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Monday, May 16, 2016

The Devil of the Desert Against the Son of Hercules (1964) review


Kirk Morris (Anthar), Michele Girardon (Soraya), Mario Feliciani (Ganor), Renato Baldini (Kamal), Manuel Gallardo (Daikor), Jose Jaspe (Akrim), Roberto Dell'Acqua (Mute)

Directed by Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson)

The Short Version: During his cinema career Kirk Morris did mostly forgettable Sword and Sandal movies; this is a memorable one--a capable, if routine desert-set, sword-swinging, muscle-flexer from the director who brought you WILD, WILD PLANET (1967), AND GOD SAID TO CAIN (1970) and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980). In it Kirk Morris tries to restore a kingdom to its rightful heirs after an advisor to the king pulls off a coup and does what every duplicitous, would-be dictator does in all your finer usurper movies. A fantastic score and sumptuous sets and costumes keep things fresh and lively even though this recipe has been cooked a hundred times before. The gimmicky magic mirror room is the film's biggest misstep. The usual genre staples are present including the all-important biceps and bodacious bodies of dancing harem girls; yet the requisite torture scenes and examples of Anthar's invincibility are conspicuous in their absence.

During a ceremony Ganor coordinates the murder of the sultan of Baghdad, killing or enslaving the citizens of his kingdom in a plot to usurp the throne. Nearly killing his son Daikor, Ganor has him thrown in a dungeon and dominates the daughter Soraya to make her his wife. Refusing his advances, Soraya jumps from a palace window into a river. She survives and is rescued by Anthar and his mute friend while out fishing. After explaining her story, Anthar is ambushed by the soldiers of slave merchant Akrim. Soraya is captured once again and sold as a slave girl. Anthar saves her, and learns from an envoy that her brother is still alive. Anthar sneaks into the city and saves him, but is caught in the process. Meantime Daikor incites the mountain tribes still faithful to Soraya to attack and reclaim Baghdad. During a fierce battle, Anthar and Ganor duel inside his magic maze of mirrors to avenge the king and free Soraya.

The year 1964 was virtually the last gasp of the Italian Peplum/Muscleman Epic. Dozens of them surfaced that year, many of which were enhanced by midgets and other comical shenanigans; and others that kept things simple and conventional. Even in its last days there were some entries that showed the genre still had signs of life in it (like Michele Lupo's excellent THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS). On the other hand, ANTHAR THE INVINCIBLE, an Italian-French-Spanish co-production shot in Algeria, is strictly by-the-numbers (as many of them were). Sticking with traditional genre tropes, Antonio Margheriti (using his Anthony Dawson pseudonym) plays it safe, changing very little from past Peplums--aside from the locale and swapping out the standard alligator or snake battle with a rhino rumble.

With George Garvarentz's fanciful main theme opening the film, it's hard not to put aside the familiar storyline and just enjoy the show. When it was released to television as part of the 'Sons of Hercules' package the movie was retitled with the more exploitable THE DEVIL OF THE DESERT AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES. Unfortunately, as good as the 'Sons of Hercules' theme is, it's not nearly as opulent as Garvarentz's music. Much like the Italian westerns, the soundtracks often made the rustiest of six-gun cinema worth sitting through.... and one of DEVIL's strongest suits is its score.

Of Margheriti's three Sword & Sandal movies he made (all released in 1964), ANTHAR THE INVINCIBLE is the most formulaic. It's high on adventure, good, pulpy fun in spite of the hackneyed approach. Even re-locating the all-too familiar usurper plot of countless Rome-set peplums to the Middle East had already been done about a dozen or more times (and Kirk Morris had been in some of those as well). That it's run-of-the-mill isn't a strike against it, only there's virtually nothing you haven't seen before.

Among the pluses, Margheriti does manage to get a spirited performance out of the usually nondescript Kirk Morris--giving him quite the workout with lots of running, horse riding, climbing, and the required fisticuffs and hurling bad guys through the air. At times, the exceptional action sequences--particularly the rousing siege at the end--are punctuated by some impressive stuntwork. Often contributing to the special effects in his pictures, the director includes a nice model city of Baghdad and a brief, if less impressive shot of the "magic mirror room" inside the palace after Ganor takes control of it.

Regarding the mirror sequence, it's the movie's one major flaw. It's supposed to be a maze. We only get that impression during a very brief shot of a miniature when Kirk Morris is peering down into it; the rest of the time the camera is grounded in a single spot, showing us what looks like nothing more than a room with mirrors aligning the walls. In the climactic sequence between Morris and Feliciani, the filmmakers momentarily succeed in creating the illusion it's a maze of mirrors... but then there are moments where it's clearly obvious what's right in front of Anthar is not a mirror reflection.

The conventional script by Guido Malatesta (who's also a director) does put a fresh face on the vital 'man vs nature/monster' plot device. Instead of perennials like a big snake or cranky crocodile it's a rhinoceros that Kirk Morris is forced to fight. Granted, the actual duel isn't as exciting as what's depicted on some of the advertising, it is edited well and looks realistic onscreen (in the shots where the real rhino isn't present) as opposed to the obvious fakery of other movies.

As for Margheriti's other two Pec n' Flex flicks... HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL wrought themes of horror in its tale of Maciste (a clean-shaven Reg Park) battling piss-poor werewolves created by an evil witch; and GIANTS OF ROME is basically a war movie in Torch & Toga trappings wherein Richard Harrison amasses a small band of mercenaries to take out an enemy army and their secret weapon (a catapult).

Venice born Kirk Morris (alias Adriano Bellini) was one of the few Italian actors to headline these pictures. He did over a dozen of them between 1961 and 1965 with very few entries that can be regarded as quality presentations. Strangely, more than half his films in the genre are set in the desert. Further, almost all of his work was for some of Italian cinemas least impressive filmmakers; one of these being Tanio Boccia who used the pseudonym of Amerigo Anton. Morris did six S&S and or adventure movies for Boccia, the director affectionately referred to in his home country as the "Italian Ed Wood"

During his brief, but prolific stint, Morris played all the big guns from Hercules to Samson to Maciste. His first role was as the Italian do-gooder Maciste in the unremarkable IL TRIONFO DI MACISTE (TRIUMPH OF THE SON OF HERCULES) in 1961 for Boccia. Arguably, the nadir of Morris's career is COLOSSUS AGAINST THE HEADHUNTERS (1963) directed by Guido Malatesta, the writer of ANTHAR, and another hack director. Outside of Riccardo Freda's MACISTE IN HELL (1961) and, while it's stretching things, 1963s SAMSON AND THE SEA BEASTS (for its music and Margaret Lee), there isn't anything else to wholeheartedly recommend on his muscle-flexing resume. Morris did work with HERCULES (1958) helmer Pietro Franscisci in the average grunt-fest HERCULES, SAMSON AND ULYSSES (1963); a film massively hampered by the inclusion of a laughable "sea monster" that is little more than a manatee with a roar dubbed over it.

When you compare ANTHAR to one of Morris's Boccia bombs, it's like night and day. Viewed on its entertainment merits, ANTHAR is surprisingly good, and one of the man's best efforts. Now about that title..... 

Curiously, Anthar isn't all that invincible. He isn't given much in the way of Herculean feats--no clobbering automatons with trees or hurling huge boulders into throngs of enemy soldiers--but he does rip a door off its hinges, battle a rhinoceros, and show off some acrobatic skills (that looks like a young Aldo Canti doing the somersaults). Unlike most other films of this type, Anthar doesn't get much of a love interest, either....

Feeling like an afterthought, the script fails to portray a convincing relationship between Anthar and Soraya. He rescues her a few times yet there's no real foundation laid in the screenplay that gives meaning to these scenes aside from the fact the genre demands they be in there. Further, there's barely a hint of romanticism between them, nor any real chemistry when they're together; yet in the last scene, the obligatory, passionate smooch doesn't feel natural so much as it seems tacked on because these movies always end that way.

French actress Michele Girardon had appeared in some high profile pictures in both her native France and abroad--including the Howard Hawks production of HATARI! starring John Wayne in 1962. Her co-starring role in this late-blooming peplum seems kind of jarring in comparison. Her casting wasn't lost on the film's promotional campaigns in other countries, though. In some European territories it was known as SORAYA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT and SORAYA, SLAVE OF THE ORIENT in others. Artist interpretations of Girardon were the centerpiece on much of the films advertising in places other than Italy--undermining the fact that this was a Kirk Morris movie. On a sadder note, Ms. Girardon would commit suicide in 1975 at just 36 years of age.

Soon to be a notorious director of cannibalistic jungle horrors, Ruggero Deodato cut his teeth as an assistant director on ANTHAR. He would direct half of Margheriti's mostly dismal HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (URSUS, IL TERRORE DEI KIRGHISI). Disliking the genre, Deodato's first solo gig--GUNGALA, LA PANTERA NUDA (1968)--was of a similar style, and related to the sub-genre he'd later become synonymous with.

This was also actor and stuntman Roberto Dell'Acqua's first movie role; playing the young mute boy who is Anthar's sidekick (see above insert at right)

Not counting Freda's MACISTE IN HELL (1962), Kirk Morris's go-round as Anthar is easily the best bet when deciding which of the actor's adventure movies to check out. Serious fans of peplums, and particularly Antonio Margheriti, should see it in this widescreen presentation. There's equal amounts of good and bad on display but in the end, it's a fun, Saturday afternoon style diversion... solid B movie entertainment.

This review is representative of the Italian R2 PAL Cult Media DVD (Bluray also available). Specs and Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; photo gallery; running time: 01:31:08

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