The good, the bad, and the brilliant
THE PRICE WAS RIGHT “This man?” Leone asked when his casting director offered a clip of Clint from Rawhide. “With a vacant look on his face, in an unwatchable film about cows?”
He's best known for his westerns, which traditionally are sagas about how civilization begins, how ruthless and cynical men rip it out of the throat of the wilderness. But the end of civilization is what really fascinated Sergio Leone, and the poison within that undoes every would-be paradise. Death and doom and dark hilarity overshadow his films, not just the westerns, but all of them, which are on view this month in a two-week retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive. From his first directorial effort, THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961; screens November 13 at 4:30 pm), to the script about the 900-day siege of Leningrad that he left behind when he died in 1989 at the age of 60, Sergio Leone showed us how the world ends — be it by the slow brutal murder of a modern city, or the catastrophic destruction of an ancient one.
DO YOU LIKE GLADIATOR MOVIES, SERGIO?
That's where Leone's directing career started, back in Rhodes in 280 BC, or rather on that set in Rome's Cinecittà studio. In style and content, The Colossus of Rhodes looks a lot like the sword-and-sandal epics that were then the bread and butter of the Italian film industry. With some differences.
The theme of trouble in paradise, for example. It starts with Athenian war hero Darius (Rory Calhoun) visiting the Eden-like title island for a little down time. No such luck. On his first day there, assassins try to kill the king — twice — and a rebel group asks Darius to help their cause. Meanwhile, the king's most trusted advisor plots to take over. Looming over all is the eponymous monolith, a 300-foot-tall bronze statue of Apollo standing astride the harbor, equipped with the third-century BC equivalent of weapons of mass destruction.
Another difference in Leone's film is that it doesn't look like the average "Peplum" (the official name for the genre, after the Greek word for "tunic"). Take the Colossus itself. Leone almost transforms the big guy into a character, with shots of it dwarfing the pitiful humans. Especially its immense feet, the origin perhaps of the many foot and foot-level shots in Leone's subsequent films, and a motif turned into a fetish by Leone's fan and follower, Quentin Tarantino. In one brilliant sequence that recalls the Mt. Rushmore scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), the Colossus becomes a battlefield as Darius seeks refuge on its shoulder, where he battles soldiers who crawl out of an ear like ants in some lost movie by Buñuel.
BEATING SWORDS INTO SIX GUNS
Not bad for a first film, but hardly the stuff of legends. Plus, the sword-and-sandal formula by then was getting a little down at the heels. The hot trend was the so-called spaghetti western, fast and dirty oaters shot in Spain and Italy with mostly Italian casts and the occasional Hollywood name looking for a check and a holiday in Europe.
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