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.