Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Gianfranco Parolini’s “Adios, Sabata” (**** out of ****) ranks as one of the top 10 Spaghetti westerns of all time. Melodramatic scripting, scenic photography, clever dialogue, marvelously choreographed gunfights, flavorful music, and harsh rugged scenery make this outlandish Yul Brynner horse opera worth watching. No, it has nothing to do with the Lee Van Cleef movies oaters “Sabata” (1969) and “Return of Sabata” (1971). The original title for this exhilarating Yul Brynner shoot’em up was “Indio Black.” Like most successful Spaghetti westerns, it adopted the name of a profitable screen hero. Scores of westerns were named after “Django,” “Sartana,” and “Trinity.” Indeed, where Lee Van Cleef’s Sabata is elegant and well-dressed, Indio adopts the garb of a cavalry scout. He wears a fringed buckskin outfit. Unlike Sabata, who relied primarily on a derringer, Indio wields a sawed-off, lever-action, repeating carbine with a sideways ammunition magazine. He reserves the last chamber in each magazine for a cheroot. After he dispatches his adversaries, he takes the time to enjoy his tobacco. Black brandishes a derringer, too, but rarely uses it to kill. In fact, “Indio Black” remains the only Spaghetti western that Brynner made, but it qualifies as a superior sagebrusher with provocative, offbeat characters, a larger-than-life, six-fisted plot with loads of narrative foreshadowing, and one of composer Bruno Nicolai’s liveliest orchestral scores. Parolini lacks the baroque visual artistry of Sergio Leone. However, he knew how to tell a good story and he could stage interesting set-pieces. Parolini co-authored the screenplay with Renato Izzo who had penned “Kill and Pray” and “A Man Called Amen.”

Oscar-winning actor Yul Brynner plays a sympathetic, sharp-shooting, American soldier-of-fortune in black. He supports the Mexican revolutionaries in their cause to expel the Austrians from their country during the post American Civil War period. Hollywood hasn’t made that many memorable westerns about Emperor Maximilian’s reign over Mexico. The best of the bunch is Robert Aldrich’s “Vera Cruz,” rivaled only by Don Siegel’s “Two Mules for Sister Sara.” As the villain, Austrian Colonel Skimmel dresses as elegantly as he shoots straight, and he behaves like an egotist. Indeed, he has commissioned a portrait of himself. Skimmel has no qualms about killing and makes a splendid villain. He detests informers, exploits their information, and then kills them. Half-way between Sabata and Skimmel is Ballantine. This soldier-of-fortune (Dean Reed of “God Made Them... I Kill Them") is an opportunist who throws his lot in with Sabata. Actually, he has no qualms about getting whatever there is for himself and nobody else. “Three Crosses of Death” lenser Sandro Mancori captures the arid Spanish landscape in all its eternal grandeur and the vistas are beautiful. Mancori and Parolini hail from the school of filmmaking that relied heavily on zoom shots. “Indio Black” has more than its share of zoom shots. “Indio Black” emerges as a hugely entertaining western epic with the usual ritualistic conventions, such as duels and gunfights, intrigue, plot reversals, and outright surprises.

The action opens at a Catholic mission as the priest Father Mike addresses a young Mexican village boy, Juanito (Luciano Casamonica of “Tepepa”) laments the descent of mankind into savagery. “There is too much violence in the world.” Juanito reminds him the Murdock brothers deserve punishment because they stole everything from them. Ever gentle Father Mike replies, “You must try to forgive. Not sink into revenge.” Colonel Skimmel, a monocled, bewhiskered, autocrat in a dress uniform. He likes to demonstrate his marksmanship with a rifle. Skimmel’s favorite practice is to turn loose prisoners below on the parade grounds and let them see if they can outrun him without being shot down. Colonel Skimmel never misses. Meanwhile, in Texas, the Murdock brothers show up at the County Hunter Agency and slap leather with Sabata. Sabata wipes them out without a scratch. Parolini does an excellent job staging this initial shoot-out. The three Murdocks ride into the dusty station. One drives a wagon with a coffin on it. “We’re all set for you to go out in style,” the oldest Murdock boasts.” A weather vane stands motionless in front of the station. Before they exchange gunfire, Sabata and the oldest Murdock display their lethal marksmanship. Their bullets turn the vane into a blur. Once the vane stops turning, they are told that they can blast away at each other. Even after Sabata has killed them, he fires more shots. A Murdock corpse clinging to a corral fence falls when Sabata’s bullets obliterate the railing. Sabata shoots the coffin lid so it falls shut on the dead Murdock.

After the gunfight, Señor Ocaño (Franco Fantasia of "The Lion of St. Mark") enlists Sabata to help them discover when the gold shipment leaves the fort at Guadalupe and what road it will travel. He is also to make arrangements with the men who will sell the revolution firearms. Ocaño informs his ally, Escudo (Pedro Sanchez of "Any Gun Can Play"), about Sabata, but Escudo hates that the revolution must stoop to a foreign soldier-of-fortune. Meanwhile, Colonel Skimmel has cooked up his own scheme about the getting the gold out of the fort at Guadalupe. He sends out a detachment with the gold wagon, and his own men gun down the detachment. Sabata intervenes and Escudo and he commandeer the gold wagon. Sabata rides to Kingsville, Texas, where he discovers Colonel Skimmel’s cohort Folgen (Gianni Rizzo of “Mission to Hell”) has wiped out the gunrunners. Sabata decides that they need to take the gold back to Ocaño. A small army of plainclothes Austrians ambush them, but Sabata turns the odds against them with his skillful shooting.

Later, they discover that the bags contain dirt not gold and that Skimmel has the gold back at the fort. Our heroes attack the fort, but they are captured and disarmed by Skimmel, except for Ballantine’s diary. Sabata has stashed two vials of nitro in the book and Ballantine throws the book at the firing squad due to execute them. They escape death and Sabata confronts Skimmel. Skimmel has him covered with two single-shot pistols and acknowledges that Sabata is the only man who has even beaten him at shooting. Apparently unarmed, Sabata waits for the right moment and hurls a deadly knife that skewers Skimmel through his portrait. Ballantine fakes his death to steal the gold wagon and our heroes pursue him toward the border bridge at Guadalupe. Sabata blows holes in the rear of the wagon and the gold pours out as Ballantine lashes the horses for the border. He crosses the bridge and hurriedly detonates the charges that demolish it. At this point, he discovers that the gold lies in trails on the other side of the bridge and he is out of luck.

Writer & director Parolini does an excellent job of setting up and paying off several situations. Colonel Skimmel’s model of a sailing vessel perched atop a dresser is wired to the highest drawer so when an unsuspecting fool opens the drawer, the movement triggers a deadly broadside from the canon protruding from the side of the ship. If you love Spaghetti westerns, you owe it to yourself to watch “Adios, Sabata.”