Monday, February 14, 2011

Maciste, Nos. 8 - 20 (1962 - 1964)

It’s time once again to switch back over to Maciste, and cover a little ground here in anticipation for the GREAT CROSSOVER. Seven movies down, we have sixteen to go (and we’ll have to stop and look at the Ursus franchise at some point too). (There’s a final Maciste which follows the GREAT CROSSOVER, but forget it for now.) Fortunately, from a certain perspective, most of the remaining Macistes are unavailable for convenient viewing, allowing for a day of laziness and speculation.

Because it is consistently unclear how these films were produced, the easiest thing to do is to ignore release order (mostly), and instead focus upon the great Macistean actors, and their chunks of work.

MARK FOREST (The greatest – i.e. most prolific – Maciste of all, of Maciste in the Valley of the Kings and Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World.)

Maciste, the World's Strongest Gladiator (1962): This is among the most obscure of all pepla, so information is pretty scant. In it, Maciste tries to rescue a tyrannized kingdom from the rule of an evil seductress queen (Scilla Gabel this time), while – Okay, that’s the story of every movie covered today. Spelling that out is like explaining that people die in a horror movie.

As part of Maciste’s time- and space-jumping shenanigans, this one takes place in Asia (in someplace called Mersabad), though the images I can find look as Roman as anything else. In it, Maciste goes undercover as a gladiator in order to get close to the seditious elements in the government, as other gladiators fight to stop him.
It’s the Gladiator plot, more or less, though more pertinently is reflects director Michele Lupo’s other gladiatorial efforts, like Seven Slaves Against the World and Seven Rebel Gladiators. Yes, the Maciste movie invokes seven gladiators as well. (And NO Seven Samurai connection!)

Maciste, the World's Greatest Hero (1963): Michele Lupo continues imprinting his unique vision upon the Mark Forest Maciste movies, this time taking the exact same story to Babylon, meaning they’ll have to drape a slightly different-looking leopard hide over the scenery. The specific form of oligarchic mismanagement Maciste is battling this time? The yearly sacrifice of 30 nubile, comely virgins. What a waste! Maciste goes to prevent this, not by devirginificating all the sacrificees, but through the standard method of throwing big things at anonymous royal soldiers, and possibly seducing/getting seduced by the queen.

Of note – Babylon’s vile ruler Xandros is played by Italy’s cherished Guiliano Gemma, who later headlined in a few of the Ringo Spaghetti Westerns.

Maciste, Gladiator of Sparta (1964): Forest at last ditches Lupo for another director of similar talents, Mario Caiano. And with all the temporal indecisiveness, Maciste still cannot resist the siren call of Ancient Rome. So it’s a genuine, historical (at least, as much as cheap Italian genre fare is willing) take on the conflict between the Romans and early Christians. This means there is at least some justification for the essential once-per-film lion wrestling scene.
Qualitatively, this seems to be no better or worse than anything else in its movement. It’s all becoming one big blur.


Maciste vs. the Mongols (1963)

Maciste in Genghis Khan’s Hell (1964)

KIRK MORRIS (Of the tremendously crappy Maciste vs. the Headhunters.)

Maciste in Hell (1962): In Maciste’s 1960s craze to be a perfect shadow of the Hercules series, its version of Hercules in the Haunted World had to come about at some point. That means an overt embrace of the more fantastical peplum elements, as Hercules – excuse me, Maciste – travels into the underworld to confront a witch who has cursed the Earth, or some such. This witch Fania (Hélène Chanel) no doubt conforms to the usual evil queen dynamic, for as idiosyncratic as this entry seems to be. Then cue duels against lion, eagles, giants, snakes, oh my.

Even with that, Maciste in Hell is an odd duck indeed. Time Lord Maciste is now in 17th century Scotland, presumably still sporting the skimpy-toga-and-nothing-else fashion combo so favored by the Greeks of yore. No explanation asked for or given. Hercules-aping aside, there is precedent for doing this with Maciste, as a 1925 film under the same name did likewise with the silent series.

Directorially, Maciste in Hell comes to us from Riccardo Freda, which is not for nothing. A prolific director of Italian sword-and-sandal epics even before it was cool (1953’s Sins of Rome), Freda is best known for his horror work, especially The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Ghost, much like…like Mario Bava, director of Hercules in the Haunted World. In fact, Bava was cinematographer on some of Freda’s earlier adventure films, Freda’s true love (he never had much use for horror, despite his reputation in the field). The learner became the master, as Bava wonderfully wed surrealistic horror with peplum nonsense. So as Bava did for the Herc, Freda did for Mac. What an interesting little horrific showdown within the greater beefcake world of Hercules & Co.

The Triumph of Maciste (1962): Next location – Memphis. That’s Egypt, I presume, and not Tennessee. Maciste battles an evil queen, ho hum, virgins are now getting sacrificed to the God of Fire, was there always so little sense of experimentation in most of these? The Feats of Strength™ all sound culled from former, greater Herculeseseses. And since there’s a volcano (what for the sacrificin’), cue the same cruddy eruption footage which shamed Maciste vs. the Headhunters. Justification for this film’s utter tediousness, even in secondary materials, is its director, Tanio Boccia, presumably a lifelong apathetic who shot films with the mechanical disinterest of a porn star nearing retirement. He’s occasionally called Italy’s Ed Wood, only without the joy de vivre which makes Ed’s travesties so marvelous.

Maciste at the Court of the Czar (1964): Okay, so it’s Russia now.

By 1964 (and we’re jumping around a bit in order to address the actor clumps), the sword-and-sandals movement was dying out, stagnating, and without creativity in regards to the fundamental issues of structure or tone. The only solution was a desperate gambit to plug the formula into increasingly-inappropriate settings. So we take Maciste, unaltered from the Greco-Roman-Egypto-Judeo-Pan-Asian original model, and splat him down into pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia. It’s cold there, by the fur hats the less buff dudes wear, but Maciste is still perfectly comfortable in his PG-rated nudity, and anxious to stab Cossacks.

The token plot: Maciste is sent by the Czar (or Csar, or Tzar, or Tsar) on a treasure hunt. Then the Czar tries to kill him when he returns. Evil queen: Ombretta Colli, as Sonia.

Valley of the Thundering Echo (1964), aka Maciste and the Women of the Valley, double-aka Hercules of the Desert, originally La valle dell’eco tonante: Innocent land protected by the natural barrier that is the Valley of The Thundering Echo. Queen Farida (evil, Hélène Chanel again, meh) wants to conquer this land. The innocent people summon Maciste as their protector, brought forth directly from the rock itself.

Huh?! This is the first time they’ve gone that far in literalizing the meaning of Maciste’s name (in Italian, it roughly means “of the rock”). There have been hints at it before, but never this. Otherwise, this movie (whatever its name is) sounds like among the most boring, thankless, desultory of all pepla. Which means it’s another of Tanio Boccia’s efforts.

ALAN STEEL (Nee Gianfranco Parolini.)

Zorro vs. Maciste (1963): It’s 1963 now, and soon enough to start the great, suicidal search for a new peplum setting. Like the Samson series, Zorro vs. Maciste settles upon swashbuckler-era Spain. This is really in order to fashion a title which suggests, spuriously, that we’ve a mighty muscleman crossover, much like the dreadful Maciste vs. Hercules in the Vale of Woe, or Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, or the upcoming and unnamed GREAT CROSSOVER. This is not the case.

Yes, Maciste is running up against the famous swordsman Zorro (transplanted into 16th century Spain from 18th century California, because the Italians don’t care), but this has nothing to do with any other Zorro movies. How’s that? Well, Zorro originated in literature, not film, and thus his use in film constitutes different rules of continuity and franchise – much like the disparate number of Sherlock Holmes movies, or even Hercules himself (whose non-pepla have nothing to do with the Reeves series). Still, a known name like “Zorro” holds more sway than, say, Maciste in the Land of Conquistadors or whatever the hell.

We know Maciste and Zorro (or Zorraux, really) must fight, then team up and fight a greater foe. It’s the pattern of most such matchups, in true “Batman vs. Superman” senses. This means an outside force will initially put the two heroes at each others’ necks. Fortunately, every peplum comes with a factory-installed dichotomy, the good girl and the evil girl. So in this case, each one yearns to inherit the throne of the deceased rey; the goodie hires trusty Maciste, while Zorro becomes the bitch’s tool.

The only question is who’ll play opposite Alan Steel’s unemotive frame as Zorro? Frenchman Pierre Brice, who most famously plated a Native American in Germany’s homegrown Karl May westerns. Here playing a Californian-turned-Spaniard. There is some weird nationalistic stuff going on here.


Maciste and the Queen of Samar (1964) (More amusingly titled Hercules Against the Moon Men!)

REG PARK (The best Hercules not named Steve Reeves.)

Maciste in King Solomon's Mines (1964): Maciste hears about cruel enslavement, people worked silly in some tyrant’s mines. He goes to rescue them, and due to his own unintelligence, instead becomes yet another slave – because of the fetishistic “pleasures” people get in seeing burly fellows enchained. Basically, it sounds like Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World or that Hercules movie I watched 2 days ago whose name I forget. The only new detail is the latest magical plot device of destiny, an ankle bracelet which causes Maciste to lose his free will. In Italy, that’s called an “acting contract.”

REG LEWIS (Not to be confused with the same-named English footballer with an actual Wikipedia page.)

Maciste vs. the Monsters (1962): Or “Monster,” really. Singular. One. A sea monster, which Maciste (or Maxxus, in the U.S.) defeats for the Sun People. Then he frees them from the cruel yoke of the Moon People, because if we’ve learned anything from Maciste, it’s that sun = good, moon = bad. I can understand these childish sexual dichotomies and even the racist stuff on occasion, but I don’t get this whole anti-moon agenda.

Not much else to say about this one. It seems to take place in the Ice Age, which is nothing new. It has a 3.9 on the IMDb, which is actually pretty high for this type of movie. Still, having not seen the papier maché beastie on display, this is just a big question mark. And I’m happy to leave it that way.

ED FURY (Isn’t he one of the Avengers?)

Maciste vs. the Sheik (1962): It’s another sword-and-sandals-by-way-of-swashbuckler, which by now is starting to feel as tired as the classic Roman thing. It’s the Maciste take on the Moors, which I cannot imagine turning out tastefully. An alternate title is Maciste in Africa, meaning a franchise which treats Africans like sambo-dancing watermelon enthusiasts is now focusing upon that lamentable caricature. I’m glad I didn’t see this, and good riddance to you, Ed Fury. Go back to doing your Ursus movies, which we’ll get to soon enough.

RICHARD LLOYD (Also known as Iloosh Khoshabe, an Iranian briefly granted peplum obscurity prior to overall obscurity.)

The Invincible Brothers Maciste (1964): When one Maciste isn’t enough (basically because Italy was never satisfied with Khoshabe’s solo genre contributions), we have two, the Elder and the Younger (Mario Novelli). Also an evil queen, Thaliade, an evil prince, Akim, and a boring nonentity, Jana. And a nice girl, Nice. Yes, Nice.

Much standard loincloth gobbledygook, enlivened only by the magical Waterfall of Mind Control. Also, and underground race of leopard men. This one is so danged obscure, most of this information comes courtesy of the New York Times’ 71-word “review” from 1964.

Only one more (for today)!

SAMSON BURKE (A Canadian. His most famous film: The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.)

Totò vs Maciste (1962): Well this one, at least, is a change of pace! At last a peplum with some tonal differences! Not just the usual body ogling and sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-Spartacus-ing. This one’s a parody!

Well, wait, they tried this general approach in a previous Maciste/Hercules mash-up, Vale of Woe – which is the absolute worst sword-and-sandals I’ve seen, which is saying something. This one seems to stand a chance, at least, at it’s done by one Italy’s greatest comic minds in his twilight years. That’d be Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi, otherwise called Totò. Behold, a partial filmography: Fifa e Arena, Totò al Giro d’Italia, Totò Sceicco, Totò e la donne, Totò Tarzan, Totò terzo uomo, Totò a colori, Totò, Peppino e la malefemmina. Whoa.

One’s confidence in a Totò entry wanes when one realizes Mario Mattoli, the director who perpetrated Vale of Woe, was a frequent Totò collaborator. So this is likely at a similar level of wit and cinematic competence, and thus we’ll look no further into it. Still, once parodies start comin’ out, that surely means a genre is on its last legs, or in dire need of innovation. That latter approach would bever fly with the regimented Italian filmmakers who’d embraced the peplum, so rather let’s take Totò vs Maciste as a sign of impending doom. A rather early sigh, surprisingly, as the peplum would sputter on for another two listless years more. That just shows how stubborn genre practitioners are, even when they’re so quick to copy success when it happens. Would that I could call this parodic entry the end of the movement, but it’s but a blip in the overall swamp. We must press onwards, and watch the available Mark Forest Macistes which popped up in Totò’s wake.

The Silent Maciste Franchise (1914 - 1927)
• No. 1 Maciste in the Valley of the Kings (1960)
• No. 2 Maciste vs. the Headhunters (1960)
• No. 3 Maciste in the Land of the Cyclops (1961)
• No. 6 Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World (1961)
• No. 7 Maciste Against Hercules in the Vale of Woe (1961)
• No. 21 Maciste vs. the Mongols (1963)
• No. 22 Maciste in Genghis Khan's Hell (1964)
• No. 23 Maciste and the Queen of Samar (1964)
• No. 24 Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus (1964)

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