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War Gods of Babylon / War Goddess
War Gods of Babylon, an Italian production released in Italy in 1962 as Le Sette folgori di Assur is typical of that era's semi-epics. It's a classic tale of brother-against-brother, with Assyrian King and Ruler of Nineveh, Sardanapolo (American Howard Duff), and brother Prince Sammash (Luciano Marin), newly-appointed King of Babylon, each vying for the love of courtesan Mirra (Jocelyn Lane), with the scheming, Iago-like Arbace (Giancarlo Sbragia) doing all he can to set one off the other.
The film is very standard stuff until the second act, when the story takes a completely unexpected, violent twist, then stays impressively and unusually pessimistic until the end, climaxing with a massive flood and fire. The Big Finish isn't terribly realistic (the Italians were never masters of miniature visual effects) but it's impressively staged and cut together. A number of full-size sets are realistically flooded, and the hapless Italian extras really take a beating.
And though the dialogue is pure cardboard (and completely dubbed in postproduction, but generally spoken on-set in English rather than Italian), director Silvio Amadio (Assassination in Rome) and cinematographer Tino Santoni make the most of the 'scope frame and the large impressive sets are like something out of Griffith's Intolerance.
Marin is fine as the younger brother, somewhat resembling a young Richard Burton, but Howard Duff appears completely lost in this genre, though he's clearly trying to make it work. This was a period when innumerable down-on-their-luck Americans went abroad to star in these pictures. Their names still had marquee value (Broderick Crawford, Jayne Mansfield) but more often than not their screen personae were ill-suited to the genre.
War Gods of Babylon's flipside co-feature, War Goddess, is a truly bizarre, almost inexplicable Spanish-Italian-French co-production that plays like big-budget "Hammer Glamour" - a Slave Girls / Prehistoric Women (1966) as produced by Samuel Bronston.
First released in early 1974 as Le Guerriere dal seno nudo and apparently shown in most markets as The Amazons, the bone-headed script, supposedly based on a story by Robert Graves (!), is about the rivalry between two Amazonian women, blonde bombshell Queen Antiope (Alena Johnston) and fiery redhead Oreitheia (Sabine Sun, wife of director Terence Young). Antiope is a real man-hater, but weakens under the charms of Greek Theseus (Angelo Infanti).
To say it lacks the literate dialogue of I, Claudius would be an understatement. The film is quite strange: with its hundreds of costumed extras, big-scale battle sequences and large, elaborately appointed sets, the picture looks like it must have cost $3-4 million at least, and long stretches of the film are played absolutely straight, even though the dialogue and situations are ludicrous to the point of high camp. And yet other scenes obviously are supposed to be broadly campy, with jokey dialogue and wildly anachronistic concepts, such as the Amazons' tendency to sing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" while on the march.
And as expensive as the film was, the producers apparently never considered the long-term benefits of television sales, as Johnston and Sun strip at any and every opportunity. When, for example, Oreitheia prepares to slip out into the night to assassinate her queen, a handmaiden cries out "Wait! The sacred oil will protect you!" and proceeds to oil down topless Oreitheia's sumptuous breasts. Further adding to the unreality of it all is Johnston's voice, possibly dubbed, which suggests a petulant Candice Bergen, not a good match to the character, such as it is.
What was director Terence Young thinking? He had helmed several of the biggest films of the 1960s, but spent most of the rest of his career directing one terrible film after another, from this and The Klansman (1974) to Inchon (1981).
Video & Audio
War Gods of Babylon is derived from a French print with French credits save for an inserted English main title card. (The French version was apparently released as Foudres sur Babylone; AIP released the film in America.) Whether this is lifted from someone else's DVD is unknown. In any case the 16:9 enhanced image retains the original 'scope photography, though the image is very grainy (suggesting perhaps a 16mm scope print or 35mm I.N. was sourced) and the color is tepid throughout. Still, given the generally appalling track record of Region 1 DVDs of Italian and historical epics, this transfer is still above average.
War Goddess, on the other hand, is clearly derived 16mm print and presented full frame. The image crops quite nicely to 1.77:1 on widescreen TVs, but the print is in poor shape, with deep, reel-long scratches and frequent splices. Worse, the authoring of the disc is quite bad, with a lot of digital break-up throughout, especially when flickering campfire flames, dueling Amazons swinging swords and the like tax the limitations of whatever out-of-date computer program Retromedia relies on. Nearly all of Retromedia's titles, regardless of print quality, suffer from bad authoring - they really need to improve in this area.
There are no Extra Features, not even trailers.
Morbidly curious cinephiles like this reviewer will find enough little nuggets of interest in both pictures to justify sitting through each title once. Neither is very good, but neither are they without interest. Most viewers however understandably will not have the patience to make it through either one. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.