Saturday, 20 April 2013

War Gods of Babylon (1962)

War Gods of Babylon (Le sette folgori di Assur) is a 1962 peplum that is in many ways very untypical of this genre. The fact that there are no monsters or supernatural agencies in the film is not that unusual, but this movie also does not include a muscleman superhero, nor does it include a beautiful but evil queen.

As the movie unfolds other elements will become obvious that also make this an unusual peplum. It’s played very straight indeed. There’s really nothing remotely camp about this movie. The actors play it straight as well - there’s no scenery-chewing. In fact they’re actually trying to play the characters as real people rather than the two-dimensional heroes and villains of the average peplum. And the tone of the movie is rather dark, and as it progresses it becomes steadily darker. This is more of a tragedy than an adventure romp.

The semi-legendary figure of Sardanapalus appealed strongly to the 19th century Romantics and the later Decadents. Sardanapalus has been identified with several actual Assyrian kings including Ashurbanipal but the legend that attracted the Romantics has little to do with any actual historical figure. This movie draws its inspiration from the colourful tales told by later Greek historians. These tales certainly contain the ingredients for a wonderful historical epic but they really require a rather more over-the-top and overtly decadent treatment than they get in this film. Ken Russell could have great fun with this story.

Sardanapalus (Howard Duff) is the king of Assyria, ruling a mighty empire from his capital at Ninevah. He is devoted to his younger brother Shammash. When a wandering holy man named Zoroaster (Arnoldo Foà) arrives in the city he is accompanied by a young woman named Mirra (Jocelyn Lane) whose village had been destroyed by bandits. Zoroaster preaches against worldly empires that oppress the common people. The high priests of Ninevah accuse him of blasphemy and he seems destined to be executed. But the young Prince Shammash takes a rather strong liking to his young female companion. Mirra will not have anything to do with Shammash unless Zoroaster is freed. Shammash appeals to his brother the king. King Sardanapalus is a rather easy-going guy and he is happy to free Zoroaster in order to please his brother.

Prince Shammash falls madly in love with Mirra, but complications arise when Mirra meets Sardanapalus. She and Sardanapalus fall in love, but both Mirra and Sardanapalus feel a strong sense of loyalty to young Shammash and they agree to renounce their love. Unfortunately by this time Shammash has figured out that Mirra and Sardanapalus are in love, and he takes it very badly.

Even more unluckily, Sardanapalus has decided to install Shammash as king of the Assyrians’ subject city of Babylon. This would have been a fine idea before Mirra came between Sardanapalus and Shammash. Now it’s a very bad idea since the Babylonians, who resent their subjugation by the Assyrians, now have a king with a major grudge against the King of Assyria.

Shammash’s Babylonian advisers encourage him to defy his brother the Assyrian king but in fact their plans are considerably more devious than this. They want to free Babylon from the Assyrian yoke but they have no loyalty at all to Shammash. He is merely a tool in their hands.

Howard Duff does quite well as Sardanapalus. It was a curious decision on the part of the film-makers to treat Sardanapalus as a fairly conventional hero. I’m not sure that it was the right choice but Duff makes him a sympathetic and very human character. Unfortunately this leaves the movie without a strong hero. Sardanapalus is a brave man who tries to behave honourably but he’s a long way from being a typical peplum hero.

Jocelyn Lane is perfectly adequate as Mirra. Luciano Marin doesn’t seem quite sure how to approach the role of Shammash, whether to play him as a conventional romantic hero or a man tortured by conflicting loyalties. He ends up being overshadowed by Howard Duff’s much more confident performance.

The subject matter would have lent itself to a much more extravagant and more overtly decadent approach. Sardanapalus as decadent hero would have been a perfect role for Charles Laughton, especially if Cecil B. DeMille had been directing. In this case the director was Silvio Amadio and while he’s competent he can’t overcome the movie’s lack of a really strong central hero character.

The movie does have some very considerable pluses. The action scenes are good and the miniatures work is excellent. The flood that provides the film’s exciting climax looks very effective.

Retromedia’s DVD release will please devotees of this genre. The print isn’t perfect but it’s more than acceptable, the colours are reasonably vibrant and most importantly the aspect ratio is correct and the film is uncut. Overall it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer and can be highly recommended.

War Gods of Babylon is a handsome production with more psychological subtlety than you expect from a peplum. It’s fine entertainment and is unequivocally recommended.

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