Let’s give a cheer for the lowly sword ‘n’ sandal epic. This persecution and torture spectacle also takes in the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. The impressively mounted Italian-Spanish production stars Rhonda Fleming, Fernando Rey, Wandisa Guida, and as the slimy villain, none other than Serge Gainsbourg.
Revolt of the Slaves
MGM Limited Edition Collection
1960 / Color / 2:35 enhanced widescreen (Totalscope) / 103 min. / La rivolta degli schiavi / Street Date February 16, 2016 / available through Screen Archives Entertainment / 19.98
Starring Rhonda Fleming, Lang Jeffries, Darío Moreno, Ettore Manni, Wandisa Guida, Gino Cervi, Fernando Rey, Serge Gainsbourg, José Nieto, Benno Hoffmann, Rainer Penkert, Antonio Casas, Vanoye Aikens, Dolores Francine, Burt Nelson, Julio Peña .
Cinematography Cecilio Paniagua
Film Editor Eraldo Da Roma
Original Music Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Written by Stefano Strucchi, Duccio Tessari, Daniel Mainwearing from the novel ‘Fabiola’ by Nicholas Patrick Wiseman
Produced by Paolo Moffa
Directed by Nunzio Malasomma
Make all the jokes you want about Italian sword ‘n’ sandal pictures, those ‘Sons of Hercules’ type movies that we see here mostly in grainy, pan-scanned video atrocities. I don’t remember how many times I tuned into some muscleman movie with a generic title, to find little to hold my interest — no actors of note, no recognizable names. The genre’s impressive, entertaining pictures tend to get lost amid the lesser candidates. And it’s not like anyone ever wrote a scholarly book about peplums telling us which ones are worthwhile. All I know is that the sword ‘n’ sandal pictures I saw and loved as a kid from around 1959 to 1963, simply aren’t available in decent copies. We went crazy for Hercules and Hercules Unchained, for Steve Reeves (and his long-lost original English-dubbed voice), the great music, the lighting effects of Mario Bava. We were impressed by another Reeves film, The Last Days of Pompeii. And we loved Goliath and the Vampires and Hercules in the Haunted World and Constantine and the Cross. So when I saw the title Revolt of the Slaves starring Rhonda Fleming I became curious. I never heard of the director but the cast list had a number of interesting names. So what is, “Revolt of the Slaves?”
It appears to be one of the exceptional larger-budgeted efforts, filmed relatively early in the game, before the Techniscope assembly line productions that reused the same feeble sets and generic costumes. Producer Paolo Moffa got his start on Vittorio De Sica movies, the Spanish cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua did a number of well-known international films and the composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino has some favorite score credits, like Gorgo. Writer-director Nunzio Malasomma has credits going back to 1920 but remains an unfamiliar name. His directing is smooth enough but neither visually distinguished nor particularly adept in action scenes. This is a ‘stand back and admire the expensive sets’ kind of epic.
La rivolta degli schiavi is a remake of the standard throw-Christians-to-the-lions story Fabiola, already filmed twice as a silent movie and once as a big-budget 1949 production. Christian persecution is still going strong around 250 years A.D. As with The Sign of the Cross, Quo Vadis and The Robe, a forbidden romance crosses religious lines. Slave Vibio (Lang Jeffries) gets in hot water with his new owner Fabio (Gino Cervi) for refusing to fight; Fabio’s gorgeous daughter Claudia (Rhonda Fleming) has him whipped before deciding she’s made a mistake. Vibio is helped to escape by Claudia’s cousin, the sweet Agnese (Wandisa Guida) and her sweetheart Sebastian (Ettore Manni), who is the head of Emperor Massimiano’s Praetorian Guards. But Agnes and Sebastian are also covert Christians. Their services are held in the catacombs to avoid the Emperor’s wrath — they’re all considered dangerous subversives. Claudia and Vibio end up trying to help the Christians, but her involvement brings the group out into the open. The Emperor has given his security chief Corvino (Serge Gainsbourg) full powers to do what is necessary to wipe out the Christians, and it’s not long before the congregation has been rounded up and is ready to be slaughtered in the Circus. Claudia is of royal blood and therefore worthy of leniency… but what will she choose to do?
What we have here is a Spanish-shot production in full-frame Totalscope, not the half-frame Techniscope system that would become the norm for sword ‘n’ sandal productions and the Italo westerns that would follow. The production values are high, with bigger sets than usual. Producer Mofa surely wanted his show to be classed with the American epics filmed in Rome, but even the original Italian title stresses Action Movie over Biblical Epic. Lang Jeffries’ sober Vibio is not an invincible warrior, but he’s constantly rescuing Christians, scrapping with Roman guards, and leading escapes through the swamp. He rushes to save the Christians by digging into their cell under the Coliseum, but his timing is off. The somewhat grim ending sees a few remaining Christians pardoned and set free, but the most interesting have already been speared to death for the amusement of the crowd.
The story incorporates a major chapter in Roman Catholic history, as the character Sebastian is none other than St. Sebastian, the martyr who inspired thousands of pieces of artwork depicting a man tied to a tree and festooned with arrows. Oddly, director Malasomma doesn’t stage Sebastian’s demise as a major Faith event. An American script would at the very least add God’s thunder and lightning to the mix, with weeping and wailing women off to one side.
Revolt of the Slaves is a fun picture for spotting famous and not-so-famous stars. Rhonda Fleming is gorgeous but stiff as Claudia. Perhaps her character name for the English-language version was changed from the original Fabiola, which is how she’s listed in most filmographies. We are impressed to see that it’s actually her getting roughed up in a flooded dungeon, and out in the wild during an escape. It’s hard to say what lured Ms. Fleming to Europe, but it might have been a romance with her co-star Lang Jeffries, who became her third husband sometime around the filming. Jeffries’ only claim to fame at the time was starring in the so-so action TV show Rescue 8, with Jim Davis. Jeffries did well enough to maintain a ten-year career, mostly in European genre work. His best-remembered role is as Perry Rhodan in the tame science fiction feature Mission Stardust (1967). Ettore Manni is a generic St. Sebastian, with a strong jaw and handsome features, but not a lot of personality. His filmography includes a lot of Italo westerns, but I don’t see him in any leading roles. Character actors Gino Cervi and Darío Moreno play a Patrician and the Emperor; they’re ubiquitous in Italian and French movies but not faces for whom I can assign immediate associations.
But other actors are quite a surprise. The Spanish locations explain the presence of a clean-shaven Fernando Rey, who would soon be in Buñuel’s Viridiana and become famous to American viewers in Friedkin’s The French Connection. He’s an underhanded schemer who wants Agnese’s hand in marriage, and who comes to a sorry end. José Nieto, Antonio Casas and Julio Peña are familiar faces from genre pictures of the later 1960s. The big surprise is singer Serge Gainsbourg, who has a plum role as the Emperor’s secret service agent, a sniveling turncoat who betrays his friends and sets slimy traps for our unsuspecting Christian heroes. Gainsbourg is terrific in the part — not very good looking but with a strong personality. Much more famous for his life with supermodel Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg pops up often in unusual roles in offbeat movies.
The beauty who gets the best scenes is Wandisa Guida. The star of Freda’s I Vampiri, Guida has an innocent look about her that won’t quit. Her gentle Agnese has the ill-fated love affair with Sebastian, and also gets the film’s one show-stopping scene, during the game of death in the arena. Dozens of Christians are slaughtered trying to outrun the spears of a group of slaves, who are themselves being forced to kill to stay alive. When Agnese’s turn comes, she doesn’t run in panic but instead walks calmly forward through the bodies of her comrades, praying for deliverance. The spectacle of her faith turns the mood of the arena toward clemency.
Thanks to the Internet, we can learn more about some minor players. The Emperor’s personal guards are an all-black troop led by the trusted warrior Iface (Vanoye Aikens). The mercenary Iface’s first act is to hack off the hands of a recaptured slave. Iface considers helping out the Christians but backs down when the opportunity arises to become the new head of security. Aikens is tall and muscular, not quite as buff as Woody Strode but pretty darn fit-looking. He also moves well; it makes perfect sense that he was previously a ballet dancer in England. He later had a role in the infamous zombie picture I Eat Your Skin. The film gives Iface his own girlfriend, who wants him to marry her. Fabiola’s black handmaiden Liubaia (Dolores Francine) is granted several nice scenes with the ambitious Iface. A number of websites now try to keep track of black performers with the aim of compensating for decades of inattention. A page for the Harlem-born Dolores Francine, aka Dolores Rhiney, can be seen at the Cinemafrodiscendente page, dedicated to ‘Filmmakers of African Descent in Italian Cinema’.
Even with its unpromising title, Revolt of the Slaves remains an above-average sword ‘n’ sandal picture graced with good performances and a halfway involving storyline. I only picked up on two places where the filmmaking broke down. In a dungeon, a shackled prisoner suggests to Vibio that by digging through a stone wall, the waters of the sewer can be let in, flooding the dungeon. “Let’s break through into the sewer!” This doesn’t work out well for the shackled prisoner, as he drowns when the water rises. The filmmakers should have used the word ‘aqueduct’ instead of sewer — we can’t help but get an unpleasant impression when half of the cast, including the glamorous Rhonda Fleming, are soon swimming in the dark water.
The very end in the arena is also a bit awkward. (spoiler) The Emperor spares the Christians only after most of them have been cruelly killed, with some important personages burned at the stake and the film’s most sympathetic character cut down by a spear. But when the remainder is set free, they walk out with big smiles on their faces, as if everything’s hunky-dory. Thank Emperor Massimiano for small favors, I suppose. I often feel the same reaction in films with a high body count, no matter what the genre. More often than not, the fade-out ends with kisses and smiles, as if the innocent people we’ve just seen killed are already forgotten. This happens even when the heroes are partially responsible for some of the deaths, too. Revolt of the Slaves ends with a nice shot of Christians happily walking from the arena. It feels more than a little fishy.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Revolt of the Slaves is a pleasant surprise — an enhanced widescreen (Totalscope) encoding with excellent color and clear sound. It’s the 103-minute American cut in English. The dubbing is excellent; the actors appear to have spoken English on the set. The show also appears to be the same length as the original Italian version. I would imagine that in the years 1957 to 1963, Rome and Madrid were crawling with agents and producers trying to get co-production deals going in the boom climate created by pictures like Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, El Cid, King of Kings etc. That United Artists ended up with the good Revolt of the Slaves negative indicates that Hollywood money was in the deal from the start. A nice detail in the art direction is that Claudia’s father Fabio collects mechanical devices that attempt to tell the time — one works with a system of water spouts. We see at least three of these machines. They’re impressive props, if not working models.
Italo western and horror films have been well covered by English-language film criticism, but I don’t know of anything in English that serves as a guide to the big field of European sword ‘n’ sandal, Biblical and mythological fantasy filmmaking, which really got its start in the silent era. Twenty years ago I helped archivist John Kirk put together film clips of various Euro muscleman movies, helping to tape interviews with Mickey Hargitay and Gordon Mitchell. I’ve always been confused by the proliferation of ex- Muscle Beach beefcake heroes that went on to profitable careers at Cinecittá — Reg Park, Ken Clark, Richard Harrison. I still like these pictures, and in my case the appeal of the pumped-up musclemen is as adolescent fantasy heroes, nothing more. Anybody know of a good book on the subject?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Revolt of the Slaves
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 28, 2016
A note from the TFH Team. As an extra-added bonus to Glenn’s fine review, here’s Brian Trenchard-Smith chiming in with his own thoughts on Revolt of the Slaves!
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson