The Colossus of Rhodes


2h 7m 1961
The Colossus of Rhodes

Brief Synopsis

The Greek Army sets out to destroy the Colossus of Rhodes.

Film Details

Also Known As
El coloso de Rodas, Il colosso di Roda, Le colosse de Rhodes
Genre
Drama
Adventure
Historical
Release Date
Jan 1961
Premiere Information
New York opening: 13 Dec 1961
Production Company
C. F. P. C.; C. T. I.; Cineproduzioni Associate; Procusa
Distribution Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Country
France

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 7m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

In 224 B. C., a gigantic bronze statue (Colossus) is erected at the entrance to the port of Rhodes. The tiny island is beset by political intrigue because the evil Prime Minister Thar plans to turn Rhodes over to the Phoenicians and thus threaten Greek trade routes in the Mediterranean. Opposing Thar are five Greek brothers who have learned of the scheme and are determined to destroy the Colossus. A Greek captain, Dario, becomes involved with the brothers and decides that the only way to penetrate the Colossus is through its architect. Consequently, he arranges a meeting with the designer's daughter Diala, unaware that she is Thar's mistress. When she betrays them, the brothers are sentenced to die in the arena; but Dario gains the attention of the Rhodes citizenry and reveals the Phoenician plot. His disclosure generates a battle between Phoenicians and the people of Rhodes, culminating in an earthquake that topples the Colossus into the sea.

Photo Collections

The Colossus of Rhodes - Scene Stills
Here are several scene stills from The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), starring Rory Calhoun and directed by Sergio Leone.

Videos

Movie Clip

Trailer

Hosted Intro

Film Details

Also Known As
El coloso de Rodas, Il colosso di Roda, Le colosse de Rhodes
Genre
Drama
Adventure
Historical
Release Date
Jan 1961
Premiere Information
New York opening: 13 Dec 1961
Production Company
C. F. P. C.; C. T. I.; Cineproduzioni Associate; Procusa
Distribution Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Country
France

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 7m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

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
The Colossus Of Rhodes

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

LAND OF THE PHAROAHS Highlights the DVD Release "Cult Classics 4: Historical Epics"


Return with us now to those whacky years B.C. when the buildings were big and white, men were manly, women womanly and in the words of a songster two millenia later "heaven knows, anything goes." Filmmakers haven't been able to resist stories set in such wild times since at least the early 1910s when the Italians pioneered gigantic, ancient-world spectacles followed shortly by D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. The heyday, though, ran for about a decade from the mid-1950s up until the rough reception of the prestigious 1963 Cleopatra and surrounding flood of cheap Italian Hercules/Goliath/Maciste films knocked the market back down to a small but consistent stream which sometimes produces films that win Osca® (Gladiator) or mass audiences (300).

This 50s heyday is well where Warners drew for Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics, part of a wonderful new series greeted with much excitement by film buffs. Each volume collects three films of somewhat tarnished reputation at a more-than-reasonable price (or a tad more if purchased separately), gives them a sharp new transfer and adds a bonus or two in the form of commentaries or trailers. That series name probably clues you that these aren't necessarily films you absolutely need to see-they're cult classics after all not classic classics-but they're often entertaining in spite of themselves. At least for stretches anyway since pacing has been a perennial problem with historical epics, the real point being the enormous sets, luxurious costumes and earth-shattering events instead of the kind of snap and pop that drove, say, screwball comedies. But then that's the nature of the game and you wouldn't expect that type of dialogue any more than you'd expect Bringing Up Baby to stop and admire the museum architecture.

Speaking of Howrd Hawks, the highlight of this set is definitely his 1955 Land of the Pharaohs, with a script by William Faulkner and starring Joan Collins. Such a pedigree on a film of this type means nobody would expect it to be good exactly but it's certainly not dull. Filmed partly in Egypt with what appears to be the legendary Cast Of Thousands, Land of the Pharaohs is basically about the construction of the Great Pyramid. Pharaoh Khufu has amassed quite a haul of gold, jewels and other treasure that he wants to take with him to the next life. To do that he needs a tomb that can't be robbed but nobody can design such a thing. Enter an architect from a recently enslaved race who will design such a clever, unbreakable tomb in return for the freedom of his people. It's all a bit stately and slow until the entry of Collins as the pharaoh's second wife. She would just as soon enjoy the jewels in the here and now and her greed sets in motion a twisting array of betrayal, skullduggery and murder.

Land of the Pharaohs doesn't skimp on the requisite scenes of big events such as a nearly endless army returning from war and an admittedly very impressive sequence of the enormous pyramid construction. You can just imagine the squads of assistant directors with megaphones and swarming support staff required to organize such scenes. But while Hawks doesn't pace the film as he might have two decades earlier he does lean towards forward momentum and giving the actors room for more naturalist delivery, even if it's occasionally a little discordantly colloquial. But better that where these sound reasonably close to real people than actors intoning leaden speeches.

That "script by Faulkner" statement is a bit misleading since the bulk was reportedly written by Harry Kurnitz (later Witness for the Prosecution) with Hawks collaborating without credit as usual. Harold Jack Bloom, who had just been nominated for co-writing The Naked Spur, was brought into the project later. With Faulkner in something of a slump due to money and alcohol troubles-despite having just completed A Fable which would win a Pulitzer though it's considered a minor work today-his contributions were often spotty. Working as they did in Italy provided its own distractions. A famous anecdote has the team discussing how to write dialogue for the pharaoh which Faulkner said he would do as a Kentucky colonel, Kurnitz thinking King Lear a better model and Hawks deciding they should do whatever they want since he would rewrite it anyway.

The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) is notable as the first feature of future spaghetti Western mastermind Sergio Leone. Or at least the first he received full credit for helming since typically for Italian productions of the time Leone's earlier filmography is a melange of assistant director positions, second-unit filming and completely uncredited work. In any case, he acquits himself well on Colossus though if you're hoping for hints of his future abilities you'll be looking in vain. The story concerns an Athenian who visits the "peaceful" island of Rhodes for the dedication of, yep, the Colossus only to find treachery, betrayal, rebellion and even true love. There's a lot of grand spectacle displaying classical wonders but then Italy pioneered this sort of thing back in the early silent era; 1912's Quo Vadis is often considered the first feature-length historical epic.

Colossus isn't terribly accurate in historical terms: there was no rebellion at this time (280 B.C.) and though historians argue about exactly where the Colossus stood or what it looked like they all are in complete agreement that it could never have straddled the harbor as depicted in the film or countless other images. The statue would simply have collapsed. Nevertheless, Leone gets good use out of the Colossus, showing it frequently in the background and setting a lot of action around its base. At one point there's even a sword fight with combatants balanced precariously on top of its arms. More impressive is the feel of a lived-in city that Leone creates. Though still intended to impress viwers there's not the usual sense that if you went through one of the doors you'd see nothing but scaffolding behind a façade.

This being a Leone film it's of course in widescreen, this time something call SuperTotalScope, a variation on TotalScope which was itself a version of CinemaScope. It's an odd tension for the images to run sideways when the thrust of the title's statue is upwards but then most of the action-whether fights or courtly entertainment-is spread horizontally. Leone does get mileage from filling the screen with people and objects as well as his Rhodes with numerous hidden passages (including an underground zoo!), caves, docks and museum-like living quarters for the characters to romp and scheme. There's not much of the complexity of his later films and Colossus does run a good 15-20 minutes too long but at least it delivers what it promises.

To see more of the camp promised in this set's title you don't have to go any further than The Prodigal (1955). It's a peculiar vehicle for top-billed star Lana Turner since she is allotted a fairly small amount of screen time, mostly spent looking regally statue-like (but not really statuesque) during pagan rituals. Bosley Crowther called it "pompous, ostentatious, vulgar, and ridiculous" so how could you not want to see it? The project certainly must have been a test for Hollywood screenwriters when confronted with the skimpy statement that the prodigal son of Jesus' parable "took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living" (according to the Gospel of Luke, the only place the story appears). Out of such a sparse beginning we get-deep breath now-the film's Micah who hightails off to Damascus over his father's objections after one glimpse at the High Priestess of Astarte (La Lana in her first CinemaScope film) has knocked him head-over-heels into gotta-have-her lust, just as the High Priest of Baal intended after Micah saved a slave that the High Priest had other plans for.

And if any of that makes sense, well, there's even more. Some dastardly rulers intend to make a fortune by starving the populace and Micah's girl back home pines a bit but mostly that's padding. In fact if nearly all the film feels like padding, even the main romance, that might be because it is. The Biblical parable isn't about the wasting substance and riotous living but clearly the studio figured if the original moral is stuck into the closing few minutes then that gives them nearly two hours to do whatever else might draw in audiences. That of course would be Lana Turner and the genre's by now familiar massive set design and outlandish costuming. Turner wanders through gigantic temples of flames and peculiar idols while wearing masses of light-colored fabric – now that is the point of The Prodigal. After all, we're expected to believe that merely one glimpse of Turner (her blondeness explained several times during the movie) will drive men just mad. Oddly enough the filmmakers went out of their way to portray her as something of a temple prostitute with frequent references to her, ah, dalliances and even lines like "I belong to...all men." This camp aspect lives up to the collection's title and might be one reason the film was such an influence on future Warhol genderbending superstars Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis.

If this wasn't enough director Richard Thorpe and his writers decided to add more, maybe to convince themselves they were doing a work of substance. Micah refuses to renounce his faith so they set up an entire spirit vs. flesh dichotomy and then Micah as a wealthy person gets involved with the oppressed masses so there's the class aspect as well. But really we're supposed to expect that of our movie heroes even if none of it amounts to much. Once again Hollywood portrays Jews as basically honorary Christians and viewers are supposed to take the badness of the pagan religion on just the filmmakers say since apart from a human sacrifice its adherants seem perfectly as happy as anybody else. (In an interesting side note, one of the production's pagan statues appeared in a Tarzan movie or two before eventually being transported to Delaware where years later city officials made the owner hide it from view.) In the end, though, The Prodigal is a weak effort, not really campy enough to justify much more than the tiniest of cult interest and too leaden to be even an efficient way to waste time.

Each disc in this volume of Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4 includes a trailer and a commentary. For Land of the Pharaohs Peter Bogdanovich does the duty, assisted by selections from interviews he recorded with Hawks. Leone biographer Christopher Frayling does The Colossus of Rhodes and though he spends a smidgen too much time telling us what we're seeing on screen he's otherwise such a fount of information on the production and other Italian popular films of the time that you shouldn't skip his commentary. The Prodigal has a commentary by USC professor Drew Casper who really has a challenge in filling the time.

For more information about Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4: Historical Epics, visit Warner Video. To order Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4: Historical Epics, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson

LAND OF THE PHAROAHS Highlights the DVD Release "Cult Classics 4: Historical Epics"

Return with us now to those whacky years B.C. when the buildings were big and white, men were manly, women womanly and in the words of a songster two millenia later "heaven knows, anything goes." Filmmakers haven't been able to resist stories set in such wild times since at least the early 1910s when the Italians pioneered gigantic, ancient-world spectacles followed shortly by D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. The heyday, though, ran for about a decade from the mid-1950s up until the rough reception of the prestigious 1963 Cleopatra and surrounding flood of cheap Italian Hercules/Goliath/Maciste films knocked the market back down to a small but consistent stream which sometimes produces films that win Osca® (Gladiator) or mass audiences (300). This 50s heyday is well where Warners drew for Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics, part of a wonderful new series greeted with much excitement by film buffs. Each volume collects three films of somewhat tarnished reputation at a more-than-reasonable price (or a tad more if purchased separately), gives them a sharp new transfer and adds a bonus or two in the form of commentaries or trailers. That series name probably clues you that these aren't necessarily films you absolutely need to see-they're cult classics after all not classic classics-but they're often entertaining in spite of themselves. At least for stretches anyway since pacing has been a perennial problem with historical epics, the real point being the enormous sets, luxurious costumes and earth-shattering events instead of the kind of snap and pop that drove, say, screwball comedies. But then that's the nature of the game and you wouldn't expect that type of dialogue any more than you'd expect Bringing Up Baby to stop and admire the museum architecture. Speaking of Howrd Hawks, the highlight of this set is definitely his 1955 Land of the Pharaohs, with a script by William Faulkner and starring Joan Collins. Such a pedigree on a film of this type means nobody would expect it to be good exactly but it's certainly not dull. Filmed partly in Egypt with what appears to be the legendary Cast Of Thousands, Land of the Pharaohs is basically about the construction of the Great Pyramid. Pharaoh Khufu has amassed quite a haul of gold, jewels and other treasure that he wants to take with him to the next life. To do that he needs a tomb that can't be robbed but nobody can design such a thing. Enter an architect from a recently enslaved race who will design such a clever, unbreakable tomb in return for the freedom of his people. It's all a bit stately and slow until the entry of Collins as the pharaoh's second wife. She would just as soon enjoy the jewels in the here and now and her greed sets in motion a twisting array of betrayal, skullduggery and murder. Land of the Pharaohs doesn't skimp on the requisite scenes of big events such as a nearly endless army returning from war and an admittedly very impressive sequence of the enormous pyramid construction. You can just imagine the squads of assistant directors with megaphones and swarming support staff required to organize such scenes. But while Hawks doesn't pace the film as he might have two decades earlier he does lean towards forward momentum and giving the actors room for more naturalist delivery, even if it's occasionally a little discordantly colloquial. But better that where these sound reasonably close to real people than actors intoning leaden speeches. That "script by Faulkner" statement is a bit misleading since the bulk was reportedly written by Harry Kurnitz (later Witness for the Prosecution) with Hawks collaborating without credit as usual. Harold Jack Bloom, who had just been nominated for co-writing The Naked Spur, was brought into the project later. With Faulkner in something of a slump due to money and alcohol troubles-despite having just completed A Fable which would win a Pulitzer though it's considered a minor work today-his contributions were often spotty. Working as they did in Italy provided its own distractions. A famous anecdote has the team discussing how to write dialogue for the pharaoh which Faulkner said he would do as a Kentucky colonel, Kurnitz thinking King Lear a better model and Hawks deciding they should do whatever they want since he would rewrite it anyway. The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) is notable as the first feature of future spaghetti Western mastermind Sergio Leone. Or at least the first he received full credit for helming since typically for Italian productions of the time Leone's earlier filmography is a melange of assistant director positions, second-unit filming and completely uncredited work. In any case, he acquits himself well on Colossus though if you're hoping for hints of his future abilities you'll be looking in vain. The story concerns an Athenian who visits the "peaceful" island of Rhodes for the dedication of, yep, the Colossus only to find treachery, betrayal, rebellion and even true love. There's a lot of grand spectacle displaying classical wonders but then Italy pioneered this sort of thing back in the early silent era; 1912's Quo Vadis is often considered the first feature-length historical epic. Colossus isn't terribly accurate in historical terms: there was no rebellion at this time (280 B.C.) and though historians argue about exactly where the Colossus stood or what it looked like they all are in complete agreement that it could never have straddled the harbor as depicted in the film or countless other images. The statue would simply have collapsed. Nevertheless, Leone gets good use out of the Colossus, showing it frequently in the background and setting a lot of action around its base. At one point there's even a sword fight with combatants balanced precariously on top of its arms. More impressive is the feel of a lived-in city that Leone creates. Though still intended to impress viwers there's not the usual sense that if you went through one of the doors you'd see nothing but scaffolding behind a façade. This being a Leone film it's of course in widescreen, this time something call SuperTotalScope, a variation on TotalScope which was itself a version of CinemaScope. It's an odd tension for the images to run sideways when the thrust of the title's statue is upwards but then most of the action-whether fights or courtly entertainment-is spread horizontally. Leone does get mileage from filling the screen with people and objects as well as his Rhodes with numerous hidden passages (including an underground zoo!), caves, docks and museum-like living quarters for the characters to romp and scheme. There's not much of the complexity of his later films and Colossus does run a good 15-20 minutes too long but at least it delivers what it promises. To see more of the camp promised in this set's title you don't have to go any further than The Prodigal (1955). It's a peculiar vehicle for top-billed star Lana Turner since she is allotted a fairly small amount of screen time, mostly spent looking regally statue-like (but not really statuesque) during pagan rituals. Bosley Crowther called it "pompous, ostentatious, vulgar, and ridiculous" so how could you not want to see it? The project certainly must have been a test for Hollywood screenwriters when confronted with the skimpy statement that the prodigal son of Jesus' parable "took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living" (according to the Gospel of Luke, the only place the story appears). Out of such a sparse beginning we get-deep breath now-the film's Micah who hightails off to Damascus over his father's objections after one glimpse at the High Priestess of Astarte (La Lana in her first CinemaScope film) has knocked him head-over-heels into gotta-have-her lust, just as the High Priest of Baal intended after Micah saved a slave that the High Priest had other plans for. And if any of that makes sense, well, there's even more. Some dastardly rulers intend to make a fortune by starving the populace and Micah's girl back home pines a bit but mostly that's padding. In fact if nearly all the film feels like padding, even the main romance, that might be because it is. The Biblical parable isn't about the wasting substance and riotous living but clearly the studio figured if the original moral is stuck into the closing few minutes then that gives them nearly two hours to do whatever else might draw in audiences. That of course would be Lana Turner and the genre's by now familiar massive set design and outlandish costuming. Turner wanders through gigantic temples of flames and peculiar idols while wearing masses of light-colored fabric – now that is the point of The Prodigal. After all, we're expected to believe that merely one glimpse of Turner (her blondeness explained several times during the movie) will drive men just mad. Oddly enough the filmmakers went out of their way to portray her as something of a temple prostitute with frequent references to her, ah, dalliances and even lines like "I belong to...all men." This camp aspect lives up to the collection's title and might be one reason the film was such an influence on future Warhol genderbending superstars Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis. If this wasn't enough director Richard Thorpe and his writers decided to add more, maybe to convince themselves they were doing a work of substance. Micah refuses to renounce his faith so they set up an entire spirit vs. flesh dichotomy and then Micah as a wealthy person gets involved with the oppressed masses so there's the class aspect as well. But really we're supposed to expect that of our movie heroes even if none of it amounts to much. Once again Hollywood portrays Jews as basically honorary Christians and viewers are supposed to take the badness of the pagan religion on just the filmmakers say since apart from a human sacrifice its adherants seem perfectly as happy as anybody else. (In an interesting side note, one of the production's pagan statues appeared in a Tarzan movie or two before eventually being transported to Delaware where years later city officials made the owner hide it from view.) In the end, though, The Prodigal is a weak effort, not really campy enough to justify much more than the tiniest of cult interest and too leaden to be even an efficient way to waste time. Each disc in this volume of Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4 includes a trailer and a commentary. For Land of the Pharaohs Peter Bogdanovich does the duty, assisted by selections from interviews he recorded with Hawks. Leone biographer Christopher Frayling does The Colossus of Rhodes and though he spends a smidgen too much time telling us what we're seeing on screen he's otherwise such a fount of information on the production and other Italian popular films of the time that you shouldn't skip his commentary. The Prodigal has a commentary by USC professor Drew Casper who really has a challenge in filling the time. For more information about Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4: Historical Epics, visit Warner Video. To order Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4: Historical Epics, go to TCM Shopping. by Lang Thompson

Quotes

Trivia

Although he had experience directing other films, this was the first to give full on-screen credit to Sergio Leone.

Notes

Copyright length: 121 min. Location scenes filmed in Spain. Opened in Rome in September 1961 as Il colosso di Roda at 110 min; in Paris in August 1961 as Le colosse de Rhodes at 145 min; and in Madrid in June 1961 as El coloso de Rodas at 123 min.