ROME – Versatile Italian director and screenwriter Sergio Sollima, who gained international cult status with a trio of groundbreaking spaghetti Westerns comprising Lee Van Cleef-starrer “The Big Gundown,” but was best known in Italy for exotic Indian pirate miniseries “Sandokan,” died on Wednesday in Rome. He was 94.
During the course of a five-decade career Sollima worked masterfully in a multitude of genres, retaining a signature style often infused with socio-political overtones.
Sollima’s work spanned from screenwriter on sword and sandals epics, among which “Goliath Against the Giants” toplining Brad Harris, to directing so-called Eurospy pics that tried to capitalize on the Bond craze, such as “Agent 3s3: Passport to Hell,” followed by his spaghetti Westerns, packed with a political punch, then fast-paced crimers, including New Orleans-set “Violent City,” toplining Charles Bronson. And finally smash hit TV skein “Sandokan,” with current Bollywood superstar Kabir Bedi.
Born in Rome in 1921, Sollima graduated from the Italy’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia Film School in 1935 and gradually progressed from working as a film critic, to screenwriting, to becoming a director in 1962 when he debuted with portmanteau pic “Sex Can Be Difficult,” for which he shot a segment about a young prostitute, played by Claudia Mori, who, before a life-changing marriage, decides to pay a last visit to a regular customer.
In Sollima’s 1966 “The Big Gundown,” pictured, Van Cleef plays Jonathan Corbett, a bounty hunter to whom a railroad baron offers a political office in exchange for successfully hunting down purported Mexican child murderer Cuchillo, played by Tomas Milian. The hunter and his prey end up sharing a prison cell where Cuchillo explains that his revolutionary past has prompted the baron to trump up the charges against him.
“For those of us who grew up with both spaghetti Westerns and politics, there has never been a more consciously revolutionary director than Sergio Sollima,” wrote Italian pop culture expert Marco Giusti, author of an authoritative spaghetti Westerns compendium.
In his films “Bandits, the poor, and the exploited become the heroes. And the bad guys are always capitalist Yankee exploiters,” he noted.
Even the miniseries “Sandokan,” in which Kabir Bedi plays a 19th century Indian pirate, has an anti-colonialist streak. This Italian pop culture milestone, adapted from the Italian bestsellers by Emilio Salgari, ran for several seasons starting in 1976, and spawned feature-film spinoffs by other directors.
“I am deeply saddened by the death of the director of Sandokan who gave me international fame,” tweeted Bedi. “He has my eternal gratitude.”
Sollima is survived by a daughter, Samantha, and a son, film and TV helmer Stefano Sollima, who directed hit Italo skeins “Crime Novel” and mob-themed “Gomorrah,” which is Italy’s all-time top TV export.