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Friday, January 30, 2009

The Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules (1964) review


Mark Forest (Maciste), Marilu Tolo (Olympia), Robert Hundar (Sevacius), Elizabeth Fanti (Sylvia), Peter White (Caesar Vittelius), Nello Pazzafini (gladiator)

Directed by Mario Caiano; Co-directed by Alfonso Brescia; Written by Mario Amendola

"You will be seeing your little Christian girl in the arena where she'll be thrown naked to feed the wild beasts."

Maciste is the premier gladiator in the arena of the Roman ruler, Caesar Vittelius. Sevacius, Captain of the Praetorian guard, is jealous over Maciste because Olympia is in love with the musclebound warrior. While out riding in the forest, Maciste saves a pretty young lady being chased by some of Vittelius' centurions. Learning that she is a Christian named Sylvia, Maciste begins to have affection for the lovely blonde as well as develop a curiosity surrounding her religion. Caesar Vittelius learns that Maciste has killed a Praetorian and injured another rescuing the young Christian girl and gives orders to have him arrested.

The tyrannical, yet carefree ruler condemns Maciste to fight to the death in the arena against a huge gorilla. Upon defeating the creature, Caesar then offers him anything he wishes. He opts for the hand of the Christian woman, Sylvia. Leaving to fetch her, Vittelius sends soldiers to follow Maciste to where the Christians are hiding out to capture the lot of them. Betrayed, the Spartan warrior pretends to wish the Christians dead. The voluptuous Olympia, still in love with Maciste, decides to help him in saving the Christians. A plot is hatched to free them, in addition to a band of captured Spartans, from the citadel of Caesar Vittelius and his Praetorian marauders.

This Italian-French co-production is one of the most unusual torch & toga films to fluctuate between the historical and the fantastical. It's not the most action packed film in the genre, but it sports an interesting script written by Mario Amendola who wrote the script for Brescia's spaghetti western, DAYS OF VIOLENCE (1967), and also co-wrote the grim western classic, THE GREAT SILENCE (1968). The direction by Caiano is well handled and I imagine the film plays much better in its original Italian version. The religious allegory is very strong in this entry moreso than any other peplum film I've seen.

Many of the sword & sandal pictures used bits and pieces of various mythologies to form the basis of the scripts of these movies. Here, the historical accounts of the persecution of the Christians by the Romans is the source of Caiano's film. The oppression of the Christians began in 64 AD during the reign of the cruel Emperor Nero. Christianity was feared by the Roman populace because it contradicted traditional Roman perspectives and threatened to upset the moral fiber of Roman society. The Romans misunderstood the religious connotations and believed that the Christians practiced cannibalism and took part in orgies and other distasteful acts of barbarism.

The condemnation of Christianity provides a major backdrop to this story based peplum saga. The Romans in the film treat these believers in one God as outlaws to be stamped out, or fed to hungry lions. Maciste doesn't follow their beliefs, but understands the Christians to seemingly be a loving religion, and wishes to save them from the autocracy of Caesar Vittelius. There's the customary love triangle prevalent in the genre often times with a villainess that has eyes for the hero whose attentions lie elsewhere. In the end, the female antagonist usually sacrifices her own life so that the hero and his true love may live. Here, the "other woman", played vivaciously by Marilu Tolo, is not a villain at all.

The mesmerizing Marilu Tolo

The actress playing Maciste's love interest, Elizabeth Fanti, is pretty to look at, but is no match for the charms of Tolo, who is one of the most stunningly erotic actresses to ever appear in any of the Italian mythological movies. Her brief sensual dance for Maciste is one of the highlights and her hypnotic eyes grab your attention straight away. Fanti appeared in relatively few movies and she hasn't the magnetism of of some of the other more noticeable actresses in these films such as Jose Greci, Gloria Milland, Helga Line and this films Marilu Tolo.

In addition to the female charms on display, there is another notable addition to the film; the character of Caesar Vittelius. Here, the dogmatic ruler is portrayed as a gregariously sadistic fellow who desires a seemingly constant intake of sustenance when he's not anxiously awaiting the next act of violence. Nearly every scene he is either seen eating meat of some sort, or is requesting it of his cooks. His casual repartee on the misery and death of unfortunates ranges from, "Oh, I'm tired of your serious matters. Whose head must we cut off now?" to this blase query, "...have we got enough Christians to throw to those poor lions who must be starving by now?"

Mark Forest returns for one of his last portrayals of the Italian hero, Maciste. Forest played the fabled protagonist in at least seven pictures and this is one his best. For a time, Maciste appears to be incredibly gullible as well as fervently loyal to Caesar Vittelius. Later on, Maciste plays his loyalty against the tyrant ruler and his Captain of the guard, Sevacius. Early in the film, Maciste has fought four men at once in the arena and afterwards, he plans to rendezvous with the alluring Olympia. Sevacius, madly lusting after the beauty, challenges Maciste to a duel. When asked, Maciste states that he's very tired from his prior fight, but if the ruler wishes, he will fight anyways. Of course, Vitellius wants to see another brutal display of testosterone charged pugnacity, and Maciste obliges. Both men duel while blindfolded.

Robert Hundar will be recognizable to fans of European genre pictures most notably from a string of spaghetti westerns and Italian crime movies. Earlier in his career, like many other actors working in Italy, worked on sword & sandal films in addition to this production. Another even more recognizable face is Nello Pazzafini, an actor who had a prolific career in just about every genre of the Italian movie industry. Here, as in a lot of his peplum pictures, Pazzafini doesn't get any dialog, but plays one of a group of Spartans Maciste rescues from Vittelius' dungeons. During the last quarter of the film, Caiano's movie veers into territory explored in GLADIATORS 7 (1962) as the freed Spartans have to escape the villains stronghold then rescue the Christians from Sevacius and his Praetorian guards.

As with many entries in this genre, there is the presence of a creature of some sort. This time it's a huge gorilla (or, more accurately, a man dressed in a gorilla costume) that Maciste must defeat after angering Vittelius for saving the Christian woman, Sylvia. the costume looks like it might be the same one used for a similar scene in MOLE MEN AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES also starring Mark Forest and co-starring Gianni Garko of SARTANA (1968) fame. This sequence takes a bit away from the serious nature of the film, but it adds some entertainment value for the more discriminating viewers that prefer action over the plot. The arena set also looks familiar and is no doubt a recycled addition which also turns up the same year in THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES also featuring the stunning Marilu Tolo.

THE TERROR OF ROME AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1964) is available in a gorgeous quality Italian DVD under its original title, MACISTE, GLADIATORE DI SPARTA. Distressingly, and like a lot of European DVD releases from this genre, this disc contains zero English options. Despite this, the print used here for this cable television airing is very nice and the best I've seen the film look in any format in the US. It's a recommended movie especially for Mark Forest fans, as well as for its interesting storyline.

However, if you watch these films for the action, you may be a bit disappointed by this movie. There's action, but the bulk of it comes during the final third and it's spread out over the course of the 100 minute running time. Less patient viewers may want to steer clear, but in my opinion, it's one of the best entries in this neglected film genre.

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