Friday, 14 June 2019

The Slave (1962)

The Slave is a 1962 Italian peplum directed by Sergio Corbucci. The fact that the original title was Il figlio di Spartacus (The Son of Spartacus) will give you some hints of what you can expect from this movie.

Randus (Steve Reeves) is a Roman centurion and Julius Caesar thinks very highly of him. Randus is a fine soldier and a decent man. Caesar sends him off to Asia Minor to keep an eye on Crassus (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus between them controlled the whole of Rome’s empire). Randus suffers shipwreck and is then enslaved but he escapes with some help from another slave (who will play an important part in the story). During this episode he makes a terrifying discovery - he is actually the son of Spartacus! Spartacus of course led a major slave revolt about a quarter-century earlier. The fact that it was Crassus who put down the slave revolt and that Spartacus died in battle against him (or was crucified afterwards depending on whose account you believe) is obviously going to colour Randus’s feelings about Crassus.

Already very early in the picture Randus rescues a slave girl named Said who is being beaten, so we’re set up for the idea that sympathy for slaves seems is ingrained in the young centurion. The slave girl ends up being bought by Crassus’s wife Claudia.

Randus is now torn between loyalty to Rome and his destiny as the son of Spartacus. We know of course that he’s going to choose the latter - otherwise there would be no movie. But he doesn’t want to reveal himself openly yet.

The Romans are portrayed as being little more than barbarians except that they’re more imaginative in their cruelty. They are definitely the bad guys here. Or at least Crassus’s Romans are the bad guys although many of them are not Romans. And Caesar is played as the good Roman.

The violence of course is not graphic but the sadism and cruelty of the Romans is made pretty explicit. Crassus was very fond of crucifixion as a punishment (he crucified 6,000 slaves after Spartacus’s revolt) and in the movie at least he has come up with a number of twisted variations on the theme plus some other entirely original barbarities. Crassus is not a very nice man.

Needless to say strict historical accuracy was not a priority for the makers of this movie.

Like most Italian movies of its era it has a political slant, in this case the struggles of the downtrodden masses and various conquered peoples against their cruel oppressors. Mind you when you’re dealing with the Romans it’s not hard to feel sympathy for those conquered peoples.

Sergio Corbucci certainly had no problem with action scenes and there are a lot them - enough to satisfy anyone. The sets are impressive. There’s some location shooting in Egypt. On the whole this film succeeds in looking lavish and expensive even though the budget was probably very tight. Italian directors like Corbucci were used to having to get good results without spending a fortune.

Steve Reeves makes a fine action hero, as he did in all his movies in this genre. Claudio Gora makes a delightfully villainous Crassus. Any self-respecting peplum would have a beautiful but dangerous princess (or something similar) and that’s the function that Gianna Maria Canale fulfils as Crassus’s wife Claudia, and she does so with considerable style. She made many peplums and she is always a highlight. Ombretto Colli is also very good as the Egyptian slave girl Saide.

The ending was always going to be tricky. After all if the slaves win and the Romans are defeated that would be a bit too historically implausible, but if the slaves lose that means the son of Spartacus is going to come to a sticky end and that would be a very downbeat ending. So the writers have tried to find a vaguely believable way out of the dilemma and not surprisingly what they’ve come up with is a bit problematic.

The made-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive series offers a very fine anamorphic transfer without any extras.

The Slave is a better-than-average peplum despite the flawed ending. It's definitely visually impressive and very entertaining. Recommended.

I’ve reviewed some of the other Steve Reeves peplums including Hercules, the rather so-so Goliath and the Barbarians and the slightly odd War of the Trojans.

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