Hercules (1958)

The sword-and-sandal, or peplum, genre of films has a long history, starting in the silent era. But for a few short years, the genre was the bright centre of the cinematic universe, at least in Italy, and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Western world. And that short period in the early 1960s all started with one single film, Hercules with the muscular Steve Reeves in the title role.

Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina in El Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules (1958)

Hercules, more so than most other sword-and-sandals, is solidly grounded in ancient Greek mythology. The plot centres around the legend of the quest for the golden fleece (complete with Argo, Jason and many of the most famous Argonauts), and mixed into the brew are several segments from the legend of the labours of Hercules.

It is difficult to grasp just how popular the sword-and-sandal films were at their peak. The genre is hard to define exactly, so any count of how many films were produced during the peak years must be made with care. One estimate I have seen suggests that during the period 1960 – 1965, an average of one new film every ten days(!) was released in Italy. It is easy to understand that the market was saturated eventually, and after 1965, the genre more or less died, or at least dropped to more reasonable levels.

A few other sword-and-sandal films featuring Hercules are available at the Internet Archive, most interestingly Hercules Unchained from 1959, which was a direct sequel to Hercules; the two are often mentioned together as the two films that sparked the tremendous interest in the genre.

The version I have chosen for this post is a pretty good widescreen version. The Internet Archive also has a different version, edited for 4:3 aspect ratio. It is much less interesting, but if you are fanatic about this film, you may wish to compare them side by side.

This film is best enjoyed for its high production and entertainment values, but also as a truly pivotal piece of cinematic history. Sure, you will have to endure some pretty bad dubbing, but the overall experience is certainly worth some minor suffering.

Steve Reeves in El Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules (1958)

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Year: 1958
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Language: English
Director: Pietro Francisci
Stars: Steve Reeves
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (831×376; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)


The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Through the years, I have not reviewed very many horror films at this blog, and some of those I have written about, quite frankly, are not all that horrible. This week, however, I present one of the real classics in the genre, The Last Man on Earth with horror master Vincent Price in the title role.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Vincent Price plays the last surviving human in a city full of living dead vampires. He seems to be immune to the virus that has infected all humanity, and in wont of better things to do, he spends his days trying to kill as many vampires as he can. He uses all the classical anti-vampire tricks in the book: garlic, wooden stakes, crucifixes, even mirrors. The works. And he succeeds because the vampires are more or less without mind. They move and they try to kill, but they are very slow and they have no conscious plan.

Technically speaking, The Last Man on Earth is a vampire film, but thematically it is rather more of a forerunner to the modern zombie film. The disease that infects nearly all human beings and makes them into mindless slayers is a typical zombie cliché. The modern vampire film, on the other hand, often has the vampires living as intelligent beings in secret communities among normal humans.

There are moments when you can see that this is a pretty cheap production. For example, in the beginning of the film, we see a series of shots of empty buildings, empty roads, empty parking lots, and so on. There are no signs of life. But, wait … There, at 00:43, on the right in the picture, is a small boy standing on a balcony. He was clearly not meant to be there.

Cheap or not, the film is really beautiful. Many scenes are really well composed, and Vincent Price was a brilliant actor. The film was made in Italy, and like most Italian 1960s productions, it was dubbed in post-production. I am guessing that Price made his own voice, but synch is not always perfect. That, I think, is the most blatant flaw in an otherwise very good movie.

Quite often, when a film at the Internet Archive is labeled “HD”, it turns out not to be true High Definition at all. Either, resolution is much lower than advertised, or it is “fake” HD, converted from a lower definition. But The Last Man on Earth, at least the version I link to, is true HD to every last pixel. This is an excellent version, and even if you are stuck with pretty lousy bandwidth, it is worth waiting for the 3.6 gigs to download.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a bit of cynism in your life. Like many of the best vampire films, The Last Man on Earth is dark, gritty and distressing. There is very little hope for humanity to be found here.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The Last Man on Earth
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Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Directors: Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow
Stars: Vincent Price
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1696×738)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.6 G)

Goliath and the Vampires (1961)

The Internet Archive is truly a place for discovery and learning. Like when I wrote about Cabiria last week, and discovered not only that the Italian hero Maciste originated in that film, but also that he was the star of over 50 more films, half in the silent period, the other half during just a few years in the early 1960s. A handful of those 1960s films can be found at the Internet Archive, including what is said to be one of the best Maciste films, Maciste contro il vampiro. As was so often the case with the Maciste films, the hero was renamed for the US version, which is titled Goliath and the Vampires. Utterly illogical, since a generous count reveals but a single vampire in the entire film.

Gordon Scott in Goliath and the Vampires / Maciste contro il vampiro (1961)

Even though I can find no information that a longer version of the film exists, there are several illogical jumps in the plot. I conclude that the film was probably very badly cut, and perhaps not all that well written in the first place. But that matters little, for the plot is no reason to watch this film. It is pretty standard genre fare, even in its best moments. Maciste/Goliath, after having saved a boy’s life, returns to his home village, only to find it burned and the people massacred. Maciste swears revenge, and he also wants to rescue his fiancée who was kidnapped along with some other women.

Italian films from this period are always dubbed. The heroes, and sometimes other important characters, were played by American B actors, whereas most supporting roles were played by Italians. Therefore, you can see that the lip synch of Gordon Scott is actually pretty good (I have no idea if that is his own voice or someone else’s), whereas most other actors, although acceptable, are much more obviously dubbed. In an Italian version of the film, it would have been the other way around, of course.

It must be admitted that Gordon Scott is splendid in the role of Maciste/Goliath. Even though he may not have been a great character actor, he had a decided knack for striking heroic poses, he knew how to deliver his lines fluently and he had a spectacular body. It is no wonder he had been cast as the eleventh Tarzan a few years earlier. In fact, Goliath and the Vampires was his first role after the Tarzan films.

This film is best enjoyed as a representative of a time and place. Italy in the 1960s was the source of a tremendous amount of films trying to mimic various Hollywood genres. Even though they did not quite succeed, they did manage to produce something very unique and interesting. The sword-and-sandal films, as the spaghetti westerns that were to come later, is one example of this.

Leonora Ruffo, Gordon Scott and Jacques Sernas in Goliath and the Vampires / Maciste contro il vampiro (1961)

Goliath and the Vampires
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Year: 1961
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Sergio Corbucci, Giacomo Gentilomo
Stars: Gordon Scott
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×386)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (554 M)


Cabiria (1914)

In the 1910s, for the most part, film as a storytelling medium was not yet very mature. Most films were static in their camerawork, and the scripts were often clumsy. Some slapstick comedy from that time can still be amusing (in moderate doses), but the dramas and “action” films of the day are mostly pretty tiresome affairs.

But there are exceptions. Cabiria, even though it is the victim of many problems of its time, is one. This Italian film was one of the first great epic dramas, with spectacular sets, masses of extras and a bombastic storyline filled with hyperbole and melodrama.

The statue of Moloch in Cabiria (1914)

The film is about the girl Cabiria, who is robbed from her home during a volcanic eruption in ancient Roman times, taken as a slave to various places around the ancient world, and finally wins her freedom when she has become a grown woman. But in reality, various sub-plots are much more interesting, such as the story of Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste. Truth be told, the film is pretty confusing with all its characters and sub-plots, and sometimes too much, sometimes too little, information conveyed in the title cards.

The poor girl Cabiria is barely even treated as a personality. In the first half of the film, she is dragged and carried around as if she was a thing. In the second half, we get to see a bit more of her as she has grown up, but even then she does not do much to give a lasting impression.

Another character in this film is much more interesting, both due to the actor Bartolomeo Pagano and his portrayal of the character in the film, and due to the character’s later on-screen career. The character is called Maciste, and prior to watching this film, I had noticed that name, as it often appeared in Italian sword-and-sandal films from the early 1960s. But the English-language dubs of those films often used other names, such as Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi) or Colossus and the Headhunters (Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste). I wondered about this sometimes: Who was this mysterious Maciste, who never got to keep his name in translation? Well, it turns out that Cabiria was his first appearance, and that he was later to star in 26(!) further silents (all with Pagano in the title role) and another 25 films in a revival in the early 1960s.

I have not been able to find any other silents with Maciste at the Internet Archive, but there are several interesting 1960s Macistes. Perhaps I will review one of them in the future.

The version of Cabiria I link to is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but unfortunately it has no soundtrack. If you feel that your life is incomplete without sound, then you can choose between a version with an electronic score and one with piano music. I personally prefer the latter in this case.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in cinematic history. For its time, the film is an epic masterpiece, but I have to be frank and admit that it has aged quite considerably during the more than hundred years that have passed since it premiered. Do watch it, and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, but do not expect too much. It is still a great piece considering its age.

Umberto Mozzato, Gina Marangoni and Bartolomeo Pagano (as Maciste) in Cabiria (1914)

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Year: 1914
Language: English
Running time: 2 h 3 min
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Stars: Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)


Samsara (2001)

The Internet Archive is a strange site, but also rewarding. The structure leaves much to be desired, but the positive side is that in order to find what you are looking for, you are likely to stumble upon other interesting films in the process. Like when I was looking for the film Samsara (2011), which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

After some little confusion, it dawned upon me that there are in fact two films with the same title at the Archvie, and the other Samsara also seemed interesting. It is hard to imagine two films that are more different; yet both embody the Sanskrit word ‘Samsara’, which in Buddhism refers to the constant cycle of life – birth, death, rebirth – and yet both evoke the same feelings of wonder and awe.

Buddhist monks in Pan Nalin's Samsara (2001)

Samsara is about the Buddhist monk Tashi. He is young, yet he has been in the monastery for most of his life. He is very devoted, but after meeting the young woman Pema, he suddenly starts to have feelings of doubt. Is this all there is to life? What about love? Family? He decides to leave the monastery to seek Pema and try to find out.

Samsara is a film about people trying to cope with everyday life, in a part of India where most things are what they have been for centuries. People weave their clothes and farm their fields in the same way as their grandfathers and grandmothers did. But modern life is drawing closer, along with all its blessings and curses.

This is a very beautiful film, filled with the magnificent nature of countryside India. But even though nature is important and breathtaking, focus is always on the humans living in it; on their strenghts and their faults. This is a very warm and loving film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have plenty of time and nothing to disturb you for a few hours. Samsara is a film that allows, and requires, room for contemplation.

Shawn Ku and Christy Chung in Pan Nalin's Samsara (2001)

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Year: 2001
Running time: 2 h 19 min
Directors: Pan Nalin
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (608×288)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)