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Those "sword and sandal" movies which came out of Italy in the wake of Steve Reeves' "Hercules" might be divided into two categories. There are the mythological movies which include gods and goddesses, fanciful beasts, magic potions, and heroes of superhuman strength; then there are the historical movies which simply tell "action" stories set during the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Falling into the latter category is this movie which, on videotape, is also known as "Three Giants from Rome" and "Three Giants of the Roman Empire." Its hero is not a demi-god such as Hercules but rather a gallant soldier known as Marcus whose battles are not against fire-breathing dragons but rather against political enemies in the year 310 A.D. As a historical drama this movie has promise but it's badly marred, (at least in videotape prints which seem to be missing bits of footage), by unwanted touches of slapstick comedy and by a confused geography which often has the viewer wondering just where various scenes take place. In Rome itself, on the Empire's northeastern frontiers, or somewhere in between? What's more, the movie's final battle scene merely pads out the running time without adding significant interest to the story. On the plus side must be counted handsome, blue-eyed Brad Harris -- one of the best of the Steve Reeves' wannabe's -- who lends strength and substance to a part barely deserving of his efforts. While the script doesn't endow him with superhuman powers, it does subject him to one of those "beefcake-bondage" ordeals which are hallmarks of the sword-and-sandal genre. Stripped to loincloth and boots and tied between two pairs of horses, Harris -- looking great at age 37 -- is stretched like the proverbial wishbone for more than a full minute but he does not snap and this scene -- along with similar ones involving Steve Reeves in "Goliath and the Barbarians," Reg Park in "Maciste in King Solomon's Mines," and Kirk Morris in "Triumph of the Son of Hercules" -- is a classic.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This historical adventure yarn is a bit of an oddity, considering the
Italian peplum genre had died out by 1965. Starring one of the genre's
finest musclemen the great Brad Harris, still going strong to this
day this takes a typical sword-and-sandal storyline of a corrupt
ruler and updates it to the early '70s. This was a time when the likes
of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill ruled the box office in Italy, while
Batman was a hit on television, so it's no surprise that this movie has
a campy feel to it. Director Bitto Albertini, an experienced hand
behind the camera, was responsible for a couple of the SUPERMEN
comedies at this time and THREE GIANTS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE closely
resembles those types of film.
Things begin on a serious footing and at first you think this is going to be a po-faced outing, complete with Christians being fed to lions and the like. However, into the fray comes the Fox, a purely comedic character, and the film quickly turns into a riot as our trio of heroes the third is a pretty but bland young guy battle off tons of enemies in energetic slapstick fights. Weirdly, the film gets serious again for the finale, in which there's a full-scale battle between Romans on horseback and barbarians. The latter employ archers to shoot the Romans off their horses, and we see a ludicrous moment in which the archers, lined up on either side of a path, shoot into the riders going through the middle. It doesn't take a genius to work out these guys would have been shooting each other in the process and I was taken back to Robert De Niro's handling of Sean Bean in RONIN.
Like his fellow musclemen Gordon Mitchell and Richard Harrison, Brad Harris has had a long career in Italian cinema and this is one of his most thankless roles. He's called to do little except parade around looking tough and beating up enemies, and it always looks like he's swatting away flies in the latter scenes, he's that strong. Harris engages in one challenge, though, one of those excruciating scenes in which the hero's toughness is tested. Here, he's tied between horses that are pulling in opposite directions yep, that old trick. While lesser men would have their arms torn from their sockets, Harris' brute force wins out and he really convinces the viewer that he's capable of this feat thanks to his amazing physique.
The supporting cast is constructed of the usual female beauties and familiar old hands. Massimo Serato is the villain of the piece, a role he could play in his sleep, and I could swear I've already seen him play this exact same role in the past. Raf Baldassarre is the Fox and the film's main comic relief. He's not too bad although I'm glad we didn't get to see too much of him. This film is clearly a product of the '70s as the boundaries are pushed a little more than they were a decade previously. While the violence is still the same in fact in this respect the film seems even tamer than the earlier pepla the obligatory exotic dance routine goes one step further, as a sultry belly dancer shakes her bits and threatens to burst out of her skimpy costume. Some of the slapstick comedy is also surprisingly crude, from the unpleasant belching sequence to the bit where a guy is urinated on for what seems like an age - by no less than five soldiers. Despite these missteps, THREE GIANTS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE is a film with good production values, a nice budget, and a surehand director to guide it to success. It's no classic, but fans of this stuff will lap it up. Imagine a SUPERMEN film set in Roman times, and you have this film.
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