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THE HUNDRED HORSEMEN (Vittorio Cottafavi, 1964) ***1/2
I first heard of this film when I chanced upon a five-star review of it on an Italian TV listings magazine so I was very grateful to the organizers of the "Italian Kings of the Bs" retrospective at the 61st Venice Film Festival in September 2004 for including it; as it happened, despite tough competition from a couple of its contemporaries, when I finally watched the film on the big screen (with leading man Mark Damon in attendance), I loved it so much that I had no trouble naming it the best film (out of a total of 37) I had seen during that unforgettable fortnight.
Frustratingly, I subsequently found very little reading material on director Cottafavi and the film itself (which is unanimously considered his masterpiece) even in this day and age of the Internet and, in fact, the most substantial piece was an essay written by the late Tom Milne on Cottafavi and two of his contemporaries, Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava, and included in the New York Film Festival's co-founder Richard Roud's indispensable two-volume book, "Cinema: A Critical Dictionary - The Major Film-Makers", which I purchased during my first trip to London in 1999; an even shorter piece is to be found in David Thomson's controversial tome, "A Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema", in which he references a Cahiers Du Cinema critic naming Cottafavi one of the world's four greatest directors along with Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey and Otto Preminger!! Luckily, the afore-mentioned 2004 screening of THE HUNDRED HORSEMEN, ensured that the film be released on R2 DVD in Italy later on and, despite the lack of supplements and online reviews, I eagerly awaited the disc to get discounted so that I would finally add it to my collection. Thankfully, the video quality is great (even if the sound is overly discreet) and the film itself is every bit the masterpiece I remembered it to be.
After this lengthy introduction, I'll get to the film proper even if, frankly, its most notable aspects have so much to do with aesthetics and narrative form that writing about them is a rather thankless exercise - which perhaps explains the lack of critical writing I mentioned earlier - but I will try my best anyway: the still remarkably pertinent plot deals with the 11th Century Moorish invasion (led by a deliciously villainous Wolfgang Preiss) of a Spanish community during a supposed period of truce and the former's subsequent retaliation under the joint leadership of an ex-warrior turned monk (Gastone Moschin) and an amiably loutish landowner (Arnoldo Foa'). The requisite youthful hero here is Foa''s son and, as already mentioned, is played by Mark Damon (who considers the film his favorite among the many he shot in Italy); besides, he shares the romantic interest with the lovely Antonella Lualdi (whose father, the head of the Spanish community, is hanged by the Moors in retaliation along with most of the menfolk in the village).
The amusing trailer (the sole extra on the Italian DVD) has Foa' describing the film to its prospective audience as an "epicaresque" i.e. a picareqsque epic; as it happened, despite the film turning out to be stylistically ahead of its time - and, in hindsight, the zenith of that most disreputable of genres, the peplum - it was a commercial flop on release ensuring that Cottafavi spend the remainder of his career as a distinguished TV director, helming such adaptations as Graham Greene's THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1970; which was shown on Italian TV last month).
Anyway, to get back to the film itself and its picaresque elements: there is the dwarfish painter seen at the beginning who addresses the audience and acts as a narrator; there is Lualdi's comical intended who turns cowardly, bumbling collaborationist but is subsequently reinstated into the Spanish community and made their head - the word "Fine" (Italian for "The End") are written on his fingers as he cheekily waves at the audience in the very last shot of the film; there is a convoluted philosophical speech given (in a broadly theatrical fashion) by a long-fingered Spanish nobleman who dreams of conducting future wars between one super-soldier on each side but when he shows us his 'candidate', he is ridiculously decked out in a cumbersome, clunky armor which makes all movement impossible and, in fact, falls flat on his back when he tries to do so; and, best of all, Foa's Quixotic soldier who tries to recapture his former dignity by leading the rebels but is quickly cut down to his real size by a dwarfish bandit leader who joins their ranks in a hilarious confrontation.
THE HUNDRED HORSEMEN, like so many international epics of its time (this being an Italo-Spanish-German co-production), had an alternate title, SON OF EL CID and, even if the similarities with the celebrated Anthony Mann/Charlton Heston epic are merely of a historical and geographical nature (apart from the duel by sword between Damon and Preiss' son), I decided to reacquaint myself with that film after a long hiatus. Having said that, Cottafavi's film can stand on its own two feet thanks to the dazzlingly fluid direction which, despite the relatively low budget, gives the film a visually arresting look, particularly when pitting the red-cloaked rebels against the blue-clad Moors with the enslaved white-robed monks in the middle. Furthermore, composer Antonio Perez Olea provides a low-key but equally effective music score which goes against the grain of the grandiose ones typical of the genre. After a very funny first half, Cottafavi reserves his most outstanding trick for the climactic battle as he gradually drains all the color from the image and shooting most of it in black-and-white (anticipating Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL VOL. 1 by 40 years!) thus rendering his depiction of the bleakness and tragedy of war all the more powerful.
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