Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New from Warner Archive: Special Sword & Sandal edition: THE SLAVE (1962), SANDOKAN THE GREAT (1964), and HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES (1964)

Warner Archive recently released six MGM-distributed Italian sword-and-sandal epics from the early 1960s.  Inspired in equal parts by Hollywood epics like Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) and Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960), but even more so by their homegrown blockbuster HERCULES (1957), the sword & sandal peplum scene exploded in Italy from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, providing a lot of work for American and Italian bodybuilders, stunning international beauties, and aging Hollywood actors and directors looking for working vacations in Europe.  Bad dubbing and decades of beat-up, horribly cropped, and pan-and-scanned TV airings served to perpetuate the myth that these were cheap, shoddy, low-budget affairs and while some certainly were, a good number of them were lavish, big-budget spectacles with gorgeous widescreen cinematography, high-end production values, incredible sets and locations, and thousands of extras.  Many of these films that have been presented on DVD thus far have been in those $10, 50-film public domain sets that use the same beat-to-hell TV prints that have misrepresented this genre for so long.  Hopefully, these six releases from Warner Archive can accomplish something in the way of reconsidering many of these films, most of which are not lost classics by any means, but were ambitiously made by talented and creative craftsmen (with a lot of future famous Italian directors on the crews) and were often richly entertaining and in their day, quite popular.

(Italy - 1962)

American bodybuilder Steve Reeves was crowned Mr. Universe in 1950, but had a difficult time getting his acting career off the ground--one of his early films was Ed Wood's JAIL BAIT (1954)--until he went to Italy and became an overnight sensation with 1957s HERCULES, with stardom following back home after the film's 1959 US release.  The huge international success of HERCULES immediately led to countless similar muscleman epics pouring out of Italy.  THE SLAVE is a SPARTACUS knockoff that reunited Reeves with two of his HERCULES co-stars (Ivo Garrani and Gianna Maria Canale) for the story of Randus (Reeves), a respected centurion in the army of Julius Caesar (Garrani).  Caesar gets word of a potential coup by the nefarious, gold-hoarding Crassus (Claudio Gora) and dispatches Randus and his loyal sidekick Verus (Franco Balducci) to visit Crassus and keep an eye on him.  In the course of his journey, Randus witnesses the cruel and unfair treatment of slaves by Crassus and his soldiers, and eventually discovers that he's the lost son of the legendary slave Spartacus, crucified 25 years earlier by Crassus.  Torn between his allegiance to Rome and his desire to free the slaves and follow in the footsteps of his father,  Randus goes full Zorro and starts disguising himself under a helmet and launching raids to free slaves and start a revolt against Crassus, always leaving his "S" mark behind.

An early effort by director Sergio Corbucci, who would go on to helm numerous classic spaghetti westerns like DJANGO (1966) and THE GREAT SILENCE (1968), THE SLAVE shows embryonic signs of the savage violence and dark nihilism that Corbucci would utilize to a greater extent in those westerns. In addition, Corbucci handles the huge production very well, with excellently-staged action sequences and swordplay, a lot of which is shot on location in Egypt. A beardless Reeves, looking like a really beefed-up Jason Patric, is a commanding hero, and even with the hammy line deliveries and the silly conclusion (you just know it'll riff on "I am Spartacus!"), THE SLAVE is on the high-end of the sword-and-sandal genre. Notable future Italian directors on the crew include cinematographer Enzo Barboni, camera operator Stelvio Massi, and second unit director Franco Giraldi. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is in mostly good shape but there is some noticeable print damage and wear & tear in some scenes. Overall, a fine presentation of a very good example of this type of film. (Unrated, 102 mins)

(France/Italy/Spain - 1964)

Reeves also stars in SANDOKAN THE GREAT, the first of four 1964 SANDOKAN films in two simultaneous franchises, one with Reeves and the other with American actor/director Ray Danton.  Released in the US in 1965 by MGM, SANDOKAN THE GREAT gets off to a clunky start and is relentlessly talky for a long time before it starts to pick up.  There's a lot of solid action sequences throughout, but there's also a lot of padding and it could stand to be at least 20 minutes shorter.  Reeves' Sandokan is the son of a Malaysian sultan who's been imprisoned by nefarious British colonials led by the sneering Lord Guillonk (Leo Anchoriz).  To gain leverage, Sandokan and his band of rebels kidnap Guillonk's niece Mary Ann (Genevieve Grad), with the British in hot pursuit through the treacherous jungles, which gives director Umberto Lenzi a chance to frequently cut to stock footage of wild animals.  And of course, Mary Ann sees her uncle's evil ways as she and Sandokan fall in love. Sandokan and his rebels face an angry tiger, a traitor from within, stampeding elephants, poisonous snakes, a monsoon, and a native tribe sporting some of the most cringe-inducing blackface ever seen on screen.  You can actually see it rubbing off during some action scenes. There's some rousing excitement in the machine gun-and-dynamite-filled climax after Sandokan & Co. get some help from a newly-acquired wacky chimp sidekick, but the pace is just too draggy and the film too long.  Some tightening would've made it much more enjoyable.

Lenzi, now 81 and retired from filmmaking since 1992, was a career journeyman who went wherever cinematic trends took him, starting in adventures like SANDOKAN, going to post-DIRTY DOZEN "macaroni combat" films in the late '60s and a few gialli in the early '70s, and then really making his mark with cop thrillers in the mid-to-late '70s and finally with cannibal jungle gorefests in the early '80s.  It's interesting to see, from the copious nature stock footage to the journey through the jungle to Mary Ann being abducted by a tribe of headhunters, just how much SANDOKAN THE GREAT plays like one of Lenzi's later cannibal thrillers like EATEN ALIVE and CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY), minus the extreme gore, the graphic nudity, and the reprehensible onscreen animal killings (SANDOKAN does have one brief shot of a slaughtered pig that doesn't look faked).  Also with Andrea Bosic, Rik Battaglia, Maurice Poli, Enzo Fiermonte, and eagle-eyed Eurocultists will also spot an uncredited Dakar (ZOMBIE, ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE) as one of Sandokan's followers.  The very nice 2.40 anamorphic transfer looks to be in better overall condition than THE SLAVE, but THE SLAVE is the better film by far.  (Unrated, 110 mins).

(Italy - 1964)

Despite his association with Hercules, Reeves only played the character twice: in the first film and its sequel HERCULES UNCHAINED, both directed by Pietro Francisci.  Numerous other actors stepped into the role over the next several years, sometimes officially and unofficially.  Kirk Morris (real name Adriano Bellini) starred as Maciste, another mythical muscleman, in a series of HERCULES knockoffs that often became HERCULES movies through the wonders of English dubbing or false advertising.  Morris finally got to legitimately portray Hercules in Francisci's 1964 muscle mash-up HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES.  Here, Hercules, Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico), and others are sent by King Laertes (Andrea Fantasia) to find and kill a giant sea monster (which just looks like a seal shot in extreme close-up, with dubbed-in roars).  After completing that task, they get lost at sea and end up in Judea, where Samson (Iranian muscleman Iloosh Khoshabe, using the name "Richard Lloyd"--he also did several films under the awesome moniker "Rod Flash") is hiding because of a bounty placed on his head by evil Philistine King Seren (Aldo Giuffre, best known as the booze-soaked Union captain in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY).  Samson hatches a plan to confuse King Seren into mistaking Hercules for Samson, which prompts Seren to hold all of Hercules' companions hostage and he gives him three days to find Samson, with Seren's queen Delilah (Liana Orfei) in tow.  Hercules finds Samson, and the two duke it out before deciding to join forces and take on King Seren.  HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES is dumb, brainless fun, full of melodramatic dubbing, styrofoam bricks and boulders, and arrows that make a sci-fi laser sound when fired.  It takes Hercules and Samson an hour to meet up, and the titular trio only come together in the closing minutes.  An underused Ulysses is held hostage for much of the film, but it's he who discovers that Hercules and Samson are about to walk into a Philistine ambush.  Hercules and Samson taking out the Philistine army by lifting a gigantic stone temple and tipping it on them is hysterically funny, as is the sight of a bunch of Greeks struggling to row a ship under Hercules' supervision, when Hercules could probably row the thing on his own.  Despite some obviously cheap effects, this looks very good in this remastered 1.78 anamorphic transfer, with its massive sets and beautiful locations. (Unrated, 86 mins)

Other Italian sword & sandal epics in this Warner Archive batch include THE TARTARS (1961) with Orson Welles and Victor Mature; GOLD FOR THE CAESARS (1963) with Jeffrey Hunter and Ron Randell, and DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962) with Guy Williams and Don Burnett.

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