Screen Movies Magazine
DVD REVIEWS Issue 5
A first glance at the DVD covers above might suggest that your editor has gone slightly Barry Norman and developed a preference for films of the French persuasion, with subtitles and everything. No need to panic, however, as a closer glance will reveal that they are in fact classic movies that we all know and love from the glorious days of the mid-Fifties to mid-Sixties, when the epic was king!
I stumbled upon these gems – which are all PAL Region 2, incidentally - while surfing Ebay, the internet auction site. Intrigued, I managed to bid for them successfully, in order to examine them more fully on your behalf. (You’re welcome). The first one that I found, Les Derniers Jours De Pompeii – better known to us, of course, as The Last Days Of Pompeii – turned out to be splendid 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer from a virtually pristine print supplied by Titanus, the original Italian production company. The Last days Of Pompeii was essentially a vehicle for the late, great Steve Reeves*, of Hercules/Hercules Unchained fame, and was originally released in 1959, just as the fondly remembered (by this writer, anyway) cycle of Italian-made, sword-and-sandal pictures were beginning to unleash a swathe of Goliaths, Samsons and Macistes on an unsuspecting public. Reeves was by far the most popular and successful exponent of the genre, and 1959 was a particularly busy year for the Californian-born bodybuilder turned actor, with Hercules Unchained, The White Warrior and Goliath And The Barbarians (my favourite) also on release that year.
Pompeii was not one of Reeve’s personal favourites, the experience being marred by several disagreements with the assistant Director, a gentleman by the name of Sergio Leone, (Directorial credit is to Mario Bonnard, but Leone directed around 90% of the picture) one of which was so intense, that Reeves had to be restrained by the crew as he wanted to “…tear him apart!”
The story tells of a Roman Centurion, Glaucus (Reeves), returning to Pompeii to find his home burned and his father murdered by – it is believed – a rebel Christian faction that have been blamed for a series of similar raids. His investigations reveal that the Christians are innocent, and that the murders are the work of Julia (Anne-Marie Baumann), mistress of the Aedile (whatever that is) of Pompeii and sinister High Priest, Arabaces (Fernando Rey). Falsely accused of treason, Glaucus is condemned to the arena, along with the Aedile’s daughter, Ione (Christine Kaufman) whom he had earlier rescued from a runaway chariot. In the arena, Glaucus battles with gladiators and lions to protect Ione, whom he loves, and the Christian families who have been condemned with them, until they are rescued by Glaucus’ companions – just as Vesuvius erupts…
A spectacular example of the modestly-budgeted peplum genre, with good sets and costumes, and presented with very effective stereo surround. You will be able to select a dubbed French language version, or the original English (dubbed) version with French subtitles that you can switch off. The disc also has some filmographies and a short feature on peplum films –in French and without subtitles – which is probably interesting. Hard to believe, too, that the lovely Christine Kaufman was only fourteen years old when she made this film.
Moving on to La Chute De L’Empire Romain and Le Cid, or, as even we linguistically challenged Anglo-Saxons might recognize as The Fall Of The Roman Empire and El Cid respectively. Here we find two of the biggest and best of the true epics – multi-million dollar budgets, big stars, 70mm roadshow presentations, etc, transferred, similarly to The Last DaysOf Pompeii, from beautiful prints (albeit 35mm versions) and presented anamorphically at a ratio of 2.35:1, with very nice stereo surround, although you can’t turn off the French subtitles on the English language versions of these two discs. An important point to mention here, in case you’re wondering, is that these discs are NOT bootlegs, but in fact are authorized DVD releases in France only, so you won’t find them on the shelves in Woolies or HMV. If you want to get them, it will mean surfing around the net and buying on-line, bidding on Ebay or a day trip to France, whichever is the more convenient.
However, to continue: in chronological, original release order, next comes 1962’s El Cid, one of the super-epics from the Spanish studios of Samuel Bronston Productions – as indeed, is Fall Of The Roman Empire – which tells the story of Spain’s national hero, the tenth-century knight, Rodrigo de Bivar and his battles against the Moorish invaders. Directed by Anthony Mann, who is more usually identified with his James Stewart westerns, such as The NakedSpur and Winchester ’73, it stars Charlton Heston – who has played practically every historical icon from Moses to Mchaelangelo - as the Cid and a radiant Sophia Loren as his lady, Chimene.
The film opens with the aftermath of a battle, in which Rodrigo, en route to his wedding, has defeated and captured several Moorish commanders. Refusing to hand them over to the king for execution, he earns the enmity of his future father-in law, who happens to be the king’s champion. A duel ensues in which the champion is killed by Rodrigo, causing Chimene’s love for him to turn to hate. Replacing the champion in a tournament-to-the-death with the champion of a neighbouring kingdom, Rodrigo is victorious and demands the hand of Chimene as his reward, in spite of her feelings toward him. Rodrigo’s reputation for courage and fairness (he’s even kind to lepers) continues to grow, and a huge army gradually rallies to his side, along with Chimene, who comes to realize what a decent bloke he is, after all. Always loyal to the weak, conniving king, Sancho (John Fraser), the Cid, as the Moors call him, rejects the crown when it is offered to him, causing Sancho to see the error of his ways and fall in behind Rodrigo with everyone else. On the eve of the final, decisive battle for the city of Valencia, Rodrigo is fatally wounded by an arrow. Before he dies, he makes his commanders promise not to reveal his death, but to strap his body, upright and in full armour, astride his horse, Babieca, so he can still lead his troops into battle. In a tremendous final scene, the Cid, with sun blazing off his armour, gallops into history, trampling evil Moorish leader, Herbert Lom and several of his associates, to death along the way (only a corpse played by Charlton Heston can do this).
Heston always felt that El Cid would have been a better film with William Wyler (Ben-Hur, The Big Country) at the helm, rather than Mann, but who can tell? Mann delivers a most satisfying picture, anyway, with excellent performances from both principal and supporting players alike, delivered against a magnificent backdrop of medieval castles and pageantry. Bronston never stinted on his sets and costumes – a fact which would ultimately lead to the demise of his company as the public’s taste for spectacular epics waned in favour of the brutal, dusty violence of the new Spaghetti Westerns.
Similarly, Anthony Mann’s second film for the Bronston company, The Fall Of The RomanEmpire, (1964) is also played out against a series of spectacular backgrounds, in this case ranging from a snow-covered Roman fortress, to the gilded splendour of the Roman Forum itself – a colossal three-dimensional set covering several acres of land. Mann shot El Cid in Technirama for Super Technirama 70 presentation, but for The Fall Of The RomanEmpire, he would use the widest of the 65mm photographic systems, Ultra Panavision, composing some stunning shots for the wide frame.
Like Bronston’s other road show spectaculars, King Of Kings (1961) and 55 Days At Peking (1964), a stellar cast recreate the various historical characters with consummate ease. In The Fall OfThe Roman Empire, we join Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and his favourite General, Livius (Stephen Boyd) in the middle of a snowy winter campaign against the barbarian tribes of the Danube frontier, who are led by Ballomar (John Ireland). The ailing Emperor knows that his Pax Romana – Roman Peace – for which he has long strived, will fail if his crazy son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer) succeeds him. To prevent this, he names a reluctant Livius as his heir. When Commodus turns up at the camp to join his best mate Livius in the imminent battle, he is more than a little miffed to find himself out in the cold, in more ways than one.
Aurelius is poisoned by the blind Cleander (Mel Ferrer) and Livius is more than happy to step aside for Commodus because he’d rather marry Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Sophia Loren, again) and become Commander of all the Roman armies instead. The barbarians are subdued and persuaded by Timonides (James Mason) to settle outside Rome and become farmers. Commodus, however, is going quietly insane, and gives Lucilla to the King of Armenia, Sohamus (Omar Shariff). Rebellion is in the air. Timonides is killed and the now peaceful Ballomar and his barbarians, along with Livius and Lucilla, are to be burned alive in the Forum. Commodus challenges Livius to a duel to death, the latter’s victory to mean freedom for all. Commodus loses, but before he dies, he orders the burning to commence anyway, bad sportsman that he is. As the pyre blazes, Livius manages to free Lucilla and they flee to safety, (At this point, I like to imagine that I can hear John Ireland yelling “What about the rest of us, you bastard!”) as the Roman Empire begins its long slide into oblivion.
Sadly,The Fall Of the Roman Empire was the last of the big historical epics, and it has been rumoured for years that ‘Special Editions’ of this film, El Cid, 55 Days At Peking and Circus World, are to be released. Until they are, these will do very nicely, thank you.
Also available in similar versions are the original Hercules (1957), with Steve Reeves, and 55 Days At Peking (1962) with Moses Heston.
* Steve Reeves will feature in The Widescreen Hall Of Fame in issue number 6 of WSMM – Ed.
Copyright © 2002-2005, John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 3 December, 2005
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