Monday, April 18, 2016

Retro Review: HEARTS AND ARMOUR (1983)

(Italy - 1983; US release 1985)

Written and directed by Giacomo Battiato. Cast: Zeudi Araya, Barbara De Rossi, Rick Edwards, Leigh McCloskey, Ronn Moss, Maurizio Nichetti, Tanya Roberts, Giovanni Visentin, Tony Vogel, Lina Sastri, Lucien Bruchon, Al Cliver, Robert Spafford, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, Bobby Rhodes, Hal Yamanouchi. (Unrated, 101 mins)

A virtually forgotten adventure saga set during the Crusades, 1983's HEARTS AND ARMOUR was a handsomely-produced, reasonably big-budget Italian film picked up for US distribution by Warner Bros. in 1984. A cursory glance puts it in the same class as any number of imported CONAN THE BARBARIAN ripoffs playing drive-ins and grindhouses at the time, but it's a comparatively highbrow affair, based on Ludovico Ariosto's 16th century, 38,000-line epic poem Orlando Furioso. Rather than muscular barbarians, it's closer in tone and chivalrous knighthood spirit to John Boorman's EXCALIBUR, which was a huge hit for Warner Bros. in 1981. But HEARTS AND ARMOUR never achieved that level of success or exposure. After a few test screenings that didn't go well, the studio shelved the film for a year before releasing it straight-to-video in 1985. It also had a few sporadic HBO airings not long after, but has largely languished in obscurity for 30 years, trudged up only by the curious obtaining import or bootleg copies or hoping somebody's put it on YouTube. Thanks to its review in the Maltin movie guide, a rumor has persisted among the film's tiny cult following (mainly confined to the daytime soap crowd, as two of the film's stars went on to make names for themselves in that field) that a longer version exists, and that the 101-minute US release was cut down from a four-hour miniseries for Italian TV. While that was the case with some films from that period (1983's YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, being one major example), HEARTS AND ARMOUR was never a four-hour miniseries. It was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen, which would be unheard-of for a made-for-TV project in those 1.33:1 broadcast days, and nobody's ever found any evidence of air dates in Italy or anything whatsoever to corroborate a four-hour version, despite the persistence of that one inevitable dude in an IMDb comments thread who insists he's seen it.

Directed by Giacomo Battiato, a career journeyman who primarily worked in Italian television and is still active there today, HEARTS AND ARMOUR simplistically whittles the Crusades down to a tale of forbidden love and personal vengeance between warring Christian and Moor families. Bradamante (Barbara De Rossi) is a noblewoman who has rebelled against her Christian family, renouncing her wealth and comfort to go wherever the road takes her, coming into possession of an indestructible suit of armor that renders her most powerful in battle. She rescues Moor princess Angelica (Tanya Roberts, in between THE BEASTMASTER and SHEENA) from the first of many attacks (Angelica seems on the verge of being gang-raped every time we see her) and takes her prisoner, intending to turn her over to the Christians. Things are complicated when Bradamante meets Ruggero (future soap star Ronn Moss, then best known as the bassist in the late '70s soft rock juggernaut Player, of "Baby Come Back" fame), a Moor prince and heir to the throne of his king father (dubbing legend Robert Spafford). She falls in love with Ruggero, but is fearful of a witch's prophecy that he will die at the hands of Christian paladin Orlando (Rick Edwards, an American model and another future soap star). Orlando meanwhile, comes to love Angelica as various forces from the Moors--Ruggero's sister Marfisa (Zeudi Araya, who went on to marry the film's producer Franco Cristaldi) and an improbable Asian warrior (Hal Yamanouchi) who seems to have wandered in from SHOGUN ASSASSIN--and the Christians--evil mercenary Ganelon (Giovanni Visentin) and duplicitous knight Ferrau (a scenery-chewing Tony Vogel, who speaks every one of his lines through clenched teeth as if he's in physical pain trying to shit and it's stuck)--relentlessly pursue them, leading to numerous extensive scenes of swordplay, jousting, and one-on-one combat.

Battiato, who wrote the script with uncredited assistance from Italian genre stalwarts Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, doesn't do a very good job of presenting the story in a remotely coherent fashion, nor does it help that he's asking you to accept Tanya Roberts and Ronn Moss as Moors alongside black actors like Araya and DEMONS' Bobby Rhodes. But it's this choppy editing and the random introduction of new characters with no information who they are or how they relate to other people that certainly lends much credibility to the "this was cut down from a four-hour miniseries" argument. Leigh McCloskey (INFERNO) appears quite a bit as Rinaldo, a paladin friend of Orlando's, but he doesn't really have much of a purpose. In the poem, Rinaldo is Bradamante's brother and they're both Orlando's cousins, but the muddled HEARTS AND ARMOUR doesn't establish that. Battiato instead opts to focus on the action sequences, which take up most of the running time and are brutal, gory, and well-choreographed. Blood splatters, limbs and heads fly, and armor and swords clang furiously, all set to a rousing score by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark members Martin Cooper and David Hughes. This ensures the film is never boring but it's awfully difficult to follow, especially for those who aren't already very familiar with Ariosto's poem.

De Rossi does a convincing job as Bradamante, but everyone else wanders in and out, making it difficult to leave an impression. Roberts, formerly of CHARLIE'S ANGELS and a big enough name in 1983 to provide credible American export value with then-DALLAS co-star McCloskey, has little to do with a character who's constantly in distress, with her wardrobe perpetually ready to fall off (it never does). A musician attempting to break into acting, Moss would go on to play Rowdy Abilene in Andy Sidaris' HARD TICKET TO HAWAII (1987) before spending 25 years as Ridge Forrester on the CBS soap THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, while Edwards found much less job security, making a couple of little-seen Italian films before appearing for a few years on NBC's SANTA BARBARA, his career essentially over by the early '90s. Both do decent work in the battle scenes, though they don't fare as well dramatically, as both are dubbed by familiar-sounding Eurocult voice actors. There's also small roles for Eurotrash vets Yamanouchi, Rhodes, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, and Lucio Fulci regular Al Cliver, who shows up long enough to get his throat sliced open by Angelica after yet another attempted gang rape, which these knights don't really grasp is hard to do with all the armor. Battiato went back to TV, directing the four-hour 1986 Italian TV miniseries BLOOD TIES, a mob drama with an impressive cast headlined by Brad Davis, Tony Lo Bianco, Vincent Spano, Maria Conchita Alonso, Michael V. Gazzo, Joe Spinell, and De Rossi. BLOOD TIES would be cut down to two hours for its American premiere as a Showtime original movie, later losing another 20 minutes for its eventual VHS release. HEARTS AND ARMOUR doesn't have much going for it aside from De Rossi's beauty and some impressive, spirited action, but a proper restoration to its 2.35:1 widescreen to show off the work of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, perhaps as a remastered Warner Archive release, would go a long way toward boosting its reputation. Or even reminding people that it exists.

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