Monday, February 25, 2008

Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators

1964 Colour 99 Minutes


This “sword and sandal” tale recounts the gladiator rebellion led by Spartacus, who organizes a revolt of his fellow gladiators to stop the cruelty of the Coliseum games. At the time, gladiators were forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the rich and powerful members of Roman society. Spartacus and his band of gladiators escape from the pens of the Coliseum and are pursued by Roman centurions with the orders to bring back the rebellious fighters dead or alive.
Star: Dan Vadis

The only thing good about the above synopsis is the term “sword and sandal”, which I’ve adopted as a general description of the genre of this and most of the other movies in this set (having, at this point, watched 4% of the total). I’ve also decided to pluralize it, since none of the characters here has only one foot. Ignore the rest of that synopsis, it’s wildly inaccurate.

The main character of this movie is not Spartacus, played so well and so memorably by Kirk Douglas in the 1960 movie of the same name. I don’t know (and hesitate, a little, to speculate) if Spartacus and Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Tailor) were responsible for spurring the creation of many or any of these 50 Warriors movies, or if there was a general interest in Greek and Roman themed movies in the early 1960’s.

The actual main character of this movie is a very muscular and apparently physically-fit man named “Rocha” or something similar. Sound quality on these movies is poor, and picking up character names is made no easier by the soundtrack (orchestral music throughout). Anyway, Rocha is a gladiator, which means he is apparently forbidden to ever wear a shirt. The movie opens with him and his 9 friends (that part of the title is accurate) witnessing a gruesome fight to the death of other, lower-ranked gladiators including a man forced to fight his own father. Of course, this brave man is saved from killing his father by a combination of his own willingness to stand up to brutal authority and the cooperation of another, unnamed gladiator in the same fight. Despite the senators’ insistence on death, these three condemned men (dude, father, and friend) survive the event, but are sold to a slave dealer in the arena pits instead of suffering death by torture by their owner. Rocha and co. speak up in defence of the brave slave-gladiators, and are promptly fired by their coliseum-employed-or-possibly-owning boss (who was the owner of the other gladiators).

I could be wrong about some of the professional relationships; most of the key events of the first 20 minutes are not of obvious importance until a bit later. Spartacus might have been one of the slave-gladiators; this would fit the Kirk Douglas story, making this an interesting ‘sidequel’ to the legend of Spartacus. I’m not sure about that part, though; the slave-gladiators might have been included only to emphasize the twin evils of slavery and gladiatorial combat.

Cut to the now-unemployed Rocha and co. walking o’er the land (i.e. Italy, circa 1 AD). Rocha is perhaps the tallest of the 10 gladiators, certainly he is not the largest (one huge guy with a beard fills that role; that guy also drives the horse cart). Rocha does have the best hair, though. They grumble about their recent lack of food, until they see a fight going on, including the ever-popular damsel in distress. Being men of valour (and large muscles, and no shirts), the 10 gladiators rush into the fight and save the woman from the bandits. She turns out to be the daughter of a senator, and rather arrogant, too. There’s a longish sequence of the gladiators being amused that she’s upset she was knocked to the ground by a gladiator to save her from an arrow launched by one of the bandits.

Once everyone gets over their initial disturbance (girl) and mild aerobic workout (gladiators), they head back to the senator’s mansion. The senator wishes to thank the gladiators, Rocha insists they would not have done any different regardless of her wealth and rank, more conversation follows, food is mentioned, and the gladiators decide to stay a while. The senator, over dinner, describes how these bandits have been causing trouble for a while, and are led by a rebellious slave / badguy named “Spartacus”. At this point, slave-trader dude from the Coliseum shows up – he’s the chief of security for the senator, and has just gotten back from yet another unsuccessful attempt to track down and capture Spartacus and friends. The gladiators are talked into promising to capture this foul bandit Spartacus (who launches arrows at beautiful women!), and set off the next morning.

The gladiators find Spartacus’ camp without significant difficulty, and hatch a cunning plan to capture the ex-slave in broad daylight. They get caught sneaking into the camp, and Rocha ends up fighting Spartacus mano-a-mano. This fight lasts long enough for both men to tire completely, and for everyone else (including the other kidnappers/gladiators) to hang out on the grass and watch. As in all good closely-matched fights, by the end Spartacus and Rocha are best friends. The gladiators get the real story (slaves mistreated, Spartacus rebelled) and agree to help Spartacus get out of Italy. They agree to head back to the senator to try to convince him to leave Spartacus alone, since they’re not really bandits, they’re trying to leave and just want out.

The senator (of course) turns out to be quite the bad guy; not only did he have his chief of security follow the gladiators (so he knows where Spartacus’ camp is), he drugs the gladiators’ wine and locks them up in his dungeon. Then he tells his daughter (who has taken a fancy to one of the gladiators; not Rocha) they took off without saying goodbye. Then the senator takes off for Rome to ask for help in capturing Spartacus.

Lots of filler sequences happen, but eventually the daughter helps the gladiators get out of the dungeon, and they’re off to warn Spartacus that things are going poorly. Sadly, the senator’s security forces already got to the camp while Spartacus was away and burned it to the ground. Spartacus shows up, cries, and vows vengeance against Rome. The gladiators decide to go to the senator’s big work project, an aqueduct under construction.

A little bit of reconnoitring happens, Rocha makes contact with some of the slaves captured from Spartacus’ camp (including, of course, a beautiful woman), and plans are laid for the eventual arrival of Spartacus and his army. Rocha tries to break into the camp, for a reason I’m still not clear on, and is captured. The senator shows up and decides Rocha should be tortured to death, along with 9 other slaves to remind Rocha of his 9 companions (who are safely ensconced with the local blacksmith). The torture-before-execution is one I hadn’t seen before – the condemned men are hanged by one arm from a large dead tree. That actually looks seriously painful. The beautiful woman tries to organize a slave revolt, Rocha is seconds from getting an arrow through his face (just below his still-perfect hair) when the 9 other gladiators show up with a flaming wagon full of hay, closely followed by Spartacus and his army. Beautiful woman stabs the senator, chaos ensues, and Rocha beats the chief of security into unconsciousness. More chaos.

When they leave the senator’s now-destroyed work camp, Spartacus’ army is ambushed by an entire legion of [his] best troops! Lots of probably-not-sanctioned-by-the-SPCA action happens, the gladiators show up and 20-handedly save the day, and all the surviving good guys search the battlefield for the senator (since they’re still a little pissed at him). The senator survived the fight, and is running away with his (also surviving) chief of security. This degenerates into a chase scene, which is awesome. Rocha on a horse catches up with the chief of security on a chariot pulled by four horses who has also kidnapped the beautiful woman. A fight happens (of course) after some pretty impressive horsemanship by Rocha. He kills the chief of security (with his bare hands, naturally), then everyone lives happily ever after. No mention is made of the famous recaptured-scene for Spartacus; I guess Rocha and co. got to avoid the whole “I’m Spartacus!” part.

OK, that was a really long synopsis of this movie. The fact is, I really enjoyed this movie. I realized about halfway through the big slaves-disrupt-the-execution scene that I was glued to the screen. It really was very absorbing (no, I hadn’t been drinking). The characters are well presented, the bad guy is not just bad, he’s also crafty and intelligent, and quite believable. There are plenty of cool events and scenes, and most of the stunts and fights look very real – no obvious pulled punches, far from it – some of the swordfights look positively dangerous, as the actors were really swinging at each other. Many movies with mass swordfights include background characters half-heartedly swinging slowly at each other. Not here. Even the remote background characters can clearly be seen wailing on each other.

The main actors were mostly American, and most of the dialogue was originally done in English; the entire crew (from the director on down to the key grip) was Italian, and the copyright notice mentions the city of Milan. I can only speculate that these American actors were sent to Italy through some agreement between a Hollywood studio and its Italian counterpart. Like the other movies in this set, no sop was made to the difference in aspect ratio between movies and televisions, but most of the action in this movie happens near the middle of the screen, so it’s not so bad.

Overall, I was very impressed by this movie. The acting was great, the story was exciting and well-told, and the writing was excellent.

**** Four out of five stars.


King Aardvark said...

What happened to the senator? That's way too long of a synopsis to leave that out.

I'm amazed that you actually like the first 2 movies from this anthology. Perhaps you have been so desensitized by the typical hollywood dreck that these oldies are great in comparison.

TheBrummell said...

The senator gets run over by the 4-horse cart driven by his former chief of security, just as said former chief is running off with Rocha's love interest. Sorry for omitting that.

Perhaps you have been so desensitized by the typical hollywood dreck that these oldies are great in comparison.

I've been thinking along those lines, too. These 90-minute cheapos from the early sixties have such forgotten components as "plot twists" and "character arcs". I could speculate here about dumbing-down popular entertainment, but I don't really think the average movie-goer today is any less intelligent than the average of 1963. There's further speculation possible in the direction of fear of lawsuits and so on, but I think there are three much more likely explanations for the fact I'm enjoying these movies so much:

1. My expectations were really low, and I'm over-estimating the quality of these films in reaction.
2. The people who put this collection together ("Mill Creek Entertainment") actually used some degree of taste and judgement in the assembly, such that either (2a) all of the films are better than average for their year of production or (2b) the apparently-random ordering of films in the set actually represents some person's opinion of best-to-worst movies in the set. Ask again when I get up to the mid-thirties.
3. Freed of the restrictive voice of the producer facing large special-effects costs, writers were able to write STORIES rather than minimum-cost story-arcs. If you don't blow 1/2 the budget on the 5-minute fight scene, you can afford to have three 10-minute fight scenes and four 5-minute fight scenes, plus a chase or two.

I'd like to think number 3 is most likely, but in fact I have no evidence to discriminate between these possibilities and they are not mutually incompatible. I'm certain there's a strong influence of the (reputedly massive) changes in the filmmaking industry since 1964.

King Aardvark said...

"My expectations were really low, and I'm over-estimating the quality of these films in reaction."

Tell me about it. Because of supremely low expectations, I really didn't mind the Matthew Broderick Godzilla movie made a few years back. Hooray for expecting things to be crap!

mens trousers said...

60's movie? you are looking for the remake.