‘Who forced us to go and live in the rocks?’
Legendary strongman Ursus is not pleased when he discovers that the Tunisian city of Atra is under the rule of a man who has taken his name. Accompanied by two thieves, he vows to unseat the usurper and bring the war with a neighbouring tribe to a peaceful end…
It was the seventh and last time out for Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz’s strongman, who he had created for his 1895 novel ‘Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero.’ The Italian Pepium craze that followed the international success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) saw film producers hijack the character for a series of similar escapades. Here, he’s incarnated in the athletic form of veteran muscleman Sergio Ciani, billed as Alan Steel.
The city of Atra and the surrounding kingdom seem to be under the rule of elderly King Igos (Carlo Tamberlani). However, decisions of state are taken by legendary strongman Ursus (Mimmo Palmara) and his partner, slimy official Teomoco (Gianni Rizzo). Unfortunately for the populace, Palmara is an imposter – ‘False Ursus’ – who has used his fighting prowess to perform a bit of identity theft and hoodwink the King. He plans to seize the throne, of course, and liquidate the neighbouring Hanussa tribe, led by Samur (Nello Pazzafini). However, he receives word that the real Ursus (Ciani) is in town, accompanied by light-fingered rapscallions, Pico (Arnaldo Dell’Acqua) and Manina (Enzo Maggio).
Palmara suggests that the youthful Prince Dario (Vassili Karis) track down our three heroes, branding them as Hanussa spies and promising to renounce command of the city and return to his homeland. The callow Prince agrees, but his inexperience leads to capture by the Hanussa. Things look bleak, but he has an advocate in Pazzafini’s sister, Demora (Rosalba Neri), who he had taken prisoner on the latter part of his trip. Karis had been the perfect gentleman during her incarceration, and it’s obviously not going to be too long before the two pick out curtains and start spending Sunday mornings at the Garden Centre. Meanwhile, Ciani has challenged his namesake, and it’s not long before the question of who’s who will be settled by some personal combat.
Writer-director Gianfranco Parolini’s film is a curious mix of knockabout comedy and serious adventure. Proceedings open in the former vein with the acrobatic Dell’Acqua and stammering Maggio involved in a knockabout brawl with traders in the Atran marketplace after lifting some apples and a couple of knick-knacks. Dell’Acqua establishes his impressive tumbling credentials while we discover that Maggio’s voice problem is so severe that often he remains mute. After the duo escapes, Ciani turns up like an indulgent uncle to scold the pair and get them to return what they’ve stolen. The trio’s dynamics are almost certainly a nod to Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat’s partnership in Hollywood swashbucklers ‘The Flame and the Arrow’ (1950) and ‘The Crimson Pirate’ (1952). The pair had worked together as circus acrobats before Lancaster turned to acting, and Cravat played both roles mute to conceal a thick Brooklyn accent.
These comedy shenanigans are entertaining and well-played by the principals but sit strangely at odds with the more serious story developing alongside at court. Everyone there is playing it completely straight, with Palmara and Rizzo playing it straight and resisting any inclination to chew the scenery. It takes time for the two sets of characters to interact, so, at times, it feels like two separate films. The comedy takes more of a backseat when things come together, although Ciani remains a good-natured presence throughout. He also shows up well in the action scenes, particularly in the arena fight, where he goes up against Palmara on a platform raised above spikes. He’s getting the best of it, too, until he’s struck blind by a potion concealed in his helmet by the nefarious Rizzo.
Elsewhere in the cast, the women make the best of it, with the gorgeous Neri a passionate presence and Lisa Gastoni effectively conflicted as the disloyal Queen Alina. There’s also the mysterious Orchidea De Santis, who hangs around a little in the background, offering Ciani water on one occasion and providing the ointment to cure his blindness on another. It may be that she’s a helpful goddess, but she seems curiously timid for that, and the English version never addresses her identity, helpfully billing her merely as ‘Blonde Girl’. Something lost in translation, in all probability.
By 1964, it’s fair to say that Peplum was on life support with dwindling box office returns and audiences about to get far more interested in cowboys and spies. So, it’s pleasing to report that this film has little of the threadbare quality of some contemporary productions, the budget probably boosted by Tunisian money. However, some moments, particularly at the climax, seem to suggest a lack of resources. Rather than a pitched battle between the two tribes, one side just runs away (!), and the final showdown between Ciani and Palmara is ridiculously brief, particularly compared to their earlier combat in the arena.
Parolini already had experience with muscleman capers, having delivered entries like ‘Samson/Sansone’ (1961) and ‘Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole’ (1962) but really hit paydirt with the Kommissar X Eurospy series. The adventures of Agent Joe Walker, played by Tony Kendall, ran for seven films, and he was behind the camera in some capacity on all but the final entry. He often worked as sole director, such as on opening salvo ‘Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill/Kommissar X – Jagd auf Unbekannt’ (1966). In later years, he directed a trio of Spaghetti Westerns showcasing the fictional gunfighter Sabata and attempted to cash in on the hype surrounding Dino De Laurentiis’ remake of ‘King Kong’ (1976) by unleashing ‘Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century/Yeti – Il gigante del 20° secolo’ (1977). He passed away in 2018 after a film career spanning almost 60 years.
As a character, Ursus always struggled to establish a coherent identity in the world of Italian Peplum but closes out his account here with a likeable enough romp.