Tuesday, April 18, 2017


If you think it’s lonely defending Charlton war and western comics, try championing late 50’s/early 60’s dubbed Italian sword-and-sandal films (known also as “Peplum” films). While disreputable genres such as 90’s shot-on-camcorder gore films and 70’s porn loops are getting blu-ray releases and fawning articles about the “auteurs” in said genres, sword and sandal films can’t get arrested in today’s world. The Warner Archive has re-issued in beautiful letterbox editions the handful of films that MGM released domestically in the early 60’s, but other than that, it’s budget-bin 20 or 50-film multi-packs containing shitty pan-and-scan prints taken from VHS, or old reliables such as Sinister Cinema (and SC is the source of this film under review--a very good print I highly recommend!). They do circulate freely in collectors circles and from grey-market sources, often taken from European cable-TV broadcasts or mid-priced European DVD’s, and I have spent many an evening enjoying a nice widescreen version of something starring Gordon Scott or Guy Madison or Brad Harris or Cameron Mitchell or John Drew Barrymore or Richard Harrison or Roger Browne. Most of these are relatively low-budget, yet they aspire to epic stature, so it takes a lot of imagination and cinematic sleight-of-hand to create the feel of an epic on a limited budget. That to me is an inspiration to any creative person. Unfortunately, whatever residual goodwill the genre might have had in the public mind has probably been snuffed out now by these horrible CGI-filled pseudo-Sword and Sandal films and Biblical faux-epics which have been bombing at the box office the last ten years. They can spend over 100 million dollars on one of these piles of crap, yet they can’t come close to creating the excitement of some 1963 European co-production with an imported American star signed on for 10 days work and which probably had a total budget less than the bottled-water and vegetable-tray budget on something like TROY or GODS OF EGYPT. It’s a credit to the visionaries-on-a-budget film-makers of early 60’s Italy and Europe that they could create hundreds of these peplum (I’m also including the costumed historical films which did NOT feature shirtless musclemen) films which played the world over and excited audiences in Peru or Thailand or the Congo or Tulsa, Oklahoma, and do it for such little money, relatively speaking. Many of the directors and actors and technicians who worked on these later evolved into the Eurospy and Spaghetti Western and then Giallo genres, and they brought the same budget-minded wizardry to the rich fantasy worlds depicted in those hundreds of films too.

Thanks, Hollywood, for leaving a bad taste in most people’s mouths with your bogus “sword and sandal” films of the last 15 years. If someone under 30 today might consider watching a Steve Reeves film on Netflix or Alan Ladd in “Duel Of Champions” on Amazon Prime when snowed in some winter weekend in Rhode Island, now they’ll think, ‘oh, that’s going to be like GODS OF EGYPT, and THAT SUCKED.’

Well, we here at BTC are devoted to giving you the real scoop from the pre-Internet age, before the revisionist historians make their wrong-headed and agenda-driven faux-history become the accepted version of the past.

And what better place to start than GOLIATH AT THE CONQUEST OF DAMASCUS, which came rather late in the sword-and-sandal cycle. 1965 was pretty much the last year when these films were being made as part of the original wave of popularity, which mushroomed in the late 50’s with the international success of the original HERCULES, starring Steve Reeves (although a mini-revival happened in the 1969-72 period, when maybe ten or so were made, they were not part of the original cycle).

This was one of four Italian peplum films (well, his fourth one was a pirate film, not technically a peplum) which starred American actor and bodybuilder PETER LUPUS, who appeared in these under the ROCK STEVENS pseudonym. Lupus was not just a bodybuilder who was approached at a gym and asked if he ‘ever wanted to be in pictures’; he’d been a supporting actor in a number of television comedies, including an appearance on DOBIE GILLIS, and he showed a real talent as a straight man (he later was on the classic POLICE SQUAD series with Leslie Nielsen--his comic timing is excellent). Lupus/Stevens also must be the only person who went into sword-and-sandal stardom after doing a parody of a muscleman in a film (I double-checked Samson Burke’s credits, and he did THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES after he did VENGEANCE OF URSUS, so Burke got the comedy gig after playing a straight peplum hero, so he does not qualify), that film being the classic MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, which he also appeared in under the Rock Stevens moniker. All four of the “Rock Stevens” films are worth seeing, but this one is perhaps the best.

One thing about genre films in any “formula” genre (westerns, crime films, martial arts films, sword and sandal films, etc.) is that the titles are more about creating “mood” than about accuracy. That’s how you can have Charles Starrett "DURANGO KID" westerns with a title such as STRANGER FROM PONCA CITY, which do not have a stranger and do not take place in Ponca City. It’s like labeling a perfume or an automobile. The original title of the film (in the Italian and other European versions) had it set in Baghdad, and certainly a film where the locals are at war with the Kurds would make more sense in Baghdad than in Damascus, but hey....why not! Just change it in the dubbing and no one will be the wiser. So many European “Maciste” films were dubbed as being Hercules films and then released in North America that way--does it REALLY make a difference. It’s not like you are doing a film about FDR and after it’s made change the title to LBJ and then dub it so the other characters call him “Lyndon.” Maciste/Hercules/Ursus/Goliath, they’re all of a type. The question is whether or not the film works. This one does. The title GOLIATH AT THE CONQUEST OF DAMASCUS hits all the right notes that the fan of sword and sandal films wants and needs.

Fortunately, Peter Lupus/Rock Stevens has the acting chops to carry the whole film himself, as he’s out front in almost every scene, and he has no comedic sidekicks or legion of underlings to distract attention. “Goliath” here has been away from his home territory for many years and comes back to find that the princess, just about to be married, has been kidnapped by members of an evil cult which requires its members to be scarred (like a brand or a gang tattoo) on their faces, and on top of that there are elements who are trying to sell out the local leaders to corrupt outside powers. That of course allows for all kinds of double and triple crosses. You know that this film is headed in the right direction when Goliath enters a local tavern looking for information, and he’s treated like crap (shades of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) by everyone there, and then has to fight pretty much everyone in the tavern. Yes, Goliath takes on probably 40 people....and of course kicks the butt of every one of them. There is a clever eye-winking quality to this five-minute fight sequence, and each person gets beaten in a different way----it moves fast and has non-stop action with a twist of humor. If Lupus/Stevens can carry that off and get away with it, you know that he’ll be able to handle in a convincing way anything else the film throws at him.

Perhaps the most exciting scene in the film is not one that requires brawn or physical fighting--it’s the scene where, as Goliath is going undercover as someone who wants to join the evil cult, he is about to get his face scarred. The audience is going to be thinking, as I did, “how will he be able to ever show his face again after this.” He ALMOST gets it done a few times, but something comes up....then (major spoiler alert) the leader decides he’d be of more use as an undercover member of the group, and he gets spared the disfiguring scar about one second before the hot metal goes into his face.

Although it runs only 87 minutes, there are enough double-crosses and sub-plots and interesting sets (underground dungeons, palaces, prisons, open markets, etc.) and outdoor locations to keep the viewers on the edge their seat. Again, Lupus/Stevens (who looks like a VERY buff version of early Sylvester Stallone, though of course, he predates Sly by 10 years) not only looks great and moves naturally, but manages to play every scene as if it’s actually a dramatic scene--some stars in this genre seem to be posing in a bodybuilding competition and the scenes happen AROUND them. The film is an excellent showcase for him, and I would have to rank him among the best of the sword and sandal film stars. I read an interview with Mr. Lupus where he mentioned that Mickey Hargitay was a friend who’d lived in the same area of the Midwest at one time and who suggested that Lupus look into acting in Italy.

Of course, these films became a moot point when Lupus--under his real name--became one of the stars of the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE TV show and stayed with it for all seven seasons. That pretty much gave him recognition for the rest of his life--recognition as an actor who happens to be athletic, not as just a bodybuilder who was in some films.

GOLIATH AT THE CONQUEST OF DAMASCUS would be a good litmus test to see if someone is a potential fan of the sword and sandal genre. If you watch and enjoy this, you’ll like others. If not, then you should look elsewhere for entertainment, NOT dubbed Italian historical epics from the 60’s.

Most people my age got into these films when they were shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on local TV in the 60s and 70s. They were also staples of late night UHF and independent TV into the early 90’s. In my case, when I was maybe in 2nd or 3rd grade, I remember channel 27 (the station which showed THREE Bowery Boys films a day AND ran the results each night from the local horse and dog tracks--so I suppose that Channel 27 made me the man I am today, since I still go to the track and watch Bowery Boys films) showing a sword and sandal film most afternoons, and I could catch the second half of them when I got home from school (and of course, I could see the whole thing during summer or winter vacations). When I was in maybe 4th grade, I was having a discussion with other kids during recess about movies, and when asked about my favorite stars, I said “Richard Harrison,” and the others said, “no, you mean Richard Harris.” NO, I told them. I know very well who Richard Harris is, and I’m not talking about him. They did not know Richard Harrison, and it was their loss. I hope they later discovered him, as no one’s life is complete without having seen SECRET AGENT FIREBALL or THE MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES or $100,000 FOR RINGO.

Very few sword and sandal films have been released in widescreen on video in North America, and even fewer have been released here in Italian with subtitles....although, as these films were shot without live sound, and basically ALL versions are dubbed, it’s not as though there is an “original” version--I just assume that more work was put into the script for domestic (Italian) consumption than for the many quickie export dubbing jobs. I’m also not sure if Lupus/Stevens even dubs his own voice here. The voice used fits the character (it’s not radically UNLIKE Lupus’s voice as I remember it) and does not sound ponderous or like an Old Testament reading as some dubbed voices in these historical epics do. I’m going to assume that he does not, but I do not know.

A film like this comes from an age before steroids and an age before CGI. These are REAL muscular men who worked on their physique piece by piece, hour by hour, and these are real stunts done by real people. To misquote Robert Frost (not sure if he ever saw a Steve Reeves film), that is what makes ALL the difference.

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