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TCM Spotlight: Sword and Sandal
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The Colossus of Rhodes

In the wake of Dino De Laurentiis's phenomenal success with the English dubbed Italian production, Hercules (1959), every major U.S. studio began importing similar sword and scandal epics to rival that international smash hit. Not one of them came close to defeating Hercules's reign at the box office and most were undistinguished in quality and intended for undemanding audiences such as pre-teen schoolboys at a Saturday matinee. One of the few exceptions was The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), which was directed by future spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone. Distinguished by lavish production values (it was filmed in the Spanish port of Laredo in the Bay of Biscay) and an energetic directorial style that combined sly humor with a dash of sadism, the film was particularly interesting for its unconventional hero and heroine; the former is introduced as a fun-loving, sexist playboy while the latter is an enigmatic beauty who likes to tease and deceive her admirers. Both reveal their true natures before the cataclysmic final act. Equally surprising is Leone's own fondness for visual in-jokes; the most audacious being an amusing reference to Cary Grant's flight across the faces of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959).

According to historical accounts, there really was a Colossus of Rhodes. It was one of the "seven wonders of the world," a gargantuan statue of Apollo that marked the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes between 280 and 224 B.C. before it was destroyed in an earthquake. Leone, who concocted the screenplay with several other writers, decided to begin his fictitious story in 280 with the public unveiling of the 110-metre statue and the arrival of a Greek captain named Darios (Rory Calhoun). A secret underground organization, led by Greek rebels, tries to contact Darios and inform him of a nefarious plot in the works: the king's Prime Minister is raising a secret army of Phoenician warriors to overthrow the government and wage war on Greece. At first, Darios is stubbornly indifferent to the political crisis at hand but quickly changes his mind when he finally penetrates the high security confines of the Colossus and discovers an elaborate torture chamber and prison filled with victims of the Prime Minister.

The Colossus of Rhodes marked Sergio Leone's debut as a director but he had years of experience behind him in the genre of costume epics, having served as assistant director on such movies as Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis (1951), Robert Wise's Helen of Troy (1956) and the 1959 remake of The Last Days of Pompeii, directed by Mario Bonnard and starring Steve Reeves. In fact, Leone would hire several cast and crew members from Pompeii - actor Angel Aranda, cinematographer Antonio Ballesteros, composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, etc. - to work on The Colossus of Rhodes. He particularly enjoyed presenting the Colossus as a more malevolent version of the Statue of Liberty; instead of welcoming visitors to its shore, the Rhodes statue is more likely to spill a cauldron of boiling oil on them.

The most crucial prop in the film, the Colossus was designed as two 30-metre sections that could be used for different perspectives; one from the base to the knees, the other from the top of the head to the chest. The latter was utilized for one of the film's highlights: a daring swordfight across the outer surface of the statue's torso (the aforementioned homage to North by Northwest). At one point, Leone even wanted to put Mussolini's face on the Colossus "so that it 'would appear as Benito's twin brother', with his hands on his hips" (from Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death by Christopher Frayling). One of the producer's assistants was under the impression that the title was a reference to the film's hero, a superhero in the Hercules mold. When he learned it was merely a prop, according to Frayling's book, he wailed "I am ruined. RUINED. To put so much money into a film which is just about a statue! You are all mad, you people. We could have Steve Reeves and you are talking statues!" Leone, however, was able to convince him that the Colossus would be much more spectacular than any muscle-bound actor.

And he was right to take that tactic because casting an actor to play Darios, the film's nominal hero, was not easy. John Derek, a rising young actor at the time who was getting typecast in exotic, Rudolph Valentino-like roles (The Adventures of Hajji Baba (1954), Omar Khayyam, 1957), was hired to play Darios but the minute he arrived on set, he began undermining Leone's authority by challenging his directorial choices and clashing with his co-workers. Things came to a head when Derek publicly embarrassed a stunt trainer during a battle scene rehearsal and was fired. According to biographer Christopher Frayling, "By 11:30 the following day he had been replaced by Rory Calhoun, who happened to be in Rome and was ready, willing and able. He arrived on the set while Leone was rehearsing a scene with Lea Massari, playing Diala, the heroine...Leone later recalled: 'As he didn't know who I was, he began by embracing everyone - thinking they were me. Finally, when he discovered where I was, he fell into a swimming pool which was between us. Then he burst out laughing. From then on, everything went marvelously. In addition to which, he was more suited to the character than John Derek had been. Rory Calhoun was a sort of proletarian Cary Grant. And that was just fine."

While Leone may have been pleased with Calhoun, his overly broad performance will be a matter of taste to American audiences used to seeing him in Westerns and not sword and sandal epics. The other performances in The Colossus of Rhodes, however, are a cut above the usual standard for a peplum and Leone's orchestration of action and crowd scenes are particularly impressive, particularly the coliseum sequence, the storming of the Colossus compound and the earthquake that eventually topples the statue. The director's bizarre visual sensibility, which would fully emerge in his spaghetti Westerns, asserts itself in other key scenes which border on the sadistic; one prisoner is tortured by being placed inside a metal bell that is struck repeatedly, causing damage to his eardrums, other prisoners are bound to stone slabs while acid drips on their bodies from holes in the ceiling; Darios falls through a secret passageway finding himself in an underground zoo complete with lions and a caged gorilla.

When the film was released in Italy, it was a box office success though it didn't surpass Hercules in popularity. Still, it convinced MGM to distribute it in the U.S. where it received better than average reviews for a sword and sandal picture. The New York Herald Tribune called it "a well-made and interesting film...Loving care has gone into the production." There were also the usual detractors such as The New York Times which called it "A rip-roaring corn harvest." But more importantly, The Colossus of Rhodes was a personal success for Sergio Leone. It proved he was more than capable of handling a large cast and budget and would eventually lead to international recognition with the release of A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. But first, Leone would take a step back to serve one last time as assistant director - on Robert Aldrich's 1962 Biblical epic, Sodom and Gomorrah.

Producer: Michele Scaglione
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Luciano Chitarrini, Ennio De Concini, Carlo Gualtieri, Sergio Leone, Luciano Martino, Ageo Savioli, Cesare Seccia, Duccio Tessari
Cinematography: Antonio L. Ballesteros
Film Editing: Eraldo Da Roma
Art Direction: Ramiro Gomez
Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Cast: Rory Calhoun (Darios), Lea Massari (Diala), Georges Marchal (Thar), Angel Aranda (Koros), Mabel Karr (Mirte).
C-129m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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