The international success of the Pietro Francisi pictures The Labors of Hercules (1958, aka Hercules) and Hercules and the Queen of Lydia (1959, Hercules Unchained) spawned a huge cycle of imitators and wannabes and gave foreign careers to half the weightlifters down on Santa Monica's muscle beach. With a few notable exceptions, their pictures soon devolved into a repetitive blur of musclebound heroes fighting for justice against badly costumed tyrants. Technicolor of Rome worked out a low-budget means of shooting 'scope films with flat cameras via the half-frame Techniscope system, and the world soon found itself up to its loincloth in tacky costume adventures.
VCI's disc contains two mid-level sword and sandal films. The Giants of Thessaly is a real mishmosh of mythic elements and high school dramatics shot in gaudy color. The situations are stock and the exposition-laden script quickly becomes a snoozer. In one awful scene, a female prisoner (Maria Teresa Vianello) lets loose a flood of backstory and hasty explanations that boggles the mind. The feeble English dubbing job doesn't help matters, either. A big part of the film's appeal is going to come through its unintentional humor.
By 1960 director Riccardo Freda's notable talent was definitely in decline, although his Euro-horror films of the time are considered classics: Danza Macabra, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. He can't have been happy doing a sword and sandal epic like this one, where one of Jason's crew is none other than Orpheus (Massimo Girotti, star of the co-feature on this double bill), boring us with the story of how he lost Eurydice on the way back from the underworld.
Somewhere along the line the story of Jason has been conflated with that of Odysseus. The Argo has a female stowaway. The crew fights a Cyclopean ape monster and deals with a sorceress who turns men into sheep. Add some villainous intrigues, dancing girls in burlesque outfits, and you've got what the Italians called a peplum, a name derived from those little pleated skirts worn by Greek and Roman soldiers.
Hero Roland Carey appears in a number of European thrillers but more information about him is hard to come by. He's more athletic than many of the beefier musclemen like Dan Vadis or Reg Park. Ziva Rodann is less effective but like everyone suffers from bad dubbing. Less successful is Nadine Duca's Queen Gaia, the ugly witch transformed into a raving beauty. She can't read a line without first turning to the camera and flashing a giant Dinah Shore smile.
It's unfair to judge these Italo pepla based on the English versions. In addition to the dubbing wiping away the original language, the grainy images and bad color obscure their original glossy appearance. Pan-scanning a Techniscope frame results in hardly more image area than a 16mm frame. Both of these features also appear to have had a reel or so trimmed from their original versions, although in this case continuity doesn't seem to have been affected .. it's still pretty slow. Some of the effects aren't so bad, especially when Jason climbs a giant statue to steal the Golden Fleece.
Carlo Rustichelli's score is grand and expressive, sounding cheap only when a Wurlitzer-style organ substitutes for a string section.
The second half of this VCI double-bill was hacked down by twenty minutes for a quickie RKO English language release in 1954, two years after it was made. Sins of Rome is clearly a followup to Quo Vadis? and unrelated to the later wave of the more familiar Hercules-inspired movies. Some of the larger sets may very well be leftovers from MGM's super production.
It's also the same story told eight years later in Kirk Douglas' giant 'thinking man's' epic Spartacus. The Italian screenwriters simplify events yet manage to make sure the overheated romantic subplot is active at all times. In this version, Crassus and Spartacus work out a peaceful solution to the slave revolt, only to see it thwarted by personal jealousies!
Riccardo Freda didn't have much success international and is mostly known for his later horror films, often filmed under the name Robert Hampton. He was a big-time director in the 1940s and Sins of Rome is unlike the cheap cookie-cutter sword and sandal pictures that came later. One tremendous set representing the Roman circus floats an entire tireme warship in the arena, as a stage for Spartacus to defend the helpless Amitys from a dozen hungry lions.
Connecting scenes can be unusually cheap-looking; Freda seems to have been a very uneven director and the second unit material is always more interesting than his static dialogue scenes, even when the final conflict looks more like a rugby scrimmage than a Roman battle. Freda's camera moves tend to display his impressive sets rather than express anything about his characters.
The dubbing is reasonable but still ineffective, with too much dialogue forced into the mouths of the actors. The English script is also a loss, with Massimo Girotti's formidable Spartacus saying things like "Onward my brothers!" and "I love you Amitys and my love for you will live ... forever!"
The exotic Ludmilla Tchérina was a star in Michael Powell's The Red Shoes but decorates only a one scene with her expressive dancing. Beautiful Gianna Maria Canale is a Freda regular from his biggest costume picture Theodora, Slave Empress and his (and Europe's) first modern horror opus, I Vampiri. Both offer their ample charms to the hero. He chooses futile revolt with the virtuous slave-girl dancer over luxury. What a swell guy.
The source for VCI's DVD looks like a reasonably clean 35mm print that's a little dark and tends to flicker. NIght scenes are on the murky side. The English dubbing is clear and the music by Renzo Rossellini quite good.
VCI's Sword and Sandal Double Bill is a good plainwrap pair of foreign genre pictures we'd be happier seeing in original versions. But as a record of the American recuts, it's not bad. VCI includes some stills in its extras section, along with a montage of trailer highlights from a number of their Sword and Sandal releases, which include the original Hercules pictures. Those two were of such historical importance that I often wish they were restored to their original Italian versions by one of the high-end DVD labels, the kind with the 'muscle' to wrest good elements from the Italo producers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sins of Rome rates: