Wednesday, 26 February 2014

War of the Trojans (1962)

War of the Trojans (AKA La leggenda di Enea, AKA The Avenger) is a 1962 peplum starring Steve Reeves, most famous for playing Hercules in the movie that triggered the peplum craze. But War of the Trojans is anything but a typical peplum. It’s an attempt at a serious historical epic. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste but to have any chance of appreciating this movie you have to be prepared to accept it serious intentions.

This movie’s other problem is that it assumes you know a certain amount about Greco-Roman mythology. It was actually a sequel to an earlier Steve Reeves movie, The Trojan Horse, so if you haven’t seen that movie and you don’t know your mythology you’re likely to be quite perplexed by War of the Trojans.

The hero of the movie (played by Reeves naturally) is Aeneas. Aeneas was a Trojan hero, a distant cousin of King Priam and a faithful lieutenant to the great Trojan hero Hector. Aeneas survived the fall of Troy and led a group of other Trojan survivors on a series of adventures in various lands before they finally settled in Italy, on the banks of a river called the Tiber. Their descendants would become much better known as the Romans. Aeneas is the hero of Virgil’s great epic poem the Aeneid. The movie pretty much assumes that you know all this.

The movie follows Virgil reasonably closely. The movie opens with the arrival of Aeneas and his followers, the remnants of the Trojans, in Latium. The king of Latium, Latinus (called Latino in the movie) welcomes Aeneas and grants him lands on the Tiber and the title of a Latin prince. This enrages Turnus (called Turno in the movie and played by Gianni Garko), the king of the Rutili. The enmity between Aeneas and Turno slowly builds, fueled by romantic complications involving King Latino’s daughter Lavinia (Carla Marlier). The machinations of Latino’s queen Amata, who happens to be Turno’s aunt, adds even more fuel to the fire.

Eventually war erupts. Aeneas needs allies and turns to the Etruscans for help, while Turno is supported by Camilla (Liana Orfei), the queen of the Volsci.

The build-up to the war is rather slow, mostly because the script is determined to establish the complex reasons for the war and for the various alliances that will decide it. When the action does arrive there is plenty of it.

The most impressive thing about this movie is that it doesn’t just put the Trojans, Rutilians, Latins and Volsci in cast-off Greek or Roman armour and costumes left over from other historical epics. Considerable pain have been taken to make the costumes distinctive and most importantly to give them a genuinely archaic look. They really do look like they come from a much earlier historical period compared to the armour and costumes you see in most historical epics. The events depicted in the movie are supposed to have occurred around the 12th century BC and the movie does a fine job of convincing us that we really are in the very distant past. The sets also look convincingly archaic.

The battle scenes are fairly well done and again they have the right flavour. This was the heroic age and battles would certainly have been rather chaotic affairs compared to the disciplined scientific warfare evolved by the Greek many centuries later.

All of these attempts at historical realism, or at least at giving a mythological story a feeling of historical realism, are all very well but what you want to know is whether it’s an entertaining movie or not. The answer to that is a bit tricky. It’s definitely not the kind of high camp fun that one usually associates with the peplum genre. One of the great attractions of this genre is the cheesiness, and this movie’s cheesiness factor is very close to zero. If you’re looking for outrageous cheesy fun you’re likely to be disappointed. If you’re prepared to accept the movie as an attempt at a serious historical epic and if you have an enthusiasm for mythology and ancient history then you’re likely to enjoy it quite a bit.

Steve Reeves plays it very straight. His Aeneas is a brave and skillful warrior and a wise leader but he’s no superman. It’s a restrained performance that suits the tone of the movie.   The acting in general is restrained, with Gianni Garko as Turno being the only one to indulge in anything resembling scenery-chewing. Queen Camilla of the Volsci looks like a prime candidate to be the kind of beautiful but evil queen that adds so much fun to so many movies of this type but the movie opts to stick to the mythology and resist the temptation to make her a femme fatale type, and Liana Orfei plays Camilla as a brave and honourable woman who happens to have picked the wrong ally.

Giorgio Venturini directed a mere handful of movies. He does a competent job but the movie really could have used a bit more dash.

Retromedia paired this movie with Giant of Marathon as their Steve Reeves Collection. There’s good news and bad news as far as the transfer for War of the Trojans is concerned. The good news is that it’s in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is 16x9 enhanced, and the movie seems to be relatively complete. The bad news is that it’s a fairly poor print. The colours are unstable and there’s a lot of print damage. But after years of having to make do with horrible pan-and-scan versions of most peplums it’s a luxury to at least have the correct aspect ratio.

War of the Trojans is a bit of an oddity and it’s not going to satisfy most peplum fans. It is slow-moving, but if you’re in the mood for something a bit different it’s worth giving it a chance.

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