For me, watching spaghetti westerns is a lot like watching kung-fu flicks—it’s great when the story makes sense, but sometimes that’s just asking too much. Sometimes all you can hope for are some great action sequences, a hero that kicks ass, and not too many boring moments of confusing, incomprehensible plot to slow things down when there’s no action. My long-held film criticism philosophy of “all movies are good, except for the bad parts” seldom rings more true than with spaghetti westerns, a genre defined by great movies frequently handicapped by bad lots and lots of parts.
Released in 1968, as the spaghetti western craze was already in full force, If You Meet Sartana, Pray for Your Death (a.k.a. Sartana, a.k.a. Gunfighters Die Hard) is one of the greatest examples of everything that is both right and wrong with Eurowesterns. Gianni Garko (a.k.a. John Garko, a.k.a. Gary Hudson), stars as the legendary “Angel of Death” known as Sartana. “I am your pallbearer,” Sartana announces as the film opens and the hot lead flies. What follows is more than ninety minutes of a confusing mess that has something to do with a stolen shipment of gold, and the various scumbags trying to get their hands on it. Among the nefarious villains looking to get their hands on the gold are double-crossing killers Lasky (William Berger), Morgan (Klaus Kinsky), and Mendoza (Fernando Sancho)—and that’s just the people who are killers. Complicating everyone’s grand scheme is Sartana, the mysterious gunslinger dressed in black, who kills pretty much anyone that hasn’t been killed by Lasky, Morgan, or Mendoza.
Now, with a plot that simple, you would think it would be easy to follow, but thankfully this is a spaghetti western, and Italian B-movie filmmakers—like their Hong Kong counterparts—have mastered the fine art of making a film so complicated it doesn’t make any sense. I swear to god, sometimes I think these macaroni westerns were made with the intention of confusing the shit out of anyone stupid enough to watch them. Which I guess would be me. And to be sure, things go from confusing to making-no-sense-whatsoever, as the bodies pile up, and the only thing that salvages the movie are the action sequences and Garko’s badass charisma.
If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death was the first in the series of movies featuring one of the most popular spaghetti western characters—Django was easily the most popular, spawning more “sequels” than Sartana. Garko first appeared as a character named Sartana in director Alberto Cardone’s Blood at Sundown(not to be confused with the other two spaghetti westerns of the same name, released at nearly the same time). Both the character name and Garko proved to be so popular that director Gianfranco Parolini (a.k.a Frank Kramer, and about a dozen other pseudonyms) and a team of writers decided to cash in.
While sharing some similarities with the popular Django character created by actor Franco Nero, Garko’s Sartana was decidedly different than most of the other spaghetti gunslingers, all of whom—Django included—were copies of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s films. A stylish gambler dressed in dust-covered fancy clothes and armed with a tricked-out arsenal, Sartana had a more refined style than the other anti-heroes of the era. And unlike the other gunslingers that appeared in Eurowesterns, Sartana had the distinction of not killing for money or revenge, but because his victims deserved it. Honestly, I’ve never quite understood what that means, but apparently it somehow set Sartana apart from his swarthy gun-slinging brethren.
There were over a dozen unofficial Sartana movies, including two that featured him paired up with a character named Django, and one where he teamed up with Trinity (another popular spaghetti western character, made famous by Terrence Hill). None of these other films were as good as those starring Garko , which were not exactly greats films in and of themselves. Director Gianfranco Parolini would go on to direct Sabata, starring Lee Van Cleef, which spawned its own series of films, each ripping each other off, and all rip-offs of the Sartanafilms.
Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.