Sunday, 18 January 2009

The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rodi) was part of the immensely popular series of Italian “peplum” movies of the late 50s and early 60s. Perhaps its main claim to fame is that it gave Sergio Leone his first official directing credit. While many of the Italian peplum or sword and sandal epics incorporated mythical or fantastic elements, this one purports to be a straight historical epic. Mind you, the “historical” events depicted in this motion picture bear no relation whatsoever to actual history!

The only connection to history is that the giant statue that gives the movie its title really did exist, being one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and really was completed in 280 BC. The actual colossus was however much smaller than the one in the movie, and lacked the high-tech features of the movie version. In any case, as the film opens a celebrated Athenian soldier named Dario is visiting Rhodes just at the time that the colossus is bring dedicated to the sun god. He finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue, of plots and counter-plots, as both the king’s first minister (aided by the wicked Phoenicians) and a rag-tag group of Rhodian freedom fighters are conspiring to take control of the island. He becomes fascinated by the beautiful Diala, the step-daughter of the designer of the brilliant but eccentric designer of the colossus.

This Italian-Spanish-French co-production was a relatively big-budget offering (and a substantial commercial success), with the producers securing a distribution deal with MGM. It really is quite spectacular visually, with some great sets (especially the temple with the giant monstrous mouth and the Babylonian-looking winged lions) and glorious (although historically ludicrously inaccurate) costumes. The aim was clearly to capture the feel of the American epics of the 50s like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur rather than the more cheesy look of Italian Hercules movies. This is presumably why monsters and mythical creatures were avoided. Actually it doesn’t need monsters, because it has the colossus itself, which fulfuls the same functions. It’s not just a statue - it’s a prison, a scientific laboratory, and an advanced weapons system. It’s loaded with gadgetry, and it designer is a genuine mad scientist type.

It’s been released on DVD by Warner Home Video as part of their Cult Camp Classics range, and although it has undeniable camp elements it’s too well-made to qualify as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. Sergio Leone handles both the action sequences and the epic scale of the movie with considerable flair.

The commentary track by Christopher Frayling is particularly interesting. He points out that Leone intended the movie, oddly enough, as a homage to Hitchcock, with the hero Dario being based on Roger Thornhill, the character played by Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Once you understand this, the movie makes a lot more sense, and the parallels are striking. Dario is, like Thornhill, a fairly decent but rather irresponsible guy who gets caught up in a bewildering web of conspiracies and deceit, and he really has no idea what is going on. It also makes perfect sense of Rory Calhoun’s performance as Dario, which is actually rather effective.

The movie’s big weakness is the lack of a charismatic female lead. It needed a larger-than-life wicked woman, a true vamp, to spice up the limp romantic sub-plots, and to add some sex appeal. Or perhaps I should say, to add balance to the sex appeal. There’s enough half-dressed beefcake on display to please half of the audience, but a distinct lack of equally sexy females. And it’s the sort of movie that really needs cheesecake as well as beefcake!

On the whole though it’s rather entertaining. I can’t imagine any lover of sword and sandal movies not enjoying this one, and it’s an interesting glimpse of Sergio Leone’s earlier career with some surprising similarities to his later spaghetti westerns.

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