Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ursus - The Terror of the Kirghiz (1964)

Original title: Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi

aka Hercules, Prisoner of Evil

After the death of the great Khan (that must have been a few years ago, it seems) pressures rise in a city state and its surroundings. It's not too surprising that problems arise, for while the city itself is under the domain of the Kirghiz and their prince regent, the evil Zereteli (Furio Meniconi), at least until the Khan's daughter Amiko (Mireille Granelli) will come of age, the surrounding areas belong to the tribe of the heroic, shirt-despising Ursus (Reg Park).

The trouble between the two tribes intensifies when a human-sized, but very hairy monster that also despises shirts but loves capes, begins a nightly reign of terror, killing people wherever it can find them. For some strange reason, it never touches members of Ursus's tribe, though, and all of the hero's attempts at catching it - or even seeing it - come to naught.

Zereteli knows a useful political lever when he sees it, and so decides that the monster is a perfect excuse to start a little civil war and get rid of Ursus forever. After that, it's just a case of marrying Amiko, and he'll be set for life.

Alas, what our bad guy doesn't know is that Amiko and Ursus have had secret lovers' trysts in a hidden cave for months now, and their love just might become a problem for Zereteli's marriage plans.

Zereteli's not the only one not having the full picture of the situation, though, and only with the return of Ursus's much cleverer brother Ilo (Ettore Manni) will various lies and spoileriffic and/or obvious secrets like the identity and use of the monster be unravelled.

House favourite Antonio Margheriti's Ursus - Terror of the Kirghiz is quite an atypical entry into the wild, wild world of the peplum, beginning with the small yet surprising fact that its Ursus isn't exactly much of a hero beyond his awesome ability to not wear shirts and roll around a rock or two. It's not just that he isn't very clever - that's not too surprising for a hero in a peplum - but that he doesn't actually do much to resolve the problems at hand, and even spends about half of the movie unconscious. The main work of the film's protagonist falls to Ettore Mani's Ilo, who does all the thinking, planning, understanding, and problem solving while Ursus sleeps, is manipulated or does nothing of use. Even in the end, when most peplum heroes would be allowed to, you know, do something heroic, the nominal hero of this film doesn't know what was actually going on around him, and does little to resolve the situation. Ilo's not even going to tell him what the situation actually was, to help Ursus sleep at night in the future.

Alas, as great as this overturning of the usual rules of heroism in the peplum sounds on paper, the film's execution makes it more interesting than entertaining. Structurally, the film is set up more like a mystery than a normal peplum. Unfortunately, it is the sort of mystery in which the heroes are utterly confused by the obvious and only solve the central crime after the audience has understood what's going on for over an hour. This not only drags the film's pace down quite a bit, but it also makes it difficult not to lose one's patience with its heroes. It's a bit of a shame too, because the mystery's solution could have been quite riveting and touching on a philosophical darkness the peplum genre not usually bothers with, if it had been handled more succinctly and with a greater emphasis on how horrible the truth actually is. There is much of interest Margheriti could have explored here without departing much more from the genre rules of the peplum than he already did, but as it stands, he's not taking the less typical aspects of the movie far enough; with the consequent use of Ilo's role as that of the film's backdoor hero being the one exception.

On the more positive side, the film is decently acted, has a plot that's a bit more complex than typical, is really nice to look at, and has pretty okay action scenes. I don't think that's enough to make up for the film's wasted potential to make it more than just decent, it is however more than enough to make it worth watching at least once.


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