Monday, February 13, 2017

Ironmaster (1983) review


Sam Pasco (Ela), George Eastman (Vood), Elvire Audray (Isa), Pamela Prati (Lith), Danilo Mattei (Mog), Giovanni Cianfriglia (Vood's chief thug), William Berger (Mogo), Walter Lucchini (Mogo tribe member)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi

The Short Version: Journey with us back to the Stone Age where the neolithic people spoke perfect English and there was a Gold's Gym in every cave. Sam Pasco--whose breasts are bigger than any of the female cast-members--is the compliant Cro-magnon who must go to war with George Eastman's Neanderthal of a tribal usurper in Umberto Lenzi's ode to prehistoric cinema. It's 90 minutes of cavemen creating fire, swords, and other early war weapons but not compelling action choreography. If you dig Italian exploitation flicks, there's plenty of violence, a moderate serving of gore, and enough grunting and groaning for a dozen PUMPING IRON documentaries.

Plotting to be the leader of his tribe, the treacherous Vood kills the elder during a battle with an opposing tribe. The murder is witnessed by the preferred successor, Ela, who forces Vood out, never to return. After a volcanic eruption, Vood investigates the aftermath and discovers heavy metal, uncovering its properties as a weapon of war. Returning to his tribe, he challenges Ela and defeats him, now forcing him to vacate the premises. It isn't long before Vood is roaming the wildernesses and gravel pits conquering any villages he and his growing band of barbarians happen across. Meanwhile, Ela is befriended by another, passive tribe, ultimately teaching them how to defend themselves while creating a new weapon of his own.

With the success of Jean-Jacques Annaud's QUEST FOR FIRE (1981) and, even more substantive, John Milius's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), there was a deluge of productions featuring fur-kini clad bodybuilders and hot models in prehistoric adventures; films like SWORD OF THE BARBARIAN (1982), THRONE OF FIRE (1983), and YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) being among them. Having already helmed pulpy and brawny yarns in the 1960s with assorted peplums and war pictures, Umberto Lenzi returns to the landscape of musculature with IRONMASTER; an Italian-French co-production often lumped in with the Sword and Sorcery genre, but features the former and none of the latter.

Unlike Annaud's QUEST FOR FIRE, Lenzi's movie jettisons realism for escapism in what is ostensibly a Sword & Sandal movie set in one million B.C. Minus the court intrigue and convolution of plot intrinsic to that genre, IRONMASTER retains oiled up musclemen and scantily clad ladies in a film that is as much about the Dawn of War as it is the Dawn of Man. Curiously for Lenzi's usual output, the violence is tame--minus the usual nudity and gory violence that dominates his grittier movies of the time-period. There's plenty of brutality and modest gore, but slightly less so than Fulci's similar CONQUEST (1983), for example.

The action choreography is the usual Italian style of telegraphing every punch or kick. The stone axe and or sword fighting (or whatever you wish to call it) is rudimentary, with the same few maneuvers over and over again. Since it's a caveman flick you could say action design hadn't been invented yet.

Bridging the gap between the more popular Sword and Sorcery films of the day, Lenzi's movie features a race of ape-like humanoids and some leper-zombies living in a cave; the latter feeling hastily written at the last minute, contributing nothing to the story nor making any sense in context, but is welcome to spice things up.

As a bonus, there's lots of Italian genre film regulars in major, and or supporting roles. You'll recognize Danilo Mattei and Walter Lucchini from Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981); Steve Reeves' stunt double Giovanni Cianfriglia (lead of the two SUPERARGO films); and Italian western regulars Nello Pazzafini and William Berger.

Unfortunately, George Eastman, Mr. ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980), is the only interesting character, carrying the weight of the picture on his brawny shoulders. But before we get to him....

In his only movie role, bodybuilder and gay porn star Sam Pasco--who is constantly oiled down in every scene--has the right look for this kind of picture but he rarely convinces as the masculine hero, Ela. He doesn't seem entirely comfortable in front of the camera, so possibly a career in straight film wasn't an agreeable fit for him. Reportedly, he may have died a few years after the film was released. In a unique twist, Pasco, while the main protagonist, isn't even the 'Ironmaster' of the film's title; the antagonist is.

As briefly mentioned above, George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori) dominates the proceedings in what is a perfect role for him. It's really his movie since it's his character the title is referencing. Eastman's Vood is essentially a prototype for Genghis Khan and any other dictatorial oppressor throughout history. His character, built on greed and power, fuels his ultimate demise. Wearing the head of a lion he killed, Eastman snarls and mugs mercilessly for the camera as he slaughters the weak while gathering new recruits for his merry band of Communist cave-dwellers--stripping away caveman rights and enslaving one tribe at a time.

While Lenzi is focusing more on making an entertaining movie, there were four writers on this thing. You might be asking yourself what could possibly be so complex to have a quartet of scribblers on a caveman picture? Surprisingly, and to its credit, there's some minor subtext that evolves over the course of the 93 minutes. 

Chiefly, it's ambition gone wrong in that Vood, a vicious man who prefers taking what he wants, creates a weapon used to conquer as opposed to creating new tools for farming or hunting. He manufactures weapons of war, which leads to his rival Ela having to come up with a counter weapon in a neverending cycle of a new armament superseding another. In the middle you have a passive tribe that doesn't believe in battle but must take up arms when there's no alternative. 

Ironically, the last scene, while going for an uncharacteristically uplifting message, comes off ignorant, as if nothing was learned throughout the movie. In it, Ela and the remnants of the passive tribe, toss all the weapons into the nearby river seemingly oblivious of the fact they need something for hunting, building, and to fend off future Vood's. While Vood discovers iron, Ela founds the first hippie movement.

In other areas, the film certainly looks good, shooting partially in South Dakota's Custer State Park where the buffalo roam. These vistas and others give the production a lot of value, bettering the barren gravel pit style surroundings of other movies in this genre. The skills of Spanish artisan Emilio Ruiz (Emilio Ruiz del Rio) gives Lenzi's picture some additional merit with some miniatures (a volcano and a herd of mastodon) and matte paintings. Ruiz had previously worked on Milius' CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) and later on CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984). The De Angelis Brothers contribute a pretty good score if barbarian folk music is your thing.

Having not seen any of the other DVDs of this film (including the upcoming 88 Films bluray), the movie looks fantastic. It's English audio only for this release. The audio itself is clear and easily discernible, but sounds like everyone is speaking their dialog with their hands cusped around their mouths. Extras on this bluray are worth mentioning but not without issues of their own. The highlight is the talk with Umberto Lenzi. The man never gives a boring interview. As blunt and crotchety as ever, if you're easily offended you're likely to squirm more than once during this 19 minute discussion. Lenzi holds nothing back, even managing to squeeze in thoughts on Edwige Fenech and working on his crime classic, THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST (1977). As informative and enlightening as these interviews are, the subtitles are sometimes difficult to read with the white font; and there's far too many subs crammed on the screen at one time. During the third interview, the size of the subs become even smaller and more difficult to read.

Curiously, Lenzi's document of prehistory has been receiving a lot of love and recognition of late (with more than one European release on DVD or blu); especially for a film with no cannibals or spectacular gore FX. If you're a fan of the director, IRONMASTER is a no-brainer (guess you could take that multiple ways) to add to your collection. Surprisingly efficient and with a handful of qualities to recommend it, hopefully this US blu release will forge a new life for this Italo Cro-magnon curio.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray. Specs and extras: New HD 2016 master; 1080p 1.78:1; new interviews with Umberto Lenzi, George Eastman, and Art Director Massimo Antonello Geleg; trailer (poor quality); running time: 01:33:22.

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