BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Aug 30th, 2012 •

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When two ‘Sword & Sandal’ Archive items came in, I gravitated toward 1962’s DAMON AND PYTHIAS. Its story and co-screenplay were by Samuel (LASSIE COME HOME) Marx, it was produced by Sam (BORN FREE, THEATRE OF BLOOD) Jaffe, and it was directed by Curtis (film noirs CONFLICT and POSSESSED) Bernhardt. Hollywood veterans all.

But this anemic opus, transposed for shooting to Italy, has grainy, overlit, undistinguished cinematography by Aldo Tonti, sluggish editing by Niccolo Lazzari, and unconvincing production design by Alberto Boccianti. Guy Williams, an Italian-American, was 38 when he undertook the role of Damon, an amoral rogue. He’d had experience playing morally ambiguous characters (the Enola Gay Bombardier in THE BEGINNING OR THE END – ’47), and had also appeared in I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, and as a more heroic lead in such TV fare as the ZORRO series (playing Don Diego de la Vega), and CAPTAIN SINDBAD (as the titular Captain). He was a reasonably appropriate, rugged choice for the selfish protagonist who converts to Pythias’s cause. But unfortunately, the transformation is never adequately illustrated, particularly considering that he makes a hell of a sacrifice by film’s end.

The only bright note in this otherwise sub-standard entrée in a sub-standard genre is the game performance by Arnoldo Foa as Dionysius the Tyrant. As a cruel ruler who is nonetheless intrigued by the act of faith Damon undertakes, he has plenty of good and nuanced moments. I always perked up when the narrative drifted back to him. But he was a meager reward for enduring the film’s 99 minutes.

Imagine my surprise then, when having been let down by D & P, I reluctantly slid HERCULES, SAMSON AND ULYSSES into the DVD player and thoroughly enjoyed what followed. This 1963 S&S flick was directed by none other than Pietro Francisci, who launched the modern chapter of the Italian S&S genre with 1959’s HERCULES, starring American body builder Steve Reeves (who was recommended to Francisci by his daughter after having seen Reeves in a minor role in a Hollywood Musical). Reeves, who modestly attributed his success to his “noble face,” spawned everything that followed, from Schwarzenegger, to Stallone, to the currently successful THE EXPENDABLES 2 which is oozing with his cinematic progeny. He was, for one year (‘59) considered the biggest box office star in the world. A fairly wooden actor, he nonetheless exuded something. And his sudden fame sure wasn’t due to Francisci’s direction, or to the dreadful dubbing.

Steve Reeves from HERCULES (1959)

H, S & U immediately held my interest because of its rich color palette, lush lensing, and pleasing set design. Though Italian-made through and through, it is strongly reminiscent visually of one of the most unintentionally perfect impressions of an Italian S&S film made in the U.S., George Pal’s ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT (1961). I knew Pal fairly well, and I didn’t get the impression that he thought he was doing homage to the Italian genre when he made this film, even though the studio may have green-lighted the project because of the success of the Reeves film. Or maybe he did, and if so, I don’t know what possessed him.

Kirk Morris, as a blonde Hercules was one of the better Steve Reeves clones (this came out a year before Reeves abandoned his S&S career), and he’s a lot of fun. Discovered in Venice where he was working as a gondolier, he quickly assimilated into the peplum tsunami, appearing in such films as HERCULES IN THE VALLEY OF WOE and HERCULES OF THE DESERT. Some of his earnest line readings here, I truly believe, may have been intended to be humorous, and they certainly had me laughing. His eventual, inevitable physical conflict with Samson (Iloosh Khoshabe) is terrific fun in the manner of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, played less for drama than for exhilarating parody. The extended fight scene between these two mythological/biblical titans puts the art department to the test. Numerous configurations of Styrofoam ‘stone’ blocks are erected to represent the remnants of an ancient city, and the two superheroes throw each other into them, throw them into each other, knock them down randomly while tussling, etc., etc., all with superhuman gusto.

Liana Orfei as Delilah is a well-drawn femme fatale, and one definitely ends up liking her, even though they know what the future holds for poor Samson. In fact Hercules keeps warning Samson about getting too involved with her. But these S&S superheroes tend to be guileless, and therefore vulnerable.

Enzo Cerusico as Ulysses, alas, belongs in DAMON AND PYTHIAS. He’s feisty yet bland, very much in the mold of Sal Ponti (aka Anthony Hall) in Pal’s ATLANTIS. But one can endure his tepid performance while awaiting the glorious muscular antics of the other two leads. Far more provocative than Cerusico is Diletta D’Andrea as Hercules’ wife. She bitches at him almost relentlessly for leaving her behind when he embarks on a sea voyage to find a missing ship. There’s such heavy emphasis on her anger and lack of compassion that she actually comes off worse, in balance, than Delilah.

IMDB declares that the Italian cut was seven minutes longer. Fun as this version is, 86 minutes is plenty long enough.

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