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.

Ulysses (1954)

Ulysses (1954)‘These Greeks are tough, with stringy meat.’

The Princess of Phaeacia finds an unconscious man washed up on the beach. The stranger has no memory of his past life but proves himself strong, brave and honourable. The two plan to marry, but, on their wedding day, he feels compelled to return to the sea, and his memories begin to return…

Handsomely mounted, if necessarily abbreviated, feature version of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ which tells of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after the end of the Trojan War (yes, it’s the same character). It was a passion project for producer Dino De Laurentiis who secured a global distribution list with Paramount Pictures and some important American talent, most notably international box-office stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.

It’s been ten years since the end of the Trojan War and Queen of Ithaca, Penelope (Silvana Mangano) still waits for news of her husband, the warrior Ulysses (Douglas). Unfortunately, her house has been overrun by young nobles eager for her hand in marriage, and, more importantly, the kingdom’s throne. Her son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi) is too young to be taken seriously by these suitors, led by the arrogant, forceful Antinous (Quinn).

‘I’m sorry, sir, but all the First Class cabins are already taken…’

Meanwhile, Douglas has been washed up on the island of Phaeacia and has caught the eye of the Princess Nausicaa (Rossana Podestà). He can’t remember who he is, or where he comes from, but, after proving his he-man credentials, Podestà can’t wait to get him to the altar. Unfortunately for her, he’s called to the sea on their wedding day and suffers a ‘Hollywood Amnesia Flashback’. We see him marshalling his troops inside the Wooden Horse inside the gates of Troy, outwitting the Cyclops Polyphemus and getting caught up in the machinations of the sorceress, Circe (Mangano, again).

During the 1950s, it became common practice for big American Studios to collaborate with their Italian counterparts. Income from US films had not found their way back home during the Second World War. These funds were now available to spend, making productions shot in European countries a desirable financial proposition. In particular, Italy had a thriving pre-war film industry and boasted the massive Cinecittà Studios in Rome built under Mussolini’s government in the 1930s. Biblical epics and historical adventures could be shot there at a fraction of Stateside production costs. ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ as it became known endured for more than a decade before being sunk by the runaway production costs of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle ‘Cleopatra’ (1963).

Ulysses (1954)

‘I’m sorry. Kirk, but I do think that extra hour under the sun lamp was probably a mistake…’

So, although it may seem strange at first glance to see major stars such as Douglas and Quinn acting alongside names unknown outside their native Italy, it made perfect sense from a financial point of view. If such working practices needed endorsement, this film provided it with a hefty take at the box office. Subsequent sources also give it credit as the springboard for the more fantastical elements of the Peplum genre personified by world-wide smash ‘Hercules’ (1957).

The film was not without its problems, though, with acclaimed veteran director GW Pabst quitting the project on the eve of shooting and original cinematographer Mario Camerini taking over as director. He was replaced behind the camera by the five-time Oscar-nominated Harold Rossen and, although it’s debatable who should get the plaudits, the film often looks quite gorgeous. There’s also some excellent work from the team of costume designers, including Barbara Karinska, a two-time Oscar winner for ‘Joan of Arc’ (1948) and ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ (1952).

Ulysses (1954)

It was always that last pint of the evening…

De Laurentiis was reportedly unsatisfied with the final film as he felt it abbreviated too much of Homer’s epic poem. This was inevitable with a runtime of only 104 minutes but, although the story is a little fragmentary at times, there’s some good work here from the team of seven screenwriters. Apart from director Camerini, this included famous American novelist Irwin Shaw and playwright Ben Hecht, who was once described as the ‘most prolific and highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood’. Their work is most impressive in the sequence with Circe, which combines elements of the Calypso episode, the visit to the Underworld, and the events which occur after the crew’s visit to Thrinacia. Still, De Laurentiis did have a point. There’s no encounter with the lotus-eaters, no visit to Aeolus, no Laestrygonians, and no Scylla or the whirlpool containing Charybdis. The film also shortchanges Telemachus, whose travels to find his father are entirely omitted.

Fifteen years later, De Laurentiis put things right by mounting a genuinely epic, almost seven-hour version for Italian television, ‘L’Odissea/The Odyssey’ (1968). Directed by Franco Rossi, it’s a notable achievement, especially on a small-screen budget. The highlight is the tour de force sequence with Polyphemus, the Cyclops. This was directed by horror maestro, and SFX wizard, Mario Bava and some sources give him credit for the same scenes in this film. Watching them back to back, there is some similarity with the cutting and the setups, and the SFX are similarly accomplished. However, the later version is noticeably superior from a technical standpoint, and some dispute his participation in the earlier film.

Ulysses (1954)

Kirk was always an easy gig for the costume department…

There are still some significant things to enjoy in this earlier version, though. Douglas brings his star power and likeable energy to the title role, although it’s notable that this is a Ulysses who does not need help from the Gods. He makes his own decisions and achieves victories through his wits and physical prowess rather than a reliance on divine intervention. However, this brings with it more than a touch of arrogance to the character, particularly when his selfish procrastination brings about his crew’s death.

There’s also the suspicion that the character has been tweaked somewhat to fit Douglas’ virile screen persona, specifically to provide plausible deniability for his associations with women other than the faithful Mangano, who has been waiting for him at home for 20 years. His convenient ‘amnesia’ allows him to romance Podestà without any subsequent guilt, and he gets a pass for his six-month dalliance with Circe too because, after all, she looks just like his wife, doesn’t she? Neither of these devices make appearances in the source material.

Ulysses (1954)

The ‘Robin Hood’ reboot remained in Development Hell…

Incidentally, the circumstances surrounding the making of the film became the inspiration for the novel ‘Il Disprezzo’ by Alfredo Moravia. The book was later filmed by Jean-Luc Godard as ‘Le Mépris/Contempt’ (1963) and starred Jack Palance, Brigitte Bardot and director Fritz Lang playing the ‘GW Pabst’ role as himself. Godard reportedly hated making the film and called the novel ‘a nice vulgar read for a train journey’. However, it remains critically lauded and one of his best-regarded films.

A vigorous, fast-paced run through the highlights of Homer’s epic poem. It won’t please purists or scholars but delivers an entertaining mix of mythology and adventure, even if it feels a little anonymous at times.