Hannibal, an Italian production partly financed by Warner Bros., is a routine but enjoyable historical epic bolstered by some interesting locations and staging, much of it at the hand of quirky director Edgar G. Ulmer. In a rare audio interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the filmmaker says that he had actually wanted to make a more intimate epic about a man aware of his civilization's impending fall, but that the American studio pushed him into making a standard epic costume picture instead.
At a guess Warner Bros. probably had funds tied up in Italy, and agreed to finance this otherwise Italian production, released in Italy at the end of 1959 or early 1960 as Annibale. Stars Victor Mature and Rita Gam, both veterans of this type of picture, are the only Americans in the cast. All of the supporting actors are Italian, though almost all of them speak or mouth their lines in English, and it looks like the entire film was looped in post-production, standard operating procedure in Italy at the time.
In 219 B.C., Carthaginian General Hannibal (Victor Mature), having defeated the Roman Army in Spain, miraculously leads 40,000 men and his famous army of elephants through the Italian Alps. Though he suffers heavy losses, Hannibal's 15-day trek catches the Roman leadership offguard, and the Roman Senate is divided on how to defeat their formidable enemy. Senator Fabius Maximus (Gabriele Ferzetti), charging that Hannibal's two enemies are time and distance, wants to isolate and starve his forces, but a more arrogant majority push ahead with plans to confront Hannibal head-on in battle.
Fabius's niece, Sylvia (Rita Gam), and son, Quintilius (Mario Girotti, later famous under the name Terence Hill), are captured by Hannibal's forces, but he surprises them with his kindness and even releases them, hoping their influence will spur a peaceful settlement with the Romans. Hannibal also falls in love with Sylvia, and she with him, creating a love triangle with Quintilius, who loves her, too. Sylvia's efforts to act as an intermediary are seen as traitorous by the Romans, while Hannibal's affair is viewed as careless by several of his advisors. With peace an increasingly remote possibility, Hannibal prepares to square off with the Romans at Cannae, on the Aufidus River.
Hannibal's second half is standard stuff, well-produced for what would probably cost $4-5 million in 1959 Hollywood dollars, but shot in Italy and Yugoslavia for probably one-quarter that amount. The romance and political struggles are nothing new, and the characters are mostly cardboard. But the battle scenes are well-staged with lots of costumed extras, though likewise nothing special. As with Spartacus, made at that same time, it's somewhat violent for its time: one soldier gets an arrow right down the throat and, in a bit of staging dating back at least to Griffith's Intolerance (1916), a real-life amputee wearing a fake hand sees it bloodily chopped off in one quick cut.
Better is the film's first half, with its unique trek across the Alps. Though intercut with some phony studio sets, there's some excellent location work as a seemingly endless single line of Carthaginian soldiers, horses and elephants cross snowy summits and along precarious cliff sides. The men face frostbite and many slip and fall to their death, where wolf packs stand ready to gnaw at their battered corpses. The grimness of the adventure eventually becomes silly, though. The bad English dubbing comically undercuts its effectiveness with soldiers incessantly ordering everyone to "Keep moving! Watch your step now!"
Though Hannibal's elephants are described in the trailer as his "crazed animal army!" in fact the herd seems more playful than threatening. Hannibal was himself born in North Africa, but the film Hannibal uses Indian elephants, most of which look small even for that species. Though impressive in number, the elephants alternately appear amused and bemused during the battle scenes, trotting through the battle scenes with all the ferocity of Dumbo.
It's hard to judge the human players because of all the dubbing. Mature, whose real voice is heard, seems to be having a good time, as if he's aware his part is thin and opts to simply enjoy his lusty, swashbuckling role. All told, the circumstances don't seem too far removed from Mature's self-referential role in After the Fox (1966). Rita Gam, who resembles ER actress Alex Kingston, is okay but the standout is Ferzetti (Once Upon a Time in the West, On Her Majesty's Secret Service), whose pragmatic senator is sorely tested when he discovers his daughter-like niece is literally sleeping with the enemy.
Ulmer keeps things moving, and potentially static scenes are enlivened with good staging and camerawork. The audio interview suggests even what normally would have been the work of a second unit director may have been closely supervised by Ulmer. The IMDB lists Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia as co-director, but the American prints credit only Ulmer.
Video & Audio
Shot in Supercinescope, an anamorphic process akin to CinemaScope, Hannibal is presented in 16:9 squeeze format and looks pretty good. Though hardly pristine the color is decent enough if a little reddish, and the source material is in very good shape, although the transfer has its share of digital artifacting here and there. It looks like a theatrical print was used (extremely rare for major labels). It bears Warner Bros.' logo and is the English release version of the film. The mono sound has its share of crackles and pops but is okay. There are no subtitles or alternate audio tracks.
The best of the extra features is the aforementioned Audio Interview with Edgar Ulmer by Peter Bogdanovich. The interview is undated, but appears to have been recorded in the summer or fall of 1969, as Ulmer discusses how impressed he was by Midnight Cowboy. (Amusingly, he talks about being flabbergasted by Jon Voight's performance, claiming to have seen him previously in a trashy Sid Pink movie.) The first half of the 33-minute interview is devoted to Ulmer's silent career, but then it shifts gears and several minutes are spent discussing Hannibal. The interview could have benefited from an index and chapter stops, but that it exists at all (Ulmer having died more than 30 years ago) is a blessing.
Also included is a Photo & Poaster Gallery (sic), and a U.S. Trailer in 4:3 letterboxed format (cropped to 1.85:1) complete with text and narration. Next are unusually good Biographies of Ulmer, Mature and Gam. The latter two are written by Len D. Martin, the Ulmer piece is by his daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, who also provided the interview.
Finally, the DVD offers both real trailers and fake ones for various VCI releases: Robinson Crusoe, Any Gun Can Play, A Bullet for Sandoval, and its "Sword and Sandal" double-feature disc.
Only the schizophrenic Edgar Ulmer could have directed an Italian Supercinescope epic with 20,000 extras the same year as The Amazing Transparent Man, a 57-minute no budget wonder shot in Texas. As epics go, Hannibal is neither bad nor particularly memorable, but worth a look for its flashes of imagination, and for VCI's thoughtful packaging of what is an otherwise minor title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.