Saturday, 26 November 2011

Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (1961)

Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan) is a peplum with a difference - it’s set in China during the 13th century.

Making a peplum set in China might seem an odd thing to do but apparently the producers of a relatively lavish movie on Marco Polo felt that it would be silly to use the sets for just one movie so they decided to use them again to make a peplum. They also had quite a few Asian actors and extras available so that made it even easier. Japanese actress Yoko Tani played the female lead in both films.

As the Italian title makes clear the hero of this movie is not in fact Samson but Maciste. Maciste is not a figure from folklore or mythology. He had been the hero of the 1914 Italian movie Cabiria, a movie that has strong claims to being the first movie epic. The character caught on so well that he ended up being the hero of countless sword and sandal movies.

So what is an Italian hero doing in China? The movie solves that problem by simply ignoring it. We just have to accept that he happens to be there. Let’s face it, if you’re going to start worrying about logic in a movie like this you’re watching the wrong type of movie.

China (or most of it) at this time was part of the enormous Mongol Empire. Garak Khan has a problem. He is acting as regent for the young Chinese crown prince and his sister Lei-ling. Of course the reality is that he runs the country and has no intention of allowing a Chinese dynasty to re-establish itself, but the Chinese prince and princess are being used as symbols of resistance by a rebel army dedicated to the overthrow of the Mongols.

Garak decides to do the obvious thing and have them killed, but just as he’s about to feed the prince to a tiger along comes Maciste and ruins everything. Maciste has made contact with the rebels and has offered to help them. The immediate problem is that Garak’s plans to murder the princess having failed he has now decided to marry her instead. To do this he will have to kidnap her.

Garak already has a girlfriend and she is not overly pleased by this new development. She was all set to become the beautiful but evil queen without which no peplum worth its salt is complete but now she’s ready to change sides and fight for goodness and justice. At least until Garak’s marriage plans fall through.

Gordon Scott plays Maciste and he’s a perfectly acceptable muscleman hero. Yoko Tani makes a reasonable princess heroine. Hélène Chanel is a fun would-be beautiful but evil queen and Leonardo Severini as Garak is the smooth but villainous Garak.

There are no supernatural elements or monsters in this movie but there’s plenty of action and mayhem, including an eight-horse scythed chariot used by Garak Khan as a novel method of executing his enemies.

Director Riccardo Freda made some excellent gothic horror films as well as many sword and sandal epics and in fact he had a go at just about every genre going including spaghetti westerns and eurospy thrillers. He was always a very capable director.

The movie itself is a terrific example of its species and is highly recommended.

The same cannot be said for Retromedia’s DVD presentation. The good news is that it’s in the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio and that’s a major plus given the number of Italian genre movies that are only available in terrible pan-and-scan fullframe versions. Unfortunately that’s the only good news. This is an absolutely abysmal print, and even worse it’s cut by about half an hour! Which means the plot is badly rushed and not entirely coherent. Picture quality is lousy.

The English dubbed version is the only soundtrack option but that’s less of a problem since bad dubbing tends to enhance this type of movie.

It’s probably not Retromedia’s fault since it may well be that there are no other surviving English dubbed or subtitled prints, and while image quality is poor it’s watchable and at least it’s not pan-and-scanned. It’s just a pity a better print could not have been found of such a very entertaining peplum.


Samuel Wilson said...

Mill Creek's copy is incorrectly letterboxed -- you can tell from the incomplete credits -- and is otherwise at least as bad as Retromedia's. The US trailer I recall being really neat ("When they buried the world's strongest man alive..." or words to that effect) but sort of spoils the film's big moment. It's definitely a film I'd like to see in better shape.

Ninja Dixon said...

Great review, good movie! When I reviewed about a year ago I got this comment:

"I love this movie and would like to have this. good memory for me. My dad played as Prince Tai Sung. I watched it in Bangkok since I was young and hard to find the film here"

I replied, but he never responded. Or else I would have made a copy for him/her.