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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Rebel Gladiator (1962) review


Dan Vadis (Ursus), Alan Steel/Sergio Ciani (Marcus Commodus), Gloria Milland (Marcia), Jose Greci (Armenia), Tullio Altamura (Antoninus), Carlo Delmi (Septimius Leto), Gianni Santuccio (Emilius Leto), Nello Pazzafini, Sal Borgese

Directed by Domenico Paolella; Music by Carlo Savina

Villager: "But he wanted to take our women!"

Ursus: "In a way I can't blame him...he shows rather good taste!"

Sergio Ciani after a bloody duel

Stoic Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius has died leaving his sole heir, Marcus Commodus as the new ruler. With Aurelius' dying wish that his son maintain peace, Commodus decides instead to use force and brutality to suppress the frightened people in his kingdom. With Christianity spreading throughout Rome, the maniacal Commodus attempts to wipe out any one associated with the religion. When his village is attacked by Commodus, Ursus, a newfound follower of the Christian faith, easily overpowers the mad Emperor and his soldiers. Greatly insulting Commodus, Ursus' lover, Arminia is kidnapped forcing him to become a gladiator in order for her to be set free. However, it is learned that Commodus was not responsible for her abduction and that a plot within the Senate to assassinate the brutal Emperor is discovered. Despite abhorring violence and transgression, Ursus is pressured to use his strength in an effort to topple the ferocious regime of Marcus Commodus and restore the peace promised by the deceased Marcus Aurelius.

Dan Vadis (left) captured by Emperor Commodus (Sergio Ciani)

Before the Brad Pitt spectacle that was TROY (2004), there was the Italian epic that was THE FURY OF ACHILLES (1962). And before Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR (2003), there was Domenico Paolella's equally interesting and action packed THE REBEL GLADIATOR (1962). Like the classy production of ROMULUS & REMUS (1961), this picture has two slabs of beefcake for the price of one. With both the robotic Alan Steel and the energetically brutish Dan Vadis, there's plenty of grunts, groans, muscle flexing and gorgeous girls filling out the 90 minute running time of this fact and fiction gladiator movie. Also, fans of political spaghetti western director Sergio Sollima will find it interesting that he is one of the three script writers for this movie.

Sword & Sandal veteran, Paolella delivers this curious and exciting entry in the strongman cycle of Italian gladiator productions. One of numerous 'Political Peplums', it mixes fact and fantasy fiction to create an interesting stew of ideas. Paolella was an ace at delivering a lot of action interspersed with a sometimes convoluted storyline without a danger of much lagging in the flow of the movie and THE REBEL GLADIATOR is no exception. The film deals with the rise of the demented Emperor Commodus and the impending presence of Christianity that was not popular in Rome at the time. The theme of religion is also a strong plot point in the more talky, but no less entertaining Political Peplum THE TERROR OF ROME AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1964). No doubt the theme of piety in the Italian Torch & Toga pictures was influenced by the sprawling American 'peplum' production of QUO VADIS from 1951. It was shot at Cinecitta, the famed studio that was home to many of the Italian muscle epics.

The inclusion of Christianity is balanced against that of the brutal conflagration of villages perpetrated by the sadistic Emperor Commodus. While the script is above average when compared to many similar movies, some of the facts have been altered and others have been left alone. The depravity of Aurelius's son is retained, but the true severity of his violence is tempered for the film version. His propensity for partaking in gladiatorial combat is also seen here, but for the movie, Commodus keeps things on equal ground in terms of weapons used if not simply bare hands. The real Commodus was said to have used swords while his opponents were merely given wooden implements with which to defend themselves.

Gloria Milland (left)

Also, Commodus' woman, Marcia, was one of the key conspirators in his assassination while in the film, she tries to dissuade her lover to kill wantonly and doesn't want to see him end up dead even though she knows that for him, there's no other way for him to end. However, there is one rather well shot sequence wherein Armenia sneaks into the Emperor's chamber and attempts to stab him in his sleep. Marcia enters through a curtain from the other side and remains silent yet falls to her knees in tears hoping that Armenia will not kill him. Seeing her crying and hiding her face so as not to see the act, Armenia takes pity and puts away the dagger. The Emperor's actual assassination is changed for the movie, too, presumably for dramatic purposes.

While this movie is an above average picture, it misses greatness with the casting of Sergio Ciani (Alan Steel) as the lead antagonist, Commodus. While Ciani brings the necessary menace to the role, his acting ranges from stilted to sedated. Even when he smiles it looks fake. He's good in the fight sequences, but is unable to convey any true sense of villainy outside of beating men to death or giving orders to have helpless captives speared, or crushed under boulders. Steel featured in a lot of these movies and he's better suited to playing the good guy as he hasn't the range nor the proclivity to pull off a convincing villain.

Then there's Dan Vadis who plays Ursus. Vadis had the capacity to convey good or evil. He was generally good at both. He was one of the more agile of the strongman movie stars and would seem to have participated in most, if not all his own stunt work. He was one of the more successful actors in the genre later making the transition to Italian westerns then onto a string of character roles in many of Clint Eastwood's Malpaso Company movies such as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) and its sequel, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980) among them.

In THE REBEL GLADIATOR, Vadis plays the fantasy character, Ursus, the principle protagonist of a series of at least nine motion pictures. Vadis' entrance in the film is a grand one. As his village is being destroyed, he appears and promptly lays down a thrashing on the oppressive Roman soldiers led by Commodus. This is where the two characters first meet and begins Commodus' obsession with the death of Ursus.

Jose Greci

Also amongst the cast are two of the most beautiful and prolific of the peplum/fusto female stars. Jose Greci, as always, plays the hero's love interest. A striking beauty with alluring eyes, Greci appeared in around a dozen of these movies including notable entries such as GOLIATH & THE SINS OF BABYLON (1963), HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1964) and its followup, HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (1964). Greci sometimes was billed as Susan Paget.

Gloria Milland is the other attractive woman sharing the screen with Greci. Milland was sensual presence on screen and also appeared with Greci in HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS. Milland sported blonde locks for the immensely entertaining GOLIATH AGAINST THE GIANTS (1961).

Even though the picture utilizes a fantasy character amidst its historical trappings, Paolella's movie would be tedious without the inclusion of the mythical muscleman. Ciani is simply not capable enough to carry a film about such a maniacal and interesting man of a bygone era. But then, THE REBEL GLADIATOR (1962) is just as much concerned with combat sequences as it is court intrigue. The movie offers an abundance of fight scenes including two between both Commodus and Ursus with the second duel being an exciting piece of choreography. While it takes about 15 minutes for the film to truly gain its stride, fans of sword and sandal should enjoy this entry in the gladiator sweepstakes starring two of the more recognizable stars of the genre.


Samuel Wilson said...

This sounds like I need to see it. I have a project brewing in which I'd deal with different movie representations of Commodus, but I had known only about the peplum Two Gladiators (where he has a secret, good twin brother), Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire (where his main offense is intolerance of Germans) and Gladiator. Thanks for the tip.

venoms5 said...

Hey, Sam! This is the set (public domain titles all) from which this review is based...

I'm currently working on a 'Best Of' peplum/fusto list and this title misses being included if only the makers had gotten a better lead villain. I have nothing against Ciani, he's just not convincing as a bad guy at all. Still, it's a lot of fun to see two muscleman stars such as Ciani and Vadis square off against each other.

I'd be interested in reading your project once you've completed it.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Well I do like swords.. And sandals.. Cant say I have seen a single other sword and sandal flick outside of GLADIATOR and 300 to be honest though, unless CLASH OF THE TITANS counts. I find it hard to sit down and watch epic pics, and I know I wouldnt be able to convince the wife to watch any. Might have to leave these ones to you, V!

venoms5 said...

Yeah, CLASH OF THE TITANS counts, Carl. I've been a fan of them since I was a kid. Ever since seeing SUPERMAN for the first time back then, I've had a fascination with superhero fantasy films. Well, at least the ones then, not so much now.

The peplum/fusto genre is sadly neglected here for the most part only really appreciated by those who caught them in the theaters or on television as I did. I don't see what's not to enjoy. You got your beefy hero with super human strength, your gorgeous damsel in distress, an evil (and likewise gorgeous) evil seductress/sorceress, or the perennial despotic ruler an occasional monster or two and lots of fights and action.

There's not much on the net about them, either, at least not a lot that I have found, so I figured I'd make them a mainstay of the site. There's around 20 reviews and a five part article here, Carl if you ever become curious about them. If you like spaghetti westerns, then you may enjoy these, too since they are basically the same just different time periods.

I'm currently prepping a 'Best Of' for the peplum/muscleman movies. I haven't had a lot of time for these things lately, nor much movie watching. I just barely had time to sneak this review in the other night.

Jack J said...

People interested in peplum should definitely check Lars Jacobsson's blog "Maciste and Friends" out:

venoms5 said...

Yes, Lars has a very nice selection of sword & sandal adventure and fantasy films in his collection!

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