Giant of Marathon (La battaglia di Maratona) is a 1959 peplum with two major attractions for cult movie fans. It was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and the cinematographer was the equally great Mario Bava. In fact Bava took over as director at some point during the shoot.
It’s also interesting as a peplum inspired by historical events rather than mythology. In this case the historical event is the first Persian invasion of Greece in 490BC under Darius I, which culminated in a stunning against-the-odds victory won by the Athenians standing almost alone against the might of the Persian Empire.
It is also inspired by an event following the battle, when an Athenian named Pheidippides ran 26 miles to Athens to bring the news of victory to the citizens. Or so the story goes. In any case the story is commemorated by the modern marathon race. The movie renames him Phillipides, and makes him a champion athlete at the ancient Olympic Games. And since he’s played by muscleman Steve Reeves and since this is a peplum, he’s a Hercules-like superman who inspires the Athenian resistance to Persia.
This peplum doesn’t have a beautiful but evil queen, but it does a beautiful but evil temptress in the person of Karis (Daniela Rocca). Only she’s not really evil, she just looks that way. In reality she’s being manipulated by the arch-villain of the piece, Theocritus (Sergio Fantoni). Theocritus is in league with the Athenian tyrant whom the Athenians have recently expelled. And this tyrant is a traitor who intends to sell Greece to the Persian invaders.
Creusus is also being manipulated by Theocritus, who wants to marry Creusus’s beautiful daughter Andromeda (Mylène Demongeot). But Andromeda wants to marry Phillipides. The various conspiracies by Theocritus essentially drive the plot of the movie - the survival of Greek freedom as well as the happiness of our young lovers both depend on the foiling of this arch-villain’s plots.
The movie, not surprisingly, takes considerable liberties with history. Much of the action of the movie comes in the climactic naval battle, when in fact the crucial battle of this stage of the Persian Wars took place on land. The film-makers have some very cool if very fanciful ideas about ancient naval warfare but it all makes for some very exciting and imaginative action scenes, especially the underwater combats! Yes, the Greeks in this movie have an early version of the Navy Seals!
The action scenes in generally are quite well done. The budget was obviously reasonable by the standards of this type of movie. Visually, as you’d expect with people like Tourneur and Bava involved, the movie is fairly impressive.
Steve Reeves makes a more than adequate hero, Mylène Demongeot is a sympathetic and glamorous heroine, Sergio Fantoni is a suitably villainous bad guy and Daniela Rocca is seductive in the femme fatale role.
The movie starts a little slowly and spends perhaps a little too much time on the romantic sub-plot. It could have used some tightening up. Once the action starts though the movie shifts into top gear and the naval battle is worth the price of admission on its own.
My personal preference is for the more outrageous peplums with monsters and all-round silliness but Giant of Marathon is still highly entertaining and can certainly be recommended to fans of the genre.
Retromedia have done a fine job with their Steve Reeves Collection. They offer two movies, both 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfers - an unheard of luxury for peplum fans. The transfer of Giant of Marathon is a good one too, with the colours quite vivid and generally very good picture quality.