Peplum Populist: The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)

Saturday, January 6th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

last-days-of-pompeii-1959-posterIn August of the first year of the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, the volcano Vesuvius erupted in the south of Italy and destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Thousands of lives were lost. Out of the fire, ashes, and pyroclastic flows, an Italian film subgenre was born.

The 1959 film The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei) is the most famous of the many journeys Italian cinema has taken into the story of Vesuvius’s first-century eruption. Ostensibly based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s bestselling 1834 novel, the movie is a sword-and-sandal (peplum) riff that departs freely from its source so it can work as a vehicle for new megastar Steve “Hercules” Reeves. Reeves was at the height of his stardom and the peplum genre was also approaching the summit of its commercial success. There were loopier and cheesier days ahead for sword-and-sandal movies — I would argue more fun days — but for class and cash, The Last Days of Pompeii is a pinnacle. It lumbers sometimes under the weight of trying to appear like a serious prestige picture, but the lust for action entertainment carries it along. If you want to watch a dead serious epic from the same year, you have Ben-Hur. If you want to watch masses of polystyrene walls and pillars rain down on the cast and a hero slay lions and crocodiles, stay here.

Mario Bonnard is credited with directing The Last Days of Pompeii, but he fell sick on the first day of production. The man who took over the job was the assistant director, Sergio Leone. Yes, that Sergio Leone. Leone already had extensive experience working on Hollywood epics shot in Rome, including Quo Vadis. He proved he could helm a big feature with The Last Days of Pompeii, and soon after landed his first credited director job on another peplum, the fun romp The Colossus of Rhodes (1961). Two years later, Leone jump-started the genre that would surpass sword-and-sandal movies as the Next Big Thing in Italy with his Western, A Fistful of Dollars.

Although the eruption of Vesuvius is the reason the film was made, its story works as an ancient Roman drama even without the volcano. This isn’t a modern disaster film where the volcano is a constant subject of speculation with the actual on-screen disaster consuming the entire last third. Vesuvius appears in a few matte paintings and receives almost no mention again until the last ten minutes, when it interrupts the finale in the amphitheater to become the big curtain-closer. Forget the former plot, everybody run away!

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Peplum Populist: Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (1963)

Saturday, December 9th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

goliath-sins-babylon-US-posterWhen you have an Italian sword-and-sandal (peplum) film, and the hero of the title has an oblique name like “Goliath” or “Colossus,” the immediate question that comes to mind is, “Is this hero actually Maciste?”

The answer with Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is “Yes.” The Italian title of this 1963 muscleman epic is Maciste l’eroe più grande del mondo, “Maciste, The Greatest Hero in the World.” This isn’t strictly true, because in the rest of the world, Maciste habitually lost his name and was turned into Hercules or Atlas or Colossus … or Goliath.

And Maciste isn’t even in Babylon! This is another deception of the English-language title and dub. The setting is the usual vague Greco-Roman Mediterranean world that served as the backdrop for the majority of peplum flicks, where fictional kingdoms constantly warred with each other until a bulky hero appeared to help the underdogs to victory.

The story of Goliath and the Sins of Babylon isn’t much more complex than that description, although the events of the plot as it lunges from scene to scene create a needless tangle. The short version: The Kingdom of Cafaus (“Babylon”) has forced a cruel treaty on its neighbor, Nephyr, that demands an annual tribute of twenty-four virgins (upped to thirty in the English version). The current king of Nephyr, Pergasos (Piero Lulli), arranged for this awful treaty so he could keep the throne after his brother’s death. The wandering strongman Maciste (Mark Forest) arrives in Nephyr and befriends a group of rebel gladiators who plot to free the city from the grip of the king of Cafaus and his wicked agent, Morakeb (Erno Crisa), and place Regia (José Greci), daughter of the previous king, onto the throne of Nephyr.

Between the lines of this story is a naval battle, a chariot race, copious sword fights and wrestling moves, a populist uprising, a pitched battle between armies on horseback, a rush of lions and leopards mauling everybody in sight, comic antics with a dwarf, and jarring shifts in the story that can make it tricky to follow the specifics. There’s a lot packed into this movie, including chunks of other movies, which makes for a choppy narrative and moments of, “Wait, who is this guy again?”

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Peplum Populist: Howard Hawks Goes to the Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

land-pharaohs-1955-posterI didn’t think of putting Land of the Pharaohs under my “Peplum Populist” banner at first, even though peplum (sword-and-sandal) can be used as a broad description for any historical epic set in the ancient world. Ben-Hur is peplum. Quo Vadis is peplum. Spartacus is peplum. 300 is peplum. But for the purposes of this occasional feature, I was sticking to the specific historical definition, which is the Italian-made movies produced between 1958 and 1965. However, 1955’s Land of the Pharaohs is a genuine sword-and-sandal film, and there’s no rule except my own against expanding the umbrella of the genre to discuss a movie from one of the greatest of all Hollywood filmmakers — a movie that also happens to be his oddest foray outside of his usual style.

Howard Hawks is a name so colossal in the history of American movies that he feels like a stone monument of pharaonic Egypt, carved against a rock hill in the Valley of Kings. But Hawks only made one trip to ancient history and the historical epic with a film that has never achieved major recognition. Even with Hawks’s name on it and the continuing popularity of classic Hollywood ancient epics — especially with the technology of HD TVs making them look better at home than ever before — Land of the Pharaohs is little discussed. It’s never received anything more than standard-def DVD releases (one of which packaged it as a “Camp Classic,” which it definitely isn’t). The $3 million film was a box-office failure on its premiere, but this has never stopped a film from later gaining appreciation and a dedicated following. If it did, I wouldn’t be running a John Carpenter career retrospective series right now.

There has been some low-level buzz about Land of the Pharaohs. Martin Scorsese has called it his favorite movie as a child and a guilty pleasure as an adult. But this isn’t enough, so I’ll add a bit love (well, “like” would be a better word) for this unusual chapter in the career of a master filmmaker. It’s not essential Howard Hawks, but it’s Howard Hawks taking a whack at crafting a Cecil B. De Mille-style flick, and that’s worth something. Besides, I’m a sucker for this genre, and Land of the Pharaohs is a fascinating oddity among the ‘50s and ‘60s epics. Its strange, dispassionate approach makes it feels unlike anything else made at the time.

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Peplum Populist: Short Takes on Three Streaming Titles

Saturday, July 15th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

samson-7-miracles-world-US-poster

When I first set out to write articles about Italian peplum (sword-and-sandal) films, my intention was to excavate for worthwhile titles available from the quarry of low-quality streaming options. But my intention started to skid, and now I’m turning into the skid. I’ve already dealt with a quality film you can only get on DVD (Hercules, Samson & Ulysses) and a high-quality streaming film you shouldn’t watch (Colossus of the Stone Age). The more I sort through the archives of sword-and-sandal flicks on Amazon Video, the more limited I find the options for movies in even the most modestly acceptable presentation.

So while I continue to sift through streaming choices and look into DVDs from boutique labels, here are three short takes on films in the Amazon Video library (all free for Prime members) that don’t pass my normal picture quality threshold, but may be interesting to the Black Gate readers who can grit their teeth and struggle through blurred, pan-and-scan transfers.

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Peplum Populist: Maciste in Hell (The Witch’s Curse)

Saturday, May 27th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

maciste-in-hell-Italian-movie-poster-1962Among the canon of Italian peplum (sword-and-sandal) films made from 1958 to 1965, there are three special horror-fantasia entries. I’ve already written about Mario Bava’s classic Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). In the future I’ll look at the same year’s Goliath and the Vampires, which was co-directed by famed Italian Western director Sergio Corbucci, the man who helmed the original Django (1966).

Today I’m spending my peplum-time with the third dark fantasy, Maciste in Hell (1962), yet another movie featuring Italian homegrown hero Maciste. (Oh, wait. Goliath and the Vampires is also a Maciste film. Damn these U.S. title changes!) Although Maciste in Hell isn’t as fantastic as Hercules in the Haunted World — it’s hard to best Mario Bava when it comes to doing weird horror on the cheap — it’s on the top of the pile as far a sword-and-sandal movies go. And its Amazon VOD presentation is relatively high quality. The picture has the vertical squeeze problem of Perseus the Invincible, but at least you have the entire image and a decent print.

The idea of Maciste journeying to the underworld like Dante or Aeneas wasn’t new: Maciste in Hell (Maciste all’inferno) is also the title of one of the silent Maciste films that were hits in Italy in the 1910s and ‘20s. The two movies don’t have any story connection aside from the hero in an infernal setting, and the silent Maciste is a different character and phenomenon from the 1960s version. But Maciste in Hell ‘62 is also different from other peplum films of its time, and not just in its overt supernatural horror elements. Where Maciste’s standard stomping grounds are the ancient/mythic Mediterranean, here he pops up in seventeenth-century Scotland. Maciste has a reputation for shifting about in time and place: I dealt with him in prehistory in Colossus of the Stone Age, and recently watched him battle Mongols in China in Maciste at the Court of the Great Khan (retitled Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World in the U.S.). Even so, Scotland in the Early Modern Era is pushing against the sword-and-sandal barriers.

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Peplum Populist: Hercules, Samson & Ulysses

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

hercules-samson-ulysses-posterThe “versus film” has been with us for decades, even if “vs.” didn’t show up in early movie titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Audiences crave watching cinematic legends smash into each other in duels to the death — or duels to the mutual understanding. Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason, Batman v[s]. Superman, King Kong vs. Godzilla (soon ready for a rematch), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (this really happened), Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (a number of occasions), and Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys. Bring up anything involving the SyFy Channel and sharks and you get hurt.

Italian sword-and-sandal (peplum) films couldn’t resist putting titans of the ancient world into the ring together, and there’s no finer example than 1963’s Hercules, Samson & Ulysses. The Italian title translates as “Hercules Challenges Samson,” in case you needed to know who goes up against whom and who is hanging around as the sidekick.

When it comes to peplum-as-pulp, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses is the real deal. Appearing at the point in the genre’s evolution when sword-and-sandal films either went stale or went silly, HS&U falls solidly on the positive silly side. It’s an outrageous actioner that knows exactly what its audience wants to see and delivers 100% on the promise of watching two legendary supermen batter each other in muscular absurdity. It may not be the best sword-and-sandal film, but it’s one of the most entertaining. This is the peplum film to watch if most of the genre’s other offerings don’t grab you.

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Peplum Populist: Colossus of the Stone Age (Fire Monsters against the Son of Hercules)

Saturday, March 4th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

colossus-of-the-stone-age-maciste-contro-i-mostri-italian-posterHere’s a pleasing discovery: Amazon Video has a widescreen print of the 1962 sword-and-sandal (peplum) film Colossus of the Stone Age available under its U.S. television syndication title, Fire Monsters against the Son of Hercules. And the print is a good one. It’s not the level of a professional 4K restoration like the Phantasm Blu-ray that came out in December, but considering sword-and-sandal movies often look like someone dragged the film along the sidewalk on the way to the telecine department, Colossus of the Stone Age is damned near pristine. It isn’t part of the Amazon Prime library, however, so subscribers have to shell out $1.99 to rent it, or an extra 51¢ to own it. There’s a version streaming on Amazon Prime under the same title, but it’s the standard cropped and dragged-across-the-pavement type.

So as far as pepla available in English, Colossus of the Stone Age looks fantastic. But is it any good?

Perhaps the better question is, “Is it worth watching?” For this type of low-budget fantasy production, the question of quality is often separate from the question of whether to spend time with it.

But my answer to both questions is “no.”

The appeal of a peplum movie set in the Stone Age and the promise that it will have fire monsters is tempting, and the quality widescreen presentation is a legitimate bonus, but Colossus of the Stone Age (the U.K. theatrical release title) is one of the more tatty and flavorless examples of this genre. Pepla at their best have bizarre imagination, creative production designs and visuals, and robust action scenes. At their most mediocre they have heroes who don’t do anything and long scenes of extras running around in fields or through cheap cavern sets while clumsily swinging sticks at each other. Which is a sentence that works as a summary of this movie.

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Peplum Populist: Perseus the Invincible (Perseus Against the Monsters)

Saturday, January 21st, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Perseus-the-Invincible-Poster-ItalianThe peplum film, a.k.a. the sword-and-sandal movie, was a dominant genre of Italian cinema from 1958 to 1965. Over a hundred pepla were produced, frequently in co-productions with other European countries, and often starring beefcake actors from the U.S. and U.K. like Steve Reeves, Reg Park, and Gordon Scott.

Buried in this heap of musclemen action pictures and low-budget ancient costume dramas are a few fantasy treasures. Locating these gems of the fantastic is an occasionally, uhm, Herculean task because peplum films are poorly represented on home viewing options in English-speaking countries. You can find hordes of them on streaming services — 75% of Amazon Prime’s library seems to consist of public domain sword-and-sandal movies — but most are horrendous and unwatchable pan-and-scan transfers from prints faded almost to gray smudges. The same is true of the numerous budget pack DVD collections. Even the occasional prestige disc releases are often inferior.

So in this first of an occasional column excavating for the sword-and-sandal films the Black Gate readership may wish to sample, I’m glad to report that one of the most fantasy-heavy pepla, Perseus the Invincible, is available in a decent version from (who else?) Amazon Prime under one of its alternate titles, Perseus against the Monsters. Pepla often skimped on outright fantasy beasts in their mythological stories, but Perseus the Invincible delivers creatures from legendary special-effects designer Carlo Rambaldi. That alone makes it worth a look.

An Italian-Spanish co-production, Perseo l’invincibile was released in Italy in February 1963, just as the sword-and-sandal craze was poised to wind down and the Western was waiting in the wings to take over. It reached the U.S. on television as part of the “Sons of Hercules” Embassy Pictures syndication package, where it was retitled Medusa against the Son of Hercules. It’s also gone by the names Medusa vs. the Son of Hercules and Valley of the Stone Men. There are at least three different cuts in circulation: the original Italian version, the U.S. syndication cut, and a Spanish cut with additional special effects like laser eye beams from Medusa.

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Peplum Populist: Hercules in the Haunted World

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

hercules-in-the-haunted-world-us-posterAmong the most popular articles I’ve written for Black Gate is a look at one the goofiest fantasy films of the ‘80s, the Lou Ferrigno Hercules. Two-and-a-half years later, I feel I should give the on-screen Hercules another shot with one of the better films to carry his name. Plus, I just pondered the news that a new Hercules film is on the way. Or maybe I’m just trying to repeat the search-engine magic of the name “Hercules.” So let’s leap back twenty-two years from the science-fiction cheesy glitz of Ferrigno’s film and take a kaleidoscopic trip to Hell on a shoestring budget with Mario Bava.

Among the many movies produced in the “sword-and-sandal” (peplum) deluge in Italy between 1958 and 1965, two stand out for movie fans: The Colossus of Rhodes (1960) and Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). Both were early efforts from directors who went on to re-shape other genres and subsequently turned into legends. Sergio Leone, director of The Colossus of Rhodes, created the style of the Italian Western with his three films with Clint Eastwood and the ultra classic Once Upon a Time in the West. Mario Bava, director of Hercules in the Haunted World, gave form to the Italian giallo film and Continental horror in general, starting with Black Sunday made the year before his one Hercules films.

The difference between The Colossus of Rhodes and Hercules in the Haunted World is that Bava was already in fine form and showing his signature style, while Leone displayed little of his famous “Leone-ness” in his first movie. The Colossus of Rhodes looks like something any competent director could have turned out. Nobody but Bava could have created the colorful fantasy eeriness of Hercules in the Haunted World.

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The Top Black Gate Posts in January

Sunday, February 18th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

godzilla-planet-of-monsters-radioactive-blast

Ryan Harvey was the man to beat at Black Gate in January. He claimed three of the Top Ten articles — including our overall most popular post last month, a review of the new animated film Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters.

Bob Byrne came in at #2 with his Conan pastiche review round-up, “By Crom: Some Conans are More Equal Than Others…” Fletcher Vredenburgh took third with a look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin. Derek Kunsken’s review of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune was the fourth most popular post in January, and Fletcher rounded out the Top Five with “Why I’m Here – Part Two: Some Thoughts on Old Books and Appendix N.”

Our obituary for the great Ursula K. Le Guin was #6, followed by John DeNardo’s Definitive List of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of last year. Eighth was my article on vintage paperbacks, “Christmas for the Paperback Collector,” followed by Ryan’s review of Beyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ryan closed out the Top Ten with a piece on that Saturday morning classic, Warlords of Atlantis.

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