Neither fish nor fowl, Damon and Pythias ( Il tiranno di Siracusa, 1962) is a few notches better than the usual Italian sword-and-sandal movie but not half as fun. Apparently conceived and co-produced by MGM in Hollywood but made in Italy with a mostly Italian cast and crew, the film aspires to something a little classier but doesn't quite make it. It's a frustrating film to watch. With more care and money it might have been a first-rate historical epic, or if it had been more audacious and action-packed it could have been one of the best Italian pepla.
Regardless, Damon and Pythias still features a wonderfully charismatic performance by Guy Williams, who around this time very briefly flirted with but never quite attained stardom as a leading man in features. After zestfully playing Zorro on Disney's TV series, Williams starred in The Prince and the Pauper, a two-part episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color that was filmed in England much like the better-known Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow. Williams next starred in two features: Damon and Pythias and the lively, highly entertaining US-West German co-production Captain Sindbad (1963), also available from Warner Archive.
In both films Williams is incredibly charismatic, with a roguish charm similar to Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. Watching Captain Sindbad especially but even here, one wonders how Williams could have possibly not become a major star. Instead, he next played Cartwright cousin Will in five 1964 episodes of Bonanza, then made the career-ending choice of working for Irwin Allen on Lost in Space (1965-68), in a leading role quickly subordinated by "special guest star" (i.e., series regular) Jonathan Harris's campy villain.
An Archive Collection release from Warner Bros., Damon and Pythias features a good 16:9 enhanced 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, and is region-free.
Adapted from the Greek legend, the film opens in 400 B.C., with Syracuse ruled by tyrannical despot Dionysius I (Arnoldo Foà), and where Pythagorean philosophies of non-violence and the brotherhood of man are likened (by the filmmakers) to the later secret teachings of Christianity at the height of the Roman Empire. Athenian Pythias (Don Burnett) is dispatched to Syracuse to persuade underground philosopher Arcanos (Andrea Bosic) to return home to Greece.
To help locate the elusive Arcanos, Pythias reluctantly hires ne'er-do-well Damon (Guy Williams), a breezy local mercenary. Damon initially betrays Pythias, but later helps him escape the Storian Guard, though he's later recaptured. From here the story follows the Greek legend quite closely, with their new, cross-cultural friendship given the ultimate test. Damon agrees to take the condemned Pythias's place for several months so that Pythias can visit his dying and pregnant wife, Nerissa (lovely Ilaria Occhini). If Pythias does not return in time, Damon will be executed in his place.
The film's origins are sketchy, but it appears to have been conceived in Hollywood, possibly with the idea of using funds tied up in Italy and perhaps reusing assets left over from the studio's Ben-Hur (1959). Samuel Marx, the longtime MGM executive credited with discovering Elizabeth Taylor, co-wrote the script and is also credited as an associate producer. Sam Jaffe, not the character actor but the producer of such diverse films as Diplomaniacs (1933), The Fighting Sullivans (1944), Born Free (1966), and Theatre of Blood (1973), was also involved. German Curtis Bernhardt (Possessed, The Blue Veil) directed.
Although the film makes excellent use of existing locations and offers several lively set pieces, including a chariot race (though not anything like that depicted in the poster above) notable for several dangerous-looking stunts, Damon and Pythias still resembles other pepla more than, say, Ben-Hur. The cast, though mouthing English dialogue, is mostly dubbed, and even the majority of Williams's performance appears to have been looped during post-production, giving it that lack of immediacy and an artificialness adversely effecting his performance. However, other scenes are clearly shot with "live" sound, such as Damon's plea to take Pythias's place, and so here and there Williams's Damon really comes alive.
Edinburgh-born Don Burnett had a career trajectory similar to Williams. After a half-decade of mostly minor roles in a variety of films Burnett co-starred with Keith Larsen and Buddy Ebsen on the TV series Northwest Passage, a show produced by Samuel Marx. He made just one more movie after this, playing the title role in Il trionfo di Robin Hood, then retired from acting to become a stockbroker. He and Williams, himself a very active stock market player, remained close friends and Burnett even delivered the eulogy at Williams's service. At the time Burnett was married to Gia Scala and reported she was to co-star in the film, presumably as Nerissa but possibly as Damon's girl, Adriana (Loana Orfei), but ultimately did neither.
Arnoldo Foà delivers a subtly menacing performance, the only other one worth noting, as Dionysius I, shading his character with a very believable pragmatism at the end. Foà, now 96 years old, is still active in Italian films and television.
Video & Audio
Damon and Pythias is presented in 1.66:1 enhanced widescreen. Scattered shots are grainy and the original title elements are faded and worn, but most of the film looks great. The audio, even by sword-and-sandal movie standards, is a little on the tinny, noisy side, but it's acceptable. The region free-disc runs 99 minutes (the Italian version reportedly ran two minutes longer), and is in English only with no subtitle options. No Extra Features.
A commentator on the IMDb wrote that Damon and Pythias was "too good for its own good," which pretty much sums things up. Star Guy Williams has star power and acting chops to spare and the film is more intelligent than the usual peplum, but it can't quite escape its second-rate genre trappings. Still, Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.