Ulysses (1954)

Ulysses (1954)‘These Greeks are tough, with stringy meat.’

The Princess of Phaeacia finds an unconscious man washed up on the beach. The stranger has no memory of his past life but proves himself strong, brave and honourable. The two plan to marry, but, on their wedding day, he feels compelled to return to the sea, and his memories begin to return…

Handsomely mounted, if necessarily abbreviated, feature version of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ which tells of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after the end of the Trojan War (yes, it’s the same character). It was a passion project for producer Dino De Laurentiis who secured a global distribution list with Paramount Pictures and some important American talent, most notably international box-office stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.

It’s been ten years since the end of the Trojan War and Queen of Ithaca, Penelope (Silvana Mangano) still waits for news of her husband, the warrior Ulysses (Douglas). Unfortunately, her house has been overrun by young nobles eager for her hand in marriage, and, more importantly, the kingdom’s throne. Her son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi) is too young to be taken seriously by these suitors, led by the arrogant, forceful Antinous (Quinn).

‘I’m sorry, sir, but all the First Class cabins are already taken…’

Meanwhile, Douglas has been washed up on the island of Phaeacia and has caught the eye of the Princess Nausicaa (Rossana Podestà). He can’t remember who he is, or where he comes from, but, after proving his he-man credentials, Podestà can’t wait to get him to the altar. Unfortunately for her, he’s called to the sea on their wedding day and suffers a ‘Hollywood Amnesia Flashback’. We see him marshalling his troops inside the Wooden Horse inside the gates of Troy, outwitting the Cyclops Polyphemus and getting caught up in the machinations of the sorceress, Circe (Mangano, again).

During the 1950s, it became common practice for big American Studios to collaborate with their Italian counterparts. Income from US films had not found their way back home during the Second World War. These funds were now available to spend, making productions shot in European countries a desirable financial proposition. In particular, Italy had a thriving pre-war film industry and boasted the massive Cinecittà Studios in Rome built under Mussolini’s government in the 1930s. Biblical epics and historical adventures could be shot there at a fraction of Stateside production costs. ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ as it became known endured for more than a decade before being sunk by the runaway production costs of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle ‘Cleopatra’ (1963).

Ulysses (1954)

‘I’m sorry. Kirk, but I do think that extra hour under the sun lamp was probably a mistake…’

So, although it may seem strange at first glance to see major stars such as Douglas and Quinn acting alongside names unknown outside their native Italy, it made perfect sense from a financial point of view. If such working practices needed endorsement, this film provided it with a hefty take at the box office. Subsequent sources also give it credit as the springboard for the more fantastical elements of the Peplum genre personified by world-wide smash ‘Hercules’ (1957).

The film was not without its problems, though, with acclaimed veteran director GW Pabst quitting the project on the eve of shooting and original cinematographer Mario Camerini taking over as director. He was replaced behind the camera by the five-time Oscar-nominated Harold Rossen and, although it’s debatable who should get the plaudits, the film often looks quite gorgeous. There’s also some excellent work from the team of costume designers, including Barbara Karinska, a two-time Oscar winner for ‘Joan of Arc’ (1948) and ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ (1952).

Ulysses (1954)

It was always that last pint of the evening…

De Laurentiis was reportedly unsatisfied with the final film as he felt it abbreviated too much of Homer’s epic poem. This was inevitable with a runtime of only 104 minutes but, although the story is a little fragmentary at times, there’s some good work here from the team of seven screenwriters. Apart from director Camerini, this included famous American novelist Irwin Shaw and playwright Ben Hecht, who was once described as the ‘most prolific and highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood’. Their work is most impressive in the sequence with Circe, which combines elements of the Calypso episode, the visit to the Underworld, and the events which occur after the crew’s visit to Thrinacia. Still, De Laurentiis did have a point. There’s no encounter with the lotus-eaters, no visit to Aeolus, no Laestrygonians, and no Scylla or the whirlpool containing Charybdis. The film also shortchanges Telemachus, whose travels to find his father are entirely omitted.

Fifteen years later, De Laurentiis put things right by mounting a genuinely epic, almost seven-hour version for Italian television, ‘L’Odissea/The Odyssey’ (1968). Directed by Franco Rossi, it’s a notable achievement, especially on a small-screen budget. The highlight is the tour de force sequence with Polyphemus, the Cyclops. This was directed by horror maestro, and SFX wizard, Mario Bava and some sources give him credit for the same scenes in this film. Watching them back to back, there is some similarity with the cutting and the setups, and the SFX are similarly accomplished. However, the later version is noticeably superior from a technical standpoint, and some dispute his participation in the earlier film.

Ulysses (1954)

Kirk was always an easy gig for the costume department…

There are still some significant things to enjoy in this earlier version, though. Douglas brings his star power and likeable energy to the title role, although it’s notable that this is a Ulysses who does not need help from the Gods. He makes his own decisions and achieves victories through his wits and physical prowess rather than a reliance on divine intervention. However, this brings with it more than a touch of arrogance to the character, particularly when his selfish procrastination brings about his crew’s death.

There’s also the suspicion that the character has been tweaked somewhat to fit Douglas’ virile screen persona, specifically to provide plausible deniability for his associations with women other than the faithful Mangano, who has been waiting for him at home for 20 years. His convenient ‘amnesia’ allows him to romance Podestà without any subsequent guilt, and he gets a pass for his six-month dalliance with Circe too because, after all, she looks just like his wife, doesn’t she? Neither of these devices make appearances in the source material.

Ulysses (1954)

The ‘Robin Hood’ reboot remained in Development Hell…

Incidentally, the circumstances surrounding the making of the film became the inspiration for the novel ‘Il Disprezzo’ by Alfredo Moravia. The book was later filmed by Jean-Luc Godard as ‘Le Mépris/Contempt’ (1963) and starred Jack Palance, Brigitte Bardot and director Fritz Lang playing the ‘GW Pabst’ role as himself. Godard reportedly hated making the film and called the novel ‘a nice vulgar read for a train journey’. However, it remains critically lauded and one of his best-regarded films.

A vigorous, fast-paced run through the highlights of Homer’s epic poem. It won’t please purists or scholars but delivers an entertaining mix of mythology and adventure, even if it feels a little anonymous at times.

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