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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sword of the Conqueror (1962) review


Jack Palance (Alboin, King of the Lombards), Eleonora Rossi Drago (Rosamund), Guy Madison (Amalchi), Carlo D'Angelo (Falisco), Ivan Palance (Ulderic, Prince of the Lombards), Edy Vessel (Matilda), Andrea Bosic (King Cunimund), Raf Baldassarre (Sylvester)

Directed by Carlo Campogalliani

The Short Version: Director Campogalliani oversees an exciting mix of the historical and every Sword and Sandal staple within reach. The filmmakers could just as easily have made a tension-fueled dramatization of the famous tragedy but, in accordance with then current trends, squeeze an abundance of torture scenes, bloody violence, and an intrusive hero in the form of American western star Guy Madison to satisfy the fans of similar material starring Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and others. Despite the presence of a heroic character, Jack Palance dominates the screen with unkempt, but calculated villainy while the elegance of Eleonora Rossi Drago wages war with Palance's brutish tendencies, often defeating them. An exceptional entry in a genre that would peak by 1962 and fall like Pompeii by 1965.

Emperor Justinian of Byzantium, fearing two barbarian factions--the Lombards, led by King Alboin, and the Gepids, led by King Cunimund--starts a war between the two allies. During their first battle, a treacherous scheme leaves the Gepids beaten and blame is placed on the king's most loyal cavalry commander, Amalchi who is stripped of his title and thrown in jail. In a surprising, if politically motivated maneuver, Alboino doesn't wish to conquer the Gepids, but wants their friendship so long as he has the hand of Cunimund's daughter, Rosamund, in marriage--part of his greater scheme to conquer Rome. However, Rosamund and Amalchi have maintained a secret relationship, even having an illegitimate child together since her father refuses to accept a union between them. She agrees to this marriage if it will bring peace between their two peoples, but it leaves Amalchi enraged. Meanwhile, both sides are unaware that King Cunimund's minister, Falisco, along with Emperor Justinian's advisers, are secretly plotting their doom....

Jack Palance headlined three Sword and Sandal movies in the early 1960s; those being REVAK, THE REBEL (1960), the classic THE MONGOLS (1961), and SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR. Much like Gordon Mitchell, Palance's craggy visage was better served as the bad guy. His ability to comfortably wear menace like a glove is the defining factor that makes the last two titles so memorable. SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR is among the most polished of the formulaic peplums; as well as one of the most entertaining to not feature a musclebound hero hurling men and monsters from one end of the screen at regular intervals.

Originally to be directed by Primo Zeglio (THE RELENTLESS FOUR [1965]), the writer/director referred Campogalliani to helm instead. Zeglio had previously co-directed the Steve Reeves adventure MORGAN, THE PIRATE (1960) and SEVEN SEAS TO CALAIS (1962) with Rod Taylor. Interestingly, MORGAN's co-director, Andre De Toth, would direct Palance in 1961s THE MONGOLS. He would often write and direct his films, but Zeglio co-wrote this one with his wife Paola Barbara. Three other writers contributed to the screenplay (including seasoned director Campogalliani) in what became a problematic production.

Reportedly the main source of the problems was between the director and star Jack Palance--neither of which liked the other. Running a week over its scheduled five week shoot, AD Romolo Guerrieri (JOHNNY YUMA [1966], YOUNG, VIOLENT, DANGEROUS [1976]) directed some of Palance's scenes to move things along. Palance's reputation for being difficult to work with wasn't confined to Hollywood as sources state he didn't get on too well with his co-star, Anita Ekberg, in THE MONGOLS, either. 

The finished product is quite good and overly violent in a comic book sort of way. It's very much in Campogalliani's style as displayed by the excessive brutality in his hit film starring Steve Reeves, IL TERRORE DEI BARBARI (GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS [1959]). Like that picture, Campogalliani and his team include virtually all the genres familiar elements in this one--such as the all-important whipping scene, an Iron Maiden, assorted challenges for the hero, beautiful women in distress, a dance sequence and lots of macho posturing.

It's also an historical drama detailing, in fairly faithful fashion, the relationship between Rosamund and Alboin (the film's Italian title). Sources vary, but the story that would become a famous Italian tragedy sees the Lombard King, Alboin, defeating the Gepids, decapitating Cunimund in battle, and marrying his daughter. Using this marriage as an opportunity to avenge her father, Rosamund, after several years of mental torture, had Alboin assassinated. In real life, and unlike the film versions ending, Rosamund did not have a happy ending.

Elsewhere in contrast, the writers interrupt the title tumultuous union to include a hero in the form of another American actor, Guy Madison. By adding this character, SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR (1962) sometimes feels like two different movies. Madison encapsulates the typical Torch and Toga machinations while Palance and Eleonora engage in a duel of emotions exacerbated by various plots and back-stabbings that play around with the history and speculations of the story.

The inclusion of Madison's Amalchi feels intrusive at times; and Madison is unsuccessful in conquering Jack Palance's indomitable persona. He does provide the thrust of the action quotient, though. Madison, however inconsequential to the narrative as he comes off, is essential to crucial events playing the fall guy on multiple occasions. 

Initially, Alboin decides to align with the Gepids after defeating them... so long as the King hands over his daughter in marriage. He agrees, which sends Amalchi into a tailspin. Already angry that he is falsely blamed for a treacherous loss on the battlefield, the real enemy, Falisco, plots yet again to ruin what is already an uneasy truce between former allies. Alboin sends his brother Ulderic (played by Palance's real life brother, Ivan; see insert) to issue terms and, in what is to be a friendly exchange of skills, ends in disaster after Falisco's subordinate, Sylvester, sabotages Amalchi's lance for the joust. This not only frames Amalchi yet again, but sets up the Gepid's for the slaughter, and setting a revenge in motion that could've been averted if not for duplicitous, prejudiced advisers.

Both Madison and Palance are in competition for stand-out sequences. Madison's involves a scene where he attempts to convince a neighboring tribe to attack Alboin's forces. Before they agree, Amalchi must pass a test. This particular trial involves crossing a precipice where a rope is tied from one end to the other. There are three perils--the rope is frayed and has spikes inserted into it. If the rope breaks, Amalchi will not only fall, but he'll be impaled on dozens of arrows jutting up from the ground.

Madison may get the bulk of the physical action, but Palance chews the scenery the rest of the time. Arguably his best moment is the scene where, just prior to marrying Rosamund, he asks she prove her love for him by drinking from a very special goblet... and not just any goblet; this one is made from the skull of her slain father! Alboin smiles as she drinks from the ornate cranium, this convincing him that she loves him and that he has finally conquered yet another "war"; only he's been fooled not by strategery of men, but the wiles of a woman. It's a really powerful scene and one that's taken from the actual story. 

As cruel as Alboin is to Rosamund, it's clear that the man does indeed wish to love the woman, even if he seems incapable of doing so. Alboin is so used to taking what he wants, he conquers Rosamund the only way he knows how--through suppression and submission. He tries to break her down, but this only works against him as the film plays out. 

Speaking of Rosamund, Eleonora Rossi Drago gets a great scene of her own. In it, Alboin, having occupied the Gepid fortress, threatens to feed Rosamund's people to a dozen or more hungry lions. She asks a favor that he spare three women to be her personal assistants. Alboin grants her wish and she walks among the captives, one of which is the sister of her lover, Matilda (played by Edy Vessel;see insert in middle). There's a twist to this sequence, and it's one of the moments where the scriptwriters add layers to Palance's character depicting him as a bit more than a simple, war-loving barbarian.

There's another interesting character that is familiar to these movies--the scheming adviser to the ruling body who plots to usurp the throne. In the case of this movie, it's the character of Falisco (played by Carlo D'Angelo;see insert at right). Meeting secretly with ministers of Emperor Justinian, these deceitful, effeminate men are, in contrast to Alboin and Amalchi, weak in body but strong in mind. Their detestment for testosterone is evident in an early dialog exchange wherein Falisco lets his feelings known about barbarians... "You don't know how I despise them. I can forgive a people anything, even cowardice; but I can't bear their ignorance and an appalling lack of culture!"

Unfortunately for Falisco and his clutch of deceivers, Alboin is far smarter than they give him credit. 

Director Campogalliani was an old hand at this sort of thing, having both acted in, and directed several of the Maciste movies starring Bartolomeo Pagano from the early part of the 20th century. During the 60s boom, Campogalliani was the guiding force behind only one Maciste movie--the unusually violent MACISTE IN THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS (1960). Some striking, yet brief nudity and a highly sexual dance/seduction sequence from hot tamale, Chelo Alonso, added to that film's appeal. Violence was likewise an eyebrow raiser in the filmmaker's sole outing with Steve Reeves, the aforementioned GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS (1959); again with the fiery Alonso. Campogalliani's career ended in 1964 with THE AVENGER OF VENICE, followed by his death in Italy ten years later on August 10th, 1974.

In its native Italy, SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR was released on August 24th, 1961. In America it marched onto movie screens in September of the following year. Palance, on a bit of an Italian roll, had another movie coming out in Italy with THE MONGOLS debuting a week later in 1961. 

Fans of Sword and Sandal get the best of both worlds in this one--drama and action--spearheaded by an intermittently raving performance by Jack Palance. Director Campogalliani was in his late 70s when he made this so the level of polish is even more impressive. A sturdy actioner with plentiful sword battles, double crosses and brutality, fans of peplums and Palance will most likely enjoy watching him conquer the 98 minute running time. 

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