Even though this Valley of Death tips its hat to the classic spaghetti western Sartana character, he is nowhere to be found in the film. Based on how bad this is, that's probably for the best.
Despite the name being featured in its title, Sartana in the Valley of Death (1970) doesn’t have the classic spaghetti western character Sartana in it. Sartana is most notably brought to life by Gianni Garko in If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death (1968) under the direction of Gianfranco Parolini. Garko went on to make the character a spaghetti western legend in the Giuliano Carnimeo directed films I Am Sartana Your Angel of Death (1969), Have A Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970), and Light the Fuse… Sartana Is Coming (1970). Alas, even though this Valley of Death tips its hat to the Sartana character, he is nowhere to be found—the name never appears in the film.
Producer Enzo Boetani seems to have put the name in his movie’s title with hopes of fooling audiences into thinking it was part of the “Sartana” series, which in 1970 were selling out theaters. But if one goes to Sartana in the Valley of Death expecting to see the iconic character of Sartana in another entertaining Sartana movie, disappointment is bound to come. In contrast to the real Sartana films, there is very little to like about Sartana in the Valley of Death.
The plot is interesting on paper but boring on film. Lee Galloway (William Berger) is hired to free the three Craig brothers from jail: Jason (Wayde Preston), Pete (Aldo Berti), and Slim (Rick Boyrd). Once freed, the brothers double-cross him. After a face-off that is so forgettable I don’t remember any of it, the three brothers end up with all of the horses while Galloway ends up with all the guns. Eager for revenge, Galloway follows them into the eponymous “Valley of Death” where a gun versus horse conflict plays out.
In spite of how promising this premise sounds, it is a conflict so underdeveloped that it would be better suited for a kindergarten theatre production than a spaghetti western. There is one somewhat entertaining scene where the three brothers ride their horses around in circles on a distant hilltop while laughing at Galloway’s frustrating attempts to shoot them. Even here, though, it feels like there was nothing at stake, that the characters were no more than paper-dolls in an impromptu puppet show. It’s all in the name of fun and games, sure, but the fun is forced and the games uninventive. The film requires the viewer to invest nothing in the paper puppets prancing before us. We don’t care about them, and so we don’t care about the film.
Most of the problems with Sartana in the Valley of Death can be blamed on Roberto Mauri, who both wrote and directed it. The movie’s pace is so off whack that one suspects that he started shooting with nothing but a premise and wrote the majority of the screenplay in between takes. He starts the film off with a sense of haste by showing Galloway in a series of shootouts—most of which are uninspired with the exception of one, where he makes the ground explode by shooting it, that is just absolutely ridiculous. These shooting matches are meant to prove to the audience that this protagonist is a force to be reckoned with, and they loosely accomplish this goal.
Right at this point, however, Mauri then puts on the brakes without notice, forcing us to endure the sight of Galloway sluggishly walking around a bad excuse for a desert. This so-called “valley of death” is nothing more than piles of sand haphazardly poured into ten-foot mounds in an attempt to look like the Spanish deserts used in the genre’s better films. If these aimless valley scenes aren’t boring enough, Mauri also feeds us scene upon scene featuring clockwork dolls, which would have been a very spaghetti western flavored topping if they had even a little significance to the events playing out before us.
Meanwhile, Augusto Martelli’s folksy score, when combined with the distractingly bad acting of nearly every supporting player, only adds to the tediousness that marks the majority of the plot. Taken on its own, the score isn’t all that bad, and nowhere near the worst the genre has to offer. The problem is that the music doesn’t meld well with the feeling of the film. The music is light-hearted, at times even whimsical, which would have worked fine if Sartana in the Valley of Death had been in the vein of the genre’s comedic, campy, or even psychedelic entires, but it isn’t. Instead, the film tries to be serious and it seriously fails.
In fact, I can’t think of a single member of the cast that produced any kind of emotion in me, humorous or otherwise—unless you count the excitement I felt at the sight of the doll-maker’s daughter (Josiane Marie Tanzilli). She barely reads a line, and only has five minutes at most of screentime, but she is stunning. Martelli was a fool for not using her presence to distract us from all the bad acting. Even Berger, who is usually a sure thing as a spaghetti western villain, is soulless as Galloway; it’s as though he can’t handle the pressure of being a film’s lead protagonist. This is definitely the least memorable role I’ve seen him in, even though it is his biggest.
With all that said, Sartana in the Valley of Death isn’t the worst spaghetti western ever made. To be sure, it is terrible on the whole, but there are some successes that are worth pointing out.
The premise is original. A handful of other beautiful women, in addition to the doll-maker’s daughter, make appearances, representing a type that helps define the genre. The music is interesting, if out of place. Even though he misses his mark, William Berger is still William Berger. I also enjoyed some of director Mauri’s camera work, such as when Galloway sneaks up on the three brothers and we both move and see from his perspective, crouching behind bushes and zooming up on the guns. Lastly, there’s the matter of the death-by-scorpion in the final showdown: although incredibly unrealistic, it’s hard to deny that it’s pretty cool. If only one could say the same for the rest of Sartana in the Valley of Death.