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TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND LIGHTS (Umberto Lenzi, 1965) ***
The fact that I watch so many movies and of such diverse genres means that titles are sometimes bound to fall through the cracks, as it were: this third Umberto Lenzi screen adaptation of an Emilio Salgari literary original is certainly one of them; although I knew it was available from 'ulterior sources', somehow I never acquired it but, luckily, managed to do so now swiftly enough – following my recent viewing of SANDOKAN: PIRATE OF MALAYSIA (1964) – in time for its inclusion in my ongoing Easter Epic marathon. Having said that, my abstention from DVD purchasing in the last few years has also led to my not keeping abreast of what rare catalogue titles were getting issued on this format; consequently, I was very surprised to find out that this had in fact been given a R1 DVD release via "Euro-Cult" specialist label Mya Communication back in 2010 under the irrelevant and misleading moniker of SANDOK (a deliberate nod to the Sandokan films, to be sure, but a superfluous one under the circumstances - as it could not be further removed from the truth)!
Anyway, this is a very colourful and enjoyable romp that seamlessly melds together two popular genres – exotic adventures and caper thrillers – which, I guess, would find its perfect representation in Steven Spielberg's 1981 blockbuster RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; like in that movie (not to mention every other MUMMY flick!), the illegal appropriation of a precious article – in this case a rare stone ensconced in the front of a huge statue of an Indian goddess – is said to spell disaster for its eventual owner only here the film-makers, with tongue firmly in cheek, genially opt for an out-of-left field end for it: the British crown jewels (via real footage of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation)!! American adventurer Alan Foster (Richard Harrison) has the misfortune of running up a huge gambling debt with a 'friendly' Indian Rajah (Daniele Vargas) who demands that it be repaid in full on the very next morning; the latter will only relent if Foster – who boasts of having been the one to rob the Bank of New York – acquires for him "The Mountain Of Light" (the film's original Italian title), the aforementioned jewel in a temple heavily guarded by religious fanatics.
Apart from the genuine fun to be had as the tale itself unfolds, the most remarkable thing about this film – especially for one coming from this stable and from this timeframe – is the fact that, while all stock characters and situations associated with the genre(s) are present and accounted for, they often take an unexpected form: every self-respecting hero has to have a damsel-in-distress (love interest) to rescue, a dastardly opponent (villain) to defeat and a charismatic sidekick (comic relief) to abet him. However, the woman only comes into the picture in its last third(!); likewise, the obligatory dance number that is always one of the ingredients in exotic adventure fare comes very early on here and serves a definite plot point rather than just adding local colour. Indeed, it is the unheralded whipping of the girl (Luciana Gilli) after she accidentally bumps into the Rajah that reveals the latter's true colours for the first time, just as Foster's defence of the girl here will lead to her helping him eventually; by the end of the film, however, even the Rajah has seemingly converted and concedes that the rightful place for "The Mountain Of Light" to be is inside the statue's forehead.
Similarly, the hero's volatile association with an impoverished, smelly fakir (Wilbert Bramley) runs the whole gamut from amicable banter to professional partnership (his participation in the ingenious TOPKAPI- style robbery sequence inside the rat-infested temple is essential to the success of the enterprise) to homicidal pursuit; it is from his clutches that he is running when he bursts into the dancer's quarters! As it turns out, the fakir had been the Rajah's henchman all along and is not averse to whipping the girl himself as she is strapped to a stone in a cavern. Apart from the aforementioned cheekily irreverent epilogue (with Harrison suddenly addressing the audience straight-to-camera), another comic highlight is watching our hero, painted black and donning a turban, parading as a mute outside the temple because he has stuffed the stolen jewel into his mouth for temporary safekeeping! In conclusion, I think that this handsomely-mounted production, lensed by cinematographer Angelo Lotti and set to a pleasantly atmospheric score by Francesco De Masi, should be much better known than it is and, as far as I know, has bafflingly never even been shown on terrestrial Italian TV! I guess I also ought to mention here in passing that an earlier India-set Umberto Lenzi/Richard Harrison collaboration, THREE SERGEANTS OF BENGAL (1964), remains an elusive entity...since the sole available full-length copy (only a half-hour's worth, dubbed in English, is accessible via "You Tube"!) was ripped off Italian Cable TV but, then, bafflingly had the original Italian audio replaced with the English track!! Similarly, one other Lenzi-helmed epic set against this colourful backdrop i.e. TEMPLE OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT (1964) is only accessible via either a French or German-dubbed version...the original title of which, incidentally, would literally translate to SANDOK, THE MACISTE OF THE JUNGLE!!
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