A Fistful of Peplum

The Colossus of Rhodes is precisely the fodder that would have been a perfect Saturday afternoon matinee for me in 1961. I was all of six years going on seven. I saw a fair number of Peplum, Sword & Sandal, Muscle Men movies during my early movie-watching years, mostly on our 13″ b&w TV. But I’m pretty sure that I didn’t see Colossus back then. I don’t think I ever really noticed the dubbing back then.

In 1958, producer Joseph E. Levine bought the rights to the Le fatiche di Ercole for $120,000, slapped an English dub on it and changed the title to Hercules. He made a fortune. Hercules Unchained followed in 1958, and so a craze began that lasted until it burned itself out in the mid-sixties.

To bring us back to The Colossus of Rhodes, it came somewhere in the middle of the cycle. Colossus is better than the average sword & sandal effort being churned out during this time, had a better than average budget, and returned a significant profit – but the reason for interest in The Colossus of Rhodes today is its director. It was the first signed director credit for Sergio Leone.

It’s 280 B.C. on the island of Rhodes, despotic King Serse (Roberto Camardiel, Italian) plots with the Phoenicians to dominate the seas of the Mediterranean. Prime Minister Thar (Conrado San Martín, Spanish) is double-dealing with the Phoenicians against the king. Freedom fighter rebels under Peliocle (Georges Marchal, French) are plotting to overthrow the king. Phoenician warriors under the guise of Macedonian laborers infiltrate the island. Athenian Greek war hero Dario (Rory Calhoun, American), visiting his uncle (George Rigaud, Argentinian), of course, walks/stumbles into the middle of all of these machinations. And then there’s the king’s wife Diala (Lea Massari, Italian). What’s her story? There are more than enough plot elements.

The Colossus of the title is a behemoth statue standing astride Rhodes seaport entry. It houses all manner of contraptions, passages, chains, and pullies, and can pour molten lead on ships below. The real Colussus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was completed and dedicated in 280 B.C. It was about 30 meters/100 ft tall, not the 300 meters/1000 ft sized figure in the film. It stood for about 60 years before toppling in an earthquake. Our title figure doesn’t last 60 days.

This matte wide shot gives an impression of the supposed size of out Colossus

Dario is played by Rory Calhoun, the obligatory American actor in most of these European sagas. Not a muscleman like Steve Reeves or Gordon Scott, Calhoun plays Dario as a rather bemused everyman (even if he is supposed to be a war hero.) It takes a bit to get used to Rory in a short toga since he is associated almost exclusively with the B-Westerns of the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s. Since I have watched Colussus maybe five times now, I guess that I have accepted him as an Athenian Greek hero amongst all of the Italian, Spanish, French actors present. Although he grins a bit much in the first part as he didn’t really know what else to do.

Dario and Queen Diala (Lea Massari) wondering what they’re supposed to be doing here.

Calhoun wasn’t originally supposed to play Dario. John Derek was signed to play the lead, but he clashed with Leone (supposedly trying to take over the direction himself.) Leone said either Derek had to go, or he would. In a stroke of fortune, the producers kept Sergio and gave Derek the boot. Rory Calhoun just happened to be in Rome (prepping for a Marco Polo movie,) was signed and literally stepped in the very next day. Maybe that is why he doesn’t always look like he doesn’t quite know what to do in some of the scenes.

Dario is not grinning so much after a bit of unspecified torture.

The Colossus of Rhodes is comprised of tropes from preceding costume period action dramas as far back as Cabiria in 1914. Arena games, chariots, brave rebel freedom fighters, tyrannical rules, duplicitous seconds, lavish banquets, secret passages, labyrinthine corridors, hidden mausoleums, and zoos of exotic animals, torture chambers, and plot reversal after plot reversal.

Leone had worked in the film industry since 1947 and had been a second unit director on several big American productions in Italy: Quo Vadis (1951), Helen of Troy (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959.) Plus he was a credited and uncredited writer on a number of peplum epics. The scripts for Italian films of this time would often be a polyglot of voices contributing bits, characters, and storylines. Leone directed most of the Steve Reeves film The Last Days of Pompei (1959) when credited director Mario Bonnard fell ill shortly after only a few days of production.

The Colossus of Rhodes Leone is not yet the Leone of the Dollars films. There are no intense extreme closeups, no operatic confrontations, no Ennio Morricone*. This would have to wait until un pugno di dollari. Leone does handle large crowd scenes and widescreen well in setting up and framing the action. He’d worked on major American films as 2nd unit director after all. They just don’t stand out to me as well as his later work would. But Leone had something of a disdain for the peplum genre, and maybe was personally invested in the work. He was in love with the American Western, and the idea of the West, however, and that will explode in his next film.

*The score for The Colossus of Rhodes by Italian composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino is quite good. According to Sir Christopher Frayling, he was Leone’s choice to score A Fistful of Dollars, but was unavailable. Hence Ennio Morricone. Leone’s films are so intertwined with Morricone’s scores, it is impossible to separate them. Try to image them with a different composer scoring them.

The Colossus of Rhodes is a disappointment if you are expecting full-blown Leone. But the film is not without interest, especially if you a completist like me. It seems rather like a by the numbers, which I guess it is. Leone passed up chances to direct other sword and sandal projects. He chose to do 2nd unit work on Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) before he made history with A Fistful of Dollars (un pugno di dollari) in 1964

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