Monday, April 19, 2010

The Warrior & the Slave Girl (1958) review

All peplum fans know full well those tigers are going to figure into the plot at some point most likely the instrument of some unlucky persons gruesome demise.


Ettore Manni (Marcus Numidius), Gianna Maria Canale (Amira), Georges Marchal (Asclepius), Mara Cruz (Zahar)

Directed by Vittorio Cottafavi

When accepting a new post in Britain or Germany doesn't appeal to Roman Tribune, Marcus Numidius, he decides to take a job in Armenia, ruled by his good friend, Precipius of Scythia. Once entering the territory, Marcus discovers a revolt by the Armenian people, who are slaves to the Scythians and used as gladiators. Once in Armenia, Marcus becomes infatuated with Queen Amira and also attracts the attentions of a feisty slave girl named Zahar who is proficient in poisons. When a group of slaves led by Asclepius are rescued during a gladiatorial death match, Precipius is killed in the fray. Marcus gives chase and is captured in an ambush.

The young boy king, Osroe is slowly poisoned to death

Meanwhile, a plot is put into motion to murder Osroe, the young boy and heir to the kingdom of Armenia. With Precipius dead, Osroe is to ascend the throne. The slave girl, Zahar, is the only one who can save him. Later, Zahar persuades Marcus and Asclepius to join forces to fight against the Scythians and their oppression of the Armenian people. Upon his return to Armenia Marcus realizes Amira's treachery and is enslaved. After escaping with the aid of his friend, Marcus attempts to alert his troops at the Armenian border to free the Armenians of the decadent Scythian rule.

One of the genres most celebrated directors, Cottafavi directs this vastly entertaining movie that benefits from a meticulous script which, thankfully, shines through even in the dubbed version. What's even more surprising is that the screenplay wasn't wrecked by the half dozen writers that worked on it. One of them included future director, Gianfranco Parolini (SAMSON, THE 10 GLADIATORS, the SABATA series, YETI). Parolini also would take over the production of GOLIATH AGAINST THE GIANTS (1961) when Guido Malatesta lost control of the production.

Cottafavi hits all the right notes here in this intrigue and subterfuge filled epic adventure. Over the course of some 200+ movies during a seven year period, sword and sandal movies have maintained more or less the same ingredients with notable variation from time to time. You have court intrigue, a revolt, a determined warrior (in this case, two), an evil Queen and a big battle sequence at the end. About the only thing WARRIOR & THE SLAVE GIRL doesn't have is a dance sequence with a gaggle of scantily clad women.

One aspect of this movie that is missing from so many other films in the genre is a strong female character that is just as integral to the proceedings as the lead male characters.

Amira (Gianna Maria Canale; right) attempts to burn Zahar (Mara Cruz) alive at the stake

Spanish actress, Mara Cruz follows in the footsteps of Cuban hot tamale, Chelo Alonso as one of the very few feisty females of peplum pictures. Her role is very important to the overall outcome of the movie and not just a wimpering woman to be rescued by the hero by films end. This is a very rare story conceit and it adds a great deal to an already wonderful movie.

One extra attraction that is found in numerous torch and toga movies is the midget comedic element. Salvatore Furnari has a sizable role as one of the guardians to Osroe. His scenes never segue into pratfall comedy as other midget actors would partake in other movies. Furnari also played a friend to Hercules in another Cottafavi movie, the highly enjoyable HERCULES & THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961). In addition to Furnari, Arnaldo Fabrizio was another little person that got a lot of work towards the end of the peplum/fusto cycle.

The cast is good with special attention towards French actor, Georges Marchal as Asclepius. He gives this character humanity and plays the resolute slave with a lot of vigor. It's not simply a by-the-numbers performance of similar movies. Marchal really gets into his role.

Ettore Manni was a regular of the genre. He was never a muscleman actor like so many others, but made up for his lack of buff physicality with acting muscle. His role as Marcus is distinguished by his slight humor and adamant refusal to be swayed from his idealistic views. Marcus provides an interesting dichotomy to Marchal's Asclepius. Manni had one of the longest careers in peplums appearing in movies from virtually the beginning to the end successfully making the transition to other genres. He died mysteriously (some sources say it was suicide) while filming CITY OF WOMEN in 1979.

Gianna Maria Canale was another in a long line of striking beauties who made her mark in Italian costume epics. She frequently played roles of Queen's or rulers of one sort or the other. Her role as Antea, the Amazon Queen in HERCULES starring Steve Reeves led to many more parts in a similar vein. She was especially alluring as Astra in the Gordon Scott favorite, MACISTE AGAINST THE VAMPIRE (1961). She encored with Reeves again in the obscure THE SON OF SPARTACUS (1962) and with Scott again in the pirate picture, THE LION OF ST. MARK (1963).

THE WARRIOR & THE SLAVE GIRL (1958) is one of the best peplum films the genre has to offer. Those looking for musclebound heroes demonstrating superhuman feats of strength may wish to look elsewhere. There's a lot of machismo on display, but equal parts characterization and some strong female portrayals replace the more familiar strongman theatrics. For those looking for a deeper storyline married to a good script and containing the right amount of action, Cottafavi's movie is one such experience.

A big thank you to my good friend, Sean M. for sending me a copy of this film from British cable television.
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