Judge Bill Treadway reports that this exciting historical epic contains elephants galore, but no sign of a nice Chianti.
Not in his time! Not in our time! Not in all time has the world seen such might as the mighty vengeance of Hannibal!
No man is more feared than Carthaginian general Hannibal (Victor Mature, Samson and Delilah). Armed with a vast army of elephants, Hannibal thunders through the Alps hell-bent on conquering Rome. He hits upon a scheme designed to crush the spirits of the Roman Army: He'll kidnap the lovely Sylvia (Rita Gam, Mohawk) and then release her to tell of the strength of his army. Complications arise when Hannibal falls in love with Sylvia and the feeling becomes mutual.
Hannibal is a film far better than one would expect based on the often venomous reviews it has received over the years. The direction, storytelling, and acting combine to create an extraordinary film that transcends the genre to create something new: the intelligent epic.
Hannibal was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a name that may not be instantly familiar to many. To film buffs, Ulmer is known as the "King of the B's," a designation he earned by making excellent films on poverty-row budgets with skeleton crews. With Hannibal, Ulmer is given a chance to make a big epic. With a budget and crew larger than he was accustomed to, Ulmer doesn't let the size and scope of the production overwhelm him. Instead, he concentrates on the assets he brought to his smaller films: eliciting flavorful performances and telling the story quickly and efficiently.
Some will quibble that Hannibal takes liberties with the historical facts. In the film's defense, I will say that most biopics stretch facts to maximize dramatic impact. If you want the true history of Hannibal, the best place to look is in an encyclopedia. I must be honest in saying that Hannibal is a satisfying film. The battle scenes are magnificent; Ulmer uses dynamic photography and editing to suggest a vicious battle. The quiet scenes are enthralling and thought provoking; the highest compliment I can pay this film is that it holds up well compared to the even more expensive epics of years to come.
The two lead performances are surprisingly excellent for a historical epic. Ulmer was expert in eliciting solid, noncampy performances in all the films he directed, regardless of the genre. Note, for example, the performance he evokes from his leading man. Few admit that Victor Mature is a great actor. In fact, when denied entry into a golf club due to his occupation, Mature quipped, "Why don't you read the reviews? They all say the same thing—I'm no actor!" To be fair, Mature was far better than the reputation would have you believe. With the right material and right direction, Mature could give a fine performance. His work in Hannibal is among the best in his career. It is an excellent performance that does not venture into camp or ham but into true human emotion. We really grasp the inner mind of the general and the turmoil within. Likewise, Rita Gam was never acclaimed for her acting, being seen merely as eye candy. While it may be true when watching many of her films, there are a few select films in which she demonstrated true acting talent. Mohawk was one of those films, and you can add Hannibal to the list. Her performance feels real and heartfelt throughout, also avoiding the campiest touches at all costs. She has strong chemistry with Mature that helps make their scenes together sizzle.
VCI presents Hannibal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. I believe this is the first widescreen home video edition of the film, and that is cause for celebration. Ulmer makes the most of the 'Scope ratio, which would have been lost and massacred in the infamous pan-and-scan format. The transfer itself is surprisingly good, considering that VCI is a studio that presents films in the public domain. There are some defects that remain present despite the sprucing up, though. Some occasional flickering and shifting of color tones remain, in addition to some scratches and specks. Still, this is the best Hannibal has looked in years, much better than the muddy VHS copies that have been circulating over the past fifteen years.
VCI also provides a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix for Hannibal. I believe Hannibal had stereophonic sound during the initial 1960 theatrical release, so the mono mix comes as a bit of a surprise. VCI may have only had a mono mix to work with, though, so I am inclined to be forgiving. It is a decent mix that is clear enough to comprehend. The score is rather majestic and could have benefited from a stereo remix. The dialogue is easily heard, so you will not have any trouble understanding the complexities of the film itself. There are some minor defects such as light crackling and the occasional hiccup, but this is good work overall.
VCI has even included some neat extra features. Theatrical trailers for Hannibal, Gladiators Seven, Bullet for Sandoval, and Any Gun Can Play are presented in anamorphic widescreen and are interesting to watch. There is a photo and poster gallery that is amazing when compared to the skimpy photo galleries featured on discs released by major studios. The biggest gem of the package is an audio interview featuring director Ulmer. Set in a Q&A format with renowned director Peter Bogdanovich serving as moderator, Ulmer speaks for half an hour and covers some important bases, including how he came to America and established himself as a reliable talent. You must not miss this interview, as it is worth the time to sit through it.
Hannibal is an entertaining, old-fashioned historical epic that Hollywood simply doesn't know how to make anymore. Featuring authentic locations and fine performances in addition to intelligent writing and direction, Hannibal proves that a historical epic doesn't have to rely solely on fancy visual effects to tell a good story. If you have only seen Hannibal on crappy VHS prints, you simply must pick up VCI's disc. It finally does justice to an unfairly overlooked film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Audio Interview with Director Edgar G. Ulmer and Peter Bogdanovich
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