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LADY CAROLINE LAMB (Robert Bolt, 1972) **1/2, 4 April 2014

This was one of four high-profile yet maligned films, all dating from the same year, which were slapped with the dreaded BOMB rating by the "Leonard Maltin Movie Guide"; conversely, the more conservative Leslie Halliwell was generally more receptive to their old-fashioned qualities! Anyway, two of these (including the one under review) had been very hard to come by, though both were quite recently shown on Italian TV – and, in fact, came across my copy of LADY CAROLINE LAMB off "You Tube" which I looked for on a whim on the occasion of co-star Richard Chamberlain's birthday! For the record, the other titles I am referring to are THE GREAT WALTZ (which still eludes me), MAN OF LA MANCHA and POPE JOAN (which has only been made available in a trimmed version and which I will be getting to presently in my Easter Epic marathon)…

I have always enjoyed pictures dealing with historical figures but, around the time this came out, these had acquired a Revisionist outlook which often exposed the less-than-pleasant details of their private lives. Perhaps the first to do this had been Ken Russell via a number of irreverent made-for-TV musical biopics throughout the 1960s but, by the end of the decade, his movie career had taken off in earnest – with THE MUSIC LOVERS, starring the afore-mentioned Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky, hitting the screens in 1971. Here, then, he is libertine poet Lord George Byron – first seen challenging a black man to a boxing match – who became the lover of the titular figure (played by Sarah Miles) while she was married to politician Sir William Lamb (Jon Finch). While we are told that such affairs were common practice, sometimes involving even royalty, they were mostly kept "discreet" – a term which certainly cannot be applied to the one depicted in the film.

Indeed, the movie's low estimation in some critics' minds has much to do with its definite camp value: Miles, sporting short-cropped hair, is tomboyish – never more so than, when uninvited to a dinner honouring the Duke of Wellington (Laurence Olivier) due to her scandalous behaviour (with Byron opting to escort another lady), she adopts the garments of the torch-carrying lads ostentatiously accompanying his carriage around at night!; worst of all, however, she attends a costume ball half-naked and in blackface (purporting to be Byron's negro slave!) – it is here that the cracks in their relationship start to show, as she is ignored by her partner and laughed at by her peers! Having mentioned Wellington, it is also unbecoming to watch either the famed general or the celebrated thespian indulge in a one-night stand with Miles; incidentally, things would come to a head between Caroline (often referred to merely as "Caro"!) and Byron at the Duke's party, where she attempts suicide!

Finch, an able orator in Parliament (a protégé of George Canning, played by John Mills, even if he stands on the opposite side in the House of Representatives), obviously suffers on account of his wife's indiscretions; indeed, he is asked to choose between her and his career by none other than King George IV (Ralph Richardson) – who had once been his own mother's (Margaret Leighton) lover! The elder woman had always resented Miles and, in fact, her coldness results in Caroline going mad at the end. Notable bit players here include Peter Bull, Pamela Brown and Michael Wilding; the production values were certainly the best that money could buy: the late cinematographer Oswald Morris, art director Carmen Dillon and composer Richard Rodney Bennett (who supplies the expected lush score).

Incidentally, this was award-winning playwright/scriptwriter Bolt's sole directorial foray – which he created and personally nurtured, so to speak, as a vehicle for his real-life wife Miles. A co-production between the U.K. and Italy, it incorporated an irrelevant and fairly embarrassing scene set in the latter country as Miles and Finch go on a trip and decide to take a nightly stroll in a former gladiatorial arena – which is soon infested with wretched souls clamouring for money and grub; what makes it so bad, however, is the fact that the extras were not locals since they speak in broken Italian (even rendering "impiccati" – meaning "hanged" – as "impiegati" – workers)! As I said, then, the print I watched – interrupted every once in a while by the wording "PLAY" and related video information – was not in the best of shape…but the film was nowhere near as unwatchable as I was led to believe; if anything, back in the day, it had managed to score BAFTA nominations for Richardson, Bennett and Dillon!

ZORRO AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Luigi Capuano, 1963) **, 2 April 2014

One of the sure signs of desperation to any genre is when it begins to match up various popular figures to excuse one further trip to the well and, hopefully, double the intake at the box-office; where the "Peplum" was concerned, however, this ran hand in hand with pitting its various heroes in wildly unlikely surroundings (such as ZORRO CONTRO MACISTE from the same year)! To be fair to the film under review, the settings in which the titular characters operated were not that outrageously removed from one another – even if Zorro actually emanated om Los Angeles rather than Spain and he supposedly arrived onto the scene a couple of centuries after The Four {sic} Musketeers! For the record, this was the fifth effort I have watched during the current Epic Easter marathon to feature D'Artagnan et al (with an obscure 1966 British TV series, and perhaps even the 2001 THE MUSKETEER, still to be checked out!) but the only one that will be included with respect to Zorro – though I have at least eight other titles handy related to his exploits!! The main reason for this is that, judging by the contemporaneous 'vehicles' of his under my belt, they constitute among the most indifferent "Euro-Cult" ventures that emerged during the trend's fairly long tenure!

Anyway, what we have here is the Musketeers engaged in the war between the two countries – while Zorro (or, rather, his dandyish alter ego) is accused of being the traitor who sold his side to the enemy…naturally by the rival for the hand of the girl (being held hostage by the French) he loves and who, needless to say, is the true guilty party! Indeed, when we first meet the quartet, they are to meet with the villain towards this end – but it is the Spaniard (played by beefcake Gordon Scott) who turns up under this guise! Cue a number of shifting allegiances, as the Musketeers first antagonize then aid Zorro (who, by the way, only dons his traditional costume twice throughout!), after they discover that he has no sympathy for their old enemy Cardinal Richelieu (who is left strapped to a chair by Scott!). Eventually, they go to Madrid to retrieve the girl Zorro has returned safely home because only then will they be pardoned by the King over the affront done to Richelieu…but, in the meantime, their army has emerged victorious in the conflict and Scott sentenced to death for high treason – so, they decide to (literally) save his neck.

While normally, it is D'Artagnan and Athos who get the lion's share of attention, here they are the most anonymous since both were not even deigned of star presences; on the other hand, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart is Aramis and the ubiquitous Livio Lorenzon Porthos! Given its pedigree, the film does not take itself too seriously – with the best joke involving the Musketeers getting the executioners drunk on the eve of Scott's proposed demise but being themselves overcome by wine and almost missing their appointment in the public square! On the other hand, we get a quartet of comic-relief servants – one of whom is tongue-tied and even allotted a Sicilian accent redolent of lowbrow farces! – for the Musketeers (to go along with Zorro's own bungling sidekick) who turn up out of nowhere at one point but then just keep resurfacing for no very good reason!! Apart from being attractively set against a backdrop of large fountains in a palace garden, the climax reverses the typical formula of having a number of opponents to the lone protagonist by pitting the weak villain against our five heroes all at once! A measure of the carelessness involved, however, sees Aramis romance the female lead's lady-in-waiting throughout and then leave at the end of the picture without so much as a backwards glance! Given the below average results obtained here by director Capuano, I am somewhat wary now of the fact that I have at least four other similar efforts of his in my unwatched collection…

LORNA DOONE (Phil Karlson, 1951) **1/2, 2 April 2014

This Hollywood rendition of the British literary classic by R.D. Blackmore was dubbed "grotesque" by the late, eminent but notoriously conservative film critic Leslie Halliwell where, he opined, the narrative was treated "as if it were a Western"! Such a damning assessment did not augur well, to be sure – but, then, Leonard Maltin rated it higher than the director's best-regarded costumer i.e. the just-watched THE BRIGAND (1952). The truth, as often happens, lies somewhere in between: while the plot does feel like a typical 'terrorized homestead' scenario, it is nevertheless engaging (indeed, more so than the better-received 1934 version that had preceded this viewing!) and, to its credit, looks veritably gorgeous in the Technicolor print shown on Australian HD-TV I acquired (despite the "Back Soon" and "Now" announcements signalling frequent commercial breaks!). Still, it does not quite have the impetus to rise above the clichés – lacking the wit and verve that would characterize THE BRIGAND and substituting glumness, ill-matched stars (Barbara Hale and Richard Greene) and a decidedly anodyne villain (William Bishop)!

While the essence of the tale, at least as shown in the earlier adaptation, is there, a number of crucial differences are also on hand – which, again, can either work in its favour or against: first of all, the Doones (headed by siblings Carl Benton Reid and Onslow Stevens) reside in a castle and, rather than mere bandits, are overlords enslaving the people a' la Prince John in the Robin Hood legends; the male protagonist here is a soldier in King Charles II (not James!)'s army, so that the opposition he offers involves military tactics (a planned sneak attack by way of the waterfall which had introduced the hero to Lorna as kids) instead of just an impulsive personal vendetta; the character of Tom Faggus (played this time around by Ron Randell) is much more important here but, then, his romance with Greene's barely- registering sister feels contrived; a number of violent scenes (floggings, hangings) are incorporated, culminating in full-blown swashbuckling action at the climax; there is not one but two interrupted wedding ceremonies (in both of which Lorna is the prospective bride!), with the last semi-tragic one preceding the inevitable showdown between her two contenders – which, however, ends with the predictable fall from a great height and not a marshland drowning; Lorna's background (a spiteful kidnapping stunting her regal birthright), on the other hand, is more than adequately dealt with…since the King himself comes into play on a couple of occasions!. With this, I am now left with the Silent 1922 filmization by Maurice Tourneur to check out – while marking the start of a three-movie mini-marathon dedicated to Greene as part of my current Epic Easter viewings.

REVOLT OF THE PRAETORIANS (Alfonso Brescia, 1964) **1/2, 2 April 2014

Considering the sheer amount of cast and crew members that were ported over here from THE TWO GLADIATORS (1964), it appears the two films were made back-to-back; for this one, however, co-scriptwriter Alfonso Brescia was elevated to the director's chair (it proved to be his debut) and, likewise, a silver-haired(!) Piero Lulli rose the ranks to take on chief villain duties as Emperor Domitian!! Unsurprisingly, the plot was very similar as well – as centurion Richard Harrison and close friend Giuliano Gemma (a senator this time around, so that he eventually ends up in charge of righting the wrongs done to the people) lead the revolt against the tyrannical ruler and his ambitious Egyptian god-worshipping High Priestess consort Moira Orfei.

Amusingly, added camp value comes by way of Harrison having to hide his identity literally under wolf's clothing and, since he still sports his red undergarments, gets dubbed "Red Wolf" by the enemy – thankfully, he did not take the example of Batman and become Wolfman…seeing how he was already Roman (get it?)! Incidentally, the title has little bearing on the narrative as well, because when the Praetorians join the insurrection, it is in the very last stages of the climax and, soon after this, the oppressor's forces lay down their weapons in submission! Typically, too, Harrison's girl is coveted by the Emperor and hated by the latter's neglected (if over-dressed!) wife; Orfei does get kidnapped at one point in order to root out the rebels and locate their hide-out (ingeniously, a slave camp – but, then, when the legionnaires arrive to ambush the group, the prisoners keep tilling the land as if nothing at all was happening around them!). By the way, Lulli has a dwarfish (and, reportedly, virile!) jester who first learns of Harrison's ruse but, surprisingly, is sympathetic to his cause; that said, when he turns up for a couple of secret meetings – thus endangering his personal safety and that of his comrades – he never contributes much to the table!

Though the copy I acquired off "You Tube" was in the original Italian language, the credits were all in French and, for what it is worth, cuts off rather too abruptly at the end (barely giving the obligatory cheering crowd a chance to register!). All things considered, the movie – colourful and action-packed (with a few athletic stunts for the two male leads a' la Gemma's star-making MY SON, THE HERO {1962}) as it is – emerges as no more than routinely enjoyable…but, for ardent fans of the genre, that is all one asks for from such undemanding fare (except that the format was well able to rise above the norm when its makers put their mind to it)! Finally, it is worth noting just how many peplums were made with the word revolt in their titles: in short order, we had gladiators, slaves, mercenaries, barbarians, etc.

LORNA DOONE (Basil Dean, 1934) ***, 2 April 2014

I was not sure whether I should include two adaptations of the R.D. Blackmore classic (out of three I own) in the current Epic Easter marathon, but various factors decided in their favour. If anything, this British version is well regarded by both Leslie Halliwell and Leonard Maltin – unlike the 1951 U.S. remake but, then, I did already check out two works by the latter's director, Phil Karlson (and have a couple more vehicles lined up by its male star i.e. Richard Greene)…

Anyway, I had been forewarned that the quality of the print for the title under review would be problematic but, while there was frequent shakiness to the image, it did not prove too distracting all things considered. Incidentally, the IMDb lists this among a number of films revolving around the figure of the English King Charles II – but James II is actually stated as being the royal at the time of the events (mid- to-late 1600s)! While the narrative was perhaps not terribly compelling (I do own a "Classics Illustrated" edition of it, dating from 1946, but I had long since forgotten its content!), the movie undeniably evokes the era being depicted through both pictorial (it was lauded for the outdoor location sequences) and aural (characters have a tendency here to burst into quaint singing, especially the titular heroine!) means.

The plot deals with a boy farmer intent on avenging his father's death at the hands of bandits, but his life is saved one day near a waterfall by a girl member; when they grow up (he being played by John Loder and she by the unfamiliar Victoria Hopper) and he keeps seeing her – against his understandably disapproving mother's wishes – the two naturally fall in love! Opposition to their union, however, also comes from her camp – since she is coveted by leader Roy Emerton, in an impressive performance of ripe villainy that comes complete with diabolical cackle! His climactic come-uppance in the marshes at the hands of Loder constitutes the obvious highlight of the film, particularly in view of its abandoning natural sound and being accompanied solely by dramatic underscoring.

Complementing the central romance (which has an agreeable "amour fou" element to it, down to Lorna's unlikely survival from a gunshot wound at her wedding ceremony by the jealous Emerton!) is a secondary one, ironically by actors still in the early phase of their career but who would rise far above what the nominal leads ever achieved, namely a debuting Margaret Lockwood and a young Roger Livesey (years before he became a Powell and Pressburger staple)!! Incidentally, the IMDb lists Jack Hawkins as having an undefined role here but I certainly did not spot him! If there is a failing to the film, it is in the fact that the revelation of Lorna being blue-blooded after all (that is, she had been kidnapped by the Doones as a child and raised as one of their own vilified kind) does not quite carry the impact it certainly ought to have!

THE SECRET MARK OF D'ARTAGNAN (Siro Marcellini, 1962) **1/2, 30 March 2014

The chance of learning of an obscure "Peplum" while leafing through Leonard Maltin's Film Guide on one day and coming across the film in its entirety on "You Tube" on the next is very remote…but this is exactly what just happened to me with this Italian variation on the classic Alexandre Dumas tales - in its original language but with hardcoded Greek subtitles, no less! While my rating agrees with the one bestowed on it by the genial American film critic, I have to say that overall this was a rather half-hearted entry in the prolific screen adventures of the altruistic quartet…so much so that only two of them (D'Artagnan and Porthos) put in an appearance here, they are on Cardinal Richelieu's side this time around(!) and, worse still, all that the 40-strong band of villainous conspirators against the French King seem prone to do are meet in various mansions around Paris to discuss what their next move shall be! Consequently, D'Artagnan is forced to show his eminence a secret fencing trick (as per the film's original title) with which he will mark the traitors' foreheads and rout them out…alas, it is nothing more elaborate than a scar in the shape of an "X"!

If the plot (co-written by the American Milton Krims!) is no great shakes, the solid production values and interesting cast make up for that: the enemies of France take to meeting dressed up as friars in a church at the start of the film – which is how we first meet D'Artagnan (George Nader)!; at the same time, we are also introduced to his main antagonist here, treacherous nobleman Georges Marchal (in his official "Peplum" appearance) – whose niece (Magali Noel), unsurprisingly, lives nearby, still roots for the King and nurses the musketeer back to health and right into her heart! True to formula, she also has a swooning maid who falls for Porthos' gruff charm – who, incidentally, had been whisked out of his farmyard retirement by D'Artagnan earlier on. Massimo Serato only has a few scenes as the resourceful Cardinal but easily steals every one of them from under the noses of his colleagues; Carlo Rustichelli's rousing score is another welcome addition to the generally pleasing if unassuming mix. In conclusion, director Marcellini only helmed a handful of movies and I should be watching the Gianni Maria Canale-starring THE DEVIL'S CAVALIERS (1959) before this Epic Easter marathon has run its course; besides, Marchal had already appeared in previous adaptations of "The Three Musketeers", namely as D'Artagnan to Gino Cervi's Porthos in Andre Hunebelle's 1953 eponymous film version.

THE TWO GLADIATORS (Mario Caiano, 1964) **1/2, 30 March 2014

Not wishing merely to watch yet another gladiator movie in such quick succession, I was relieved to find that this here revolved around the antics of the third mad man to lead the Roman Empire on a course of self-destruction, Commodus. According to the IMDb, this is also the second of three Peplums to deal with that tyrant out of a total of five movies made; the remaining two, quite obviously, are the acclaimed Samuel Bronston/Anthony Mann epic THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964; released two months prior to the film under review) and Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning and Malta-shot GLADIATOR (2000). While the Commodus of the latter two (portrayed by Christopher Plummer and Joaquin Phoenix respectively) had a lean built and were insane or ill-tempered egomaniacs, the one here – essayed as a virile, bloodthirsty athlete by a miscast Mimmo Palmara – falls far short of hitting their marks. Even so, this version of events is clearly the superior one to emanate from Italy; although this type of fare has not been broadcast on Italian TV as regularly as it used to be, some good souls have uploaded several rarities like this one on "You Tube" and, in this case, in a refreshingly good condition to boot!

At first, I thought that the title was referring to nominal leads Richard Harrison and Giuliano Gemma – two Roman legionnaires – being arrested and pitted against one another in the arena at some point; however, since these two actually formed part of a devil-may-care trio, I realized that this was not going to be and, indeed, it is Harrison and Palmara (dressed in exactly the same gladiatorial garb from head to foot) who take on each other for the gratification of the Roman masses, with Commodus eventually landing on the wrong side of the blade. Apart from the three above-mentioned actors, there are a couple more genre regulars in the cast, namely Moira Orfei (as Commodus' neglected wife), Piero Lulli (as his ruthless adviser) and Alberto Farnese (as Lulli's henchman, who also nurses an unrequited love for his empress), not to mention director Caiano – of whose 7 such genre works this was his penultimate effort – and co-writer/2nd unit director Alfonso Brescia. Every self-respecting hero needs to have a virginal damsel-in-distress to save and, eventually, hook up with: that part is here played quite blandly by blonde actress Ivy Holzer (lusted after by Commodus and whose rejection he takes out on Orfei) – a name and a face that did not register with me at first but now I realize I have already caught her in a couple of other Peplums and, in fact, have two more lined up for viewing presently.

As already intimated earlier, the story does end exactly as the one told in the above-mentioned concurrent Hollywood epic with the soldier hero (here Commodus' unsuspecting twin brother!) declining the Senate's offer to become emperor…albeit with a more optimistic outcome as he leaves the reins of Rome in the hands of a trusted senator, while he runs into the arms of his beloved and the comfort zone of his cohorts of legionnaires. Before that, however, we have seen Commodus learning of Harrison's threatening existence, having him arrested and put in the dungeons in the same cell as Holzer (incarcerated by a jealous Orfei), escaping and leading a revolt with the help of the rather irritatingly gambling-mad Gemma, his equally-occupied pal and a sympathetic innkeeper. Orfei also eventually befriends Holzer, is subsequently rejected by Farnese and gets mowed down by pursuing Praetorians during a night-time excursion to the politically-charged tavern. All in all, while not a particularly notable entry in the prolific genre, it passes the time agreeably enough and does not outstay its welcome.

SWORD OF VENUS (Harold Daniels, 1953) **, 30 March 2014

This is easily the most obscure – judging also by the poor quality of the print obtained – offshoot of the Alexandre Dumas perennial "The Count Of Monte Cristo" with, unsurprisingly, a totally meaningless title and a cheapjack production (by the ubiquitous writer/producer team of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg) into the bargain! Ironically, out of the five films related to the tale I have watched in the last few days, it is the only one in which that character has made a personal appearance – but, given, his embarrassingly doddering state here (inaudibly egging a coachman on to hasten the journey towards the scene of a duel between his philandering son - which had already provoked a catfight in a tawdry nightspot - and slighted best friend, yet fainting as soon as he is on his feet from all the excitement…not to mention eventually expiring from a mere broken heart over his heir's apparent ingratitude!) really does him no credit!!

Incidentally, rather than appropriating the famed treasure for themselves, the trio of villains – two of them off-springs of Edmond Dantes' old enemies and the sole survivor, Dan O'Herlihy's wily Danglars – they determine to have the son convicted of a staged murder (one would think a change of tactic was in order so as not to immediately give themselves away…yet The Son Of Monte Cristo himself seems blissfully unaware of their identity here!?), while obtaining his signature in prison, so that his estate can then be sold off to third parties and rendering the old man's legacy obsolete!! The plot does get inordinately complex for this type of fare: characters not only repeatedly feign to be someone else, but even take turns hiding under bandages (one of the biggest laughs here has the man posing as the hero being first pierced through with a spear then literally climbing over a balcony to exacerbate the drama of his demise with a fall!).

While protagonist Robert Clarke leaves much to be desired (naturally, the female member of his antagonistic trio becomes thoroughly besotted by his charms and has a change of heart – but whose final clinch is bafflingly interrupted by a toast being given in another room of the Monte Cristo location by utterly peripheral figures!), the 73-minute film is watchable for the participation of William Schallert as a drunken solicitor (also in cahoots with Danglars et al) and particularly O'Herlihy – clearly playing a man older than his real age, yet looking far sprightlier than the Count himself! – who lends his usual gravitas to the often silly and all-too-familiar proceedings (he also has a way with words, nonchalantly instructing a loutish innkeeper memorizing his deceitful speech to the young Dantes not to "vomit" the words!). In conclusion, I have three further adaptations of the original source to go through (from 1922 with John Gilbert, the renowned 1929 3-part French Silent version, and an 8-hour 1966 Italian TV mini-series), may be able to get my hands on one more (also French but dating from 1961, with Louis Jourdan) as well as yet another Pollexfen/Wisberg spin-off (the 1949 noir THE TREASURE OF MONTE CRISTO)…!

THE SPARTAN GLADIATORS (Alberto De Martino, 1964) **, 30 March 2014

A number of peplums distributed in the U.S. via MGM often used to turn up on the TCM UK cable channel; in fact, I had caught up with DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962) and HERCULES, SAMSON AND ULYSSES (1964) in previous Easter marathons – while the film under review, another such instance, had eluded me but, apparently, this also occurred on Italian TV…since the copy I now watched off "You Tube" was derived from a screening on a particular channel that is no longer available in my neck of the woods, but on which such genre outings had long been a matinée' staple!

Anyway, this is a thoroughly routine effort – even if not as bad as some entries I have watched previously. Both the international and Italian titles, however, are a reference to nothing in particular as, while there are characters emanating from Sparta and the hero does a stint as a gladiator at some point, neither issue is ultimately given much weight! That said, it was called LA RIVOLTA DEI SETTE (literally "Revolt Of The Seven") on its home ground – which, again, alludes to the amount of people engaged in opposing the villain (I do not even call him tyrant as in myriad other such fare, since he is only looking out to protect himself from being exposed as a traitor!); yet, their number is never discussed, nor do they possess any special skills a' la THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) – which one supposes was the point behind it to begin with! In fact, even though the townspeople are never shown as being oppressed or even in on what the heroes were up to, they still take time out at the end to bid a long-drawn-out farewell to departing hero Tony Russel et al!

For good measure, we also have the intrusion on the dreary main narrative of elements from two popular swashbucklers: Rafael Sabatini's "Scaramouche" in the fact that the rebel group adopts a traveling show disguise (or rather appropriates a genuine one towards its end, with Livio Lorenzon hammily quoting Greek Tragedy every time he opens his mouth and the whole crew dressing up as vestal virgins for a caper at a crowded temple, the object being an incriminating statue!) and Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" (given that Massimo Serato's mysterious relationship with Helga Line' – though both are wasted here – recalls that between Athos and Milady De Winter!). The climax, then, sees the obligatory showdown turning into a veritable mudfight for no very good reason…while, in the foreground, two unfortunate horses attached to a chariot are struggling to get up on their feet all through the scene! Having said that, as if to claim authorship of his movies, the director has Serato interrupt Russel's execution of the villain so that he himself can accomplish that task in return for the latter's killing of Line'…as had been the case with the finale of De Martino's THE INVINCIBLE GLADIATOR (1961)!

THE BRIGAND (Phil Karlson, 1952) ***, 30 March 2014

This was one swashbuckler I had been looking forward to for some time but, while it did not disappoint, the overall experience was tarnished, first, by the fact that the copy acquired was of merely adequate picture quality (TCM-sourced but bearing washed-out colours – bordering on monochrome during outdoor night sequences!) when it was issued as a MOD DVD-R last year and, worse, the print was missing some footage at the climax (given away by an abrupt cut from exterior to interior!) suggesting there had been a hiccup with the recording!! Now, considering the film was an unauthorized riff on "The Prisoner Of Zenda" (albeit acknowledging inspiration from an unnamed Alexandre Dumas tale, unless they were just alluding to the central dual role of his "The Man In The Iron Mask"!), it is ironic to note that, when the definitive 1937 version of the Anthony Hope classic was scheduled on local TV in the mid-1980s, I had myself erroneously pressed the pause button while taping that broadcast!!

Anyway, the title of the movie is not only generic (which is perhaps why we begin in the Moroccan desert and then move on to a more typical Ruritanian setting!) but a misnomer – since protagonist Anthony Dexter was an officer in the service of the Sultan entrusted with routing brigands rather than one himself!! Even so, that very epithet is indeed applied to him by the schemers involved when the ruse of his taking over for a foppish and indisposed (via a freak hunting 'accident') lookalike ruler is discovered. A more charismatic Anthony Quinn reprises villainous usurper duties for director Karlson from the Zorro/Monte Cristo hybrid MASK OF THE AVENGER (1951), as does Jody Lawrance – now dark-haired as opposed to brunette – in the female lead stakes (though she has to romantically vie with Gale Robbins for the star's attention here…thus demoting Quinn's second billing in the previous film to a lowly fourth in this case!). While that had been a quite pleasant effort, this is altogether superior – though Dexter (his frequent dancing routines imply that he was somewhat cursed by his own resemblance to Rudolph Valentino, whom he had portrayed in a fictionalized biopic the previous year!) was essentially small improvement over John Derek, the supporting cast does include the likes of Carl Benton Reid and Ron Randell as the hero's adviser and protector respectively (functions also performed by characters found in "Zenda"!).

While such shameless borrowings (including the naturalized Arab's unfamiliarity with court etiquette…but, then, the ballroom skills he displays are easily explained by his Portuguese heritage!) would normally condemn a 'B' movie such as this to mediocrity – tellingly, that same year, a merely average remake (despite being a scene-for-scene copy!) of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA was released by MGM – the film under review has an undeniable flair to it that one readily forgives the flaws, preferring to be engaged in the simple joys of the familiar yet still thrilling narrative (whose ending, at least, differs from its prototype)!! For the record, I have another Dexter adventure on the back-burner, namely THE BLACK PIRATES (1954), and would also be interested in checking out the similarly historical CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH AND POCAHONTAS (1953) and CAPTAIN KIDD AND THE SLAVE GIRL (1954)…

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