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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spartacus & the Ten Gladiators (1964) review


Dan Vadis (Roccia), Ivano Staccioli (as John Heston;Spartacus), Helga Line (Dania), Ursula Davis (Livia), Sal Borgese (Menos), Milton Reid (Chimbro), Gianni Rizzo (Julius Varo), Aldo Canti, Jeff Cameron

Varo to his former slave, Chimbro: "If you fail me once again, you'll return to being a slave. Even worse...I'll have your tongue cut out. I'll tear out your eyes and I'll send you into the mines where you will be whipped! And I'll have your wounds, all of them, rubbed with salt! Excuse me, my friends, but this big brutal man has to be encouraged at times and reminded of his duties."

After overhearing a son feel shame and sorrow for having to battle his father in the bloody gladiatorial coliseum, the ten gladiators speak out on the boys behalf. Having ruined his day of gruesome games, Publius Teraxus banishes the ten warriors from the city of Capua and guarantees they will never fight in another arena again. They become vagabonds and aid the helpless or needy wherever they find oppression. A member of the Senate, Julius Varo, employs them to seek out a rebel slave named Spartacus and bring him back alive.

However, when the ten warriors find Spartacus, they quickly discover that Varo is corrupt and an evil man using slaves to build a massive acquaduct to ingratiate himself within the Senate. Wishing to no longer be a gladiator, Spartacus plans to return to his home in Thrace and take his people with him. Betrayed and enslaved by the devious Varo, Roccia and his compatriots escape and join up with the rebel slave and lead a revolt against the cruel senator and his insidious plans take control of Rome.

The second entry in the popular TEN GLADIATORS trilogy is a non-stop barrage of action mixed with a smattering of light comedy. There's quite a few major set pieces scattered throughout the films 98 minute running time. The opening gladiatorial combat scene starts things off on a rather serious and somewhat violent note. Here and a couple other places throughout, the script tries to touch on the gladiators' sympathy. When Roccia and the others overhear a young man expressing great sorrow to his father because the two have been selected to take part in a fight to the death, they have a sudden change of heart in regards to fighting in the death games.

Suddenly realizing that a gladiators life is meaningless to those who employ them, Roccia and the others want to leave Capua. But because they voiced their opinions, the man who hired them, Palubius, states he will make sure no other arena will take them on as fighters.

It's a nice, yet subtle touch that the script (co-written between Alfonso Balcazar, Nick Nostro and Sergio Sollima) would tap into the subject of the warriors humanity and emotional involvement in leading a life of violence. The script doesn't dwell on it, but it pops up on several occasions. Another interesting point of view is taken once the Ten Gladiators rescue Livia, the daughter of a prominent senator. She takes them to see her father, the senator named Julius Varo. Once reaching their palatial estate, the ten men see what it's like to live like a king. There is a brief, but effective set of scenes wherein the contrast between those who must do for themselves, and those who have others do for them is compared.

Gianni Rizzo plays the duplicitous Julius Varo. It's a role that fits him like a glove and he was made for playing such roles. He later appeared in a few spaghetti westerns playing similar roles of questionable character including the SABATA trilogy and several others. Rizzo returned in a similar capacity in Nostro's TRIUMPH OF THE TEN GLADIATORS the same year.

The script also allows for a string of action sequences with several of them being especially impressive for an entry coming at the end of the strongman cycle of movies. A lot of these scenes revolve around a series of captures and rescues leading up to the massive battle at the end. Some of the massive battle shots are stock footage from another movie. However, the sets are very ambitious especially the massive fort surrounding the construction of the acquaduct. One of the best scenes has Roccia and some slaves being hung from a large tree by one arm for a long period of time. After a while, soldiers shoot them with arrows.

The other nine gladiators arrive in time just moments before Roccia himself is killed. After the big battle, Varo is run over by a chariot by his own henchman, Chimbro, who escapes kidnapping Dania (Line) in the process. Roccia and his friends pursue on horses until Chimbro is stopped and he and Roccia engage in a final fight beside a river.

Dan Vadis plays Roccia, the same character he plays in the other two films. He is very athletic for his size and isn't shy in the action scenes. Like Gordon Scott, Dan Vadis was one of the more action oriented of the muscleman stars handling a lot of the fight sequences himself. Vadis was part of the Mae West Revue and a good friend of fellow peplum star, Gordon Mitchell. Vadis starred in SON OF HERCULES IN THE LAND OF DARKNESS (1963), THE REBEL GLADIATORS (1963), and THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES (1964) among others. Vadis was one of the lucky few who made the transition into other genres and had one of the most successful careers outside of the sword & sandal genre.

Dan Vadis with Ivano Staccioli

He played convincing bad guys in the spaghetti westerns, FORT YUMA GOLD (1966) and THE STRANGER RETURNS (1967). This may have helped him in landing recurring roles in movies directed by Clint Eastwood. Vadis would appear in a series of films from the early 1970's into the early 1980's. He would briefly return to peplums with a lead bad guy role in Bruno Mattei's THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS (1983). Incidentally, Bruno Mattei worked on SPARTACUS & THE TEN GLADIATORS (1964) as the editor of the film. Dan Vadis was found dead in his car in 1987 of an apparent accidental drug overdose. There had been some speculation surrounding his death that it might not have been accidental.

Helga Line is on hand to provide some eye candy but unfortunately, she doesn't get to wear any outfits to show off her body. She is dressed in a gown through most of the film, though. She plays a very strong female character here as she does in the follow up, TRIUMPH OF THE TEN GLADIATORS. Only in this second entry, she doesn't play a fighting female, but does take a lot of punishment and torture displaying loyalty to her people. When the opportunity for her to escape presents itself, she decides to share her peoples fate and work in the slave camps of Julius Varo.

Character actor Milton Reid stands out as the memorable henchman, Chimbro. There is also some subtle tinkering with his role in an attempt to make his character sympathetic to the audience when Varo humiliates him in front of the ten gladiators. Threatening to make him a slave again lest he brings back Spartacus, you get the feeling he may betray Varo and join with Roccia and company. This never happens, though, but would have made for an interesting plot device if it had. The sword & sandal movies stuck mostly to formula and seldom strayed. Reid played a number of bit roles in his career, but he has a big supporting role here.

Possibly Reid's most memorable role was in THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977) as the nasty Sabbala, the leader of the Naga's. Reid looked like something out of a Robert E. Howard novel in that picture. He also appeared in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) as a mute bodyguard and as a nemesis for 007 in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977).

Having seen the third film in this series on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1980's, it has long been a favorite of the genre for me. The first movie, THE TEN GLADIATORS (1964), is the weakest of the lot. This second movie is as good, if not better than the third. There's a perfect balance between the comedy and the violence which is a problem that plagued the first film. It was endless goofy antics up till the conclusion then it suddenly turns deadly serious. The third picture is mostly light hearted with a bit of violence sprinkled here and there, but never gets too bloody or grim aside from a torture scene. SPARTACUS & THE TEN GLADIATORS is possibly the most successful in terms of its makers prowess to deliver a great and entertaining product.

The music by Carlo Savina is heroic and contains the prerequisite cues required for stoic sequences as well as those that feature the heroes in peril. It's nothing overly spectacular, but I would pick it up on CD should it ever be issued. Nick Nostro handles everything to a fine degree and never allows the comedy to overpower the production as in Giancarlo Parolini's take in the first entry. A recommended torch & toga romp peppered with all the ingredients that makes these movies fun to watch especially on a late Saturday night.

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