Anyone of a certain age who remembers Saturday afternoon kids' movies, usually with a serial and several cartoons, is sure to recall the "wonders" of the Italian sword and sandal epics that once populated neighborhood theaters. This cult sub-genre probably reached its zenith with the Steve Reeves Hercules films, but there had been at least a few precursors, including this little remembered 1954 opus which starred none other than Kirk Douglas. A full six years before Douglas attained skirted immortality as Spartacus, he brought his iconic presence to another "real" immortal (or so the epilogue to this film insists), Ulysses, based on Homer's epic poem which any student of classical literature can attest is not always the easiest thing to wade through, despite its often exciting episodes. That same mixture of fun and lethargy runs through this film, which is additionally hampered by one of the all time worst multi-language dubbing jobs ever.
For those of you who haven't read Homer's The Odyssey, it recounts the hero's journey of Odysseus (AKA Ulysses), the champion of the the Trojan War, who nonetheless angered the Gods enough that they cursed his return journey home, sending him on a decade of dead ends until he was finally able to nestle again in the arms of his wife, Penelope. Among the many adventures that Ulysses encountered were a battle with the Cyclops, and a battle of the sexes with Circe, the Goddess whose siren call (literally with the Sirens) lured seamen to their doom.
Ulysses the film covers these major points with a fair amount of invention, especially for a film made overseas in the early 1950s. While the Cyclops segments are largely laughable, with a badly made up actor shot from a low level which offers elements not even up to the now somewhat primitive seeming standards Ray Harryhausen would set a few years later with his beloved stop motion work, the interludes with Circe (Silvana Mangano, who does double duty as Penelope, evidently living out the male fantasy of a woman who is both wife and whore) are quite impressive. Circe is played as almost a living statue (something not helped by the idiotic dubbing job), but the lighting in this film is magical, with Circe's head and shoulders a captivating, if odd, glowing green.
The film has some passing attempts at a larger than life epic feel, notably a very short overview of the Trojan War in an opening montage, but this is a quieter, more introspective film than one might expect given its mammoth source material. Douglas is his usual clench-jawed self, but here that reticence plays to Ulysses' frustration at being kept from his goal so long, something made even worse by amnesia. Anthony Quinn makes for a pretty comical villain in this piece, with a Dutch Boy haircut and glowering visage, as Antinos, a suitor of Penelope who is through waiting for Ulysses to come back and wants the female spoils to himself.
While the film probably looked luscious and colorful in its original Technicolor release, and was early enough in the foreign film craze not to drive audiences too crazy with the lack of audio synchronization, more sophisticated contemporary eyes and ears can't overlook the film's glaring flaws. While I can write off the image quality due to what is probably a poor print (I doubt this film was ever archived properly and we're probably never going to see a better version), the soundtrack is such a mess that it seems ripe for some kind of Mystery Science parody.
While it's obvious that Douglas and Quinn spoke their dialogue in English, while the rest of the cast performed in Italian, the film, as was the tradition in Italy well into the 1960s (and even beyond), was filmed without sound and then post-dubbed. That means that even Douglas and Quinn, trying to synch their English dialogue with their miming mouths, are often not quite on the mark. The less said about the English dubbed Italian actors, the better. Several online sites are full of derogatory comments about Mangano's performance especially, but I personally think that's mostly due to the completely inept dubbing--if one simply pays attention to the actress, turning off the sound for example, she does a beautiful job in emoting through facial expressions. It would have been interesting to have been offered both the original Italian version and the English dub on this DVD so that we could hear the Italian cast with their real voices and inflections, but alas that was evidently not meant to be.
Often dramatically inert, this is still a colorful and often fun fantasy laden film, one that might appeal to young children whose critical discernment might not yet be quite at the level of their parents. While Ulysses fails spectacularly to humanize these characters, leaving them exactly as they're sadly too often thought of--as two dimensional "names" in a musty ode--the film still offers a sort of mid-50s spectacle that, if nothing else, should appeal to lovers of camp. Douglas fans especially will probably love seeing the actor in one of his lesser known (and lesser seen) roles, despite the drawbacks of the film itself.