After the Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s masterful Dollar trilogy (1964-66) and Sergio Corbucci’s Django, who appeared in over 30 different Spaghetti Westerns before Quentin Tarantino resurrected and modified him in the 2012 American reboot Django Unchained, the most notorious Spaghetti Western anti-hero goes by the name Sartana. Although characters with the name appeared in dozens of films, it is for the original cycle of five films beginning in 1968 and ending in 1972 that he is remembered. Gianni Garko played him in four of these films including the first one, If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death (1968), in which he gave birth to the character under the direction of Gianfranco Parolini.
Sartana is a gambler who wears a silky long black coat with ruby red colored lining that matches his long tie. His black hat is kept on with a draw-string. He’s undoubtedly one of the best dressed protagonists in the genre, and he’s almost as quick-witted as the Man With No Name. He takes great pleasure in setting elaborate booby-traps. His weapon of choice is a four-barreled Derringer pocket pistol, the type that a prostitute working in a brothel would hide in her brassiere. But when Sartana, time and time again, pulls it out of thin air like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat to blow his adversaries away, you can’t imagine anyone but him using it. Although If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death is the first film to feature this memorable and incredibly cool spaghetti western anti-hero, it isn’t the best.
Most of the film’s problems are related to its screenplay, which was written by Renato Izzo, Werner Hauff, and director Gianfranco Parolini from a story by Luigi De Santis, Fabbio Piccioni, and producer Adolfo Cagnacci. With this many individuals contributing to the film’s plot, it’s no wonder that it is complex to the point of incomprehension. All I know is that there is some gold and everyone wants it.
By “everyone”, I mean a bunch of Mexican bandits led by General Tampico (Fernando Sancho), a gang of American outlaws affiliated with a coke-head in a velvet suit named Lasky (William Berger), a knife thrower named Morgan (Klaus Kinski) who wears a bell on his boot and is said to be “like a cat”, a corrupt politician (Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie) who is blackmailed over and over, his candy eating fat friend of a banker (Gianni Rizzo), a blond woman (Heidi Fischer) who moves from one man to the next, and, of course Sartana (Gianni Garko), who jumps in and out of the conflict between hang-out sessions with a laughing old man (Franco Pesce), an artist turned undertaker.
I struggled to keep tabs on all these characters, where the gold they were chasing is, the statuses of their always changing allegiances, and who is double crossing who. Not only was I confused while watching If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death, but after the credits finished rolling, I still wasn’t able to piece all the loose ends together. In fact, the more I think about its plot, the more confusing it gets. Maybe I need to watch the film again, but based off my initial viewing I can say with confidence that it makes absolutely no sense.
The story, however, doesn’t have to make sense. Getting introduced to the unforgettable character of Sartana, who Garko seems born to play with his relaxed acting and mysterious aura, made the confusion of the plot insignificant. If you’re anything like me, watching If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death will make you hungry for more Sartana in spite of its messy plot. This film, in fact, could be viewed as the perfect warm-up for the four Sartana films that follow it: I Am Sartana, Your Angel Of Death (1969); Have A Good Funeral My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970); Light The Fuse… Sartana Is Coming (1970); and even Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol For A Coffin (1972), which stars George Hilton rather than Garko as Sartana.
Alongside the introduction of the legendary Sartana character are the relentless and inspired action sequences, which fortunately help distract from the weak plot for two reasons. First, these action scenes have a hint of the stunt-heavy, acrobatic-like shooting jumps and running tumbles that the director, Parolini, would later put on fully display in his Sabata trilogy (1969-71). Second, with at least 25 deaths taking place in the first ten minutes of the film, these scenes result in one of the highest body-counts in the entire genre. This stunt work, though nothing extraordinary, adds energy to the chases on horseback and the gunfights that take place among the sand dunes, while this constantly growing body-count adds to the vaguely dreamlike feeling that the character of Sartana, with his ability to suddenly vanish and reappear like a mystical magician, evokes with his presence.
Although the coolness of the Sartana character and the action sequences he takes part in successfully distracted me from the mess of a plot, they didn’t distract me from all the Leone lifting that Parolini does. Without even mentioning the similarities between Sartana and the Man With No Name, since every spaghetti western protagonist that came after Clint Eastwood was expected to emulate at least some of his amoral anti-hero characteristics, Parolini stole too much of If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death from Leone’s far superior Dollar trilogy. From A Fistful of Dollars (1964) he steals the laughing old man character who works as an undertaker and befriends the film’s protagonist. From A Few Dollars More (1965) he steals the Man With No Name’s use of a musical pocket watch to strike fear in his enemies and announce his gun-wielding arrival. From The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) he steals the general plot involving a hunt for gold and the constant double-crossing and changes in allegiances between those hunting it — though, as I already pointed out, he and his writers failed miserably in flushing their version out.
Regardless of its flaws in plot and general lack of originality, If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death is a great introduction to the Sartana character, with lots of entertaining action sequences, an intense score by Piero Piccioni, and a talented cast.