Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ursus aka Hercules aka Maciste aka Strong Guy: My First Brush with Peplum

A few months ago, I happened to watch the biblical epic QUO VADIS for the first time. Nothing really jumped out as noteworthy from it, with me ultimately dismissing it as a well-crafted Hollywood blockbuster from an era where audience tastes (not to mention production methods) were quite different from today's. If anything stuck with me from my viewing experience, it was the odd experience of watching something that was meant to be an audience pleaser and a bit of awards bait simultaneously; AVENGERS meets THE KING'S SPEECH, if you will.

One of the elements meant to no doubt placate Sunday school kiddies dragged to a four hour movie was boxer Buddy Baer in a supporting role as the strongman Ursus, a well-oiled bearded barbarian who is... uncomfortable with the peaceful tenets of this Chris Channity. But by Woda-- uh, by Jesus, my lady, I will defend you from these cowardly skirt-wearing Romans! Intermittent rasslin' happens, cue another happy demographic.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago and, holidaying on Sicily, I catch the start of an old-timey epic on the tube. Fascinated by the sound of trumpets and the ever-so-charming use of an ancient tome opening as the movie's intro, I stuck with it. Imagine my surprise when it turned out this wasn't a Roman epic, or even a Medieval adventure -- this was that most shaky of cinematic propositions: a fantasy film.

Its name? URSUS NELLA VALLE DEI LEONI (or, "Ursus in the Valley of Lions").

The 1962 film recounts the origins of Ursus, a foundling raised by lions after the evil King Ajak killed his royal parents and took over the kingdom rightfully his.

Wait, what? Ursus is a KING? Of what country? When did the Romans invade, turn him into a slave and employ him as bodyguard to Deborah Kerr?

Licensing being a fickle thing in those days, and even moreso across continents, the character of Ursus kind of took off, and not exactly in a spin-off the way we understand the term nowadays, either. You see, Ursus in QUO VADIS was an inhabitant of the Roman Empire, and lived through Nero's burning of Rome and the mad emperor's suicide. There's not even a mention of Rome in LEONI. Why? Haha, welcome to Italian filmmaking, my friend!

After the success of the Steve Reeves starrer HERCULES in 1958, crafty Italian producers were on the lookout for any other strongmen from antiquity they could turn into low-risk hi-yield investments: soon the son of Zeus was joined in Italian theaters by biblical tough guys like Samson and Goliath; the alt-version of Hercules, Maciste (an Italicization of Makistios, a Greek sanctum that worshipped Hercules, and one of his pseudonyms); and finally Ursus. These cinematic comic books in antiquity are today known as the "swords 'n sandals" genre, or "peplum films" named after the simple tunics worn by many characters in them.

Ursus is the funniest of these guys to build a franchise around (9 movies!) because the deepest source material you can find for him is the Polish historical adventure novel QUO VADIS was based on. Was this big enough in terms of name recognition? I mean, even if you've never seen the Steve Reeves movie, odds are you know who Hercules is, and in a Catholic country like Italy Samson and Goliath were safe bets as well. Ursus, not so much -- many of his films were exported stateside with names like URSUS, SON OF HERCULES or sometimes even fully converting the character into Hercules when dubbing the feature into English.

But still, nine movies! For a character people were quite iffy on! Gotta admire that. Oh, those nine movies? All made in FOUR YEARS. But don't worry, they weren't straining themselves TOO much, there were about as many production companies and crews involved in this. It truly was a muscleman free-for-all in "Mad Men" times!

LEONI is about as good an introduction to the character you'll get anywhere, I'd say, since it's pretty much an origin story for our ursine-named strongman (how serendipitous he was first portrayed by a man named Baer). The writers of LEONI don't give a shit though, and regale us with the tale of how this beefcake was raised by... lions? Okay!

Ursus is portrayed here by American bodybuilder Ed Fury, in his second turn as the character, the first one being URSUS from 1960. Second turn from Fury, fourth Ursus film in two years overall -- you still following?

The young Ursus is shown cavorting with lions and uttering hearty laughs whenever one does something that amuses him, like rolling around or putting an "aww man" paw over its face. There's also a dog named Argo who cuddles with the lions in a surprisingly modern internet-savvy touch. You won't BELIEVE these two became friends... The main lion friend is called Simba, another amusing quirk for modern-day viewers.

Hilariously, whenever Ursus is on-screen with the lions, his face is never shown, so the close family bond we're supposed to buy is undercut somewhat because it's obviously a trainer (quite a bit less ripped than Ed Fury, even!) play-wrestling with the big cats.

The animals are, in fact, the star of the show here, since there is no real nudity or intense violence to speak of. The animals came courtesy of Circo Orfei, run by Moira Orfei, who also plays the ambitious slave girl Diar. Other animals her circus provided include hyenas who get hilariously mistreated as the handler twirls these obviously frightened barking beasts about and flings them into a dark hole, holding them by one front and one back leg (1:21:06 onward in the enclosed YouTube vid), and elephants who move about in the finale dragging the poor citizens over the hot coals until mighty Ursus beats them back and makes them lie down in a relaxed fashion while making straining noises as he pushes their sides (1:25:09).

Main villain Ajak (Alberto Lupo), meanwhile, gets his deserved comeuppance as Simba viciously licks and cuddles the terrible tyrant to death (1:25:44)!

Besides the obvious cheapness of the production and the simplistic mainstream 60s worldview presented, I have to say I had a fun enough time with LEONI. Certainly moreso than QUO VADIS -- oh, what an 80 minute runtime can accomplish! Would I delve deeper into this near-forgotten subgenre? Sure, okay, whatever!

For all y'all Italian exploitation lovers of the 70s: LEONI also features one of the earliest ever Riz Ortolani scores, the composer who would become world famous in the minds of creepazoids for his music for MONDO CANE, ADDIO ZIO TOM, ADDIO AFRICA and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

A funny side-note: Italian unlicensed hucksterism continues well into the 21st century, even off-screen. While in Sicily, I saw many posters advertising the "Circo Sandra Orfei," an outfit capitalizing on Moira Orfei's name while being entirely unrelated to her.

Monday, July 18, 2016

I Live Near A Cinema: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)

Mist-borne figures emerge upon a rock strewn plateau. Drums resound across the eerie landscape. A column of soldiers carrying rifles and transporting a mortar edge quietly over this deathly still vista. Among them is a white clad gentleman, wholly out of step with the rest of his filthy, mud-stained entourage. A great and terrible deity carved from the ancient obsidian arises. The soldiers clutch their weapons with sweat-slick hands, muttering and praying.

Unlike his soldiers, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is not afraid.

"Opar..." he whispers. "So it is real..."

My ears perked up. OPAR, fabled city of Queen La, and location of countless Tarzan adventure stories. Would we finally be getting a Tarzan movie that went beyond a "Tarzan vs poachers" or "Tarzan and Jane are from two different worlds" plot?

A spear flies from the mists. Harmlessly, almost comically, it lands on the rocks between Rom and the military commander accompanying him, sending a clattering echo across the valley. The order to fire is given, and the men cut loose with a deadly barrage of bullets and cannonades into the fog.


It is here where our movie-trained brain would suggest that the soldiers walked into an ambush. Frightened men? A single, poorly executed attack from an unseen assailant? Indiscriminate firing into the void?

Director David Yates disagrees. He cuts to a bloodless field of dead Opar warriors in proper Christopher Nolan "never show any impacts" style. Oh, so it's actually the Oparians that are just as frightened of these outsiders as they are of them? Okay, shame about the distractingly bloodless and impact-free cut we made there, but fine.

But no.

War chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and his elite warriors had actually quietly amassed upon the edges of the cliffs surrounding the unfortunate Europeans, and proceed to utterly riddle everyone with spears and arrows. Only Rom manages to survive the onslaught, and slowly stands up from the two shields he'd been using as cover. The warriors have by now descended upon the plateau, and are surrounding him. One man is wearing Rom's hat. This is a joke maybe? He does not seem to be mocking Rom, and simply forms a part of the silent wall of humanity that imposingly stares the European down. It's a bit awkward, really.

Rom tells Mbonga he is here to trade. His king, Leopold II of Belgium, has run up innumerable debts building a railway infrastructure through the Congo, and is now all slaved up with nowhere to go. Rom has been sent to find out if the fabled city of Opar and its untold riches are a myth or cold, hard fact.

Mbonga says he will deliver all the diamonds Rom desires, if he delivers him one man. Who is this man?

What seems like fifteen awkward seconds of silence later, we cut to the title: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.

Awkward. This is the word I can best use to describe Edgar Rice Burroughs' latest cinematic outing. I respect a lot of things that are there on paper, ideas that are well-conceived updates to the frankly insanely racist original material.

For one, Tarzan isn't really "king of the jungle" as much as he is "socially maladjusted cousin of the jungle." Skarsgard brings us a deeply conflicted Lord Clayton, living in London but suffering from a sort of "continental dysphoria." Although initially conflicted about returning to the Congo because he believes to be in his societally mandated place now, he nonetheless blossoms once he reaches the continent again, culminating in one of the few scenes that fully work: a random encounter with three lionesses he grew up with.

The apes, however, are a mixed bag. Tarzan is constantly getting his ass kicked by them in flashbacks and in the current timeline. Again, on paper that's pretty cool: which superpowerless human could beat a gorilla*? It keeps Tarzan part of a tapestry, rather than the white ruler standing above all the savagery. In practice, it combines with Yates' poor sense of build-up and scene flow to deliver a really soggy middle. In fact, once the third act kicks into gear, I had been so devoid of any emotional connection to what was happening on screen, I was actively surprised that we were so close to the end. Oh dear!

The addition of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) and his (authentic!) exposing of King Leopold's enslavement of the Congolese into the narrative is another welcome one, keeping the horrors of colonialism at the forefront at all times. Jackson is pretty engaged here, making Waltz the slummin' thesp of choice.

Shame too, because (again in theory), Rom is a pretty interesting villain. Highly dismissive of superstition and apparently personally offended at Tarzan being a figure of legend (the title!), the entrepreneur confides to Jane (a totally wasted Margot Robbie doing the best with what little she has). Wait, I think he was supposed to be an OCD guy as well? None of these quirks and interesting little tics are fleshed out properly. In fact, my friends and I only put these possible character traits together when walking back home after the movie. "I guess they were trying to tell us this...?"

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN was the most frustrating cinematic experience for me since THE WINTER SOLDIER. Unlike TWS, where a competently shot movie couldn't hide the dreadfully dull script, TARZAN has a script with proper ideas and an obvious knowledge of and love of the lore that is completely botched by a director who seemingly couldn't wait to get back on the Harry Potter gravy train where he knew he could just point the camera at charming British actors saying "fluffaluppugamus!!" in dusty rooms and let the CGI guys fill in the blanks. Seriously, just switch up HP directors (Cuaron or even Newell) and this probably would have been a solid movie.

As it is, the most entertaining part of the film was the uncomfortable silences in my theater whenever the characters would lay into those evil dang Belgians. We've had it coming for centuries, buddy! I just wish a better movie called us out.

*Technically, a MANGANI, not a gorilla. Funnily enough, these "Great Apes" were the good guys that raised Tarzan in Burroughs' original books. Gorillas were bloodthirsty monsters akin to orcs who could be killed for laughs and profit without guilt. The film amusingly twists this lore by saying "No, they're Mangani. Gorillas are kind. Mangani are bastards."