulli, Jose Jaspe, Bruno Corazzari, Clay Slegger, Frank Brana, Franco Pesce, Sal Borgese, Giuseppe Castellano, Lino Coletta, Raffaele Di Mario, Fernando Bilbao, Beatrice Pellegrino, Gennarino Pappagali, Luis Induni, Renato Baldini, Mara Krupp, Dan van Husen. (Unrated, 100 mins)

By the end of 1970, the SARTANA sequels were coming so fast and furious that it probably would've grown difficult to tell them apart if LIGHT THE FUSE...SARTANA IS COMING didn't mark the end of the official series. Though they continued working together in other westerns, it's a shame that star Gianni Garko and director Giuliano Carnimeo stopped here, as LIGHT THE FUSE is the best of the pentalogy. In a shocking turn of events, the story deals with endless double crosses and the pursuit of a stash of gold, this time with Garko's Sartana getting himself thrown into a prison overseen by corrupt marshal Manassas Jim (Massimo Serato) in order to orchestrate a jailbreak with inmate Grand Full (Piero Lulli), who Manassas Jim believes killed his younger brother and made off with the gold. Also killed that skirmish--recounted RASHOMON-style by numerous characters throughout--was a friend of Sartana's. Shifting alliances abound, as Sartana cuts deals at various points with Grand Full, Manassas Jim, Gen. Monk (Jose Jaspe in the Fernando Sancho "Frito Bandito" role), and femme fatale Belle (Nieves Navarro), while trusting only elderly Plon Plon (Franco Pesce), who of course is killed, making Sartana's pursuit of the gold personal. Not quite as difficult to follow in its labyrinthine plot construction as its predecessors, LIGHT THE FUSE earns its status as the best SARTANA late in the game when Sartana single-handedly mows down Monk's army by MacGyvering a church pipe organ into a giant Gatling gun and multi-purpose firearm and "playing" it in a showdown in the middle of the dusty town in a display of grandiosity that would make Rick Wakeman jealous. It's one of the most insane and inspired moments in the entire spaghetti canon, and helps close out the SARTANA series on a high note.

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