Related Posts with Thumbnails

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sign of the Pagan (1954) review


Jack Palance (Attila, the Hun), Jeff Chandler (Marcian), Ludmilla Tcherina (Princess Pulcheria), Rita Gam (Kubra), Jeff Morrow (General Paulinus), George Dolenz (Emperor Theodosius), Allison Hayes (Ildico), Leo Gordon (Bleda), Michael Ansara (Edecon), Walter Coy (Emperor Valentinian)

Directed by Douglas Sirk

The Short Version: Jack Palance seizes the screen as Attila, rampaging from one studio set to another, barely giving Jeff Chandler a chance to shine as the hero of the piece. Palance dominates every scene he's in--which is most of the picture. The script draws a ruthless, yet pitiable persona for Attila; both a man of honor and fearful of the Christian God--during the time when Christianity itself had conquered Rome. Lavish in places, the emphasis is on characterization instead of action set pieces. The historical Attila is pilfered along with the appropriate amount of creative license. Themes of paganism vs. Christianity abound in both the boisterous speeches spilling from Palance's lips and Sirk's operatic visual style. The SIGNs are everywhere.

On his way to Constantinople to deliver a message to Emperor Theodosius, Roman Centurion Marcian is captured by Attila, leader of the violent, rampaging Huns. Impressed by his courage, Attila allows Marcian to live, keeping him prisoner to learn more about the Roman ways of combat. Marcian, however, has his eyes on escaping--and he does. Finally reaching Constantinople, Marcian delivers his message from Emperor Valentinian; later discovering that Theodosius has made a secret pact with Attila to pillage all he wants, just leave Eastern Rome alone. Outraged over this deceit, and knowing full well that Attila will attack anyway, Marcian makes a secret pact of his own with General Paulinus and Princess Pulcheria to overthrow Theodosius and put the Princess on the throne. Meanwhile, Attila plans his ambitious conquering of Rome, aware of foreboding signs he will meet his downfall upon entering the city.

During the reign of the costume epics of the 1950s and early 1960s, the subject of Attila the Hun was rife for celluloid plunder. A popular figure in European folklore, operas, and novels, Sirk's dramatic adventure was the first time the legendary Hunnic ruler had been envisioned onscreen in America. Meanwhile, over in Italy, another production of the Eurasian ruler was being made by future HERCULES (1957) director, Pietro Francisci with Anthony Quinn as ATTILA (1954) and co-starring that conqueror of cleavage, Sophia Loren.

Both interpretations are of interest although Quinn is no match for Palance (nor was SIGNs popular ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina a match for Loren). Known for his over the top performances, Palance largely keeps himself in check, but remains the most memorable aspect of the movie. Palance was a stage actor prior to breaking into movies in 1950 when he racked up some impressive villain credits in films like SHANE (1953), ARROWHEAD (1953) and MAN IN THE ATTIC (1953).

Palance would likewise catch the attention of the Italians, making his way to Italy where he starred in a handful of epics for the Europeans like THE MONGOLS (1961) and SWORD OF THE CONQUEROR (1962); and also 1961s BARABBAS starring Anthony Quinn where the two Attila's would meet in the arena.

As Attila, Palance plays him as an assured man driven by a desire to not only conquer Rome, but the world itself. However, the script focuses less attention on Attila's remarkable ability to control various barbarian tribes under his command than it does his human complexities. Largely written for the screen as historical accounts describe him, the "Scourge of God" is at times seen as a sort of noble conqueror--respecting valiance in his enemies as opposed to slaughtering everything in sight; this is displayed in the very first sequence wherein he allows Marcian (Jeff Chandler) to keep his life since he shows no fear of Attila while both helpless and injured, and near the point of death.

The back-and-forth between Attila and Marcian is the humanist arc of paganism vs. Christianity that permeates the movie parallel to the supernatural one. Once the two men part ways, neither of whom desires meeting on the battlefield, Attila encounters a number of Christian followers. It's here that an intriguing turn of events transforms Attila from a man of ambition to a man of uncertainty.

His character's transformation occurs when, in the middle of an operatic speech of his intention to topple Rome, Attila thrusts his pagan blade heavenward; a lightning bolt strikes a tree nearest him, killing his seer. Believing this a sign from the Christian God, Attila gradually becomes fearful of Him. He continues his parade of destruction, but upon the sight of any Christian iconography he hesitates, his face filling with trepidation. 

At another point in the movie, he orders the death of his own men when they intend to execute two pilgrims; "Fools! These are holy men! I warned all harm not the holy men of the Christians. I have no wish to anger their God!" When the two robed men bearing golden crosses beg for Attila to spare their lives he does so. Confused, he reiterates a line that leaves his lips several times during the movie, "I do not understand these Christians"; only this time he says so with a lack of confidence in his own beliefs. But Attila is a conqueror. Ignoring the signs and repeated warnings of his Persian prophet, his convictions prevent him from disavowing his faith in war. The Sign of the Pagan isn't so much the skulls affixed to the staff carried by his horde, but the sign of its downfall in the shadow of the Christian faith. 

Despite his slow descent into self-doubt late in the picture, Attila's penchant for cruelty isn't neglected--ordering the deaths of innocents without blinking an eye. He and Marcian have some intriguing exchanges between them in regards to their beliefs and approaches to battle. The script hints that Attila's obsession with conquest grew out of his being a captive in Rome as a small boy: "The more I am feared the easier grow my conquests, and that is how your great Roman Empire was built. You conquered tribes and small nations, and bound them to you and grew great. I use only what I learned when Rome held me hostage. Held me to force my father to do your Empires bidding. I was a boy. An unconsidered trifle now grown up to conquer and command."

SIGN is rather faithful to the historical Attila, but does indulge in creative license with certain events. Since much of Attila's life is unknown; and with varying accounts from scholars, Sirk and company do a fantastic job balancing what is known with artistic interpretation.

"An enemy who remains alive is always an enemy... unless it be a woman".

If you're familiar with Attila then you know of the mystery surrounding his death. There are a few accounts of how Attila met his demise in the company of Ildico, his last wife. In the movie, Ildico is played by future 50ft WOMAN Allison Hayes in her debut. She's not in the picture all that much with only a few lines, but plays a role of major significance come the finale.

Other female cast members prove to be enemies of Attila in different ways; one of whom turns out to be his daughter, Kubra. Rita Gam plays her as a suitable savage, wild and feral; yet this ferociousness is eroded once she spends time with Chandler's more mannered Roman. During her time in Rome, she becomes accustomed to the Christian lifestyle--it appealing to her more than the nomadic pillaging she's known all her life. She falls in love with Rome, even going so far as to betray her father to save it. There's also a hint of a romance between she and Marcian, but this is one area the script never explores to any degree.

What little romance the script makes room for is reserved for Marcian and Princess Pulcheria (their historical counterparts married in 450). Dubbed by another actress, Ludmilla Tcherina, a famous French prima ballerina and woman of many talents doesn't leave much of a mark outside of giving bedroom eyes to both Chandler and Palance; and wearing gowns that threaten to reveal her ample breasts. Like with Rita Gam, there's a hint of sexual interest between the Princess and Attila. Outside of a single scene of the two together this plot point never surfaces again.

Leading man Jeff Chandler is top-billed but is unable to keep up with Jack Palance laying siege to virtually the entire movie. His character can match Attila, but in the arena of thespian skills Palance runs circles around him. Nominated for an Oscar for his role as Cochise in 1950s BROKEN ARROW, a unique western drama starring James Stewart and Debra Paget that was one of the first to portray Indians in a sympathetic light. In SIGN, Chandler was originally offered the role of Attila but turned it down, refusing to play a villain. His career was cut short though, after an off-set injury while shooting Samuel Fuller's MERRILL'S MARAUDERS (1962) in the Philippines in early 1961 led to his death from surgical complications.

Director Sirk wasn't fond of the picture; being assigned to it at the last minute after another director dropped out. Reportedly, Sirk desired to film an adaptation of the Asian Emperor Tamburlaine the Great via Christopher Marlowe's play 'Tamburlaine' but Universal refused this idea. Shooting in both cinemascope and standard format simultaneously contributed to Sirk's bad experience. Despite some striking visuals and stylish flourishes, Sirk considered SIGN his worst picture.

SIGN OF THE PAGAN looks expensive enough, but a lack of action is noticeable; particularly when we hear about campaigns as opposed to seeing them. The action sequences we do get are brief and or relegated to post-battle aftermath; even the concluding battle when Attila is ambushed is over with almost as quickly as it begins. If Palance's performance wasn't as grand as it is Sirk's movie would certainly be worth far less. 

One action sequence in particular captures the atmosphere of the Italian peplums and muscleman epics that would flex their biceps around the world a few years later. In it, Theodosius invites all the barbarian clans to a feast except for Attila. He shows up anyway, unannounced. Theodosius, in a bid to intimidate the Huns, asks if there's a man among them who could defeat Herculanus, a Roman warrior of immense strength. None wish to chance defeat till Attila stands and accepts. Easily defeating and humiliating the giant gladiator, it's a well-shot fight and is one of numerous moments where Palance usurps Chandler's top-billing status.

According to sources of the time, the picture was popular enough that Universal considered a sequel, 'Hannibal of Carthage', also to star Jack Palance, but this never materialized.

In the wake of Palance's Attila, John Wayne would star as Genghis Khan in an epic disaster titled THE CONQUEROR (1956).

Unfortunately, SIGN OF THE PAGAN has yet to receive a legitimate stateside release. It has surfaced in European countries on DVD and bluray but remains an obscurity in its country of origin. The quality is fine, but not the best looking bluray you've seen. Still, it's the best version currently out there. If you're a Sword and Sandal fan, and especially of Jack Palance, no signs are required as to whether or not you should see it.

This review is representative of the French R2 bluray/DVD combo from Elephant Films. Specs and Extras: Contains both a 2.35:1 cinemascope version and a standard format 1.33:1 version (DVD); original English language with removable French subtitles/French audio; Douglas Sirk featurette; image gallery; running time: 01:32:08 

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails


copyright 2013. All text is the property of and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.