Tuesday, March 18, 2014

THE SLAVE (1962) or THE SON OF SPARTACUS... if you must!

Make no mistake about it- I think THE SLAVE is a fantastic film. It's not perfect, but I was shocked at how good it turned out to be. I've been a fan of the Sword & Sandal genre for decades now but until I watched this little slice of Italian joy I had never thought very seriously about how much the adventures of Hercules, Samson, Machiste and all those other muscle bound supermen were a simple outgrowth of the great historical dramas of  1950's Hollywood. Movies like EL CID (1961), QUO VADIS (1951), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956),  and (of course) BEN HUR (1959) were the broad template for the movies of lesser scope and budget that flourished for about seven or eight years until the wave of Spaghetti westerns caused those well trained horses and stuntmen to be used to craft tales of another genre. My love of the Hercules type of fantasy/adventure films had never really made me very curious about their more historical minded brethren before now but this fine film has reversed that- probably for good. 

Also known under the more accurate title of THE SON OF SPARTACUS this is an even more fictitious account of Roman history than the classic Kubrick film it plays at sequelizing. It tells of Roman Centurion Randus (Steve Reeves) who has ascended to high rank in Julius Caesars' army by demonstration of great leadership qualities. His elevated position is made even more impressive when we learn Randus is an orphan but has still risen so high in Rome's often nepotistic political and military culture. The only clue of his parentage is an amulet he has worn around his neck since childhood. This bit of neckwear serves as the clue to a rescued slave that this battle hardened Roman soldier is actually the son of the great leader Spartacus who lead the famously failed slave revolt twenty years before. At first skeptical of this claim of extraordinary parentage Randus is eventually forced to accept it as true and pick up where his brave father left off. In a move that seems like great good fortune (or sly scriptwriting) Caesar (Ivo Garrani) asks his new Centurion to go to the city overseen by Crassus (Claudio Gora) to keep tabs on that politician's often dangerous ambitions. As Crassus is the man responsible for the death of Spartacus in that long ago war it makes the task of taking up Spartacus' sword and helmet much easier to contemplate. After securing the help of a few close Roman friends and aligning himself with a growing group of escaped slaves Randus begins a well coordinated series of attacks designed to destroy Crassus' hold on the region and eventually take him down. But can this be done with Caesar in control of the Empire or will this slave revolt have the same sad end as the last? 

This is a beautiful movie shot partially on location in the Egyptian desert and given real depth by the use of wonderful widescreen cinematography. Even tough the print used on Warner's Burn On Demand DVD isn't a well scrubbed re-master the film looks pretty darned good and I can only imagine how compromised the image would be cropped down to a TV friendly sliver. As helmed by my second favorite Italian director named Sergio (Corbucci, thank you very much) this is a very well paced adventure tale that also manages to feel that we are really watching a man come into his own as a revolutionary leader. Sure, the scene of Randus being brought to a ruin to be shown the relics of his father's past is a bit portentous and silly when you stand back from it, but it works so effectively in the moment that it doesn't matter. 

I'd like to be able to say that this scene works well because of star Reeves' ability as a performer but to be honest he is a little stiff in this film. Not that he was ever the greatest thespian involved in the peplum cycle of movies but he could usually be called upon to emote well enough. And the moments in a Hercules film in which he seemed to be less than fully engaged could always be excused (in my eyes) as the reactions of a demi-god or even the fault of the often distancing dubbing that was part of the joy of watching these movies. But in THE SLAVE I found myself noticing more than a few times that Reeves wasn't pulling his own weight alongside his fellow actors. In a few scenes it was actually distracting especially when the dialog is being quite clever but our star isn't putting any real spin on his delivery. Luckily the supporting cast is fantastic and filled with faces familiar to fans of the genre or really of Italian genre cinema of any type. They make this well told tale shine brightly and paints nicely subtle shades of villainy that often seems evil depending on exactly where you stand in the Roman Empire power structure. 

This is a fun, highly entertaining old school sword, sand and blood story told with much energy and enthusiasm. Like any good peplum of the times it cribs from a multitude of sources (including 1958's THE VIKINGS) but does so very smartly. You won't find a better example of the non-fantasy end of the genre and although the film is slightly longer than average at 103 minutes Corbucci's direction and the script's forward momentum keep everything moving so well that you may not notice the running time. I was not expecting such a strongly produced movie but I couldn't happier to have finally seen this one. I knew Sergio Corbucci had made several exceptional westerns (THE GREAT SILENCE, COMPANEROS, DJANGO, etc.) but this film shows that his skill transcended genres and I need to seek out more of his work - much more!  

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