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)

Hercules
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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)

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Love Affair (1939)

I sit here on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, waiting for Christmas dinner to be prepared and for presents to arrive (where I live, Christmas Eve is more important to celebrate than Christmas Day). Every year, I try to include at least one Christmas themed movie around this time. This year, I have chosen the classic Love Affair.

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939)

True, the entire film is not about Christmas. It is only in the last twenty minutes that the Christmas theme comes in, but it is fitting enough at that point, because that is where the film turns into a real feel-good melodrama. I will not reveal too much of the plot, except to say that it involves true love at first sight, forced separations, great personal sacrifice, and I do not think I spoil too much by revealing that there will be a happy ending, although one not entirely without complications.

Like many other popular old movies, this one was adapted into a radio play, and Irene Dunne even reprised her role from the film. I have not listened to this particular adaptation, but those old radio plays are often very good. If you are interested, Love Affair and many others are available as part of the Screen Guild Theater series.

This film is best enjoyed because the chemistry between Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne is excellent. The plot have a few weak moments if you start analysing it too closely, but Boyer and Dunne nevertheless manage to make the story believable.

Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya and Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576; including black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

October 1917 (1928)

Tomorrow, it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Russian October revolution started (Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time; hence the confusion about the specific month). That was the final stage of the Russian revolution, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and, some forty years later, to the Cold War. And even though the Soviet Union has since been dismantled, it is no great exaggeration to say that those events still contribute to shaping the world into what it is. The most famous film about these events is Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917, perhaps more commonly known as October: Ten Days that Shook the World, or in Russian Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир).

The cruiser Aurora in Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

A great many of Sergein Eisenstein’s films are connected, one way or another, with the causes and effects of the Russian revolution. Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, deal with events that in the official communist history writing are essential steps on the way to the forming of the Soviet Union, while films like The General Line (1929) detail the wonders that the revolution led to. October 1917 is the essence and the focal work of these two themes, as it deals directly with the revolution itself, and the events surrounding the Bolshevik uprising.

I am sure that a historian would have much to say about the plot of the film. Like any other Soviet film dealing with history or communism in any way, the historic events have naturally been adapted to fit into the communist ideological perspective. The first Russian revolution, the February revolution (which, for the same reasons, was in March, Gregorian time), is briefly depicted, then the depravity and corruption during the next few months, as the new government turned out just as bad as the Tsarist regime. Then, after Lenin has convinced the Bolsheviks that action is necessary, the events during the night between October 25 and October 26 are told in some detail. We see how the cruiser Aurora moves up to the place where the cannons could be fired as a starting signal. We also see how the cossacks and the female Death Squadron are won over to the just cause, and many other key events.

This film is best enjoyed for Eisenstein’s artistic and skillful telling of a story, whether historically accurate or not. His amazing cutting and use of imagery and metaphor must be experienced by anyone who has the least interest in cinematic history. And though I would recommend Battleship Potemkin first if you want to watch just one Eisenstein film (especially considering how much better that Internet Archive copy is), October 1917 is should also be on your to-see list.

Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

October
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: English
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (689 M)

U-Boote westwärts! (1941)

When I first discovered and read about the German World War II film U-Boote westwärts!, I was struck by the extreme story similarities with the British film We Dive at Dawn from two years later. So struck that for a while I speculated whether the latter might actually be a loose remake of the former.

German submarine U-123 in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

The initial story structures are, indeed, strikingly similar. A submarine returns to port after a long and hard mission at sea (scenes of surfaced submarine moving steadily forward through picturesque sea and port backgrounds). The crew is looking forward to a long and well-deserved shore leave. They meet up with families, fiancées and various other female friends. One is about to get married. But duty calls. The Queen/Führer needs them and they have to set to sea immediately in order to fulfil an important mission.

However, even during the brief shore leave sequence, the differences between these two films start to become apparent. Beyond the abovementioned similarities, these films are very different at their cores.

Compared with the British film, U-Boote westwärts! seems much more realistic, both in terms of the submarine interiors, and in terms of the missions and situations that a World War II submarine would typically face. On the other hand, the story lacks the intensity, action and adventurous touch that the British production has. Which version you prefer thus depends on whether you prefer realism or suspense.

This film is best enjoyed if you like old war films. U-Boote Westwärts! is not a great film, and some will be further put off by the propagandistic portrayals of British seamen. Nevertheless, it has several good qualities, including some very solid actors.

Herbert Wilk in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

U-Boote westwärts!
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Günther Rittau
Stars: Herbert Wilk
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Matroska (681 M)

Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The submarine film is an interesting genre, and We Dive at Dawn is a good representative. Here you will find everything to be expected from a good submarine film. The closed spaces, the comradeship and conflicts among the crew, the sounds of machinery and exploding depth charges, the excitement of the hunt and the tense waiting as the hunter turns to prey.

John Mills and Reginald Purdell in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The British submarine Sea Tiger has just come back after a long time at sea. We get to see the various crew members as they go ashore for a presumed lengthy leave, but we barely get a glimpse of their private troubles before they are ordered back to ship for another important mission. As the somewhat disheartened lot take their vessel out again, they are told that they are going after the German battleship Brandenburg, as they should be able to catch up with her before she enters the Kiel Canal in northern Germany.

But when they take aboard some Germans from a rescue buoy, they learn that the Brandenburg is farther ahead than expected, and they will not be able to catch up. The ship’s captain (John Mills) then makes the decision to enter the Baltic and search for the German battleship there. But the decision is a foolhardy one. Not only because the Baltic is full of German ships, but also because they are running low on fuel.

Judging by its looks, We Dive at Dawn was a pretty cheap film. The submarine interiors look convincing enough to my untrained eye, but many small details, such as John Mills’ fake stubble, lack the attention which marks a really well-produced film.

Nationalism and propaganda naturally lurks in the background of a wartime production such as this. But it is never allowed to surface (pun intended) in the same way as in, for example, In Which We Serve (1942) or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942).

This film is best enjoyed if you like either submarines or British 30s/40s films. Though not the best representative of either category, We Dive at Dawn nevertheless has enough good qualities to satisfy your hunger for more of those kinds of films. The story, while a touch on the sentimental side, is good and the actors are adequate.

Turkish S class (Oruç Reis class) submarine P 614 in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

We Dive at Dawn
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: John Mills
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (700 M)

Captain Kidd (1945)

Last week, I wrote about how Douglas Fairbanks defined the entire pirate film genre with The Black Pirate (1926). Having said as much, all pirate films are naturally not made from the same template. Though a number of clichés can certainly be found in Captain Kidd, the film also contains a number of original elements.

Randolph Scott in Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd is nowhere near as lavish and epic as The Black Pirate, yet it is well worth watching on its own merits. The plot is a bit too intricate to be described in just a few sentences, but rest assured that you will find both romance and adventure a-plenty. It involves the greedy and scheming pirate William Kidd (Charles Laughton), the greatest menace of the seven seas, and Adam Mace (Randolph Scott), a man who is out for revenge.

Captain Kidd has often been criticised for being historically inaccurate. That may well be the case, but it is totally beside the point. The film does make use of a number of historical names, places and ships, but the entire plot is just a wonderful fantasy, and it should be watched as such.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s acting. Even though Randolph Scott may nominally be the film’s hero, Laughton is definitely the main character. I did not clock, but I am sure he gets more screen time, and he is absolutely magnificent in his role. There is also a very good John Carradine in a minor role.

Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd
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Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Stars: Charles Laughton, John Carradine
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (720×576)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M)