13 April 2008

Once Upon a Time on a Colossus

Thanks to the DVD release of Sergio Leone’s first movie, 1962’s The Colossus of Rhodes, I can at last say I’ve seen every film that Leone directed.

Leone may be a filmmaking legend because of his classic Westerns The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once upon a Time in the West, and gangster epic Once upon a Time in America, but until recently it seemed that nobody had anything to say about The Colossus of Rhodes, almost as if no one had seen it at all. The movie belongs to a popular Italian genre of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that the French critics called peplum and in the U.S. is usually referred to as “sword-and-sandal.” These were action-adventure movies set in classical antiquity, most frequently the Roman Empire or mythical Greece. The stars were usually American bodybuilders who played musclemen heroes like Hercules, Maciste, Samson, or Ursus. Many of the productions were co-financed with other western European countries, and most were shot in Spain, including The Colossus of Rhodes. The casts were drawn from all over Europe, featuring Italian, Spanish, German, Austrian, and French performers. The genre played well overseas after the 1957 Hercules turned into a big international hit, so the Italian film industry and their co-producers jumped wholeheartedly into these slimmed-down Ben-Hurs that accented big action and colorful spectacle. The boom wound down and was replaced with the Western mania in the latter half of the 1960s, and that was where Leone flourished.

Colossus of Rhodes is therefore a film type that wasn’t targeted to Leone’s interests. But since it was his first film, he hadn’t yet developed his personal style. He already had over a decade of filmmaking experience working as an assistant director and in second units (he was on the Italian second unit crew of Ben-Hur), so Colossus of Rhodes is professionally mounted and feels like the work of a seasoned director. But it has few of Leone’s trademarks or signs of his later brilliance. No claustrophobic close-ups, vista-spanning long-takes, bizarre collages of sound effects, ritualized violence, or weird Ennio Morricone music (although Francesco Lavagnino’s score is effective). After the first half hour, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a Leone movie at all. It turns into a standard sword-and-sandal film with only a few unusual touches to hint at what is to come from the man behind the camera.

However, it’s a good sword-and-sandal film, and I enjoyed it immensely on its own terms as popular early ‘60s entertainment. It’s loaded with action and vivid sets, and if the plot gets herky-jerky at times and filled with plot strands that don’t go anywhere (common in the rapid-fire filmmaking of Italy in the day) it still carries the viewer along for the two-hour running time. Some of the action scenes are gratuitous, but it’s a good kind of gratuitous. The sword fight on the top of the Colossus is a good piece of fun, and seems like an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s Saboteur (which concluded on the Statue of Liberty, a sculpture that’s an homage to the Colossus of Rhodes) and North by Northwest.

And who’s our guest-starring American actor? Surprise, this time it’s not a bodybuilder, but aging B-Cowboy Rory Calhoun. Calhoun was a last-minute replacement, and looks a bit dazed in the role. He plays the Athenian Darios, on holiday in Rhodes to see his uncle. He has a dopey good-natured demeanor about him as he gets pulled into a rebellion against the tyrannical King Serse of Rhodes and his scheming prime-minister Thar. While the rebels are plotting the king’s overthrow, Thar has his own plot with the Phoenician to take over the island for himself. Central to the schemes of all the groups is the Colossus, which isn’t just a giant bronze statue in this version of the story, but bristles with weaponry. It can drop molten lead from its torch onto ships trying to move through the harbor below. The hollow head serves as the control room and launching pad for catapults.

The look of the Colossus is inspired by the medieval myth that the statue straddled the harbor. This was impossible, since it would have required closing down Rhodes’s harbor during the long construction. No contemporary account mentions the Colossus standing across the harbor entrance, and indeed it was much smaller than art represented it. In the movie the Colossus is an effective combination of a model and full-scale mock-ups of its upper body and its feet.

The film concludes with the historical earthquake that felled the great statue, and it comes amidst a huge battle finale between the Phoenician allies of the the traitor Thar and the heroic freedom fighters. The scene is indebted to the very popular Italian film The Last Days of Pompei (which Leone worked on as an assistant director).

Leone fans will definitely want to see Colossus of Rhodes, although they won’t get out of it what they might expect. Casual viewers may get a thrill of it as well; it’s never boring. The DVD is of good quality, and has intelligent commentary from Italian popular cinema expert Sir Christopher Frayling.