‘By Hercules, at last, it’s my monstrous barbarian.’
When the Emperor of Rome dies, his son ascends the throne. Rather than follow the old man’s dying wish for peace, the new regime is one of violence and conquest. Legions rape and pillage with impunity, but eventually, their reign of terror reaches a village where they meet their match…
The fifth in the loosely connected series of films featuring Ursus, the only Peplum muscleman who came not from mythology or the bible but was a modern-day fictional creation. This lack of ancient origin meant he could be placed in any time period or setting. Often these were cheerfully vague, but writer-director Domenicio Paolella’s film finds him fighting in the Holy Roman Empire.
The deathbed wish of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Nando Tamberlani) is for his successor to bring peace to his Empire. Unfortunately, that person is his son Marcus Commodus (Alan Steel), and he is not for the peaceful kind. Preferring to fight with his gladiators in the arena than practice good government, it’s no surprise when he follows the usual time-worn strategy of taxing the populace into abject poverty and ruling with an iron fist. Of course, conquering new territories and enslaving their people are also high on his ‘to-do list.
Eventually, his hordes reach the home of Ursus (Dan Vadis), who has converted to this new-fangled thing called Christianity and put aside swords for ploughshares. Even so, he’s ready for action when Steel and his men attack, fighting off their forces almost single-handed. He also emerges victorious in one-on-one combat with Steel, but his principles preclude him from dealing the final death blow. In fact, Vadis wants nothing more to do with the whole business. However, his fighting prowess has caught the eye of the scheming Senator Emiliis Leto (Gianni Santuccio), who acted as the chief advisor to the previous Emperor.
Santuccio feels that Steel is leading the Empire to disaster and realises that Vadis is the man to stop him. The problem is that Vadis will only fight in self-defence. The solution? Abduct the big man’s beloved Arminia (José Greci) and take her to Rome. The price of her freedom is for Vadis to go to gladiator school and graduate to fight in the arena, Santuccio believing that Steel won’t be able to resist the opportunity for a return match.
Of course, the real-life Commodus is familiar to audiences these days thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the fighting Emperor in Ridley Scott’s multi-Oscar winning ‘Gladiator’ (2000). Neither that film nor this one would win any awards for historical accuracy, but the basic facts concerning his preference for fighting in the arena are apparently true. Indeed, Vadis and Steel’s second face-off is, without question, the highlight of this film, with both actors selling every blow in their lengthy, knockdown, drag-out contest. It’s probably the most brutal and convincing piece of combat in the entirety of Peplum and worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately, its placed before the final act, which makes the climactic invasion of Rome by the forces of the noble Septimius Leto (Carlo Delmi) somewhat of an anti-climax.
The film’s other main virtue is that Ursus is back to being the main focus of the story, rather than relegated to a half-baked sidekick as had occurred in the previous film ‘Ursus and the Tartar Princess/Ursus e la ragazza tartara’ (1961). Crowbarring in Christianity was pretty much a given in every historical epic made in the early and mid-20th Century, but, of course, it is appropriate here. Personal inner conflicts regarding acts of violence allow more nuance to the story than usual, as when Greci has an opportunity to stab the sleeping Steel but finds that her faith prevents her from killing him. However, it is puzzling that Steel chides his mistress Marzia (Gloria Milland) for being influenced by these strange beliefs ‘from the Orient’. Still, it is to the credit of the script by Paoella, Alessandro Fearraù and Sergio Sollima that this extra layer is provided, rather than entertain the most well-worn and over-familiar Peplum cliches.
The film’s main weakness lies in its ineffectual supporting cast. Although Paolella’s handling of the material and the decent production values convey some scope to the story, it’s hard to be invested in such a colourless bunch of characters. This throws the main dramatic weight onto the shoulders of Vadis and Steel, who were obviously not hired for their acting abilities. Having said that, both prove surprisingly equal to the task here, with Steel quite charismatic as the villain of the piece. Although both struggled in early roles, particularly Vadis, it is fair to say that their performances improved in leaps and bounds with each project and, by this point, they were holding their own with script requirements. Understandably, Paoella was focused on showcasing their impressive physicality and fighting skills, but more work with the other characters would have helped give the story more punch. Andrea Aureli does manage to score as the instructor at Gladiator School, but his character is begging for more development and screentime.
Alan Steel was born Sergio Ciani in Rome in 1935, whose screen career began as a body double for Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules’ (1958), the film that launched the whole Peplum craze. With a couple of similar gigs under his belt, he finally got his big chance playing opposite Brad Harris when the American actor debuted ‘Hercules’ rival ‘Samson/Sansone’ (1961). The duo re-teamed for ‘The Fury of Hercules’ (1962) before Ciani got the chance to play the big man himself in ‘Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma’ (1964). He also played muscleman Maciste and wrapped up the Ursus series in the title role in ‘The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre’ (1964). Post-Peplum, Ciani fared better than most of his contemporaries, taking roles in early Giallo ‘A… For Assassin/A… come assassino’ (1966) and Spaghetti Westerns, including ‘Sapevano solo uccidere’ (1968), which featured fellow musclemen Kirk Morris and Gordon Mitchell. He co-wrote and starred as Robin Hood in swashbuckler ‘Storia di arcieri, pugni e occhi neri’ (1976) and retired from the screen in 1979.
An excellent example of Peplum elevated by its two stars, whose arena combat remains a highlight of the entire genre.