‘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.