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)
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)
SANDOKAN THE GREAT
(France/Italy/Spain - 1964)
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).
HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES
(Italy - 1964)
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.