DVD ushered in a renaissance for horror and science fiction fans - obscure Euro-horror slasher pictures are better represented than any other genre. But left behind in the rush to DVD is practically the entire Italian genre known as Sword 'n Sandal or Pepla (so-named after the pleated cotton skirts worn by Roman soldiers). Whether the obstruction is due to distribution rights problems or poor elements, almost none of the hundreds of costume dramas churned out by Cinecittá and other Italian studios are available on DVD in quality presentations, not even the two superior and phenomenally popular Steve Reeves - Pietro Francisi epics that started it al, Le fatiche di Ercole (Hercules) and Ercole e la regina di Lidia (Hercules Unchained).
This Retromedia disc collects two middling productions made past the popularity midpoint of the Peplum craze, after big-budget international pictures like Robert Aldrich's The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah had flopped at the international box office. Unfortunately, Retromedia's source elements are Pan-scanned 16mm prints of varying quality. Gordon Scott and Richard Harrison are among the better practitioners of muscleman heroics, but fans coming to see them here will have to be satisfied with presentations that are below average.
The leadoff feature Hero of Rome is an okay mini-epic based on the story of the founding of the first Roman Republic. Although the original hero Mucius is said to have been a young boy, Mucius is played by beefy Gordon Scott, former excellent screen Tarzan (Tarzan's Greatest Adventure). After one gets used to his girlfriend Cloelia (Gabriella Pallotta) repeating his name wistfully in a dubbed voice ("Moo-shus! Moo-shus!"), the story is easy to follow. The deposed former King of Rome Tarquinus Superbus (Massimo Serato, a respected actor) intends to take his kingdom back again with the help of a doddering old Etruscan ally named Porsenna (Roldano Lupi). The first half of the picture features various duplicitous peace negotiations interspersed with Mucius' feats of valor. Although he's just a Roman commander, Mucius is shown doing muscleman duty by picking up large logs and throwing them at enemy soldiers, etc. As dumb as these hi-jinks are, they went over well with with small boys in Saturday matinees ... this reviewer was one of them.
Caught in a botched assassination attempt, Mucius proves his mettle by purposely burning "the hand that let him down," thus winning the trust of one of his enemies. The character Cloelia turns out to be borrowed from Italian folk history as well. She's one of eight noble & nubile daughters of Rome given over to the Etruscans as hostages in a poorly brokered peace agreement. When the swinish Tarquinus goes back on the deal, Cloelia helps her fellow damsels escape back to Rome.
The rest of the picture is a succession of battles large and small. Mucius' barbecued hand is girded in a leather and metal sheath (pretty fetishistic, that) and he learns to fight with his other arm. Some large battle scenes have a suspiciously generic look indicating that they may have been repurposed from an earlier picture. Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's serviceable score has action pieces remindful of his grand work in the epic monster movie Gorgo.
Retromedia bills Hero of Rome as a "widescreen 16x9 version." It is enhanced and the color is pretty good, but the image is grainy and soft in focus. Plenty of shots suddenly cut from left to right within the same set-up, revealing the transfer source as a hard-matted 16mm reduction print. The original movie, if it still exists, is actually 2:35 'scope of one form or another. The majority of Pepla were filmed in the half-frame Techniscope format. Considering the reduced image, this disc is actually made from an image only 8mm tall!
Beyond that sobering thought the print seems to be intact and in quite good condition. The main titles are partially from a French copy and have been reconstructed from still frames; perhaps the primary picture source was a junked print without a title sequence.
Retromedia begins both pictures with a polite apology saying that 'several sources' had to be mix 'n matched to create the video masters. To this reviewer the disclaimers are a sideways maneuver to deflect attention from the fact that their transfer sources are simply below par. That's not a condemnation -- nobody expects a disc producer to put "Below Par!" in bold letters on the package.
The second feature Invincible Gladiator is on the disc's flip side. It's somewhat less impressive. The handsome and reasonably talented Richard Harrison had the beginnings of an American career before he went to Italy with the rest of the muscleman hopefuls; he can be seen as a bare-chested crewman in the 1961 Vincent Price / Jules Verne epic Master of the World.
This particular opus has some reasonable characterizations and energetic fighting but its plot is as generic as can be. A kingdom at the Eastern end of the Roman Empire several centuries after Christ is dominated by Rabirius (Leo Anchóriz), a tyrannical royal protector. Rabirius wants to get rid of the boy king he's supposed to be nurturing and marry his nubile older sister Sira (Brigitte Corey, aka Luisella Boni) in the bargain. But Sira not only has eyes for dreamboat gladiator hero Rezius (Harrison), she's part of a rebel alliance sworn to overthrow Rebirius before he can murder his charges and take over completely.
The plot has a number of reversals as Rezius slowly changes to the side of righteousness. He rescues Rabirius from an assassination attempt in the first scene and only later realizes he's made a grave mistake. The production is on the cheap side, with sets that always seem too small. Generic exterior buildings are meant to resemble anything from Babylonia to ancient Egypt. The picture appears to be an Italian-Spanish co-production.
But for undemanding sword 'n sandal fun Invincible Gladiator is good small fry entertainment. Rezius has a loyal sidekick and is faithful to his word. He eventually triumphs when the downtrodden citizens revolt (surprise!) just as Rabirius is celebrating his coronation and relishing his wedding night with the reluctant Sira. Curses, foiled again!
Invincible Gladiator can't hide its lowly origins, transfer source-wise. Even if it was cobbled from more than one source, the print looks like a lab disaster ruined by frequent radical color changes in the middle of shots. It's also obviously an early Pan-Scan TV prints, for it's not uncommon for a single two-shot to jump back and forth several times to favor speakers on far extremes of the screen.
A short gallery of trailers is included. The quality isn't very good but we get some glimpses at a few of the best MIA Pepla still awaiting disc release - The Giant of Metropolis, Goliath and the Barbarians and Goliath and the Vampires.
To be truthful, both Invincible Gladiator and Hero of Rome look no worse than we were accustomed to seeing them on late-night television, and considering the absence of commercial breaks the experience is much improved. But many of these pictures looked pretty good on big screens and it's too bad that DVD economics and genre perceptions don't value the idea of reaching back into vaults to bring forth sparkling original-language versions. The original Hercules movies with their beautiful music and shimmering Mario Bava effects cinematography would make excellent subjects for Criterion. "The Gods have Spoken!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hero of Rome & Invincible Gladiator rate: