Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1961)

One of the earliest directors I really "got" was Sergio Leone. Leone is a good starter director for any cinephile. His movies are genre products, which means they are fun to watch and easy to digest. Yet they have enough depth to be open to interesting critical discussion, especially as you go deeper into his career. Moreover, his style is immediately obvious. The long pans, boiling close-ups on actor's face, and extended use of music - usually courtesy the legendary Ennio Morricone - are well known enough to be parody all across the pop culture sphere. Though he had a long career, he only directed 7 movies, making a retrospective fairly easy. For all these reasons and more, a Sergio Leone Director Report Card is long overdue. Let's go.

1. The Colossus of Rhodes
Il colosso di Rodi

Before becoming world renown as a genre innovator, Sergio Leone was just another guy in the Italian film industry. He did his time as a screenwriter and an assistant director, working on the kinds of movies Italy made at the time, which mostly consisted of sword and sandal movies. Leone’s first full-blown director job, albeit uncredited, came when the assigned director on “The Last Days of Pompeii” fell sick, causing Leone to step in. On his next job, he was actually credited. “The Colossus of Rhodes” is in the same peplum genre and is only truly notable for two things: Being slightly wider in scope then most Italy historical flicks of the time and for being Leone’s credited debut.

Set during the rarely explored historical period between the death of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Empire, the film takes place on – go figure – the island of Rhodes. The legendary colossus, a giant statue of Apollo, its legs straddling the bay, has just been erected. Darios, a Greek soldier, is visiting family on the island. There, he is involved in two separate conspiracies. The first involves a group of Rhodes patriot who plan to overthrow the island’s king. The second also want to overthrow the king but for entirely different reasons. King Serse’s evil adviser, Thar, plans to assume the king’s throne and sell the island to neighboring nation Phoenicia. Aligning himself with the rebels, and targeted by Thar, Darios attempts to survive and protect his loved ones.

I’m not especially familiar with the sword and sandal genre. The films I have seen have mostly been the various Hercules movies, which vary from the kooky to the tedious. While those low budget, fantastical, and formulaic films comprise a large portion of the genre, there are other types. Some lack mythological elements and operate on a more epic scale. “The Colossus of Rhodes” falls squarely into the latter category. Obviously unable to afford giant war sequences, the film expresses its epic tendencies with an especially convoluted plot. The two competing conspiracies are slowly revealed, each of them spending time going after Darios. There are multiple characters to keep track of, many of them with their own schemes or plans. The rebels and usurpers have families and mistresses, each with their own story arcs. It’s a surprising amount of things to keep track of and the audience is left slightly confused several times.

If I had trouble keeping track of the various plot lines, I had far more trouble caring about the movie’s romantic triangle. Yep, “The Colossus of Rhodes” has one of those too. Once on the island, Darios is immediately smitten with Diala, the daughter of the colossus’ designer. The two flirt relentlessly through the first half of the film, most notably during a lengthy scene where he chases her through the hall of dead kings. However, before too long, the movie reveals that Diala is in cahoots with the bad guy. The character turns on a dime, going from a sweet love interest to a wicked femme fatale. Meanwhile, Mirte, the younger sister of the rebellion’s leader, starts making goo-goo eyes at Darios. Immediately, it’s clear that Diala will die before the film ends, allowing the hero to be with the more morally pure love interest. Expectantly, this happens, Diala even recanting her evil ways as she dies. It’s horribly routine, uninteresting stuff.

“The Colossus of Rhodes” was originally meant to star B-movie mainstay John Derek. However, Leone and Derek clashed, causing the actor to exit the project. Brought in as a last minute replacement - so last minute that filming started a day after he took the part - was cowboy actor Rory Calhoun. Calhoun seems very out of place here. His charms, the twinkle in his eye and the well defined cleft in his chin, are distinctly American. This makes him an odd choice to headline an ancient Greek epic. Calhoun’s performance vacillates between uncomfortable and bored. When he has to give a rousing speech or has to wrestle with other guys, Calhoun doesn’t show a lot of confidence. During the romantic scenes, his eyes glaze over in boredom. It’s clear he isn’t horribly invested in the material.

Remember that joke in “Airplane” about gladiator movies? “The Colossus of Rhodes” doesn’t feature any gladiatorial combat but is nevertheless filled to the brim with homoerotic content. Most of the men in the film wear leather mini-skirts, with frequently exposed tiny briefs underneath. Early on in the film, Calhoun wears such an outfit in pastel yellows. A minor character wears a similar get-up that’s bright pink. Meanwhile, Darios seems a little too close to his effeminate uncle. Calhoun’s hair chest and thighs are visible during many scenes, some of which have him grappling with other half-naked men. While climbing out of the colossus, Calhoun’s panties ride up, exposing his ass cheeks. Rory’s bear-like physique stands in contrast to the tanned, oiled, toned, hairless men that make up most of the cast. Expectantly, these guys wear leather sarongs that expose their chests. The movie even throws in some light bondage, when the rebels are chained up. All of this is completely unintentional on the filmmaker’s behalf, I’m sure. But gay men looking for clandestine thrills in 1961 probably enjoyed this movie a lot.

I don’t have too much positive to say about “The Colossus of Rhodes.” The movie does have a few things in its favor. Firstly, the sets look nice. The giant statue of Apollo was created through a combination of well-detailed miniatures and an impressive set. The statue, with the cup of flames in its hand, is a memorable sight, if nothing else. The upper torso of the colossus was created in a studio, to allow the actors to climb over it. An execution chamber features a giant demonic face carved into a wall, flames bellowing inside its mouth. The marble streets and pillars of Rhodes are realized nicely. Leone’s ability to make small budgets go a long way was clearly put to use here.

Most of the action in “Colossus of Rhodes” is awkwardly choreographed man-on-man wrasslin’, such as the spies attacking Darios in his room or the captured rebels escaping their captors. However, there are a few decently shot action beats. My favorite is when Calhoun scales the arms of the colossus, slashing his sword at the soldiers pursuing him. When the rebels are put to death inside the colosseum, there’s an all right moment involving arrows and a man dangling above a pit of lions. I also like the scene where Thar finally turns on Serse, the king’s own guards turning their bows on him. (Leone did a similar gag in "The Last Days of Pompeii.") Mostly though, the action in the film is forgettable. A good example of how oddly paced things are comes at the end. The movie’s hero doesn’t even get to kill the bad guy, that duty falling to a minor supporting character.

Inevitably, the film concludes with an earthquake rocking the island and the Colossus of Rhodes collapsing into the sea. In real life, the statue stood for over fifty years. The movie opens with the colossus’ completion and ends with its destruction, spanning the period of probably a few weeks. (Also, in real life, the statue was of Helios, not Apollo.) Anyway, the destruction-filled finale is diverting enough, Leone putting the lessons he learned on "The Last Days of Pompeii" to good use. The sea churns, the ground shakes, and rain pours from the sky. The sense of panic is captured nicely, the sequence feeling appropriately apocalyptic. As the colossus breaks apart and tumbles into the sea, the movie says “historical accuracy be damned!” and gives the audience what it wants. It’s hard to argue with that.

Being so early in his career, “The Colossus of Rhodes” is mostly free of the dynamic style of shooting that would make Sergio Leone famous. Occasionally though, a brief glimpse of a future master shines through. Darios comes upon a field of dead bodies, the scene shot with an especially wide lens. A dog runs through the abandoned streets of Rhodes, the city filling empty and haunted. The head of the colossus folds open to reveal a fire-spewing catapult. Interestingly, this scene is shot from inside the statue, giving the audience a first-person view of the mechanism. Mostly though, the movie is shot like any of the films in its genre, with workman-like photography.

While neither the script nor the characters are all that memorable, the supporting cast does have some colorful actors. George Rigaud plays Darios’ uncle Lissipu, the mincing, feminine comic relief of the film. Lea Massari is lovely as Diala and does better playing a treacherous femme fatale then a traditional romantic lead. She at least more captivating then Mabel Karr as Mirte, an underwritten part that does the actress no favors. Georges Marchal plays the leader of the rebel. Marchal’s heroic build and steely-eyed determination probably would have made him a better actor for the role of Darios, if he had more marquee value. Conrado San Martin is as broad as you’d expect as the evil Thar, who is every bit the typical movie bad guy. Roberto Camardiel is as flamboyant as the opulent King Serse.

It’s no surprise that Leone’s later spaghetti westerns would totally eclipse his early sword and sandal flicks. “The Colossus of Rhodes” is forgettable, with no especially compelling characters, a convoluted plot, and little interesting about its visuals. It’s got one or two interesting moments and that’s about it. It’s mostly of value for some campy laughs and for those interested in Leone’s cinematic roots. [Grade: C]

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