The films of Sergio Leone
Sergio Leone received onscreen credit for directing only seven features, and of that number, five are Westerns. We'll never know exactly what it was that drove the man to focus so relentlessly on one single genre, but one of the reasons, surely, was that he was really damn good at it. Right out of the box good. Changed the face of the genre good.
Now, when a director is intimately associated with a single genre like that, there is sometimes an outlier in that director's career, the film where he (or she, but I am of course talking at present about a man) goes right on ahead and does something different. This outlier is not, usually, good. Alfred Hitchcock had the limp screwball comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Errol Morris had the plonking thriller The Dark Wind. As for Leone, he had The Colossus of Rhodes.
The wrinkle here is that the film happens to have been made in 1961, three years before he started on Westerns; it was in fact his first movie as credited director, so he didn't at that point have a style to break away from. For that matter, it's essentially the same genre as the only film, to that point, that Leone had directed in part or in full (depending on who you listen to), The Last Days of Pompeii: that is, a historical drama mixed in with the massively popular peplum, or sword and sandal film. Theoretically, then, The Colossus of Rhodes was in the closest thing that Leone had to a comfort zone in the early '60s.
My point remains, though, that Leone remains best known as a director of Westerns, and it is in that style that his considerable reputation was forged, and when people think of him as a great stylist and important filmmaker, it's for those films & not his pepla. And maybe, just maybe, it's because he had a natural talent for Westerns; whatever it was, he sure as hell didn't have a natural talent for historical epics. The Last Days of Pompeii, I have noted, is largely tedious grinding through Roman vs. Christian politicking until it ends with some snazzy action bits involving Steve Reeves fighting animals or an exploding mountain; The Colossus of Rhodes never comes close to the level of talking and talking and talking and talking and talking that makes the first hour of The Last Days of Pompeii so effing boring, but to balance it out, it also never achieves anything like the same heights in its own action bits involving Rory Calhoun, whom you almost certainly don't remember as the star of American television's The Texan. If you do, then my hat is off to you. Also, congratulations! You are the only living person in the target audience for The Colossus of Rhodes
There are a lot of different versions of the film, length-wise, ranging from a French release print of 126 minutes all the way up to the original Italian cut at 142 minutes. The American version was and is 128 minutes, though damn me if I didn't go right on ahead and seek out the Italian cut, and found out that the differences are pretty much just atmosphere and more space for the story to spread out. Certainly, the essentials of the plot are no different, and they go thusly: in 280 BC, an Athenian war hero named Darios (Calhoun), whose name is spoken consistently and unmistakably as "Dario" in every last second of the English-language dub, goes to visit his uncle Lissipu (George Rigaud) on the island of Rhodes. There he finds things are not entirely well: King Serse (Roberto Camardiel) has just cut the ribbon, as it were, on a giant statue of Apollo, straddling the narrow entrance to the island's only harbor, and regards it as the tangible proof of how much mightier he and his city-state are than all those snot-nosed Greeks trying to push him around. This wouldn't be too much of a problem, except that Serse is a bit of a dick, though not as much of a dick as his second-in-command, Thar (Conrado San Martín), who is wearing the kind of thin beard that, in an Italian historical film, can only possibly mean that he is No Good, No Good At All. And that's before we come to the fact that his name is "Thar", which makes him sound like the bad guy in a 1980s barbarian picture, to boot.
Dario(s) is himself a bit of a dick; at any rate, he's not tremendously put off by Serse's apparently tyrannic grip on the people of Rhodes,* but instead devotes himself to flirting with Diala (Lea Massari), the daughter of Carete (Félix Fernández), the architect who first built the Colossus - and if Diala isn't as transparently evil as Thar is, that's only because it would require her name to be something like Lady Bitchtraitor for that to be the case. Meanwhile, Dario(s) also finds himself crossing paths with Peliocles (Georges Marchal), the leader of the local anti-Serse rebels. As everybody tries to pull him one way or the other - as a famous Athenian hero, he can decisively tip the balance of the impending civil war - he decides to just get the hell home, but Thar won't allow this, and as the Greek tries to escape (carrying, though he doesn't know it, communications from the rebels to the outside world), he learns firsthand that the Colossus isn't just a pretty statue, but a massive defensive weapon capable of dumping literally tons of molten lead on passing ships. That pisses Dario(s) off rightly, and he throws in with the rebels in their desperate fight against tyranny. Which they completely suck at, by the way, and it takes a huge deus ex machina to turn things to victory for the heroes, but what the heck, the Greeks invented the deus ex machina, I'll allow it.
It's not that any of this is specifically and irredeemably bad. It's just that none of it is very much good. While Last Days of Pompeii was, all things considered, a fairly lush and well-financed peplum, by the time of The Colossus of Rhodes, the novelty had worn off of the genre, and it looks fairly... not "cheap". "Ordinary", how about that, though the Colossus itself is as convincing as it needs to be. There's just something about '60s Italian adventure films that irresistibly puts me in mind of Star Trek: fewer foam sets, but the costumes have that exact same ineffable feeling of cheap lamé, and the music (in this case, by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino) has the same feeling that it was orchestrated for 20 instruments and played on 5.
And the bad acting. Golly, the bad acting. Rory Calhoun has been largely lost in the mists of time, and though I feel bad for the man, I'm not going to lift a finger to change that. His performance, aided not at all by the tradition in Italian filmmaking of dubbing every last piece of dialogue in post-production, is bad in ways that I don't have words for. Not because it's so egregiously bad, I just can't pinpoint in which of a dozen small ways Calhoun is worst: his mugging? his smirking (which is so bad, it needs to be counted separate from his mugging)? the way he always looks like he's trying not to smile? his awful, puffy hair? The hair surely doesn't do him any favors, at least.
Lea Massari, that redoubtable soul, gives everything she can to a stock character, and makes the whole thing seem just that much classier when she's onscreen (if you've been trying to place her name, you can stop: she was the missing girl in L'avventura. The groundbreaking Antonioni film. Which came out one year before this), but nobody else does the same. Nobody reaches the same broken-down clown show level as Calhoun, at least, which is a favor, but mostly the actors just look vaguely befuddled in the way that not-terribly-charismatic actors tend to in pepla, though I'd like to single out Camardiel. I mentioned, in the context of Last Days of Pompeii, that it reminded me of American Bible epics; Camardiel seals the deal, for he looks and acts precisely like a down-market version of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis.
How nice it would be if the moral to this story was that, despite it all, you could see the threads of what would eventually become the Sergio Leone aesthetic; the close-ups, the tight coil of tension, the heightened sound design, the daring use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (this film was shot in a CinemaScope knock-off given the wonderful name Supertotalscope). How nice, indeed. Frankly, there was more of that in Last Days of Pompeii: if you sat me down in front of The Colossus of Rhodes, after the credits were over, I'd never be able to guess that it was made by anyone other than a randomly chosen studio hack who knew how to set the camera up, move the actors through it, and nothing else. Which, when you think about it, was exactly what happened. Sergio Leone didn't know in 1961 that he was going to become incredibly famous and influential. He didn't know that one day, people would be looking at his aimlessly-staged swordfights, and wonder where in the hell the white-knuckle action sequences of his later Westerns came from. He couldn't expect that people would think of his star-making direction of another TV Western star and wonder how he let Rory Calhoun be such an ape on camera.
He was just trying to make a by-the-books peplum, and prove that he deserved that "regia di" title card. He knew nothing of the future. Let us likewise not anticipate where his career would end up, and quickly leave this perfunctory make-work project behind.