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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Sign of Rome (1959) review


Georges Marchal (Marco Valerio), Anita Ekberg (Queen Zenobia), Mimmo Palmara (Lator), Jacques Sernas (Juliano), Chelo Alonso (Erica), Folco Lulli (Semantio), Lorella De Luca (Betsabea), Alberto Farnese (Marcello), Arturo Dominici

Directed by Guido Brignone

The Short Version: Nicely produced and lavishly decorated peplum picture is light on action, but heavy on intrigue. Anita Ekberg's mountainous mammaries and Chelo Alonso's erotic bump and grind dance moves will distract those demanding blood, swords and musclebound heroics. The ending provides a violent assault between two armies replete with some wincingly brutal horse falls including horses trampling other horses and soldiers set on fire. Lots of big names in front of and behind the camera make this of interest to Torch & Toga fans.

The arrogant Queen Zenobia of Palmira ascends the throne after the death of her husband, king Odenathus. With the help of the Assyrians, she breaks the treaty with Rome by attacking their troops at the border. A Roman council must decide what action to take when Marco Valerio--one of their military commanders--is captured at the border after a battle with the Syrian traitors. Brought before Zenobia, she decides to enslave Marco instead of killing him. Rescued by his friend Juliano and a sympathetic member of Zenobia's army, Valerio plans to return to Palmira in an attempt to stop a war between the two states.

In the process, the two fall in love with one another. Zenobia proclaims her true and noble intentions to Valerio and he in turn secretly tries to negotiate peace between her people and that of Rome but Zenobia's treacherous minister, Semantio, covertly plots against her by forming an alliance with King Shapur of Persia. With Rome on one side and Persia waiting in the wings, Valerio tries to halt the destruction of Palmira and the possible execution of Queen Zenobia.

The years between 1959 and 1961 yielded some of the best examples of the Sword & Sandal genre and 1959 alone had several big productions including THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS, THE GIANT OF MARATHON and HERCULES UNCHAINED. This rare, yet sumptuously mounted action drama belongs among them aside from one or two faults. It wouldn't be long before these convoluted, bigger budgeted tales of court intrigue and empire usurpers would be overthrown by a flood of Saturday matinee fashioned superhero pictures populated by larger than life characters such as Hercules, Maciste and Samson. Behind the scenes of SIGN OF ROME was some up and coming as well as established talent. Among the credits you'll spy Sergio Leone as one of the scriptwriters, Michele Lupo and Riccardo Freda as assistant directors. The score by noted composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino is exceptional and contains a few memorable cues.

SIGN OF ROME, unlike most films in this genre, is more about romance and subterfuge than lots of sword battles and derring do. It's basically a soap opera in third century Rome with its near constant onslaught of treachery and deception. There's also two subplots--one involving the vestal virgin, Betsabea and her secret lover, Juliano and the other to do with the sympathetic Syrian soldier, Lator (played by genre mainstay Palmara), who has converted to Christianity. Virtually everyone in the cast carries with them some form of a secret agenda, or has an ulterior motive whether noble or guileful. This increase in intrigue and lack of action may bore viewers more accustomed to seeing clashing blades and musclebound heroes tossing trees and boulders around the screen.

It does have beautiful women, pageantry and some torture including a great bit near the beginning when Marco Valerio is crucified while slaves are whipped around him. Character actor and villain extraordinaire (and unbilled) Arturo Dominici quenches his thirst with water and makes out like he's going to give Valerio a drink but just as the bowl nears his lips, the callous centurion casually pours the water at his feet. Strangely, Dominici disappears from the film after this point.

The action doesn't make its presence known till the final 15 minutes in the form of a large scale battle replete with catapults armed with various weaponry including fireballs and spears. This big showdown comes with some of the most brutal horse falls ever seen onscreen and an unusual amount of stuntmen set on fire which surely must have been a first. The end of the battle features one of the best scenes of the movie when Zenobia, her army defeated, is brought before the Roman commander Marcello and sees to her surprise Marco Valerio at his side. Feeling betrayed, she hurls a spear at him penetrating his chest leaving a wound that would have "killed any other man".

As with a large number of these movies, there's a strong aura of sexuality throughout and it's not all emanating from Ekberg's enormous chest. Chelo Alonso, the Cuban sensation, made her name in these movies putting her sensual dance moves to good use. SIGN OF ROME is no different and is one of her earliest peplum roles, if not her debut performance in the genre. In nearly all of her movies, she stops the proceedings owning the screen for a few minutes while she mesmerizes the male viewing audience with her varied dancing styles. Arguably her most erotic showcase was as the duplicitous usurper in MACISTE IN THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS (1960). Her sizable role in GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS (1959) allowed her to shake, rattle and roll on two different occasions.

This Italian-French-German co-production is of a high caliber and quite well made although it likely won't win over peplum fans expecting the typical thrills the genre is known for. However, it has a lot of scenes of Anita Ekberg in low cut outfits (actually, her huge bosom should have gotten a billing of their own) and an eye-opening appearance and dance number by Chelo Alonso. Those two reasons alone along with high production values will be enough for die hard fans of the genre curious enough to seek this one out.

This review is representative of the Medusa Entertainment Italian PAL R2 DVD. There are no English options.


Dennis said...

I have a strong desire to view this film (not least to see Chelo Alonso and Anita Ekberg), but will probably not do so unless I can find a copy of the english dub (as SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR). I strongly suspect that MGM/UA may still retain the copyright on the American version of the film. I also suspect they retain copyright to the American release of HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES -- which has aired on TCM, and is another of my most sought-after pepla -- this was the first peplum I ever saw, in a local theater (back when those still existed) at a Saturday matinee in 1965. Perhaps there may be hope for a release in MGM's MOD DVD colletion.

venoms5 said...

You can watch the English dubbed version of SIGN OF ROME on youtube at least. I have a DVD-R of HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES somewhere that I recorded off of TCM the same day they showed TERROR OF ROME AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES. I remember the film used to play frequently on TNT's all night New Year's Day sword and sandal marathon. They showed a dynamite looking print of HERCULES VS. THE SEA MONSTER. Not sure if that print has surfaced on disc somewhere, but the one I've seen look like crap.

Dennis said...

I actually had to look up HERCULES AND THE SEA MONSTER as I was only ever familiar with it as HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY. Probably my least favorite of Gordon Scott's pepla (he is tied with Gordon Mitchell as my second favorite fusto hero, after Steve Reeves and just ahead of Mark Forest), but the cheapness and exhaustion of the plot cliches of the genre are far too evident by this time. As a TV pilot, it's easy to see it was too little, too late. (Easier and cheaper to just syndicate the SONS OF HERCULES package.) IMHO, after HERCULES, SAMSON & ULYSSES the Hercules films are all pretty ho-hum. By this time the focus seems to have shifted to the gladiator movies. Hard to find anything more than just "it's watchable, I guess" from the 1964-1965 period.

venoms5 said...

I haven't watched SEA MONSTER is so long. I do remember enjoying it back then. My least favorite Scott movie is HERCULES AGAINST MOLOCH aka CONQUEST OF MYCENE (1963). Scott is my favorite of the muscleman stars. He was easily the best actor, had a massive amount of charisma, did most if not all of his own stunts and was just an amazing presence all around.

Definitely check out Michele Lupo's gladiator trilogy, Dennis. Highly enjoyable. I reviewed all three here as well--REVENGE OF SPARTACUS, SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD and SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS. I also have a fondness for Nick Nostro's last two 'Ten Gladiators' entries. The third one was one of my favorites from childhood alongside HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS. A wide version of HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS has been on cable a lot lately, btw.

Dennis said...

Just curious -- what do you think of Gordon Scott's Tarzan films? I'm a huge fan of Burroughs' Tarzan novels and the (Russ Manning and later) comics based on them, although definitely NOT of the Weismuller Tarzan movies. I've heard Scott's Tarzan was a step or two closer to Burroughs' articulate and intelligent apeman, and have been considering buying the MOD DVDs from Warner.

Dennis said...

Hmm, now that I think about it and have read a few reviews it seems the consensus opinion is to skip the two black and white Scott Tarzan films and just get the color ones. Especially the last two. Which, if they follow the pattern of the earlier Tarzan films on DVD, should be released on a 4-film/2-dvd set as part of the "TCM's Greatest Films" series in about a year or two, so I'll probably wait to get all 4 color Scott films for less than $20.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Dennis. I've only seen one of Scott's Tarzan movies and it's been years. I've been putting off buying them all from Warner Archive but will likely do so very soon. I like the fact that they've utilized the original poster artwork for the covers which is an incentive for me to buy. They had them all for $50 for the longest time and I put off getting them for that price. I plan on doing a Scott retrospective in the near future as part of the Tough Guys column.

Dennis said...

The 6 Gordon Scott Tarzan films are now available as an attractive-looking BOXED set of DVD-Rs from WB Archives, cost ranges from $50-$60 depending on where you buy.

By most accounts TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE is a routine Tarzan film with extremely sparse production values. I've seen TARZAN AND THE TRAPPERS and its a real dud. Then again you can't expect much from a cobbled-together collection of 3 episodes of a unsold low-budget TV series. But I'm sure the WB Archives print is better, if that counts for anything. Things seem to get better with TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI, filmed on studio sets in England, but using location footage shot in Africa especially for the film. First color Tarzan, haven't been able to verify the aspect ratio. Also the first to allow Tarzan to speak as an articulate and intelligent character as in the novels. The reported highlight of the Scott films is TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (which many seem to consider an accurate title), featuring a pre-Bond Sean Connery as the villain.

I'm holding out a bit to see whether the 4 color Scott films will be released on a real DVD (as opposed to DVD-R) in the "TCM's Greatest Movies" series. Although they're flipper discs, and the packaging isn't as nice (but still better than those original WB Archives inserts), they released 2 sets of 4 films each that give you the same films as in the MGM Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan Collection (which were 6 films per set) and they're a lot cheaper that way. Guess it depends on how important the packaging is to you, how you feel about flipper discs, and how you feel about DVD-R vs. real DVD.

I'll check back to see if you've reviewed these sometime after the end of the year.

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