Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

lsland of the Fishmen/L’Isola Degli Uomini Pesce (1979)

Island of the Fishmen (1979)‘This island is inhabited by zombies! The Living Dead! That’s why the graves are empty!’

1891: A prison ship is wrecked in uncharted waters and the few survivors wash up on an empty beach. The island’s owner isn’t pleased to see them and it becomes obvious that he has more than one secret to hide. What is his connection to the strange, amphibious humanoids that live out in the swamps?

Cast adrift in a boat with no food or water and only convicts for company, it would seem that things can’t get much worse for ship’s doctor Claudio Cassinelli. Unfortunately, he’s also got to deal with arrogant autocrat Richard Johnson, whose household consists of pretty young wife Barbara Bach, and native servants who seem more interested in voodoo than their household chores. Oh, and he’s keeping elderly Professor Joseph Cotten in a secret laboratory under the stairs.

Yes, what with the murderous fishmen out in the reeds, it seems we’re back in ‘Dr Moreau’ territory again for another round with H.G. Wells’ classic novel. But what’s that lying in the depths offshore beneath the coral reef? Why, it’s the lost continent of Atlantis, of course, which puts rather a different spin on things. As well as that, Johnson’s housekeeper Shakira (Beryl Cunningham, not the pop star) is carrying out strange ceremonies in a cemetery in the woods. This tropical boneyard has been abandoned by everyone, including the residents! Questions pile up for Cassinelli as he investigates, inevitably falling for Bach along the way as his convict charges becomes fish food one by one.

This all sounds like quite a heady mix with lots of possibilities, but it all falls rather flat under the direction of journeyman Sergio Martino, whose only real cinematic claims to fame are the controversial ‘Slave of the Cannibal God’ (1975) and delirious Mad Max ‘homage’ ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’ (1983). The main problem is the lack of originality in the script and the sheer predictability of events. Barely a quarter of an hour has gone by before the local volcano starts rumbling, effectively signposting the way to the climatic conflagration and inevitable stock footage. What is it with these mysterious islands and their volcanos? It seems one isn’t complete without the other. And there’s little else in the way of real action either; with the voodoo subplot going nowhere and our amphibious friends doing little until some aquatic shenanigans in the final act. To the production’s credit, the creatures don’t look particularly ridiculous, just a little unconvincing.

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Bach’s choice of boyfriends wasn’t always perfect.

Bach was a Bond Girl in the era when it was a double-edged sword. Although it brought instant fame, it could also be a career curse and she struggled to escape the shadow of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977). Subsequent projects were less than stellar Eurotrash such as ‘The Great Alligator’ (1979) and ridiculous ‘Star Wars’ (1977) knock-off ‘The Humanoid’ (1979). She met Ringo Starr on the set of prehistoric comedy ‘Caveman’ (1981), became his wife and virtually retired. It was probably for the best, as she is a distinctly vapid presence here, and her dialogue seems to be dubbed.

Spare a thought for Cassinelli too, whose part entirely consists of looking rugged and asking endless questions. So acting honours go to Johnson, who gives a performance so dastardly you expect him to start twirling his moustache at any moment. Cotten, on the other hand, is obviously just picking up a cheque, and probably wasn’t on set too long to get his brief scenes in the can.

This has all the ingredients of a cult classic but fails to deliver on almost every level. lt’s not so bad that it’s good, and not good enough to be very entertaining.

Jaguar Lives! (1979)

Jaguar_Lives_(1979)‘Look, I’m sure you and your little bulldog didn’t just fly in to see the cows.’

After his partner is killed on a mission, Jonathan Cross retires as a secret agent. When a series of high level assassinations occur in the Middle East, he’s persuaded to return because it appears that the culprit may have been responsible for the death of his friend…

After ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) star Bruce Lee became a global phenomenon, there were plenty of attempts to launch real-life martial artists as the successor to the late superstar. Joe Lewis was one; a man who Lee himself considered ‘the Greatest Karate Fighter of all time’ and one of only 5 men to defeat Chuck Norris in competition. Unfortunately, the only acting experience he had was a bit part in Matt Helm flick ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (1968) over a decade earlier, and his lack of experience was cruelly exposed in his first starring vehicle.

Obviously, the film was intended as a rival to the Bond franchise with Lewis as an agent who could use his fists and feet to deadly effect, rather than a Walther PPK. The concept is certainly a decent one, but is scuppered not only by Lewis’ lack of presence, but by a weak script and indifferent direction. The plot meanders confusingly, often seeming to be just an excuse to send Lewis from one exotic location to another and to meet one guest star after another. These guest stars never appear in any scenes together, which is not a good sign. Also the final revelation of the villain’s secret identity should come as a surprise to no one.

It’s the impressive role of guest stars that is likely to be the reason anyone seeks this film out now. It’s probably no coincidence that these provide several links to the Bond franchise. First up, Lewis’ handler is Mrs Ringo Starr – the lovely Barbara Bach from ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), and, later on, he runs into Bond villains Donald Pleasance from ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967), Christopher Lee from ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974) and Joseph Wiseman from ‘Dr. No’ (1962), making his final film appearance.

Jaguar Lives (1979)

‘I’ll come with you so long as I don’t have to wear a shirt.’

Elsewhere he tangles with 1960s ‘It Girl’ Capucine and Western icon Woody Strode. Also present is film director John Huston, whose ill-judged acting career included Euro-bombs like ‘Tentacles’ (1977) and demented ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) knock off ‘The Visitor’ (1978). None of these famous names makes much of an impression, with the notable exception of Pleasance, who has fun as the unhinged dictator of a banana republic.

The action and combat sequences could have saved the film, of course, but there’s little stunt work and the fight choreography is predictable and flat. Given Lewis’ lack of star quality, the combination of all these negative factors makes for an unsatisfying experience. Perhaps the most memorable moment is the climactic face-off on the battlements of an old castle. Not because there’s anything remarkable about the sequence itself; just that it was the middle of the night a few seconds earlier.

The final scene hints at sequels but it was no surprise when they failed to appear.