Judge Brett Cullum wonders if gypsies put a curse on this movie to make everyone dismiss it as a Godfather rip-off? Or did they steal the script?
"They called us gypsies, tramps, and thieves!"—Cher
When King of the Gypsies was released in 1978 it seemed to only want to be a low-rent De Laurentiis version of The Godfather, and that's a shame since it could have been so much more. The film was very loosely based on a nonfiction book that examined gypsy life in the 20th century. The written version asked the poignant question of how long tribes of nomadic people with no property, schooling, or even birth certificates could exist in America. It told the story of a man who reluctantly inherited a title from his grandfather, and then fought to change the gypsies for the better. The movie version took some elements from the source material, but molded it all around a son's suddenly violent tale of reluctantly coming to lead his criminal family tribe. It's a solid "B" picture when it could have easily been a stunning great one. It certainly has the right cast and crew, but cliche gangster movie plotting prevents the unique gypsy world to poke through. Rather than ask the most interesting cultural questions about modern gypsies, the film settles on a vengeance tale that seems too familiar.
The script revolves around the story of a modern gypsy tribe by showing us the life of David who is born in to a life he never asked for. He resists living with his people, and runs away at a young age to become a petty insurance scam artist and singing waiter. He seems to be settling down in to normal society finally with an apartment, pretty girlfriend, and plans to move out of New York City to California. David is sucked back in to the life when his grandfather dies and names him the unlikely successor of "The King" title of all the gypsy tribes skipping his father. The cast list for 1978 is nothing short of amazing, and looking back thirty years it still impresses. The lead role is cast with Eric Roberts (The Pope of Greenwich Village) as David in his screen debut; Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise) plays his charismatic mother with Judd Hirsch (Independence Day) as the power hungry father; screen legends Sterling Hayden (Nine to Five) and Shelley Winters (The Poseidon Adventure) portray the royal grandparents; Annette O'Toole (Superman III) and Annie Potts (Ghost Busters) are romantic interests; and Brooke Shields (The Blue Lagoon) is the sister. The actors all do a credible job with what they are given, but therein lies the rub. They aren't given enough to do except struggle to look like New York gypsies.
We get to see what the filmmakers imagine as the gypsy lifestyle with an emphasis on the criminal aspects. They run cons, have elaborate parties, squat in run down apartment buildings, and tell fortunes. They get quite a few things correct, but for the most part it all reads like movie artistic license. The least interesting part is the typical "rise to power" plot which is the main focus. All of it kind of works to fascinate the viewer, but ultimately the slow pacing and predictable turns make King of the Gypsies middle of the road. The theme of the young man growing in to his desiny as a crime lord seems all too familiar, and it's been done better with the iconoclastic Godfather series. Still, there's enough material and good acting to make this one worth a look. It didn't do well in initial theatrical release, and wasn't even put in print on VHS until 1998. It's certainly a forgotten film, one that has been hard to find for people curious about it.
Legend Films is a new distributor of DVDs that has been given the rights to mine the Paramount back catalogue of ignored vault titles for release. King of the Gypsies is a bare bones affair with nothing but the film and some chapter stops inserted to mark the debut of the film on the format. There are no extras granted to examine the project, and that hurts the presentation a little. The transfer is solid though unremarkable. We get scratches and grain from the source print, but overall it looks good in widescreen for the first time on a home format. The cinematography is a high point of the production, so nice to see it finally intact rather than in a pan and scan mode. Sound is problematic with a mono two channel approach which makes the music awfully loud in comparison to the dialogue which comes across often as too low.
According to the 1978 nonfiction book by Peter Maas, the gypsy world began to change as modern times forced them to integrate in to society. You used to see them on Jersey shores or on the streets of Rome, dressed in traditional attire running scams or telling fortunes. Decades later they've blended in, and the traditions have been lost in many parts of the world rendering them invisible with regular jobs and trendy clothing. King of the Gypsies the film certainly has an element of that idea of the disappearing world, and it could have been a landmark cinematic event that documented the changing times for a people. Unfortunately it just became a common crime story about a family legacy, a young man looking for violent revenge on his father. It's not as interesting as it should be, but an all-star cast almost saves it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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