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Sodom and Gomorrah

by Glenn Erickson Jan 01, 2022

Maverick director Robert Aldrich’s one foray into grand-scale epic filmmaking is returned to crystal clarity in this fine import disc, a restoration from original Italian film elements. Stewart Granger’s Lot allies his Hebrew tribe with the notorious cities of evil, and almost loses his soul to Anouk Aimée’s wicked Queen Bera. Pier Angeli is the slave who becomes Lot’s wife, and Rossana Podestà is the daughter taken by Stanley Baker’s rapacious prince. Second unit director Sergio Leone whips up a terrific battle scene (maybe), Ken Adam provides the spectacular sets and Miklós Rózsa the powerful music score. And yes, the explosive finish involves hellfire, brimstone and the Biblical Pillar of Salt.


Sodom and Gomorrah
Explosive Media
All-region Blu-ray
1962 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 154 and 117 min. / Street Date December 9, 2021 / (Sodoma e Gomorra, Sodom und Gomorrha, The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah) Available from Amazon.de /
Starring: Stewart Granger, Pier Angeli (Anna Maria Pierangeli), Anouk Aimée, Stanley Baker, Rossana Podestà, Rik Battaglia, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Scilla Gabel, Antonio De Teffe, Enzo Fiermonte, Gabriele Tinti, Daniele Vargas, Claudia Mori, Feodor Chaliapin, Mitsuko Takara, Giovanna Galletti, Massimo Pietrobon, Mimmo Palmara, Alice & Ellen Kessler.
Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti, Cyril Knowles, Mario Montuori
Production Designer: Ken Adam
Costumes designed by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni
Film Editors: Peter Tanner, Mario Serendrei
Special Effects: Wally Veevers, Lee Zavitz, Serse Urbisaglia
Title design: Maurice Binder
Choreography: Archie Savage
Second Unit Directors: Oscar Rudolph, Sergio Leone
Original Music: Miklós Rózsa
Written by Hugo Butler, Giorgio Prosperi
Produced by Maurizio Lodi-Fè, Goffredo Lombardo
Directed by
Robert Aldrich

Relegated to lesser status among the films of director Robert Aldrich, the massive Titanus production Sodom and Gomorrah is one of those ‘subjects for further research’ movies that rewards one’s curiosity. Interest in the show has been kept alive by the Sergio Leone Connection — a credits deal and versions controversy that has persisted (at least in the U.S.) because a rumored longer and more explicit Italian version was nowhere to be seen. All we’ve seen has been a substandard DVD from the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, the same version shown on the Fox Movies cable station.

The German company Explosive Media made its name by specializing in Italo westerns; one of its initial triumphs was creating a full-length English-language version for Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown. Now Explosive’s Ulrich Bruckner has done much the same with this even better-known Robert Aldrich epic, overseeing a restoration from the original Italian elements. This is a worldwide Blu-ray debut; a domestic version may be less likely because 20th-Fox/Disney presumably controls the U.S. rights. The disc includes two separate Italian release versions of the film. Quick disclaimer: I contributed an extra to the disc.

 

Bible epics don’t come more Biblical than Sodom and Gomorrah, which today sounds like a title for a sexpploitation picture. From the early pages of Genesis was cooked up a tale about a clash of cultures (to put it mildly) between a Hebrew tribe looking for a home and an entrenched pack of pagan hedonists that live only for pleasure and sin. The Bible version of the story isn’t much more complicated, but it makes the Hebrew leader Lot seem just as perverted. Hugo Butler’s screenplay drops Abraham from the story, giving his good qualities (and best scenes) to a more idealized Lot. Two cities are folded into one, and the Bible account’s miraculous/supernatural content is all saved for the conclusion. Until then Sodom & Gomorrah sticks with an epic about tribal politics and the humbling of a flawed chieftain.

Searching for a new home in the Jordan Valley, the Hebrew tribe of Lot (Stewart Granger of Madonna of the Seven Moons and Moonfleet) comes upon the city of Sodom & Gomorrah. The capital of vice and cruelty is ruled by Queen Bera (Anouk Aimée of Lola and La Dolce Vita), a consummate schemer whose main problem is to ward off a powerful warrior tribe called the Helamites. Bera also must keep at bay her openly seditious brother Astaroth (Stanley Baker of Eve and Zulu), who has made a traitorous back-door deal with Segur (Daniele Vargas of Caltiki, il mostro immortale), the fierce Helamite leader. Bera strikes her own deal — the Hebrews can farm the land on the other side of the river if they pledge to help defend against the Helamite threat. Bera indulges Lot’s indignant moral posturing, and allows him to offer sanctuary to some of Sodom’s escaped slaves. She also gives Lot her educated body slave Ildith (Anna Maria Pierangeli aka Pier Angeli). At first disgusted to live in a tent, Ildith falls in love with Lot. Instead of taking the Hebrew religion she does what she can to get Lot to accept the luxuries and privileges she believes a ‘great man’ should enjoy.

 

Lot is a strong leader in war, and his strategies defeat the Helamites. But he betrays his values by accepting Bera’s invitation for the Hebrews to enter the wicked city. Under Ildith’s influence Lot soon becomes a rich man in the salt trade. Queen Bera now uses him to rid herself of the second threat to her crown. When Lot learns that the perverted Astaroth has defiled both of his daughters, he lets loose his prideful rage — thus undermining his own sense of self-worth. Bera takes full advantage of Lot’s desire for punishment, unaware that by corrupting him she’s crossed a line with the Hebrews’ Jehovah, triggering a disproportionate divine intervention.

Sodom and Gomorrah invests major Italo filmmaking resources in an ambitious, commercially risky epic. Titanus sent a massive production company to Morocco, whose Royal Cavalry was enlisted to stage a large-scale battle. When the Hebrews are on the march we see thousands of extras spread out across the desert. Visual effects were required to depict a massive flood and the concluding destruction of the city. Immediately prior to his success with the 007 franchise, production designer Ken Adam created a terrific, fully-imagined ancient kingdom, primitive but lavish. Costumes and makeup distinguish the humble Hebrew tents from the luxuries of the Sodomites, as seen in the conversion of Pier Angeli’s Ildith from gilded slave to burlap-clothed peon.

 

Ken Adam also came up with an icon for the wicked cities, a logo combining male and female figures that suggests polyamorous possibilities. As Italy’s censorship was similar to our own, the film itself is resolutely chaste.  An opening title sequence directed by Maurice Binder depicts a post-orgy sleep-in with at least a hundred participants: all fully clothed and modestly posed. There are no sex scenes of any description, although some suggestive highlights do light up the perversity scoreboard. Bera and Astaroth briefly suck each other’s fingers, suggesting incest. We are only told that the wicked Astaroth has ‘known’ both of Lot’s daughters, Shuah (Rossana Podestà) and Maleb (Claudia Mori), but in one scene he attempts to hand off the lust-besotted Shuah to his top lieutenant.

Scoffing critics remarked that the advertising promises sin and depravity for a show that delivers less sex and gore than the average sword ‘n’ sandal programmer. Despite some talk of special cruelties, we only see the torture-murder of one of Astaroth’s unfortunate lovers (Scilla Gabel of Mill of the Stone Women) and one elaborate torture device, a sadistic Wheel Of Fire on which Queen Bera literally roasts men that displease her.

 

But the movie feels depraved: the well-cast Anouk Aimée and Stanley Baker communicate bored decadence and radiate cruel, sick thoughts. Baker’s cowardly creep Astaroth happily betrays anyone foolish enough to trust him. His ruthless use of women seems very modern, in the way Rossana Podestà’s Shuah becomes addicted to his rough treatment. Do the daughters of overbearing, controlling fathers rebel by giving themselves to abusive men?  Ms. Podestà had a busy career but peaked early with the title role in Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1956). She does imply that her Shuah enthusiastically embraces the shameful excitement of illicit sex.

Anouk Aimée’s Queen Bera would intimidate the average Vincent Price screen villain — she’s a genuine connoisseur of evil. Wearing an ever-present sly smile, Bera relishes inflicting pain and torture. No overt lesbian content is needed, what with the lip-licking glances exchanged between Bera and her newest slave-toy acquisition, Orphea (Mitsuko Takara). Orphea supplies one of the film’s more erotic dance scenes, gyrating for Bera’s pleasure.

The dances are edgy, with plenty of suggestive body motions (for 1962). The third features the twin stars Alice and Ellen Kessler, with one of them dressed in male drag. But their performance is reduced to just a few cutaways — we don’t know if it was abbreviated for too-suggestive content or just to speed things up. I note that the dance ends with the ‘male’ twin suddenly in a different costume … either that was part of the act, or the editors folded two dances into one. The Kessler Twins are glimpsed elsewhere in Bera’s court and (I think) during the apocalypse sequence. If they once had a more substantial presence it got lost in the final cut.

The most original character is Pier Angeli’s Ildith, a sophisticated ‘experienced’ woman who must adjust to new, unglamorous duties as a Hebrew. An orthodox reading of Sodom and Gomorrah might make Ildith a villain: she’s the one who seduces Lot away from his Jehovah-fearing humility, toward the glitzy upscale luxuries of the Wicked City on the hill. Jehovah was never much of a feminist. The original story says almost nothing about Lot’s Wife, but Hugo Butler’s script makes her story into a harsh, worst-case warning about marrying outside one’s faith. Here Jehovah makes Ildith suffer a grotesque fate just to teach Lot a lesson in obedience to Hebrew values.

 

That brings us to Stewart Granger, essentially miscast in an almost impossible role. Lot is a principled but narrow-minded ‘great man’ who denies his own egotistical nature. When dispensing leadership values to his people, Lot is a sermonizing wet mop. He’s at his best as a fighting general; we’re impressed with the organization of his big-scale defense against the Helamites. But the script does a poor job of tracing Lot’s character arc. Compromising his agrarian values, Lot is suddenly wheeling and dealing salt futures and stacking coins like a miser; just one scene later he’s at Bera’s royal table, boozing with Ildith and enjoying the dancing girls. I realize that the issue at stake is fairly weighty: the problem of a devout people to live in a secular, tempting world. Stewart Granger doesn’t give much to these scenes. He’s even worse when moping in a woe-is-me, lock-me-up self- pity party. The man freed by a heavenly miracle doesn’t seem fit to lead anybody anywhere.

That said, it’s unclear what actor might make a better Lot. It’s not easy being charismatic when your faith directs you to enforce a tall stack of restrictive rules. Lot must retain our allegiance even after he fails his own principles, a tall order with little help from the screenplay.

 

Familar from other genre films is Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (The Last Man on Earth)  as Maleb’s sweetheart. With his dubbed tough-guy voice Daniele Vargas makes a formidable villain, and we wish the striking Scilla Gabel had a larger role. The whole show is post-dubbed. I’m pretty sure Anouk Aimée performed in English. Italian audiences must have known various supporting actors from their roles in earlier classics. Feodor Chaliapin (Moonstruck) is introduced preaching from a soapbox. He explains the evil city’s slave economy in an inexplicably terrible ‘exposition dump’ that contrasts with the excellent English dialogue elsewhere.

What is with Robert Aldrich’s direction on this show?  The editing negates anything like an epic feel. Aldrich doesn’t have to copy David Lean but the choppy cutting trims fine mastershots down to insert length. Groups of people are always marching and moving, and there are great angles on riders entering and leaving by the giant gates (added to a real Moroccan ‘mud city’ by Ken Adam). Aldrich, or whoever had final cut, seems determined to use every angle that was filmed. The shots change too fast to linger on anything. The first time I saw Sodom and Gomorrah the quick cuts made me think the mud city was a special effect illusion that the film was trying to disguise. Nope, that incredible city is full-sized.

 

Elsewhere the editing pace follows the philosophy of ‘never use one cut when four will do.’ Even trucking and crane shots are interrupted by awkward cuts. The constant parade of short, static angles makes the film feel jumpy, indecisive. But overall Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t ‘feel’ like a much longer movie that was cut down. Also, the editing leaves no clues that more salacious content was filmed and then removed.

It’s easy to trace the ‘apocalyptic’ thread through the career of Robert Aldrich. At least three of his films feature a literal nuclear threat. His Kiss Me Deadly quotes the story of Lot’s Wife, and then replays it substituting atomic ash for salt. There’s no denying that the Pillar of Salt remains one of the most unforgettable images from The Bible. Jehovah first smites the general Sodom/Gomorrah district with a nasty earthquake, and follows with what looks like a nuclear blast.

Frankly, what really keeps Sodom and Gomorrah on track, lending power and gravity to its not-always compelling filmmaking, is Miklós Rózsa’s emotionally stunning music score. It enforces dramatic continuity throughout. With Rózsa’s music behind him even Stewart Granger’s anguish feels appropriately tragic. Aldrich’s movie was released here without much fanfare. It may not stand with the honored epics Ben-Hur and El Cid but it’s far more prestigious than the average costume drama. We chalk it up as an entertaining, impressive show that could have used a more compelling central performance.

 


 

Explosive Media’s All-region Blu-ray of Sodom and Gomorrah reinvigorates Robert Aldrich’s epic with a restoration performed from its original elements, at Video Master Digital in Rome. What we see looks brand new. The bright and colorful images fill out the full width of widescreen 1:85, opening up the frame slightly from previous video versions.

Titanus finished the film in multiple languages; 20th Fox stepped up to distribute in the U.S., taking a dupe negative and a polished English-language track for the longest version. It’s easy to tell where the Intermission would have been if Sodom and Gomorrah had been given a Road Show release. Just before the Italian premiere Titanus cut the show by a full 37 minutes. The longer version was restored in Italian in 1973, according to Explosive Media’s extras.

The two-disc Blu-ray set features those two Italian cuts. Both versions come with German, Italian and English audio tracks, plus German and English subtitles. This allows us to compare the different voice dubs for the actors. The IMDB says that both Anouk Aimée and Pier Angeli were dubbed in Italian; the Sardinian-born Angeli spoke Italian but her voice was replaced anyways. The Italian film vaults retained the perfect longer cut and the Italian and German audio tracks that go with it, but not the full English soundtrack, pieces of which had to be sourced elsewhere. The synchronization of the replacement English audio in those sections can be loose, rubbery.

The ‘Original Fassung 1962’ is the shortened version (just under two hours) that premiered in Rome. This may be the Titanus cut over which Robert Aldrich briefly filed a lawsuit. It has no opening graphic and no credit for producer Goffredo Lombardo. It skips two cards of technical credits, including the credits for Ken Adam and Maurice Binder. . . and it credits the film’s direction to both Sergio Leone and Robert Aldrich!

The ‘Gekürzte Fassung 1973’ restores a full 37 minutes of film, bringing the show back up to 20th Fox’s American release length of 154 minutes. This longer cut has a better-looking title sequence that includes a graphic opening with the ‘Sodom Symbol’ icon, and a main title card that reads ‘Sodoma e Gomorra Versione Integrale.’ The only mention of Robert Aldrich comes at the beginning: ‘Un film di Robert Aldrich.’ The final director’s credit omits Aldrich altogether: ‘Regia Della Versione Italiano Sergio Leone.’

 

The American 20th-Fox release from 1962 (not present on this disc) was always a full 154 minutes. It names Aldrich as director, and nowhere mentions Sergio Leone. The discs extras explain how this came to be: obtaining tax breaks in Italy required having key credits go to Italians. Before you credit the excellent Helamite battle scenes to Sergio Leone,  remember that Leone served as second unit director only for a short time, and Aldrich’s associate Oscar Rudolph either continued or took over.

Two of the three main extras on this German-produced disc are not English-friendly. A very professional German-language commentary is present on the long version. Likewise the text essays in the Mediabook are German-only. We uncultured Yanks will have to content ourselves with glomming the color photos.

The short version has my Audio Essay, which runs just over an hour. It’s not a synchronous Audio Commentary, but video from the film has been edited to serve as an accompaniment. I didn’t edit or guide this ‘wallpaper’ video background. The images chosen frequently correlate with my speech, which is helpful when I’m talking about individual actors. A rugged black dancer may be on screen when I discuss choreographer Archie Savage, but I’m not fully convinced that the dancer is Savage. Also, Lot’s 2nd daughter (Claudia Mori) is named Maleb, and Queen Bera’s head servant (Giovanna Galletti) is named Malek. I may very well have confused the actors in the commentary.

 

For this viewing I played the game, ‘Where’s Shuah?’  Actress Rossana Podestà suffered some kind of health setback not long after arriving on location in Morocco, and had to return to Rome. Ken Adam was obliged to duplicate some exterior sets back at Cinecittá, and Aldrich had to use doubles and cutaways to shoehorn her into many key scenes. It’s all very well done. If you look you’ll see that Shuah is often off to the side, keeping her face away from the camera, or exiting ‘to get something’ when she should be present. Studying these anomalies is a game that bored editors play, I guess.

The best books to read about Sodom and Gomorrah are 1) What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films by Alain Silver and James Ursini, and two books by Sir Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death and Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design. In them we learn that Robert Aldrich was the one who approached Sergio Leone with the proposal to direct second unit, and take credit on Italian prints.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Sodom and Gomorrah
All-region Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (German, Italian, English language both versions)
Supplements:
DISC 1: 1962 abbreviated Cut (‘Original Fassung 1962’ 117 minutes):
Audio essay by Glenn Erickson (in English with German and English subtitles), original Italian trailer, photo gallery.
DISC 2: 1973 restored Cut (‘Versione Integrale”Gekürzte Fassung 1973’ 154 minutes):
Audio commentary with Leonhard Elias Lemke, Benedikt Wilken and Maximillian Scholz of Deep Red Radio (in German, no subtitles).
40-page illustrated Mediabook:
with essays Sodom und Gomorrha – ein Dualismus ohne Grauzonen by Leonhard Elias Lemke, Was gesach wirklich mit Robert Aldrich? by Benedikt Wilken and Der Cast und sein Oeuvre by Maximillian Scholz.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles (both features): German, English language (English subs translate the German audio)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Mediabook case
Reviewed:
December 30, 2022
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.