Sunday, May 28, 2017

La vendetta di Spartacus (1964)

aka The Revenge of Spartacus

aka Revenge of the Gladiators

Spartacus isn’t dead! A band of his surviving companions led by Arminius (Gordon Mitchell) cut him down from his cross (this is Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, not the historical one who most probably died in battle, you understand), giving hope to slaves and the victims of Empire everywhere. There’s no full-on slave revolt this time around but various small groups of rebels are hitting the power of Rome with guerrilla tactics.

The Roman senate is set on not letting this new slave revolt grow into a full-grown war, and does attempt to quell the revolution with proper Roman military might from the get-go, though with less success than they’d hope for. Particularly senator Lucius Transonius (Daniele Vargas) is pushing the matter hard, though part of his eagerness is obviously bound up with an attempt to make his son Fulvius (Giacomo Rossi Stuart with very distracting hair) the general of the legion(s) quelling the insurrection. That part of Fulvius’s plan isn’t going over too well with the rest of the senate, whose members clearly prefer somebody with more to recommend him than a big head of hair for a military leadership role but Fulvius gives way in that point rather fast. Why, given the rest of his oratorical and political manner, you’d think he has a plan up his sleeve to get Lucius the position one way or the other. For now, Lucius is going to have to play the part of Henchman Number One.

While all this is going on, Roman Valerius (Roger Browne) returns to the family farm from a stint in the legions, only to find his parents and his young brother slaughtered by legionnaires under the command of Lucius. Valerius’s parents were hiding his badly wounded older brother Marcellus (Germano Longo) who had thrown in his lot with Spartacus and was indeed one of the men taking part in Spartacus’s rescue. Somehow, the Romans found out they did, killing the family, even though Marcellus managed to escape. Valerius makes short work of the three legionnaires still plundering his former home, and is left with a whole load of grudges he doesn’t know where to direct. Fortunately, his family’s former slave – set free by his brother – Cynthia (Scilla Gabel) – sent by the rebels to warn the family of the Roman raid – arrives just before he can decide the way to go is to walk right into the rest of Lucius’s cohort and die heroically. Cynthia, who is very right, and very very pretty, convinces Valerius that 1) the slave revolt is a right and just thing and 2) his best chance of at least finding his brother alive is to join with the rebels, so off they go. Valerius, it soon turns out, is rather a natural in the whole guerrilla work thing, so there still might be hope for true freedom in the Roman Empire.

Whew, and this is just the plot of the film’s first half hour or so. As a matter of fact, Michele Lupo’s La vendetta di Spartacus is one of the rare peplum films that very much seems to pride itself on having a sensible and reasonably complex plot where even the historical freedoms it takes will turn out to mostly fit into the gaps of recorded history, where characters are larger than life as are their plans yet still have discernible motivations (yes, even the bad guys).

So, quite atypical for the genre, the film doesn’t tell a series of vaguely related cool episodes (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you) but an actual story, and while there’s not quite enough money going around here to go for the true epic scale of the Kubrick film on whose coattails the film quite obviously rides – in fact, the footage of the Romans losing various skirmishes against the rebels used in a senate session is clearly from another film, what with the Romans enemies looking rather Teutonic – this is a film that puts all its efforts into making what it can put on screen as memorable as possible.

I had the film’s director Lupo generally pegged as more dependable than exciting, but there’s true enthusiasm on display here, as well as what looks to my eyes like an honest attempt at using the actual history. Not in the sense of Lupo actually aiming for or achieving real historical authenticity, of course - this is still a peplum and therefore a pulpy historical adventure but clearly one working from a consciousness of the actual history, using some of it to good effect (the senate scenes may look a bit small scale but do feel a lot like the stuff I’ve read in Latin class in their oratorical approach and the style of their intrigue, for example), and stepping away from it not out of laziness but because this is supposed to be an exciting and melodramatic adventure.

Consequently, the action scenes are rather exciting too, with some of the better stunts you’ll find in a non-mythological peplum and an energy to them that reminded me pleasantly of the best of US serials from decades past. I was surprised by how good the melodrama - usually the parts when I roll my eyes, raise my eyebrows in these movies - worked here, with many a close-up of Mitchell’s, Browne’s and Gabel’s faces in quite effectively realized states of big emotion. Big emotion even, which resonates with the film’s ideas about freedom, loss and betrayal instead of feeling shoved into the script because you need melodrama in your peplum. In the final act, there are also a few poignant scenes, staged by Lupo with a sense of dignity I didn’t really expect to find in the film, giving the latter stages of the film true emotional weight.

The melodrama also fits into the film’s not terribly difficult to see subtext about a democracy (of sorts) at a point in its development when it is only too easily convinced by a strong man, as long as he’s telling it that it can do no wrong and kicks the people who are weakest. That’s something Italians and Germans know quite a bit about, though it does seem like many of us right no prefer to forgot these lessons of history.

No comments: