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.

The Revenge of Ursus/The Vengeance of Ursus/La vendetta di Ursus/The Mighty Warrior (1961)

‘They see only giants wherever they look.’

Celebrated warrior Ursus has retired to the quiet life as a farmer after falling in love with his King’s daughter. However, when she passes by on her way to an arranged marriage, she asks to see him so they can say goodbye. As they talk, her caravan comes under attack by bandits…

The second adventure featuring the heroic Ursus, a character lifted from the novel ‘Quo Vadis’, rather than mythology or the pages of the bible. Original actor Ed Fury makes way for Samson Burke (real first name Samuel), and direction and co-writing duties are in the hands of Luigi Capuano. Apart from that, it’s business as usual in the world of sword and sandal.

What on earth are the Kings of the Ancient World playing at? How many of their daughters have to be attacked by bandits on the road before they make alternative travel arrangements? Sure, there’ll likely be a heroic warrior on hand to defeat the rabble single-handed after the armed escort has failed miserably, but it hardly seems like good parenting. Fortunately, for King Alteo (Nerio Bernardi), Burke is on hand to rescue the lovely Princess Sira (Wandisa Guida) from their evil clutches. Our main couple has a history, too, with warrior Burke having forsaken his place at her father’s court when it was clear that the King would never allow them to marry. Not when there’s a chance of a politically advantageous marriage to neighbouring ruler, King Zagro (Livio Lorenzon).

Burke selflessly agrees to escort Guida to her forthcoming nuptials as the party to travel is now greatly reduced. Other members include sexy handmaiden Lidia (Gina Rovere), Burke’s annoying brat of a brother, Dario (Roberto Chevalier) and a few soldiers who are always handy if someone needs to be killed along the way. Arriving at their destination, they find Lorenzon to be a surprisingly pleasant host with a ready laugh for every occasion. However, he is bald and has a short, black beard, so his motives are suspect. Potential problems are also posed by his scheming cousin, Sabra (Nadia Sanders). Back home, Bernardi’s chief advisor Licurgo (Gianni Rizzo) is quick to talk down Burke when he rushes back to warn of a dastardly plot against the throne.

There are places where Capuano’s screenplay, co-written with Roberto Gianviti, manages to deviate from Peplum cliché, but not many. Our golden couple have a prior relationship rather than falling in love within five minutes of their meeting, although the leads have less than zero chemistry (if that’s possible!) No femme fatale swoons over the big man’s muscular torso and attempts to turn him to the dark side, and no slaves toil in the tyrant’s mine on a zero-hours contract with no dental benefits. Also, the rebel forces opposing Lorenzon haven’t been just waiting around for Burke to turn up before taking action. There’s also a good sense of scale to the action, with plenty of extras indulging in some energetic swordplay and combat, even if the fight choreography displays little imagination. Some of the natural locations are impressive too, and cinematographer Oberdan Troiani uses them well. The sweeping music of Carlo Innocenzi also lends the production a stamp of quality that is lacking elsewhere.

It’s no surprise that the main issue here is with the script. It slavishly ticks so many of the usual boxes that events take on a strange anonymity, almost as if the film were a clip-show created from other movies. Burke fights in the arena. The Lost Kingdom Dancing Girls favour us with another routine in gauze and veils as their never-ending tour comes to the court of King Lorenzon. Burke establishes the truth of his words by completing the ‘Trial By Fire’ and the ‘Trial of the Lances’ because honesty is always linked to physical strength, obviously. And I guess anything is more accurate than a polygraph test. Burke also gets to push ‘The Big Wheel’ when he’s a prisoner, although at least the filmmakers don’t even try to pretend that it’s connected to anything for once; it’s just physical effort for the sake of torture.

Another shortfall is with the performances. American Burke is physically impressive, especially in the upper body, but it’s fair to say that he spent far less time in drama class than in the gym. However, it was his first film, and there was a likely language barrier to overcome, and he does handle the action scenes with conviction. His next outing saw him in one of the title roles of ‘The Three Stooges Meet Hercules’ (1962), and he played muscleman Maciste that year in comedy ‘Totò contro Maciste’ (1962). Sporadic roles followed relying on his physical appearance, including the part of the cyclops in scenes directed by Mario Bava for ‘Odissea’ (1968), the epic Italian TV adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.

After supporting roles in similar ventures and historical dramas, 1961 was the year that saw Guida graduate to leading roles in films such as this and ‘Dracut the Avenger/Dracut il vendicatore’ (1961). But, as the Peplum craze went into decline, her career followed. However, she was still the leading lady for later entries ‘Ercole contro Roma/Hercules Against Rome’ (1964) and ‘Maciste nelle miniere del re Salomone/Samson in King Solomon’s Mines’ (1964).

Lorenzon was a Peplum veteran with many credits that also include ‘Ercole contro Roma/Hercules Against Rome’ (1964). He mainly worked in Spaghetti Westerns in the latter half of the 1960s, making appearances in Mario Bava’s ‘Savage Gringo’ (1966) and Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), among others. He was regularly employed in Italian films up until his early death in 1971.

There is little to make this slice of Peplum stand out from the crowd, but there are still some things to enjoy for fans of the genre.

Ursus/The Mighty Ursus/Ursus, Son of Hercules (1961)

To be without you is no longer to live, Ursus!’

Finding that his intended bride has disappeared while he has been off fighting, a war hero sets out on a mission to find her. It turns out that she has been kidnapped by a sinister cult who practice virgin sacrifice, and he’ll need all of his mighty strength to defeat them…

Unlike the other leading musclemen of the era, Ursus did not have a biblical or mythological origin but was an invention of Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz for his 1896 novel ‘Quo Vadis.’ This tale of Ancient Rome dealt with a young aristocrat who falls in love with a barbarian slave, who comes with a bodyguard, courtesy of her Royal lineage. This hardman is Ursus, played in the 1951 film version by ex-world heavyweight boxing contender Buddy Baer. This big-budget Hollywood production was shot mainly on the soundstages of the Cinecitta Studios, eight miles outside Rome. Sergio Leone worked on it as a Second Unit director early in his career.

After the international success enjoyed by Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1958), follow up films featuring Samson, Goliath and Maciste weren’t enough to sate the Italian public’s thirst for sword and spectacle. Enter Ursus for a series of nine features, although he barely registered in the penultimate entry ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). I guess he never really could compete with Hercules, Maciste or Samson.

This initial entry in the series finds him flying solo, though, under the direction of Carlo Campogalliani and in the person of American bodybuilder Ed Fury (real name Edmund Holovchik). As we join the action, Fury has just returned from the wars where he has distinguished himself as a mighty warrior. A return to civilian life means marriage to sweetheart Attea (Moira Orfei), but things go south immediately. On the way, he runs into Exposition Lady, in the delightful form of a blind shepherdess, Doreide (María Luisa Merlo).

It turns out that Orfei disappeared without trace two years previously on the night that her father was murdered. Merlo overheard two strangers plotting the crime while serving in the house of her master, Setas (Luis Prendes) and even managed to grab a medallion that one of them dropped accidentally. If we have any doubt of Prendes’ villainous credentials, it turns out that Merlo is blind because he ordered her punished for letting his sheep wander! Right on cue, up rides the slimeball and his flunkeys, looking to cause trouble.

Exhibiting the first example of the stellar judgement he shows throughout the film, Fury blurts out everything he’s just been told, sending himself and Merlo right to the top of Prendes’ kill list. Going on the run, the couple discovers that Orfei was kidnapped by the cult of Ziest, who live on a remote island somewhere. Merlo warns Fury not to trust merchant Kymos (Mario Scaccia), who may have a line on its location but the first thing the lunkhead does is accept a drink from the trader’s Girl Friday, Magali (Cristina Gaioni). Of course, it turns out to be drugged, and he’s captured.

Eventually, Fury and Merlo escape and, in another great decision, the muscleman accepts Gaioni’s offer to take them to the island. Of course, she betrays them. In the resulting skirmish, she is killed, and they end up on the island anyway, accompanied by Prendes. He’s part of the cult, of course, which is run by high priest Mok (Rafael Luis Calvo) with the help of a mysterious Queen (no prizes for guessing her identity).

Although the film ticks off too many of the familiar Peplum boxes to create an identity of its own, it should be evident from the summary above that Giuliano Carnimeo and Sergio Sollima’s screenplay rarely stops to take a breath. Director Campogalliani also keeps the action coming thick and fast, even if some of the fight choreography is not very well-executed. Fury doesn’t have a great deal of acting range, but an impressive physique and a friendly presence are enough in these circumstances. Adding to both spectacle and production value are leftover sets from Nicholas Ray’s MGM picture ‘King of Kings’ (1961).

In time-honoured Peplum tradition, Fury puts in some time pushing that big wheel in the diamond mine and is tempted by the wiles of the Evil Queen. He also leads a revolt of fellow slaves, who have been waiting around all this time for him to turn up. During the lengthy climax, audiences may wince at the sight of Fury’s stunt double being tossed around by a real-life bull in the arena. Presumably, this was José Balbuena (listed as ‘Bullfighter’ in the cast list), and he deserves enormous credit for what looks like highly hazardous duty, especially given the probable absence of any significant Health and Safety procedures.

Elsewhere it’s very much business as usual. The principal movers in the tale aren’t characters so much as all-too-familiar archetypes with no effort made to grant them any shading or personality. Orfei brings a little punch to the proceedings, although she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, and there’s an early appearance from Soledad Miranda. She later starred in films for cult director Jess Franco in which she displayed a striking screen presence before her premature death at the age of 27 in a car accident.

The film initially played with the more fantasy-orientated ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (1962) on American screens and, almost inevitably, became part of the ‘Sons of Hercules’ package on syndicated television. Fury played Ursus a couple of more times in the series but returned to America in the mid-1960s when the Peplum bubble burst. His subsequent screen career was a slow procession of bit parts playing cops, mercenaries and guards on network TV shows, including ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Mission: Impossible.’

By the numbers Peplum; fast-paced but rather forgettable.