Archive for The Return of Sabata

Cox’s Orange Pippins: You Say Zapata, I say Sabata

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2022 by dcairns

So, I watched NAVAJO JOE, about which opinions differ — Tarantino I believe is a fan, Alex Cox less so, and Burt Reynolds even less so. I suspect I’ll never be a huge Corbucci fan, but I thought it was pretty good. Reynolds was maybe hoping it would do for him what Clint’s Italian westerns had done for Clint, an unrealistic hope.

Reynolds is good — physically impressive, but is that even his voice in the English dub? And the role doesn’t give him any humour, which holds back his effectiveness. Burt is a good example of the all-round leading man type, a light comedian with an edge. We also get Aldo Sambrell as a good, vicious baddie, and Fernando Rey as Father Rattigan, the town’s complacent priest (dubbing Rey with a stage Oirish accent actually WORKS, somehow).

I have a theory that The Pied Piper of Hamelin would make a good spaghetti western plot. This one comes fairly close to it, but lacks the Piper’s final vengeance. Since HIGH NOON, revisionist westerns had traded in the trope of the unworthy town. Gary Cooper’s town clearly doesn’t deserve its sheriff, but the movie doesn’t question the necessity of saving it. In YOJIMBO and FISTFUL, the town is practically destroyed in the course of being “saved”. By the time we get to HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, Eastwood’s most Italianate western (lacking only the high style), the town is intrinsically corrupt.

Alex Cox assembles plenty of Corbucci interview material in which the maestro says things like “I think it’s best not to put women in these films,” which is very weird since his best westerns feature strong women. Navajo Joe has some honest saloon girls and a heroic maid. And it showcases Corbucci’s strongest suite, his sense of landscape. Really magnificent wide shots.

Ennio Morricone, billed as Leo Nichols for some strange reason (Corbucci is Corbucci, De Laurentiis is De Laurentiis, and the credits brag about the Almeria locations so they’re not trying to pass this off as an American film) gives it an epic score of wailing and chanting, but it may be slightly misjudged — most of the biog musical scenes show the bad guys riding into action, so this celebratory theme — “Navajo Joe, Navajo Joe!” — feels emotionally off. But judged purely as music, which is how I first encountered it on one of my many Morricone LPs, it’s pretty great.

Best exchange is between Burt and one of the awful townspeople, who calls himself an American. “Where was your father born?” asks Burt. “Scotland.” “Well my father was born HERE, and his father before him and HIS father before him. Which of us is the American?”

We get yet another crucifixion, when Joe is hanged upside down, arms outstretched, like St. Peter.

Cox’s objections to the juddery zooms and day-for-night shooting strike me as frivolous, especially when the film provides us with Joe’s horse’s POV in a shot/reverse shot that seems to imply man-to-horse telepathy.

ADIOS, SABATA (aka INDIO BLACK, SAI CHE TI DICO: SEI UN GRAN FIGLIO DI…, 1970) is a weird one. Released in the US as a SABATA film, and from the director of the first in that series, Gianfranco Parolini, it was intended to launch an entirely different character, Indio Black. It stars Yul Brunner, not Lee Van Cleef, and he is outwardly a different guy — lots of tassles on his black costume, gold-plated repeater shotgun and pistol. But “Indio Black” and “Sabata” require entirely different mouth movements to say, so I was expecting flamboyant lip flap whenever the hero is named. Didn’t happen. So it seems like the English version was always planned as a Sabata film, or at least, it was while they shot it.

Parolini (aka J. Francis Littlewords) then went on to shoot THE RETURN OF SABATA with Van Cleef, and Indio Black was never heard from again.

The movie deals with some of Cox’s irate objections to Parolini’s cheap-looking first SARTANA — it has great Spanish locations in place of an Italian chalk quarry, looks big and impressive, and attempts to be about something — the Mexican Revolution. Gerald Herter, the Teutonic gunfighter in THE BIG GUNDOWN and the alien-infected swine in CALTIKI, is again an excellent Austrian antagonist.

But it’s not just a Tortilla western and a Zapata western — it’s what Cox calls a “circus western” — it has acrobats and gadgets and gimmickry galore. There’s a guy who kills enemies by flipping steel balls at them with his feet. The baddie has a model galleon rigged up with cannons that fire real bullets. As with most Parolinis, there’s an element of James Bondery, but the other influence is the peplum films, which often featured tumblers. Parolini had worked exclusively in peplums and Bond knock-offs before he got into westerns.

Cox’s main objection to the first SARTANA and SABATA films was that the action was meaningless, and that’s still sadly a bit true here — the Revolution could have provided a grounding, but Indio Black / Sabata is out for himself, as is just about everyone else. As usual, he’s borrowing from Leone without understanding Leone. The Civil War in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY was more than a colourful background, it made a point — Leone cited MONSIEUR VERDOUX (another Chaplin connection!) to make his moral relativist point — how can we condemn the likes of Tuco, Angel Eyes and Blondie in the face of so much greater carnage wrought by people fighting over actual issues rather than just loot? Parolini has no such idea in mind, and his film would clearly work better if his heroes were more idealistic.

I think the cynicism of the Italian western can be seen here as echoing that of the filmmakers — the director as hired gun, taking on a job, not really caring whose side he’s on, just wanting to get rich, looking for any chance to screw his employer…

Brynner, who is charismatic as ever, is supported by the exuberant Ignazio Spalla (upper right) and singer Dean Reed, whose style is peak spaghetti — blorange hair and shoe-polish tan. An offense to the eye and soul. And he’s called Ballantine, because the Scots are never to be trusted in the spaghetti west, whether they’re called “Murdok” or not. The honourable exceptions are the MacGregors. heroes of a short series of films scored by Morricone, who are a sort of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS team.

The movie ends with a character doing a big swear, interrupted by Bruno Nicolai’s (beautiful, inappropriately elegiac) score, a clear Leone swipe. What have we learned? Nothing. But it’s been fun — this would seem like a great adventure movie if you were 10.