Friday, 5 June 2015

Magnificent Gladiator (1964)

Magnificent Gladiator was a late entry in the Italian peplum cycle. It’s not by any means a great example of the genre but it is a good deal of silly fun.

It was written and directed by Alfonso Brescia and if you’re familiar with Brescia’s work this may well cause you to gnash your teeth in despair. Brescia is one of the legendary bad film-makers but while he was certainly bad he was never boring. 

This film belongs to the non-fantasy historical peplum sub-genre - they are no monsters or supernatural events. However one should not jump to the conclusion that anything in this movie has much to do with actual history.

It starts with the Romans fighting the Dacians. Attalus, the son of the Dacian king, surrenders in order to save his people. In the English dubbed version Attalus becomes Hercules because in English-dubbed peplums the hero is always called Hercules. 

Attalus/Hercules (Mark Forest) soon wins the favour of the Roman Emperor Gallienus (Franco Cobianchi) by demonstrating his prowess in the arena. Gallienus is a rather jovial sort of emperor but he is by no means a fool. He takes a genuine liking to Hercules and the feeling is reciprocated. Hercules’ people have been enslaved but that is no great problem. Gallienus assures our hero that they will soon be granted Roman citizenship and in fact he has every intention of honouring his promise. So everything seems pretty hunky dory - the Dacians can look forward to a future of security and prosperity as part of the Roman Empire, and Hercules has every prospect of marrying the emperor’s daughter Velida (Marilù Tolo).

There is however one major problem. That problem is Zullo (Paolo Gozlino). Zullo is wealthy, powerful, treacherous and ambitious. He intends to marry Velida himself and to seize the imperial throne. A good peplum has to have a beautiful evil princess and in this movie that function is performed by Clea (Jolanda Modio). She’s not actually a princess but she is a noblewoman highly placed at the imperial court and she is evil and she is beautiful. She’s also Zullo’s girlfriend but she’s happy to go along with his plans to marry Velida, confident that her rival can be disposed of later.

Zullo has a lucky break when he finds an out-of-work actor convicted of thieving, an actor who just happens to be the spitting image of the emperor. By substituting the actor for the emperor he can ensure the succession for himself after which he can get rid of both the emperor and the actor.

It goes without saying that Hercules gets wind of this nefarious plot and sets out to save Velida, and the emperor, and the Roman Empire, and his Dacians.

This movie is a bit unusual in that neither the Romans nor the Dacians are the bad guys. The trouble is caused entirely by the evil machinations of Zullo and Clea. 

In an Alfonso Brescia movie you expect some serious weirdness. In this case the weirdness is provided by the crazy hyperactive shepherd Drusius (Oreste Lionello). Drusius also provides the obligatory comic relief. He is loyal to Hercules but most of all he is loyal to his sheep, especially his favourite sheep Messalina.

Unusually for a Brescia movie (generally synonymous with extreme cheapness) Magnificent Gladiator does have a certain amount of at least moderately impressive spectacle including a reasonably large-scale battle scene early on. The sets also are not too bad - possibly they may have been left over from a more expensive production? This is still clearly a very low-budget movie but for a Brescia movie it doesn’t look as shoddy as usual.

Mark Forest is obviously not taking the proceedings too seriously. This is a silly fun movie and his performance reflects this. At least he isn’t embarrassingly wooden. Franco Cobianchi is rather good playing the dual roles of the surprisingly sympathetic Roman emperor and the second-rate actor who is not quite as malleable a dupe as Zullo had hoped for. Jolanda Modio does just fine in the femme fatale role as Clea. Nazzareno Zamperla is fine as Herc’s faithful sidekick Horatius. The problem is Oreste Lionello as Drusius - he’s insanely over-the-top but not particularly funny and soon becomes irritating. This may have been exacerbated by the dubbing so perhaps I’m being unfair to Lionello - maybe he was genuinely funny in Italian. His devotion to his beloved sheep does however provide the off-the-wall quality so essential in an Alfonso Brescia opus.

Retromedia have done a reasonable job with their DVD release. There’s some print damage and on occasions the colour fluctuates just a little but on the whole it’s an OK print and it is in the correct aspect ratio and the transfer is anamorphic - both major pluses for fans of the peplum genre accustomed to seeing horrible butchered pan-and-scanned prints of these types of movies.

If you’re looking for much more extreme examples of Brescia’s enjoyable cinematic  looniness check out Cosmos: War of the Planets (1977) and Amazons vs Supermen (1975).

Magnificent Gladiator is consistently silly but it’s still hugely entertaining fun. Recommended.

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