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Ulysses (Kirk Douglas):
Circe (Silvana Mangano, calmly):
Ulysses is a U.S. / Italian co-production made after Quo Vadis but well before the peplum sword 'n' sandal boom that arrived with the 1957 hit Hercules. The handsome production with top-grade production values played well stateside, thanks to the presence of stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. The early 1950s was a peak time for Americans to make films overseas, thanks to a favorable tax loophole. The big studios all filmed in Italy as well. Although some stars discovered that the tax breaks didn't work out as they expected, the influx of Yankee dollars surely helped the Italian film industry.
Producers Dino de Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti clearly made some kind of co-production deal with American interests, perhaps Paramount Pictures, which eventually distributed Ulysses here. The Italian star power begins with the beautiful Silvana Mangano (de Laurentiis' wife) and the slightly younger Rossana Podestà, who would proceed immediately to the title role in Robert Wise's 1956 Helen of Troy. Imported American director of photography Harold Rosson (Singin' in the Rain) favors Mangano's dual roles with more interesting lighting.
The narrative simplifies Homer's tale to a level of complexity comparable to a book for a fifth grader. The interaction of mortals and gods is reduced to the warrior Ulysses (Douglas) being in disfavor with Neptune, while his faithful queen Penelope (Mangano) petitions Athena with prayers for his safe return. The problem is that Ulysses has been gone almost twenty years, ten of them spent conquering Troy (a couple of action bits and a matte painting illustrate that saga) and ten lost on the return voyage, trying to overcome obstacles in the Aegean Sea. Near the end of his journey, Ulysses loses his memory on the shore of a friendly kingdom not far from Ithaca. He falls in love with Nausicaa (Ms. Podestà) and is willing to stay forever. But before the wedding, Ulysses has a memory breakthrough in flashback form. He recalls his frightening encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops (Umberto Silvestri) and his sojourn with the enchantress Circe (Mangano again). Circe changes Ulysses' men into pigs (and back) and distracts him with spells and her own charms. When his crew is lost trying to leave the island in a storm, Ulysses finds the will to moves on.
Back in Ithaca, Penelope maintains hope that her husband will return, despite the fact that her house has filled with suitors eating her food and spending her money; they demand that she choose one of them as her new husband (and king, I assume). Penelope uses the excuse that she has a tapestry to finish, a trick that can only work so long. Alpha Male suitor Antinous (Anthony Quinn) shows up and demands that the competition to choose a husband begin immediately. Penelope is desperate, as she realizes that the first thing a new husband will do is murder her grown son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi). Will Ulysses extricate himself from his engagement to the princess Nausicaa, and return in time? Can Telemachus hold off the insolent suitors? Weren't you paying attention in school?
The story is kept simple and direct. With seven names attached to the script (including heavy hitters Ennio De Concini and Ben Hecht) it's surprising that so much of Ulysses is slightly stilted. The dialogues veer from excellent to overly flowery and the comic line quoted above was probably intentional. The production can boast a handsome full-scale ship, good sets and colorful costumes. Rome had not yet built up an industry of sword 'n' sandal pix, so the costumes look fresh, although a couple of the gowns are decidedly odd creations evoking neither modern or ancient styles. A few good effects shots are used in the Cyclops' cave, but most of the scene makes do with well-chosen camera angles: the monster indeed looks big and Ulysses' sailors small. The final fight in Ithaca has some nice work with a bow and arrow.
Modern audiences will probably feel that Ulysses is a bit slow. Kirk Douglas is spirited and earnest, without overplaying; the dubbing is obvious but both he and Anthony Quinn use their own voices and take the show seriously. Quinn's interloper is something of a thankless role; Antinous enters, feeds Penelope a pack of lies and then gets his with the rest of the suitors. Primarily a drop-dead classic beauty, Silvana Mangano is more than reasonably effective as the sympathetic Penelope. Circe receives more radical lighting -- a few odd colored gels, there. 1 Rossana Podestà has a winning smile and looks truly upset when Ulysses suddenly remembers he's got a wife back home. I've often wondered about a classic plot that makes such elaborate excuses for the absence of a husband: I was caught by a one-eyed monster! A witch confused me! She looked just like you, honest! I lost my memory -- otherwise I would never have touched that girl!
Lionsgate's budget priced DVD of Ulysses is an acceptable transfer of a film originally released in Technicolor, where its colors were surely much brighter. The image is clean but somewhat dull, without deep blacks. Given the production year, it's difficult to know exactly how it was filmed. The image we're seeing may have been from an older dupe negative made from Technicolor separations, or simply from a surviving but faded color printing source. It looks good, but definitely doesn't "pop". The IMDB lists an original running time of 117 minutes, and I caught at least one transition where footage had probably removed for the 104-minute American cut. As Homer's Ulysses had more adventures than are pictured, it's possible that one or two short encounters were removed. As I said the movie is no pacing juggernaut, even at this length.
The only audio available is English, with subtitles in English and Spanish. It's possible that a longer Italian language cut is available overseas, as with the longer European disc I'm told has been released of Sergio Leone's The Colossus of Rhodes.
There are no other extras, but Lionsgate doesn't gouge on the price break. The 1954 version of Ulysses is less exciting, but also less tiring, than the good Andrei Konchalovsky TV miniseries from 1997, starring Armande Assante, Greta Schacchi, Irene Papas, Isabella Rossellini ... and Bernadette Peters as Circe.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. In his monumental filmo-biography All the Colors of the Dark, Tim Lucas reports that Mario Bava was set as the cinematographer of Ulysses until the original director G.W. Pabst became detached from the production. Lucas suggests that Bava may have filmed the Circe sequence, which in lighting contrasts with Harold Rosson's style elsewhere ... Bava's Omphale episode in Hercules Unchained seems a blending of the Circe idea with She or L'Atlantide -- filmed in 1932 by G. W. Pabst.
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