Judge Erich Asperschlager oiled up for this review. Can someone hand him a towel, please?
"A slave to tyranny. A ruler of an empire. Alone and outnumbered…but magnificent"—The Magnificent Gladiator!
Italian "Sword and Sandal" movies and their epic tales of bulging warriors burned brightly from the late '50s to mid '60s. They were the definition of disposable cinema—the promise of a thrilling afternoon of escapism, set not in the present but an ancient time of Greek gods and Roman heroes. Cheaply made, they look positively antiquated today. If modern audiences know these movies, it's probably because they saw them lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. As poorly as they've aged, though, these movies still fulfill their basic purpose: to kill a few hours (and a few hundred soldiers) in the name of entertainment.
Entertainment is certainly the goal for Infinity Entertainment and Retromedia with their quantity-over-quality DVD double feature of Magnificent Gladiator and Revolt of the Barbarians.
Magnificent Gladiator, the main attraction, stars genre mainstay Mark Forest as Hercules (no, not that Hercules), leader of the Roman-conquered Dacian people. When Caesar Galienus (Franco Cobianchi) hears word of the nigh-unbeatable warrior, he brings Hercules to Rome to test his might in the gladiatorial games. Hercules' success is so great that he wins Caesar's favor—and the attention of his daughter Velida (Marilu Tolo)—to the dismay of Zullo (Paolo Gozlino), power-hungry commander of the Praetorian guard. With the help of an accomplice, Zullo devises a scheme to oust his rival, marry Velida, and become emperor of Rome. To stop him, Hercules must recruit his imprisoned countrymen and engage in epic battle with Zullo and his men before he loses his love, his freedom, and his life.
Revolt of Barbarians takes place in the embattled border lands between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes who refuse to be conquered. Decorated commander Darius (Roland Carey) and his men have fought bravely, and are on their way back to Rome for the first time in six years. On their way, the come upon the ruins of an ambushed caravan who had been carrying a shipment of gold for the payment of Roman soldiers. There, Darius meets a high-ranking officer who tells him similar shipments have been attacked in recent weeks, and tasks him with traveling to the nearby city of Treviri (Trier, Germany) to find out who is behind the robberies. Disguised as merchants, Darius and his second-in-command, Marcus, find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy that reaches far beyond the roving bands of Barbarian thugs they first suspected.
Billed as "Two Gigantic Pec Flexing Epics," both of these movies were made in 1964, in the latter days of the Sword and Sandal genre. Though watching them without wisecracking robot silhouettes is a little strange, don't dismiss these movies too quickly. They're good goofy fun. If you've ever seen one of these movies, you know what to expect: beefy boys, buxom babes, dubbed English, and swords a-plenty. Both movies in this set feature extended fight sequences, which are mostly bloodless apart from the occasional arrow through the neck. The choreography isn't great—most of the fighting consists of guys tapping swords and keeling over dead at the slightest body blow—but it gets the job done, and the sheer number of soldiers, guards, barbarians, and peasants they pack onscreen is impressive. The stories are romanticized, with just a dash of historical accuracy (the ongoing battles against Germanic tribes, for instance, was a big part of Roman history). They were probably made to inspire as well as entertain. How much they do either depends on your willingness to embrace the cheesiness.
The acting is minimal and melodramatic, though I imagine the leads were chosen mostly for their looks. Mark Forest is an aptly-named lush expanse of a man, muscly and striking. He owns Magnificent Gladiator. Heck, he is Magnificent Gladiator. He plays opposite the lovely Marilu Tolo. As in most of these movies, their love story feels tacked on, but considering the alternative is 90 minutes of sweaty men in too-short skirts, I'm willing to let it slide. I'm less willing to forgive the character of Druzio, a comic relief shepherd whose dubbed voice sounds like someone doing a bad Jerry Lewis impersonation.
At 77 minutes, Revolt of the Barbarians has less time for comic relief and extraneous romance. It's more serious, with a decent central mystery. That you'll figure out who's behind the conspiracy in about ten minutes doesn't make the story any less fun. Compared to the expansive battles of Gladiator, Barbarians is more intimate. It focuses on a few main characters, and the fighting is contained mainly by the streets of its city setting. The notable exception is a well-staged battle between barbarians and the Roman soldiers who are transporting a fake gold shipment to lure the attackers out into the open. The movie's love story is more central to the story, as well. Darius falls for a local girl named Lydia while he's disguised as a merchant. Her hatred of the Romans for killing her father is tested, of course, when she discovers his true identity. Not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but given the history between Rome and what is now Germany, it's got some weight.
Now the bad news for fans of the genre: these movies look and sound terrible. Magnificent Gladiator is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, but the quality of the print is at times near unwatchable. Colors are all over the place, the image jitters, and random lines and red splotches appear over the picture. The full frame Revolt of the Barbarians is every bit as bad, with the added bonus of a constant background noise that sounds like a cross between distant horses and popping corn. It's possible no better source material for either film exists, but it's no less painful to see transfers this shabby on a "pristine" format like DVD.
Extras are slim. No featurettes or documentaries. Only a collection of "Muscle Trailers" for other movies in the genre. Take a few minutes and watch the four lengthy trailers—for Hercules Against the Sons of the Sun, Ursus and the Tartar Princess, Magnificent Gladiator, and Julius Caesar Against the Pirates—if only for their unintentional hilarity and casual racism. MARVEL at footage of a blonde dude wrestling a guy in a bear costume! THRILL at an announcer who says things like "Love blossoms unexpectedly in the midst of violence and vengeance…a love that is almost crushed by flaming jealousy"! and CRINGE at white men dressed like Asian princes!
The "three hours of gut-crunching excitement" on this disc isn't for everyone, but it's also lot more fun than it sounds. The battles are at least as thrilling as anything in a Sci-Fi Channel original movie. It's just too bad the quality of the battered prints is so awful. If it makes you feel better, you can always invite a few friends over to add the missing MST3K commentary. Just don't be surprised if they start shushing you after a while so they can hear what's going on.
I'm not sure I have jurisdiction over ancient Rome. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice, Magnificent Gladiator
Perp Profile, Magnificent Gladiator
Studio: Infinity Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Magnificent Gladiator
• Muscle Trailers
Scales of Justice, Revolt Of The Barbarians
Perp Profile, Revolt Of The Barbarians
Studio: Infinity Entertainment
Distinguishing Marks, Revolt Of The Barbarians
• Muscle Trailers
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