The fourth volume of the recent slew of Warner Brothers Camp Classics boxed set line is Historical Epics brings together Sergio Leone's The Colossus Of Rhodes, Howard Hawks' Land Of The Pharaohs and Richard Thorpe's The Prodigal. The only thing that the three films really have in common is scope - these are 'big' films - and the fact that they're all set in the past but it's enough. The three films here make for some fun and entertaining viewing.
The Colossus Of Rhodes:
Interesting more for what it foreshadows in terms of where Sergio Leone's career would go than for anything else, The Colossus Of Rhodes marks the masterful director's first full fledged directorial credit (though he'd done The Last Days Of Pompeii two years prior, he was not credited for it). It's far from his best film, in fact compared to the westerns he's known for and the excellent Once Upon A Time In America it's not very good, but it is an interesting picture that offers up enough spectacle and visual flair that fans of the director will certainly want to check it out for themselves.
Set in the year 208 B.C., King Serse Of Rhodes (Roberto Carmadiel) is excited about the massive new bronze statue that has just been built and which the film is named after. Unfortunately, Serse might not be such a decent enough guy, what he doesn't realize is that Peliocles (Georges Marchel) and some of his pals are stirring up trouble and hoping to overthrow him. When a Greek warrior named Dario (Rory Calhoun) shows up on the scene, Peliocles and his crew try their hardest to recruit him for their cause.
While Peliocles and friends are plotting their rebellion, Serse is making alliances with the neighboring kingdom of Phoenicia in hopes that he'll be able to sway their military to rob from the Greek ships that pass by, offering them safe hiding in Rhodes for a share of the loot. What Serse doesn't know is that the Phoencians he considers his allies have got political aspirations of their own.
The Colossus Of Rhodes looks great. It's very well directed, the set design is impressive and the cinematography (courtesy of Antonio L. Ballesteros who also worked on The Last Days Of Pompeii) is excellent. Leone obviously but a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this picture and it's as cinematic as you'd expect from the man who gave us The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Unfortunately the film has one fatal flaw, and that's in the casting of Rory Calhoun as the lead. Compare him to Steve Reeves or even Richard Harrison, both of whom are familiar to fans of peblum or Italian sword and sandal films, and Calhoun comes up as uncharismatic and out of place. He lacks the machismo of some of his fellow leading men and as such he doesn't carry the film all that well.
That being said, the film is definitely worth a look just for the visuals alone. In typical Leone fashion the film is cut fairly rhythmically and the score from Angelo Francesco Ballesteros (who had also worked with Leone on Pompeii) suits the film and the story very well. For an early effort the film is very well made even if at times the story lags a bit and the central star of the picture is too goofy for his own good.
A bizarre Biblical epic from director Richard Thorpe, The Prodigal is a truly odd film based on, as one can rightly assume from the title, Christ's parable of The Prodigal Son. What makes it interesting is how the film throws away Christ's teachings of love and forgiveness, central themes to the parable, and focuses more on the title character's wanton sinning.
Micah (Edward Purdom) and his brother Joram (John Dehner) are hanging out in the big city of Damascus where Micah falls head over heels in love for a lovely lass named Samarra (Lana Turner) who just so happens to be a high priestess at a temple where a pair of pagan gods are worshipped - not something that's considered particularly cool in Micah's Jewish background. Complicating matters further for poor Micah is that fact that he's already promised to another, a cute little thing named Ruth (Audrey Dalton). As if his love life didn't give the guy enough stress, he tries to do the right thing by saving a slave from the sinister high priest of the temple where Samarra does her thing, putting him on the doo-doo list pretty much right off the bat.
Micah heads home and tries to talk his dad into advancing him his sizeable inheritance so that he can return to the city and win Samarra's heart. Everyone warns him that this is a bad idea, but he's a headstrong young man and the warnings fall on deaf ears. Micah's dad relents, cuts him a check, and so the hero of our story heads off to win the lady's heart. Along the way he frees a bunch more slaves and gets into with the head brass at the aforementioned temple eventually leading to its ultimate destruction. Some rather substantial liberties have been taken with this adaptation, to say the least.
While Purdom looks the part of the wayward hero, he's got all the enthusiasm of a rock here. It's hard to be interested in his plight and the fact that it's changed so much from the original story doesn't help matters much - it's simply not easy to believe that this guy could lead a slave revolt and bring a pagan religion to its knees! That said, it's precisely this uninteresting performance that makes the movie enjoyable - it's kind of like watching someone sleep walk through an insane adventure. Lana Turner and Audrey Dalton are both fine in their roles, they look good and at least deliver their hammy dialogue with a little more excitement than the male lead, though Turner fumbles in spots. The rest of the cast is just kind of there save for Neville Brand in a enjoyably sinister but far too small role as the high priest's right hand man.
The Prodigal, like the other two films in this set, looks really good and makes excellent use of some nice sets and locations and some interesting costume design as well. But pomp cannot save what is otherwise a heavy handed turkey that is so very obviously exploiting and twisting the story it's supposed to be adapting in the first place.
Land Of The Pharaohs:
The final film in the set was directed by none other than Howard Hawks, the same man who gave us the original Scarface and Rio Bravo. Hawks had a great talent for 'big movies' like though you'd never know it by watching this film. Sure, Land Of The Pharaohs has more than it's fair share of spectacle, this much is true, but somewhere along the way things went horribly, horribly wrong. The end result is pretty much a disaster that has its share of odd entertainment value, even if that value is there for all the wrong reasons.
Jack Hawkins plays Pharaoh Cheops, who goes by the name of Khufu, the man in charge of ancient Egypt for the time being. He's got wealth beyond any normal man's wildest dreams and has decided that it might be handy to have access to this wealth once he passes on. In order to make this happen, he calls in his team of experts and orders them to build a massive pyramid to house his worldly possessions so that once he's dead, it'll be kept safe for him. Khufu does worry about potential grave robbers, however, and so he has one of his architects ensure that once the pyramid has been built, no one will be able to get inside it.
There's one big thorn in Khufu's plan, and that's his wife, Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins). She's as sinister as she is sexy and she wants the Pharaohs wealth for her own figuring that once he's gone, it'll all be hers. She decides that she's going to off her hubby before he can have the pyramid built, this way she'll ensure that she gets all the treasure before it's sealed up in stone for the rest of time.
Land Of The Pharaohs looks exceptionally cool. Plenty of long, sweeping shots of hundreds if not thousands of workers building a pyramid make up a large part of the film and while these really only serve to pad out what is essentially a very simple plot, they look neat. The score pumps the film up to make it sound like a lot more is happening than really is and the cast all look fairly lost here. Joan Collins looks great, running around in slinky outfits while scheming her husband's demise but really, none of the characters are particularly interesting or sympathetic. The film is, to steal from the Sex Pistols, pretty vacant.
That said, these flaws make the movie interesting in a strange way. One has to wonder who decided that making this movie was a good idea. It would seem that the producers figured that simply filling the film full of shots with lots of extras would ensure its success as that's really all we're given to marvel over here - crowd scenes and nifty sets. The dialogue is hammy, the performances too, and the story really doesn't go anywhere until the last few minutes and even then the ending is so easy to figure out that there's no suspense which pretty much renders the whole thing pointless.
Land Of The Pharaohs is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer at roughly 2.25.1 and if the opening credits are anything to go by, things look a little tight here indicating that the framing could be off from the film's original aspect ratio. The same can be said for The Prodigal, it looks just a little bit tight here framed at approximately 2.30.1, also enhanced for anamorphic sets. The Colossus Of Rhodes is fine at roughly 2.35.1, and like the other two films, it's enhanced for anamorphic goodness. As far as the image quality goes, Colossus doesn't look quite as good as the other two films in the set but all three transfers are pretty solid even if they're not perfect. Grain is present throughout all three films and you can expect to see some mild print damage pop up here and there. The colors on The Prodigal are a bit flat in some spots but this is a minor issue, it doesn't hurt things very much. Overall, fans will likely be pleased with the way that the films look here. The issues that do crop up are minor and easy enough to overlook. These transfers aren't perfect, but they're good.
Each of the three films are presented in their original English language versions. Colossus is in Dolby Digital Mono while The Prodigal and Pharaohs are in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Optional subtitles are provided for all three films in English and French. There's a bit of hiss here and there but aside from that, things sound pretty good. Don't expect much fidelity as things are flat more often than not but for a trio of older pictures, these tracks at least get the job done. They're not fancy in the least, but they're effective enough.
The main extra features in this set are the commentaries that have been provided for each of the movies in the collection. Sergio Leone biographer Christopher Frayling, author of Something To Do With Death, provides a very scholarly lecture on The Colossus Of Rhodes. Anyone who has heard a Frayling commentary before knows that the man is a complete wizz when it comes to explaining and exploring the work of Sergio Leone and his talk here is no exception. Like some of his other commentary tracks, however, it's definitely a bit on the dry side. A theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection are also provided.
Handling commentary duties on The Prodigal is Peter Bogdonavich who had the opportunity to interview director Howard Hawks in the sixties. Bodgonavich's commentary is made up of his talk mixed in alongside clips from the tapes he made of his conversations with Hawks, which lends some interesting insight to this track. It makes for a nice mix of interpretation and analysis courtesy of Bogdonavich and factual anecdotes from the pre-recorded Hawks commentary. Bogdonavich knows his stuff and while he delivers a fairly straight-forward approach he doesn't try to rise above the material and his commentary does a fine job of praising the film's high points and enjoying some of the campier low points.
Drew Casper gives us his thoughts on Land Of The Pharaohs and his commentary turns out to be the best of the bunch. A theatrical trailer and some nifty menus and chapter selection are here as well. With this film standing head and shoulders above the other two films in the set as the most perplexing of the three it's not surprising to find that Casper's commentary has a good sense of humor about it. He fills in all sorts of details here and there about the history of the film and provides plenty of anecdotal and biographical information about some of the more prominent cast members but he keeps the material on a very accessible level ensuring that he doesn't get too high brow with his analysis.
The audio and video aren't perfect but they're acceptable and the commentaries add some value to the package overall. The three films vary a fair bit in quality but each one has enough quirk and camp to offer fans that it's hard not to find something to like about each of the three films in the collection. Camp Classics Volume 4 - Historical Epics comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.