Although he starred in 14 Spaghetti Westerns and nearly 100 films, Gianni Garko will always be best remembered for his portrayal of the irrepressible and enigmatic Sartana. The official Sartana franchise was a big money maker in Europe, especially in Germany, although it saw little to no distribution in the North American market. The character and the movies to this day remains a favorite among Spaghetti western enthusiasts. Here, I will review the four OFFICIAL Sartana movies starring Garko.
In addition to the DVD releases mentioned at the beginning of each review, all four films are also included in the "Sartana-The Complete Saga, Spaghetti Western Bible 2" R1 budget boxset by VideoAsia in variable but mostly passable quality. Wild East recently made an announcement that they will be working on releasing a Sartana Box Set featuring all of the official films restored and remastered so stay tuned.
THE LOW DOWN ON THE UNOFFICIAL SARTANA FILMS
Of course, there are numerous other unofficial Sartana movies out there. Some of these movies had other actors playing Sartana and some of them even had Sartana teaming up with the likes of Django and Hallelujah. Garko played an unrelated bad guy named Sartana in Blood at Sundown (1966). Gianfranco Parolini apparently liked the name and cast Garko in the first official Sartana film in the series, If You Meet Sartana, Pray for Your Death (1968), and the rest is history. Like Django, Ringo, and Sabata, Sartana grew a life of his own and many unofficial movies were made with the Sartana name in an effort to cash in on the success of the original. Some of these movies did not have anything to do with the original Sartana movies in the slightest. Garko himself starred in an unofficial Sartana movie called Sartana Kills Them All (1971). In this one, neither Garko nor the film resembles the Sartana of the official Sartana movies. Another Garko vehicle, the Price of Death (1971), which co-stars Klaus Kinski, has Garko playing a character that is very similar to his portrayal of Sartana, although the movie itself is not a Sartana film.
WAIT, I CAN EXPLAIN!
You might ask why I am choosing not to include I am Sartana, Trade Your Guns for a Coffin (1970), starring George Hilton, in this article. Hilton replaced Garko in the role of Sartana in this movie, after Garko reportedly turned it down. This one is directed by the Giuliano Carnimeo (aka Anthony Ascott), the director of the 3 official Sartana sequels starring Garko, and therefore is considered by many to be an official Sartana movie despite the absence of its franchise leading man. There are two main reasons why I do not include this movie in my article. The first is that to me, the casting of Hilton automatically disqualifies it from being an official Sartana movie. Suppose Sergio Leone decided to make a fourth "Dollars" film, with Anthony Steffen replacing Clint Eastwood in the role of Manco. Would anybody consider this to be an official "Man with No Name" Picture? I think not. The second reason is that Hilton himself, in an interview said that he did not consider himself to be a true Sartana, and that the only REAL Sartana was his friend and contemporary, Gianni Garko. Therefore, as fine of a movie the George Hilton Sartana is in its own right, it does not qualify as an official Sartana film in my opinion. You can read my review of that film here.
WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE SARTANA FILMS?
The Sartana movies were financial hits in Europe for several reasons. Coming off the heels of the James Bond movies with Sean Connery, the makers of the Sartana movies created a James Bond-like character under the backdrop of a western. Mandrake the Magician was also an inspiration behind the character. Sartana himself is an elegantly dressed expert gunman, magician and gambler, with a unique arsenal of gadgets and weapons at his disposal. A favorite weapon of his is a Derringer-like weapon with four barrels and a cylinder that can be taken out and used like a dreidle. Like James Bond, Sartana is seemingly unflappable, the type who would adjust his tie while surrounded by enemies. In another words, he's cool! An anti-hero, Sartana is not a righteous crusader, fighting for the rights of the oppressed. He is more of an opportunist, on a crusade to acquire more wealth, and shooting bad guys and helping innocent victims just happens to be a by-product of that. Although its sometimes implied that Sartana has supernatural powers (especially in the first film), it is probably more due to his Houdini-like prowess as a master illusionist. Another interpretation of the character is that he is actually a government secret agent, and that the money he gets at the end of each film is actually money that is recovered and to be returned to the Government, although this is all admittedly just a matter of conjecture. The Sartana movies were not meant to be taken seriously, as the viewer is required to have a high suspension of disbelief. For example, many of the gadgets that Sartana uses would never work in real life. His derringer-like pistol has unrealistic stopping power and range for a gun of that type. The films do not have any deep sociopolitical messages either; they are simply there for the enjoyment of the viewer. Well choreographed action scenes, riveting musical scores, tongue and cheek humor, and complex, often incomprehensible plots are the hallmarks of these westerns. The likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Wayne would probably have hated these films, which actually add to the appeal! In many ways, Sartana epitomizes the spirit of the spaghetti western, with the Italian film makers taking an American concept, and making it their own.
IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (1968)
This is the first official film of the Sartana franchise, the one that started it all. Complete with overly long and nonsensical English title. Box office-wise; the first was also the most successful. This trendsetting gem bridged the gap between the more serious Spaghetti Western's such as Django and the more comedic Spaghetti's such as They Call Me Hallelujah, and They Call Me Trinity. Unfortunately, the uncut DVD release by Wild East is now out of print, but this movie can still be obtained through one of the online DVD-R vendors out there.
I will not attempt to rehash the plot to you but let's just say that the story involves a loot of stolen gold (How original!). A bunch of shady characters are after it, including a banker, a Mexican gang, a politician, and a couple of gunmen. Behind the back scheming and double crosses abound. Like the other Sartana movies, this one has a rather complicated, and hard to follow plot. This is not a cause for worry, as you probably will not care about what's going on with all the shooting going on. For those of you who do care, a second and third viewing should alleviate your curiosities. The character of Sartana is simply a lone gunman and gambler who's past and background is anybody's guess. But like the other characters in the movie, his main motivation is seemingly money. He just gets himself involved and outsmarts everyone.
Gianfranco Parolini knew what he was doing when he cast Gianni Garko, who was perfect for the role of Sartana, right down to his appearance and mannerisms. This is a very star-studded affair. On top of Garko, we are also treated to a fine performance by genre-favorite William Berger, who some might remember with fondness in films such as Sabata, Keoma, No Room to Die, and Today We Kill…Tomorrow We Die! Berger plays the sharp shooting antagonist, Lasky. Klaus Kinski also makes an important albeit brief appearance. General Mendoza, the leader of the Mexican bandit is played by another genre favorite, Fernando Sancho, who takes "typecasting" to a whole new level, playing yet another slimy Mexican bandit. The portly Gianni Rizzo, and Sydney Chaplin (son of Charlie) round off a great cast. There are also a couple other recognizable faces in there as well.
After completing this film, Writer/Director Gianfranco Parolini left the Sartana franchise, but not without applying a similar "James Bond in the West" concept and creating another classic Spaghetti Western, Sabata (1969), with Lee Van Cleef. Still, this film is much darker and grittier than the later films in the Sartana series. Many fans think of Parolini's vision of Sartana as definitive, as this movie is more serious, with much less cheese factor than the Carnimeo directed sequels. The action sequences are top notch, and there are plenty of scenes in which someone acquires holes in his body. There is not much in the way of originality, but are we really looking for that in a Spaghetti Western? I have to say that the musical score, by Piero Piccioni, while decent, is considerably less impressive than that of the sequels.
Terrific action, combined with the top notch cast and great atmosphere makes "If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death" arguably the best in the series. Although it should be noted that curiously, this movie has the lowest imdb rating of the official Sartana movies. Definitely essential viewing for the Spaghetti Western fan and a classic of the genre anyway you cut it (or shoot it).
I AM SARTANA YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH
AKA SARTANA THE GRAVEDIGGER (1969)
Sartana the Gravedigger or "Sartana II" as I like to call it, is the second of the series and the first under the direction of Giuliano Carnimeo (aka Anthony Ascott). This was the second most profitable movie in the series. An excellent fan made "Franco Cleef", English version of this movie is available, as well as a German DVD from Best Entertainment.
The story once again revolves around the root of all evil, as a bank robbery is committed by a group of men, one of which has disguised himself as Sartana. In having one of the perpetrators pass himself off as Sartana, they hope to frame the genuine Sartana for the robbery. With a price now on his head, Sartana has to find out who the REAL bank robbers are, to clear his name, and perhaps even get some of that stolen loot for himself. A marked man, Sartana has the best bounty hunters in the west on his trail and enlists the aid of an old pal, a noted thief named Buddy Ben. The plot of this particular film is very confusing, even more convoluted than usual. Even after repeated viewings, there are some aspects of the story that I don't quite get. Its one of the reasons why I consider this particular installment to be the weakest of the series, albeit only by a slight margin.
This is where the movie shines. Two of the bounty hunters after Sartana's head are played by Klaus Kinski, and Muscleman turned thespian Gordon Mitchell. Kinski's character, Hot Dead, is spectacular, even if he has a really stupid name. Hot Dead is not a maniacal crazed psychopath, but a laid back killer who is as unlucky at gambling as he is deadly with a gun. He is also a sort of wild card character, as we don't really know if he is really friend or foe. Kinski makes the most of somewhat limited screen time. Gordon Mitchell's Deguego is supposed to be a gunfighter with a renowned reputation. Yet his character is wasted as he simply ends up as mere cannon fodder for Sartana. To bad the writers did not utilize Mitchell as effectively as they did Kinski. Recognizable character actors such as Rick Boyd, Jose Torres, and Sal Borgese also make appearances. Frank Wolff co-stars as Sartana's sidekick Buddy Ben. As much as I respect Wolff as an actor, I have to say that I did not like the idea of Sartana using a Robin to his proverbial Batman. I always envisioned Sartana as a loner. But having Wolff definitely adds to the already considerable star power of this film.
This movie has all the elements that make the Sartana films such a joy to watch. Good music (by Vasco and Mancuso), good action, the usual over the top characters, and of course the cool as ever Garko. Giuliano Carnimeo, who directed all of the official sequels, seemed to take the series in a new direction, adding more of an upbeat, light hearted, comic book atmosphere, which can be both good and bad depending on how you look at it.
Giuliano Carnimeo was very successful in taking over the reigns of the franchise from Gianfranco Parolini. While this film may lack the polish of the original, its fine cast makes this film a joy to watch, although it does not deliver quite the thrills that the next two installments provide.