Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Helen, Aphrodite, Ulysses, Attilla .. oh, and Alexander

 Italian week: 1 - Peplums  "If you want something visual, thats not too abysmal, we could take in an old Steve Reeves movie" - The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Some early classy peplums - those sword & sandal mini-epics of the '50s and early '60s, the heyday of the genre. 1955's HELEN OF TROY is a Warners film made in Europe by Robert Wise (who has turned his hand to most genres after editing CITIZEN KANE, with films like I WANT TO LIVE, THE HAUNTING, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and his STAR! which I posted about here recently, see below). His HELEN is one of the better epics with great sets and is very visual and utilises a great cast even if the leads are rather blank.
Rosanna Podesta is quite lovely as Helen, there is something otherworld about her - is her voice dubbed perhaps? but Jacques Sernas as Paris is rather dull. But there are British stalwarts Stanley Baker (Achilles), Harry Andrews (Hector), Ronald Lewis, Cedric Hardwicke and Nora Swinbourne add gravitas as Priam and Hecuba, and Janette Scott impresses as Cassandra - it all impressed me as a child and I still like watching it now. Oh, there is also young Brigitte Bardot being very amusing as Helen's man-mad slave ... something for everyone then. The fall of Troy is nicely depicted too ...

HELEN gets a hommage of sorts in 1957's APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE as Jacques Sernas again is lying in the surf as a beauty approaches - he calls her Aphrodite in HELEN, but she really is Aphrodite here, or rather Iride the model for the statue of Aphrodite being created by the famous scuptlor Praxitiles who lives nearby.
Iride is Rank Organisation starlet Belinda Lee, who looks terrific here. Sernas is the macedonian  on the run whom the army is looking for, but she and Praxitiles take him in and shelter him - but as Iride and Sernas fall in love Praxitiles (Massimo Girotti) gets jealous and betrays them .... it looks great with good production values and there is a happy ending for our lovers overlooking the sunlit sea. We also get lots of waves crashing on the beach .... (more on Belinda at Belinda Lee label).

ULYSSES is a De Laurentiis-Ponti production in 1954 which is also a great view now, Kirk Douglas as the wandering Ulysses, Silvana Mangano as his wife Penelope and the enchanteress Circe, Anthony Quinn (on a busy trip to Europe for ATTILA and LA STRADA also features) as does Helen, Rosanna Podesta. 

Quinn scores again as ATTILA, also 1954, who he plays as a blood-thirsty savage who kills his own brother who wants to make peace with the Romans. Henri Vidal is the Roman general Aetius and Sophia Loren is Honoria the greedy ambitious Roman who allies with Attila [her death scene was a vivid memory since I first saw it aged 12], and Irene Papas is good as Attila's discarded woman who can see the trouble Loren will bring .... it is splendid stuff, again with great Ponti-De Laurentiis production values.  The blurb says: Attila, the leader of the barbarian Huns and called by the Romans "The Scourge of God", sweeps onto the Italian peninsula, defeating all of the armies of Rome, until he and his men reach the gates of the city itself. They are then defeated by the power of Christianity and turn back as a giant cross illuminates the sky - peplums don't get more mind-boggling than that! Talk about De Mille's SIGN OF THE CROSS (see below!) Sophia (then 19) was, like Quinn, churning them out that great year 1954 (and of course they did 2 later in Hollywood: BLACK ORCHID and HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS. Quinn must have been one of the 50s busiest actors, along with Vincent Price.
Jack Palance also essayed a frightening Attila that year in Sirk's delirious SIGN OF THE PAGAN with Jeff Chandler, as well as his Simon the Magician who thinks he can fly in Warners THE SILVER CHALICE, which I also loved as a kid in 1954. [Gerard Butler's ATTILA in 2001, complete with eye-liner and wearing what looks like a big nappy, is nowhere near as good, though Alice Krige as usual impresses as a very tough Roman].

By the late '50s Steve Reeves had arrived with all those HERCULES movies which Joe E Levine shrewdly packaged for international audiences and soon other like Gordon Scott and Ed Fury were heading to peplum-land. I have just seen Steve Reeves in THE GIANT OF MARATHON (which seems to be his best, direted by Jacques Tourneur and lensed by Mario Bava, with Mylene Demongeot),and still have THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and THE WHITE RUSSIAN to catch as well as Palance and Anita Ekberg in THE MONGOLS, Jeffrey Hunter in GOLD FOR THE CAESARS, while Belinda was a terrific MESSALINA, and in JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS and CONSTANTINE AND THE CROSS with Cornel Wilde; and Jeanne Crain as NEFERTITI QUEEN OF THE NILE as well as Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget in the hilarious PRINCESS OF THE NILE.
Steve and the boys in whities at Marathon
These peplums are sometimes cheesy, made on a shoestring but have humor with action and drama along with kitsch and camp plus the beefcake and cheesecake - qualities lacking in humourless recent attempts like TROY with its unreal CGI effects and a cast with no idea how to play this material - apart from O'Toole as Priam (or Russell Crowe in GLADIATOR which at least re-invented the genre).  More on these later then ...

One I like a lot is Oliver Stone's take on ALEXANDER and his determination to get it made and then the reaction to it (as middle America did not want a gay or bisexual hero). Its a splendid looking film with some staggering set-pieces - even the CGI recreation of Babylon looks stunning. Its not really a peplum as such but a major work by a visionary director. More on this at epics label. By contrast Fox's 1956 ALEXANDER THE GREAT is rather turgid with a blonde Burton, but Claire Bloom, Stanley Baker and Harry Andrews again and Peter Cushing all command attention. This impressed me as a kid though - Andrews as the fleeing Persian king Darius, and those great shots of Danielle Darrieux as Alex's mother Olympias on the castle battlements ...

One has to include 1962's camp delight SODOM AND GOMORRAH by Robert Aldrich (before he went on to BABY JANE...) with its sometimes hilarious moments as Anouk Aimee as the slinky lesbian queen, Stanley Baker as her hissably evil brother, Stewart Granger with Pier Angelia [pillar of salt], Rosanna Podesta again (rather wasted here) and the stunning Scilla Gabel are all great to look at. It looks like Sodom is hit by a nuclear explosion at the climax but what happened to Gomorrah?
Then of course the heights of the genre are BEN HUR (I really must watch that 1925 silent version), EL CID, SPARTACUS, CLEOPATRA, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and then the rather tatty GENGHIS KHAN and the still stunning THE VIKINGS - and of course studio fodder like Warner's LAND OF THE PHAROAHS, MGM's THE PRODIGAL, Fox's THE EGYPTIAN and 300 SPARTANS. 1961's COLOSSUS OF RHODES by Serio Leone is eye-catching too with Rory Calhoun and Lea Massari. DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS is huge fun for an American peplum in 1954, that great year for biblicals - I must find and include that posed shot of Susan as Messalina dragging a chained Ed Fury around on all fours.   more on all these at epics label. All these look terrific now on widescreen HD televisions.

A brilliant site by the way is:

1 comment:

  1. Love those peplums, not a sword and sandal as such as its a Fox film and about Genghis Khan but The Conqueror in 1956 with John Wayne merits some comment, particularly when the dancing girls come on.