Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Gold for the Caesars (1963)

Gold for the Caesars (Oro per i Cesari) is a fairly late and slightly unusual entry in the Italian peplum cycle of the late 50s and early 60s. It was directed by Andre de Toth whose movies are always worth a look.

This is a historical peplum rather than a fantasy peplum so there are no monsters. There’s also not a great deal of action until very late in the film but it holds the viewer’s interest by offering characters with a little more depth than was customary in the genre and with some fairly complex relationships between those characters. If there’s such a thing as a character-driven peplum then this is it.

Lacer (Jeffrey Hunter) is a slave who is building a bridge in Spain in 96 AD. He might be a slave but he’s a very favoured slave who happens to be the principal engineer on the project. He is owned by Maximus (Massimo Girotti), the Roman governor of the province.

Maximus is an ambitious man and those ambitions have been fired by soothsayers’ predictions that by the Ides of January Rome will have a new emperor. Maximus intends to be that new emperor but he has a serious rival in the person of Trajan. If Maximus is to win the purple he will need gold, and in large quantities. Gold is supposedly to be found in a valley in Spain but the valley is located in a part of the province over which Rome has no effective control. The valley is firmly in the hands of the Celtic chieftain Malendi (Georges Lycan). 

Maximus has only two legions under his command and any attempt to wrest command of the valley by force would be likely to result in heavy losses. Maximus has a plan to deal with this. He will make peace with Malendi. No-one seriously expects this to work but Maximus succeeds in persuading Malendi of his good intentions. An expedition is despatched to bring back the gold. The gold is to be found in old mines once worked by the Carthaginians. Getting the gold out will require a skilled engineer and Lacer is the obvious choice. Lacer is put in charge, with Rufus (Ron Randell) in command of the Roman troops. Since Lacer and Rufus hate each other this is always going to lead to problems.

There is of course a romantic sub-plot and on this occasion it’s quite well integrated into the main plot. Lacer and Penelope (Mylène Demongeot) have fallen in love. Penelope is Maximus’s mistress and she is torn between love and ambition. She loves Lacer but Maximus may well be emperor soon and she sees herself as having a pretty good chance of becoming empress. Maximus knows about Lacer and Penelope but he tolerates the situation because he needs Lacer.

The gold-finding expedition proves to be more difficult than expected. The mines are behind a waterfall and getting access to them makes it necessary to build a dam. Lacer is a skilled engineer and is well able to cope with these difficulties but Maximus is aware that time is against him. He has to have that gold if he is to head off the challenge from the increasingly popular Trajan. Maximus’s anxiety for fast results will lead him to interfere with Lacer’s patient efforts and this will prove to be potentially a very serious mistake, provoking the very problems with the Celts that his earlier diplomacy was intended to avoid.

Maximus is an interesting character. He is a ruthless and calculating man but he’s also intelligent and subtle. As time starts to run out for his bid for empire the flaws in his character start to appear and his previous sound judgment starts to go astray. Massimo Girotti was a very fine actor and his performance is well-judged.

Jeffrey Hunter is an adequate hero and manages to bring some subtlety to his performance. Lacer is by nature a careful and patient man but love tends to make a man forget being careful and patient. 

Mylène Demongeot is impressive as Penelope. Penelope is genuinely in love with Lacer but any woman would be a fool to give up the chance to be empress. She really doesn’t know which way to jump.

Ron Randell does his best but Rufus is the least interesting of the major characters. He is vicious and unintelligent and it’s difficult to make him much more than a mere stock villain. 

There’s some good location photography and the engineering scenes involving bridges, dams and mines are impressively mounted. We have to wait quite a while for the action scenes but they’re well-executed. 

The Warner Archive MOD DVD offers no extras and only the English dubbed version but the print is quite good and (a major bonus for peplum fans) the transfer is in the correct aspect ratio and it’s 16x9 enhanced.

Gold for the Caesars is in some ways too psychologically ambitious for its own good. Fans of this genre probably hoped for a bit more action but there’s some effective dramatic tension and those prepared to give this movie a chance will find it a surprisingly effective if unusual representative of its genre. Recommended.

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