Thursday, September 15, 2011
The Sign of Rome (1959) review
THE SIGN OF ROME 1959 aka NEL SEGNO DI ROMA aka SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR
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.