Cabiria (1914)

‘My beloved dove, climb unto the cart of Tanit and carry to her the sadness of my secret heart.’

A young child is caught up in the war between Rome and Carthage and, as the years pass, her fate is inextricably linked to the outcome of the brutal conflict…

Cinema’s first epic drama, produced and directed by Giovanni Pastrone. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Gabriele D’Annunzio, and between them, they created the character of strongman Maciste, who became more popular in Italy than the mythical Hercules.

When Mount Etna erupts, the young child Cabiria (Carolina Catena) is separated from her wealthy Roman parents and flees in the care of her nurse, Croessa (Teresa Marangoni). They are captured by Phoenician pirates and sold as slaves in Carthage to the High Priest of the Temple, Karthalo (Dante Testa). He plans to sacrifice the child to the god Moloch, but Marangoni persuades a Roman spy, Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato) and his servant Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) to mount a rescue.

The heroes snatch the girl but are pursued and forced to separate. Mozzato jumps into the sea, but Pagano is captured after managing to hand the child to noblewoman Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini). More than a decade passes as Mozzato fights for Rome in the war while Pagano toils in the dungeons in Carthage. Back in the city as a spy, Mozzato rescues his old friend and discovers that Cabiria (now played by Lidia Quaranta) lives under the name Elissa as Almirante-Manzini’s favourite slave.

When considering a groundbreaking film such as this, it’s tempting to refer constantly to the year of its production and cast all its achievements in that context. Of course, this is a perfectly valid approach because Pastrone broke the mould in many ways with his film, and it’s important to salute the ambition, vision and financial commitment involved in such an epic enterprise. After all, it was less than ten years since the dawn of film exhibition as mass entertainment. There had been some precedent for similar productions in Italy. Arturo Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi had given audiences spectacle with ‘The Last Days of Pompeii/Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei’ (1908), but only 17 minutes of it. Subsequent spectacle ‘L’Inferno (1911) had clocked in at a whopping 71 minutes, but that had been a series of sets pieces rather than an ongoing narrative.

The trust Pastrone exhibits in his audience probably raised a few eyebrows at the time. Not only did he count on them sitting still for over two and a half hours, but he also presented them with a narrative structure that featured several slowly developing story threads happening concurrently. This is commonplace today, of course, but it’s probably something that the movie-goers of the time had not encountered too often. Mozzato’s Roman patrician provides the glue that sticks everything together, rather than the title character Cabiria as you might expect. He first saves her as a young child, then fights in the siege of Syracuse, meets her parents later on by chance, and is there as a prisoner in Citra, where events conclude. Conversely, Cabiria is little more than a plot device, almost a McGuffin, being passed from hand to hand. The only positive action she takes is when she offers the captured prisoners water in Citra toward the end of the film.

The human story does take second place to the spectacle, and this is where Pastrone and his technicians really shine. A handful of composite shots are achieved with fine optical trickery, but those aside, the scale is achieved with physical sets and hundreds of extras. The temple of Moloch toward the start of the film is imposing, with its giant head that opens to receive human sacrifices with a belch of flame. There is no question that these images directly influenced director Fritz Lang when he realised certain scenes in his epic ‘Metropolis’ (1927) made over a decade later.

However, the film’s influence was felt far earlier than that. Pastrone also included some slow tracking shots, utilising an invention he called ‘the carriage’. Other filmmakers were experimenting with what became known as the camera dolly at the time, but it was this film that popularised the technique. For years afterwards, such shots were known in the industry as ‘Cabiria movements.’ Apparently, American director D W Griffith was so impressed by Pastrone’s film that he took ‘The Mother and the Law’, which he was shooting at the time and expanded it into the episodic ‘Intolerance’ (1916), which became one of his most celebrated works.

Pastrone is also quite faithful to the accepted historical record of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. There is a sequence of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and although it’s brief, it’s shot on location, and elephants are included, even if they are the wrong type. Numidian King Masinissa’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ romance with Sophonisba does appear to have some basis in fact; however, Archimedes’ use of giant mirrors and a ‘heat ray’ to burn the Roman fleet during the Siege of Syracuse is still hotly debated by historians today. It’s obvious why Pastrone chose to include it in his film, though, as it’s quite a sequence.

Similarly, the scene where Mozzato reenters Carthage by scaling the wall is also striking. The climb is accomplished with the aid of legionaries, who form a four-tier human pyramid with the assistance of their shields. Almirante-Manzini also deserves some credit for performing some of her scenes with a live leopard. The cast members had cause to be grateful that sound film hadn’t been invented yet. As it appears at some points in the inter-titles, the dialogue is so flowery and overcooked that it would have given them terminal indigestion. Trying to deliver those lines with a straight face would have been the greatest acting challenge of their lives.

Another consequence of the production was the introduction of the character of Maciste, who captured the public imagination to such an extent that a series of 27 films followed starring Pagano as the character. He was also revived as a rival to Hercules and his fellow musclemen during the 1960s and was easily the most featured character during that brief craze, leading another 25 films. Pastrone has him turning a millstone in a dungeon for over ten years here, unwittingly condemning every Peplum muscleman that followed in his wake to be chained to ‘The Big Wheel’ for similar punishment.

One element of the character, as shown in this film, can’t pass without comment. Arguably, Maciste is the film’s main hero, which is a distinct positive given that Pagano has been ‘blacked up’ for the role. Obviously, this decision might not sit too well with some modern audience members. There is a long tradition of ‘blackface’ in Italian arts and culture going back to the likes of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, which premiered in 1871. It’s still a point of contention in the opera world today.

After initially being involved with music, Pastrone joined the movie business as head of the Itala Film Company in 1909. As well as directing almost a dozen short subjects, some on historical themes, he produced, wrote scripts, and worked on technical innovations. After the success of his Roman epic, he went on to deliver several other notable projects under the name Piero Fosco, including ‘Il fuoco (la favilla – la vampa – la cenere)’ (1916), ‘Tigre reale’ (1916) and a couple of the ‘Maciste’ series, with Pagano. When the company merged with another in 1919, he was forced to abandon two films he had in development, and he became disillusioned with the film business. He directed one more film in 1923 and passed away in 1959.

Historically important and an essential watch for lovers of silent cinema.

Samson Against the Black Pirate/Sansone contro il corsaro nero/Hercules and the Black Pirate (1964)

‘Your compliments are even more persuasive than your muscles.’

Samson distinguishes himself in battle against the Black Pirate and receives the gratitude of the Governor of San Sebastion. However, the nobleman’s Chief Consul has been working secretly with the evil buccaneer. He isn’t about to let the muscleman interfere with his plans to loot the colony of its fabulous treasure…

Ho-hum Peplum patterned more on a Hollywood swashbuckler than the usual muscleman antics. Sergio Ciani, under his screen name of Alan Steel, is back on leading man duties, working here for director Luigi Capuano.

The Black Pirate (Andrea Aureli) and his ships have long been the scourge of the oceans around the island of San Sebastian. However, an engagement with forces led by Samson (Ciani) proves to be a disaster, with only his flagship escaping to the open sea. The action brings Ciani honours from Governor Don Alonso (Nerio Bernardi), but not the hand of his beautiful daughter Rosira (Rosalba Neri). After all, Ciani is just a fisherman by birth. Disillusioned, he heads for home.

However, all is not well at the Governor’s mansion. Chief Consul Rodrigo Sanchez (Piero Lulli) is Aureli’s silent partner, feeding the buccaneer the secret information that has enabled his reign of terror on the high seas. Together, they plan to kill Bernardi and make Lulli the interim Governor. Once in place, he can loot the treasury and get his greedy paws on Bernadi’s wife, his old love Carmelita (Elisa Mainardi). But when things do not go according to plan, he kidnaps their seven-year-old daughter Alma (Cinzia Bruno) and frames Ciani for the crime.

By 1964, the Peplum craze was running on fumes. The sheer quantity of muscleman features produced in the decade’s early years had drained all ideas and creativity from the concept and left a stale, familiar formula. Although it could be argued that Capuano’s film is attempting something different by co-opting the locale and story from an old Hollywood swashbuckler, it’s far more likely that this was simply an old script retooled for current box office requirements. It wasn’t even a new idea, really, with previous vehicle ‘Samson Against the Pirates/Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast’ (1963) treading a similar path. Even less effort is made to impose the familiar Peplum tropes here, with very few scenes that involve the character’s superhuman strength, other than an escape from the flooding hold of Aureli’s ship. Mostly, he’s just a heroic chap who’s handy with a sword and good at wrestling.

The film opens with the sea battle between Ciani’s army and the pirate fleet. It’s unclear if our hero is leading the fight or earns Bernardi’s gratitude just because he’s an outstanding soldier, but no one else gets any thanks, so I guess he was in charge. Perhaps the lack of any other credit is down to the fact that the battle seems to be mostly appearing courtesy of another film with a grinning Ciani superimposed over the top waving his sword about. Thankfully, there are better combat scenes as the film progresses, although the fight choreography and swordplay aren’t particularly inspired.

Unfortunately, with events entirely predictable from beginning to end, Capuano needs to deliver spectacle and action rather than plot mechanics, and it’s obvious he didn’t have the resources available to mount much of either. Producers were never going to throw money at a project like this, with the box office beginning to run dry. Indeed, this film was Samson’s last stand-alone adventure, with his only subsequent appearance in the cycle being as part of the tag team in ‘Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: The Invincibles/Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). Almost inevitably, when it was picked up for stateside distribution by American International Pictures, Samson became Hercules and a lacklustre dub track was provided to paper over the substitution.

On the plus side, Ciani does his best Errol Flynn impression when the script permits. The film would have benefited no end from adopting more of a humorous, devil-may-care approach to the material and with more screen personality than most of his muscleman rivals, Ciani might have been equal to the task. Instead, a few moments of lame comedy relief are centred on a henpecked villager and his domineering wife. It is a novelty to see Neri early in her career as a passive Peplum princess, though, and contrast it with the far more assertive roles she played in Italian genre cinema over the next decade. The eagle-eyed may also spot an uncredited Giovanni Cianfriglia, marking time before taking the lead as costumed crimefighter ‘Superargo’ under the somewhat less Italian name of Ken Wood.

Capuano began his screenwriting and directorial career in post-war Italy, racking up a couple of dozen titles before his first, much better, Peplum feature ‘The Revenge of Ursus/The Vengeance of Ursus/La vendetta di Ursus/The Mighty Warrior (1961). It’s clear, however, that he specialised in romantic costume adventures, including ‘Zorro and the Three Musketeers/Zorro e i tre moschettieri’ (1963) and two other features starring the masked rider created by Johnston McCulley. A smattering of American stars graced these projects, such as Guy Madison, ex-Tarzan Gordon Scott, Mickey Hargitay, Ray Danton and another ex-Tarzan, Lex Barker. Toward the end of his career, he made a couple of Spaghetti Westerns and anonymous Eurospy ‘The Big Blackout/Agent Perry Grant/Perry Grant Agente Di Fermo (1966).

There are a few crumbs of interest here and there, but this is one for die-hard Peplum buffs only.

Samson Against the Pirates/Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast (1963)

‘I’m looking for a brunette; small in places, large in others.’

Out on a sea fishing expedition, legendary strongman Samson and his friends rescue a beautiful woman adrift on a piece of ship’s wreckage. The galleon on which she was travelling was attacked by pirates, who kidnapped her friends, intending to sell them as slaves. Tired of hearing of such atrocities, Samson determines to hold their notorious chief to account…

Minor, inconsequential Peplum from Italian director Tanio Boccia, hiding behind his usual alias of Amerigo Anton. The film actually has more in common with a historical adventure picture than the mythological shenanigans favoured by Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole’ (1958), the film that triggered Italy’s brief mid-20th Century muscleman craze.

A quiet fishing trip on the ocean blue seems just the ticket for strongman Samson (Kirk Morris) and his happy-go-lucky friends Ramon (Franco Peruzzi) and Gaynor (possibly Pasquale De Filippo). The catch of the day turns out to be Amanda (Margaret Lee), niece of the Governor of Martinique, shipwrecked after an attack by pirates. Under the command of Sandor (Nello Pazzafini), the brigands slaughtered the ship’s crew, kidnapped all the women passengers, and sent the vessel to the bottom with a broadside cannonade.

Hearing Lee’s story, Morris determines to get even with the pirate chieftain Murad (Daniele Vargas), who commands his unholy troops from Devil’s Island. The three friends set out for his stronghold, posing as slave traders, but discover that Lee has overheard their plans and stowed away in the boat. She’s not about to leave best friend Sarah (the lovely Adriana Ambesi) and the other girls to their fate on the auction block. Soon after arriving on the island, they join forces with rebel leader Manuel (Aldo Bufi Landi), who plans to oust Vargas, but their schemes soon go awry.

A severely underwhelming entry into the Peplum genre, this project bears the telltale marks of a quick and somewhat contrived cash-in on the latest box office trend of the time. There’s the definite possibility that Guido Malatesta’s script was retooled to accommodate Morris and his muscles, as there are only a few scenes where his superhuman strength affects proceedings in any significant way. One of these is a lengthy sequence where he pulls against a boatload of rowers to prevent the mechanical advance of racks of spears. Vargas arranges this ordeal on the flimsy notion, unsubstantiated by anything we’ve seen that Morris needs to be humbled before the people as he is the ‘living symbol’ of a possible revolution.

The ‘trial of strength’ is one of the film’s best scenes but highlights another issue. Boccia can’t disguise the fact that there’s a very poor turnout by the local population to watch Morris in action, and the director struggles throughout to convey any sense of scale. The big set pieces take place on the high seas with the pirate army, but most of the principal cast are missing in action, so there’s a good chance that a lot of the crowd appears courtesy of another film. However, to Boccia’s credit, it’s not a certainty. The sense that this just a costume picture, or even a swashbuckler, tweaked for a muscleman is not assisted by the costume department. The pirates at Vargas’ court look like they spend most of their time crossing blades with musketeers rather than sailing on the high seas in search of booty.

Unfortunately, the film has other limitations, which speak to a lack of budget. The fight scenes are not well executed, particularly the tavern brawl, and the fishing village where Morris lives looks like a stiff wind could blow it away. And no audience member will be able to ignore the crocodile in the room. Yes, memories of Bela Lugosi heroically wrestling that fake octopus at the end of Ed Wood’s ‘Bride of the Monster’ (1956) come flooding back as Morris does similar duty with one of the worst prop reptiles in cinema history. Credit to Lee in this scene as she looks on screaming in fear when she was probably struggling not to scream with laughter. Or cry with despair.

The hopelessly underwritten script provides the cast with nothing they can use to build a performance. Characters are reduced to generic archetypes, such as ‘friend of hero’, ‘villain’s lieutenant’, ‘leader of the resistance,’ etc. Peruzzi and Ambesi get a romantic subplot, but it’s over so quickly you wonder why anyone bothered. It might have been an attempt to offset the lack of spark between Morris and Lee, who have no screen chemistry as a couple whatsoever.

Vargas does get to chew the scenery a bit as the villainous pirate king, but he’s offscreen for too much of the time and is only briefly involved in the climax. Lee comes out best as she’s able to give Amanda a little more fire than most Peplum Princesses, although she does seem to have spent a little too long in the makeup chair, perhaps in an attempt to make her look a little older than her 19 years. Morris certainly has the required physical development but makes no other significant contribution to the project.

Born in Venice in 1942 as Adriano Bellini, Morris started hitting the gym and entering bodybuilding contests while at University. In 1961, he was spotted working as a gondolier by a film producer, and Boccia cast him in the title role of ‘The Triumph of Maciste/Il trionfo di Maciste’ (1961). The muscleman had been created more than half a century earlier by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone for silent films as a rival to the mythological Hercules. Morris went on to play Maciste half a dozen times but struggled after the Peplum movies went out of style in the middle of the decade. Subsequent movie roles were few, although they did include the kitsch sci-fi of ‘2+5: Missione Hydra/Star Pilot’ (1966) and Spaghetti Western ‘Crazy Westerners/Little Rita nel West’ (1968). He also appeared as a model in photo comics, perhaps a more appropriate forum for his acting talent.

A small footnote in the history of Peplum cinema. The crocodile scene is worth a watch, though.

Samson/Sansone (1961)

‘By the lame foot of Vulcan!’

While hunting, strongman Sansom and his friends are captured by a troop of mercenaries from the neighbouring kingdom of Sulom. Confident that he’s in the good graces of its Queen, he does not resist, but at court, he finds out that she’s no longer on the throne…

Early Peplum adventure, introducing US actor Brad Harris and the Biblical strongman as candidates to assume the mantle previously worn by Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1958). It did kick off a series of sorts, but there were only five features, two of them tag-teaming the character with other musclemen.

While out hunting with friends on the kingdom’s borders, Samson (Harris) gets into an argument over the spoils with fugitive Millstone (Sergio Ciani), who is hiding in a cave. Their bout of bromantic grappling is interrupted by some mercenaries from Sulom, who are looking for the runaway. Ciani escapes, leaving Harris and his buddies, played by Romano Ghini and Niksa Stefanini, to rake the rap. However, Harris isn’t too worried. He grew up at the court of Sulom, and ruling Queen Mila (Irena Prosen) is one of his oldest friends.

Against expectations, they are thrown into a jail cell on arrival and told to cool their heels. Harris puts up with the jibes of the guards for a while but eventually gets impatient, tears off the cell door and uses it like a battering ram to push more than a dozen soldiers before him and into the throne room. There, a surprise awaits. Prosen is apparently off somewhere on the coast recuperating after an illness and in her place is sister Romilda (Mara Berni), at one time his sweetheart. The incarceration has all been a mixup, of course, but handmaiden Janine (Luisella Boni, billed as Brigitte Corey) slips the big man Prosen’s ring as a message that all’s not well. Slimy mercenary leader Warkalla (Serge Gainsbourg) encourages Harris to wrestle court champion Igor to provide some entertainment, but it isn’t much of a challenge. However, celebrating his easy victory with a goblet of drugged wine isn’t a great idea, and he falls through an inconvenient trapdoor and ends up back behind bars.

Fortunately, Boni is on hand with an escape plan, and the big man learns what’s been going down. Prosen isn’t off at the seaside at all; she’s a fellow prisoner in the dungeon, incarcerated until she reveals the location of the kingdom’s legendary treasure. It’s these priceless riches that have prompted Gainsbourg to support Berni’s bid for power. However, one glimpse of Harris’ meaty biceps is enough to make her start having second thoughts about the whole business. In another shocking plot development, our unscrupulous pair have been taxing the populace into poverty and sent inflation to record levels (probably). So, revolution is brewing, and one bearded muscleman pulling chains apart with his bare hands may be all that’s needed to ignite the flame.

The surprising American success of Steve Reeves with ‘Hercules’ (1958) prompted a craze for sword and sandal pictures in Italy that lasted until the mid-1960s. Of course, it helped that the muscleman heroes involved had significant audience name recognition and didn’t come burdened with all those pesky intellectual property rights. Samson took his bow in the Old Testament’s Book of Judges, and it was unlikely that the author, or authors, would come crawling out of the woodwork, lawsuit in hand. Mythology, legend, and the Bible were out of copyright. Given the freedom this gave filmmakers to exercise their creative talents, it’s sad to report that commercial considerations prevailed to such an extent that a standard template for these heroic adventures was swiftly established. Samson’s debut picture merely assisted with that process.

Of course, the character had already appeared on the big screen, most famously with Cecil B DeMille’s Biblical epic ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949) crashing into movie theatres a decade earlier. Director and co-writer Gianfranco Parolini is not interested in that story; his Samson is a short-haired, bearded warrior whose super strength seems to come solely from some serious gym time. The film has no religious, mythological or supernatural elements, being more of an extension of the historical and costume dramas favoured by the Italian industry since the end of World War Two, only with the emphasis placed heavily on action.

Unfortunately, it’s the action where the film fails to deliver. Most of it is not well-staged, often looking clumsy and awkward. The notion of Harris and Ciani tricked into fighting each other blindfolded isn’t a bad one, but it’s a tricky sequence to pull off successfully. As it is, the two protagonists look vaguely comedic as they wave their swords around, slashing at thin air. Villain Gainsbourg should also review his hiring policy as there’s more than one occasion when his mercenaries should have done much better against one unarmed man, even if he can bench press his own body weight several times over.

The script is also rather slapdash when it comes to basics such as motivation and character history. This is no Samson origin story. All we learn about the big man is that he’s super strong, was raised at the Royal Court of Sulom and was once in a relationship with Berni. We don’t find out why he grew up there, why he left, or anything about his current circumstances, other than that he seems to live in a neighbouring kingdom ruled by King Botan (Carlo Tamberlani), who can conveniently furnish some troops for the final skirmish. It’s never clear how Berni and Gainsbourg managed to depose Prosen and throw her in jail, nor why he sticks around after he’s got his hands on the treasure. Or why Berni went along with it all in the first place as just the sight of Harris’ muscles is enough to make her regret the whole thing. All that we find out about Ciani’s character is revealed via some amusing but brief banter with his beautiful girlfriend Jaya (Manja Golec).

There’s also the incredibly illogical final act where the plot ties itself into knots to justify a tournament in which Harris can compete and the sudden raising of stakes that makes it necessary for Tamberlani’s men to storm the city square. This tournament is apparently an annual one, and the winning prize is to assume the leadership of the mercenaries. Can we take it then that Gainsbourg won this contest the year before? Now that would be a movie I’d like to see, given that the character is a skinny little weasel who barely draws his sword in the entire film. Rather brilliantly, he also orders his soldiers to masscare everyone in the square once the tournament has concluded. There is absolutely no reason to do this, and it comes straight out of the blue, but I guess evil has to evil, right?

However, it is only fair to point out that the print available for review was the version dubbed into English. Given that the voice actors sound barely awake, that lack of effort may have extended to translating the script, which might explain some of the lack of logic and other shortcomings. That also doesn’t help with evaluating the perfromances, but Harris certainly looks the part and handles the physical duties with style. Berni is also terrific when depicting her evil side, needing only a look and a stare to convey the sweet promise of treachery to come.

The pairing of Harris and Ciani in the same film is probably of most interest to Peplum fans. The American actor had come to the attention of Italian producers after playing a gladiator in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960), cast afterwards as ‘Goliath Against the Giants/Goliath contro i giganti’ (1961) before hitting the screen as Samson. Next was the title role in ‘Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole’ (1962), again co-starring Ciani, before he transitioned successfully into other genres. Billed as Alan Steel, the two films with Harris were Ciani’s first significant roles. After these, he played second fiddle to Dan Vadis in ‘Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator/Ursus gladiatore ribelle’ (1962) before stepping into the spotlight as Maciste in ‘Zorro contro Maciste/Samson and the Slave Queen’ (1963). Subsequently, he played Goliath in ‘Goliath and the Masked Rider/Golia e il cavaliere mascheratio/Hercules and the Masked Rider’ (1963), Samson in ‘Sansone contro il corsaro nero/Hercules and the Black Pirates’ (1963), Maciste again in ‘Maciste e la regina di Samar/Hercules Against the Moon Men’ (1964), Ursus in ‘The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre/The Invincible Three’ (1964) and Hercules twice in ‘Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma’ (1964) and ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964), making him the only actor to play all five of the legendary heroes during the Peplum craze.

Good production values and a decent cast can’t overcome the haphazard plotting and the poorly realised action scenes.

The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre/The Invincible Three (1964)

‘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.

Ursus, the Terror of the Kirghiz/Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi/Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964)

‘Her mind is sick and in the hands of the dark spirits.’

The Prince Regent of the Kirghiz is determined to claim the entire kingdom for his own and exterminate the Cherkes tribe, who live as hunters and trappers. The countryside is in thrall to a mysterious creature, who is slaughtering merchant caravans without mercy. The leader of the Cherkes, begins to suspect that the two things may be connected…

It was the seventh time out for strongman Ursus, birthed as a minor character in the pages of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic 1896 novel of Ancient Rome’ Quo Vadis?’. Italian film producers cast him as a rival to Peplum musclemen like Hercules and Goliath and dropped him into a variety of adventures in whatever location and time period was convenient for their purposes.

After seizing the throne of Sura on the mysterious assassination of the Grand Khan many years earlier, Prince Regent Zereteli (Furio Meniconi) is now feeling a little anxious. His cousin, Princess Amiko (Mireille Granelli), will come of age in a few months. Then he’ll have to abdicate in her favour as she’s the daughter of the Khan. She’s not interested in wedding bells either because she’s busy playing footsie in an underground love nest with the hated Ursus (Reg Park), leader of the Cherkes.

Park is focused on tracking down the local monster, though, with his efforts aided by the unexpected arrival of his quick-witted brother, Ilo (Ettore Manni). Back at camp, amnesiac beauty Kato (María Teresa Orsini), who joined their tribe as a little girl, is also devoted to the cause. Meniconi decides to take Park off the board by blaming him for the creature’s deadly handiwork and using this as an excuse to crack down hard on the Cherkes and strengthen his royal position.

It’s a serviceable, if hardly startling, setup, but it has potential. Unfortunately, in the hands of scriptwriter Marcello Sartarelli, the story fails to develop in an exciting way, leading to a listless and lengthy second act. However, the scenarist achieves some measure of redemption by throwing in a couple of unusual twists near the finish. Some of these are not particularly credible, but it’s good to see a climax that has a little more going on than just the usual big battle. Also it’s a nice touch when the Lost Kingdom Dancing Girls add some male partners to their troupe and mix burlesque bumps ‘n’ grinds with a touch of Ballet!

However, there is little real humour on display, and that’s an issue over the 90 minutes. The straight-faced approach robs Park of the effortless charisma that he brought to his two earlier appearances as Hercules, and he struggles to make much of an impression as a result. Also, Ursus is no superman on this occasion. Instead, he’s merely a capable leader who’s a bit handy in a scrap, so his exploits are reduced to some average swordplay and fighting a man with a blanket over his head, who leaps about making strange noises like a giant bird.

In a similar vein, although Meniconi is a big man, he’s too long in the tooth to make for a dynamic villain because he brings so little to the table in the combat scenes. There’s also some dodgy ‘day for night’ shooting and a suspicion that some of the more crowded scenes appear courtesy of another film. After all, the business end of the conquest of Sura seems to be accomplished with barely half a dozen men. Although if that is the case, the older footage is well-integrated. Inevitably, the film received the usual ‘Hercules’ makeover when it eventually arrived on American shores.

The failure of producers to mould Ursus into any one particular incarnation led to an inevitable lack of a clear, established identity. After this outing, his next appearance was in a minor role as a thuggish ape-man in tag-team hi-jinks ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). Linked only by his name, his status as a hero and little else, it’s perhaps inevitable that the character became the forgotten muscleman of Peplum.

The director here was Antonio Margheriti, a man with a truly remarkable career in Italian genre cinema. To list all his contributions would double the length of this post, but there were many notable projects. Early Science-Fiction efforts like ‘Assignment: Outer Space/Space Men’ (1960) and ‘Battle of the Worlds/Il pianeta degli uomini spenti’ (1961) (with Hollywood legend Claude Rains!) were followed by gothic horrors like ‘Horror Castle/La vergine di Norimberga’ (1963) and ‘The Long Hair of Death/I lunghi capelli della morte’ (1964). The following decade brought Giallo ‘Seven Deaths in the Cats Eyes/La morte negli occhi del gatto’ (1973) and martial arts hi-jinks ‘Mr. Hercules Against Karate/Ming, ragazzi!’ (1973).

Perhaps the director’s best-remembered films are the bat-shit craziness of ‘Yor: The Hunter from the Future/Il mondo di Yor’ (1983) and ‘The Wild, Wild Planet/I criminali della galassia’ (1966), both rightly celebrated as cult favourites. Margheriti’s name certainly wasn’t any guarantee of quality, but his films were almost always fast and entertaining. He was helped out on this one by Ruggero Deodato, whose duties as Assistant Director apparently stretched to some work fully in charge. Later on, he became notorious for the scenes of violence and animal cruelty in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980).

There are some interesting aspects to this one, but they’re buried pretty deep beneath the relentless mediocrity.

Ursus in the Land of Fire/Ursus nella terra di fuoco (1963)

‘Do you believe an animal can rule human beings?’

An uneasy standoff exists on the borders of an ancient kingdom, with a tribe of shepherds under constant threat from soldiers of the King. A plot makes it seem that the peaceful settlers attempted to kidnap the King’s daughter, so the Princess is sent out as bait to trap their unwary leader…

The sixth film in the loosely connected series based around the exploits of muscleman Ursus. His literary origin, rather than biblical or mythological, allowed him to be conveniently placed in any ‘ancient world’ scenario that producers chose. Here, he turns up in the usual vague location and time period. American actor Ed Fury makes his last of three appearances in the role, finding himself with a brand new cast and director Giorgio Simonelli.

Princess Diana (Luciana Gilli) is out for her usual morning ride along the border of her father’s kingdom when a rattlesnake spooks her horse. Her unconscious body is thrown into a river, but she’s fished out by Ursus (Fury). He’s the leader of the shepherds who live across the water in the neighbouring lands. The big man hands her over to General Hamilkar (Adriano Micantoni) and her cousin Mila (Claudia Mori), who witnessed the incident but did nothing to help. Back at court, Micantoni convinces doddering King Diego Pozzetto that Fury’s rescue was an attempted kidnapping and that it’s time to deal with the shepherds once and for all. Persuading the reluctant Gilli to act as a lure, his soldiers pursue Fury to a nearby volcanic region where a landslide buries him within the side of a mountain.

Expecting praise from the King when he returns to court, Micantoni finds instead that he’s in deep trouble. Not only is the Land of Fire taboo, but his troops killed the holy man who tried to prevent their sacrilege. Pozzetto turns the General over to High Priest Lotar (Nando Tamberlani), who pronounces a sentence of death. However, the verdict is carried out on the priests instead, with only Tamberlani escaping via a secret passage from the temple. Realising he has nothing left to lose, Micantoni kills the King and assumes the throne, believing Princess Gilli slain trying to escape.

Micantoni tries to spin events in a positive light, but, of course, the populace isn’t happy. Mori suggests a tournament to distract them but, by now, Fury has dug himself out. Gilli isn’t dead after all (surprise, surprise) and links up with Fury. It’s only now we find out that the two grew up together and that she’s always had a thing for him, which makes her lack of belief in him at the beginning of the story somewhat hard to swallow. In the best ‘Robin Hood’ tradition, they go to the tournament in disguise, and Fury’s attitude lands him a gig fighting five of the kingdom’s most formidable warriors. Triumphant, he’s still thrown in the dungeon, and Micantoni decides to kill off Mori and marry Gilli to legitimise his reign.

Fury’s first two outings as Ursus may not have boasted a great deal of creativity in the story department, but they did manage to sidestep the more well-worn clichés of the genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Perhaps aware of the predictability of developments, director Simonelli leans more into the violence of the tale. Although there’s nothing too graphic, warriors do plunge into the inevitable pit of spikes at the tournament, and Mori takes a whip to Gilli in the dungeon. Something she seems to enjoy far too much.

The actors who brought their talents to Fury’s two previous appearances in the role (albeit as different characters) do not return for this third round, and their replacements are definitely off the substitute’s bench. Mori fares best, but then the ‘evil queen’ in Peplum is usually the part with the greatest opportunity to shine. Unfortunately, the script does not provide her with the chance to turn Fury to the dark side, although it’s heavily implied that she’s more than willing to try. However, one tired development that is present and correct is Fury getting chained to ‘The Big Wheel’ with the other slaves. Some mention is made of a gristmill, though, so perhaps it’s actually connected to something on this occasion.

Fury was born in Long Island and travelled to Los Angeles in his early twenties to compete in bodybuilding contests. His screen career began with a string of uncredited appearances over a decade before he finally got billed for a small appearance in Universal ‘B’ Western ‘Raw Edge’ (1956). There was a more significant role in the bad movie classic ‘The Wild Women of Wongo’ (1958), but, perhaps figuring he was not on the fast track to success, he followed in the footsteps of compatriot Steve Reeves to Italy. It was an intelligent move, his impressive physique resulting in second-billing to Australian actor Rod Taylor in comedy ‘Colossus and the Amazon Queen/La regina delle Amazzoni/ Queen of the Amazons’ (1960). He was then cast for the first of his three turns as Ursus and a couple of other Peplum roles. As the craze for musclemen ran out of steam in the middle of the decade, Fury returned to America and played bits on Network TV shows such as ‘Star Trek’, ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Columbo’, his last small screen appearance being on a 1979 episode of the original ‘Fantasy Island’. Seventeen years later, he came out of retirement to play a character called ‘Ur-So’ in Donald F Glut’s poorly received comedy ‘Dinosaur Valley Girls’ (1996).

A workmanlike Peplum but a step down from previous entries in the series.

Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator/Ursus gladiatore ribelle (1962)

‘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.

Ursus and the Tartar Princess/Ursus e la ragazza tartara/The Savage Hordes (1961)

‘Are there any other Tartars in the neighbourhood?’

In 17th Century Poland, knights drive the Tartars hordes from their homeland. However, during the invaders’ retreat, they abduct a young boy, the son of celebrated warrior Ursus. The famous soldier joins the local forces commanded by Prince Stefan, but the detachment is lured into a trap and captured. Loyalties are tested on both sides when the Prince finds himself drawn to the Tartar warlord’s lovely daughter…

The fourth film in the series that finds Pepluim strongman Ursus following in the footsteps of box office winners Hercules, Maciste, Goliath and Samson. Rather than boasting a mythological or biblical origin, however, the character was created by writer Henryk Sienkiewicz for his epic novel ‘Quo Vadis’ and hijacked by Italian film producers as a viable alternative to those more celebrated musclemen.

Despite the trouble on his native soil, legendary warrior Ursus (Joe Robinson) has retired from the fighting to spend time with his family. However, young son Mikhail (Antonio Piretti) is snatched by Tartar soldiers and taken to the warlord Suleiman’s (Tom Felleghy) camp. Robinson immediately rejoins the main Polish forces as the best method of pursuit and comes under the command of Prince Stefan (Ettore Manni). Charged with an expeditionary force on a reconnaissance mission, the impetuous Manni attacks a Tartar battalion instead. The sortie is successful, and they capture a valuable prisoner after Robinson uproots a tree and shakes him loose from its branches.

Unfortunately, the prisoner is less than helpful, so military genius Manni leads his troop into a narrow valley where they are surrounded. Outnumbered fifty to one, he takes the deal Felleghy offers; his men go free if he surrenders to being ransomed. But almost immediately after he accepts the warlord’s hospitality, Robinson and the men try to rescue him, fail spectacularly and are put on the chain gang anyway. It’s not all bad, though, as Felleghy’s daughter turns out to be Princess Ila (Yôko Tani), and within five minutes, she’s in his arms. ‘I want to be your slave,’ she breathes by way of an introduction.

Although he doesn’t approve of his daughter’s romantic preferences, surprisingly enough, Felleghy is prepared to go along with the arrangement, provided that Manni renounces his people and becomes a Tartar. Displaying his usual wit and savvy, instead of leveraging the situation for the advantage of himself and his men, Manni is outraged and throws the offer back in the warlord’s face. Thus ensuring he joins his men in chains. What a genius. Meanwhile, the Tartar’s imperial leader, the Great Khan (Akim Tamiroff), rocks up, accompanied by his slimy offspring, Prince Ahmed (Ivano Staccioli). Again, within the space of a few seconds, the young rascal has got his eyes on Tani and wants her for his own (the girl has quite a volatile love life!) Discovering his intended true feelings, the arrogant Staccioli challenges Manni to a fight to the death.

If the above story summary seems a little light on the involvement of our titular hero, then there is a good reason. Writer-Director Remigio Del Grosso focuses proceedings squarely on Prince Stefan and Princess Ila, reducing the strongman to a level barely approaching a sidekick. There are a handful of demonstrations of his super strength, notably pulling down a bridge, but he’s offscreen for long periods of the film. The audience could be forgiven for thinking that the character has been added to an existing project simply to provide name recognition in the title. As such, Robinson has little opportunity to make much of an impression.

However, there is more going on with the story than the average Peplum entry. For a start, it’s not all swords and bows and arrows; both sides of the conflict have firearms, although we never see the mentioned cannons and artillery. Instead, we get what appear to be muskets and crude rifles, even if all the close combat is conducted with blades. These fight sequences are a bit hit and miss, and there’s a suspicion that the armies appearing in the wide shots may be doing so by the kind permission of another film.

Still, the film does address themes of pacifism and violence, principally through the inclusion of a slave who is preaching the Christian doctrine in the underground caves of the slave quarter. It’s a little on the nose when he is crucified, of course, but it is the film’s best scene, as Tani repudiates the Tartar creed of violence in the face of his sacrifice. The cast is generally good, with the best opportunities given to bully boy Staccioli and an almost unrecognisable Tamiroff as the Great Khan who delights under the title of ‘Great Lord of the Flowering Almond Tree’ among other things.

Tani was born in Paris in 1928 to parents who were attached to the Japanese Embassy. The family went back to their homeland just a couple of years later, but Tani returned to the French Capital in 1950 to attend university. Instead, she drifted into the cabaret scene and became a dancer, famous for her ‘Geisha-themed’ performances. Bit parts in films followed, including two features in Japan, one of which was initially going to be directed by Akira Kurosawa. A brief appearance in ‘The Quiet American’ (1957) was followed by the female leads in ‘The Wind Cannot Read’ (1958) starring Dirk Bogarde and Nicholas Ray’s ‘The Savage Innocents’ (1960). She worked mostly in mainland Europe for the rest of her career, appearing in a handful of Eurospy projects such as ‘OSS 77 – Operazione for di loto’ (1965), ‘Agent Z-55, mission désespérée/Desperate Mission’ (1965) and ‘The Spy Who Loved Flowers’ (1966). She worked only a handful of times after the 1960s and passed away in 1999.

A more thoughtful Peplum than most which has some effective moments. However, expect to see a great deal more of the Tartar Princess than strongman Ursus.

Ursus in the Valley of the Lions/Ursus nella valle dei leoni (1961)

‘This is Argo, and you mustn’t eat him.’

Barbarians from the North invade a peaceful kingdom and murder its king. The queen flees with their son, but the escape party is attacked. The baby is lost and raised by lions in a remote valley. As a man, he is unaware of his lineage, but a chance meeting with a slave trader brings him to the attention of the evil warrior who usurped the throne and killed his parents all those years before…

More Peplum fun with heavyweight lunkhead Ursus, the muscleman with a literary origin instead of a religious or mythological one. Lifted from the novel ‘Quo Vadis’, Italian film producers placed him in various locations and time periods. Here, American actor Ed Fury is cast as ‘Tarzan of the Lions’ living in a never-never land of indeterminate geography and era. This was the third entry in the loose series, with star Fury returning from the first film, ‘Ursus/The Mighty Ursus’ (1961).

When King Annurius falls under the sword of invading warrior Ayak (Alberto Lupo), his consort has already quit the throne room via a secret passage, taking the heir to the title with her. However, the escape party are ambushed on the road, and the queen takes her own life rather than submit to the attentions of Lupo’s men. The horse carrying the crib gallops away in all the confusion, eventually depositing the baby Ursus in a secluded valley filled with lions. The beasts bring him up as one of their own and, twenty or so years later, he’s grown into handsome hunk Ed Fury.

Hanging out with the family one day, Ursus hears a commotion when one of his hunting traps is sprung. However, instead of the game he expected, Fury has snagged a wagon belonging to slave trader Simud (Giacomo Furia), who is on his way to market with his latest cargo of barely-dressed lovelies. Fury uses his super strength to get the vehicle out of the pit, impressing sensual dark-haired beauty Diar (Moira Orfei). However, Fury only has eyes for Annia (Mariangela Giordano), who was knocked unconscious in the accident. He buys her from Furia with a gold medallion that was a gift from his father and that identifies him as the rightful heir to the kingdom’s throne.

After the slave caravan reaches the city, the trinket falls into the hands of Lupo’s lieutenant, the ruthless Lothar (Gérard Herter). Orfei sells Fury out for the seat next to Lupo, and the hunt for the big man is on. News of his survival has also reached the rebel forces, whose leader’s daughter (María Luisa Merlo) works at the palace. Presumably, she’s one of Lupo’s ‘attendants’, but her exact duties are left unspecified. Lupo’s men poison the lions with tainted meat (booo!) and use the captured Giordano for leverage, so Fury has no choice but to give himself up. The triumphant Lupo tells Fury of his true identity and plans to execute him at court. Unfortunately, the blackguard has also fallen instantly in lust with Giordano, kicking Orfei into touch. Hell hath no fury, of course, and the dark-haired temptress steals down to the dungeon to set the big man free.

This is an entertaining Peplum from director Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, who takes advantage of what appears to be a decent production budget and keeps events moving at a fair pace. There’s very little invention in Sandro Continenza’s script, but he does manage to sidestep most of the more obvious clichés that plagued the genre. He also bothers to explains Fury’s facility with language and surprising social skills. Rather than spend all his time with lions, the big man has visited the passing caravans of traders and merchants.

This life experience has provided him with a surprisingly good vocabulary, but his education in other areas seems a little lacking. He has no concept of money or financial transactions, doesn’t know what gold is and apparently has no knowledge of sex. When he takes Giordano back to his den, it’s just because she’s ‘pretty’ rather than anything else, and he doesn’t have a clue why she’s uncomfortable when he surprises her bathing naked in a pool. It doesn’t take him long to learn about kissing, though.

The film is fortunate to have the returning Fury as its leading man. He handles the action scenes well and has a natural charisma and some ability as an actor. This helps to patch over some of the inconsistencies in characterisation handed to him by the script. Of the musclemen in Peplum at the time, he’s second only to Reg Park, who, coincidentally, would eventually play Ursus in the final film of the series.

All the principal women in the cast are back from the first film, too, with the rather colourless Giordano getting a promotion to heroine from her previous supporting role as a gypsy (in which she was far more effective). Merlo takes the reverse route from heroine to supporting player, which is an unfortunate choice again. The good news is that Orfei gets a chance to be even more deliciously evil and sexy than the first time around, and she almost steals the film as a result, despite her limited screen time.

However, a couple of aspects of the film may not sit well with a modern audience. The girls being taken to the slave market at the start of the action don’t seem very bothered by the experience. They have multiple opportunities to overpower the unarmed Furia, who is the only other member of the caravan, but, instead, they make no effort to escape at all. Actually, being auctioned at a slave market seems a bit of a giggle as they all gather around to congratulate Orfei when she catches the eye of the passing Lupo. Yes, the film is over half a century old (and it is Italian, to boot!) but rarely has sex trafficking seemed such fun.

There are also some issues with the production’s treatment of animals. On the credit side, we get some lovely moments between old lion Simba and Giordano’s little white dog, Argo. Strangely enough, the two creatures seem to have a genuine bond, and watching them hang out together is really quite sweet. On the other hand, Fury falls into a pit late in the film and his stunt double deals with the hyenas by roping them around the neck and flinging them off-camera. The animals look genuinely vicious, and the whole scene is a little uncomfortable to watch. Credit must go to the wrangler who doubles Fury in his close interactions with the lions, though. Rather him than me.

Orfei was first and foremost a circus performer, working with horses, as an acrobat and on the high trapeze. The sawdust was in her blood; she grew up on the road with parents who were both circus stars. Her acting career began in 1960 and ran concurrently with her activities in the big top until the mid-1960s. By then, she had married acrobat Walter Nones, and the two had formed their own circus, which they toured in various incarnations worldwide to great acclaim for the next 40 years. Their children followed in the family tradition, and both son and daughter became separate recipients of the circus world’s equivalent of the Oscar. Orfei retired from circus performing in the late 1990s but still introduced shows until she suffered a stroke in 2006. Forced to quit the road, she lived in a trailer until she passed in 2015.

As a character, Ursus always lived in the shadows of his more famous muscleman contemporaries, but in the person of Fury, he certainly deserves a little more recognition. This film may not be remotely original, but it’s a brisk and pleasing 90 minutes of muscular action.