Thursday, January 11, 2018

IN THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLES (All'ombra della aquile, 1966)

Cameron Mitchell was near the end of his European sojourn and the peplum was near the end of its time as a popular genre when the American actor starred in two films for Ferdinando Baldi, who billed himself as "Ferdy Baldwin." The wintry look of the film, shot by the certainly pseudonymous "Lucky Satson," appears inspired by Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire, and parts of it may have been filmed on Samuel Bronston's massive sets for that ambitious flop. Mitchell plays a tribune, Marcus Ventidius, tasked with taming the Pannoni, a barbarian tribe that has been slaughtering Roman troops. The Pannoni are torn between the paths of peace and war, between the counsel of elder chieftain Magdo (Vladimir Medar) and hothead Batone (Aleksandar Gavric). Ventidius is torn between his betrothed, the consul's daughter Julia (Gabriella Pallotta) and Helen (Beba Loncar), Magdo's daughter and Batone's intended, whom the tribune brings to Rome with Magdo as a prisoner.

Julia grows jealous and tries to degrade Helen by making her dance for aristocratic entertainment, but this only further alienates Marcus from her. Hoping to get her as far away from Marcus as possible, Julia arranges for her and Magdo to escape and return to their people. Give her credit for not just killing Helen as a jealous Roman more likely might in movies. Still, her scheme has disgraced Marcus, since the prisoners were his responsibility, and that unintended consequence chastens her and effectively ends their relationship. Julia pretty much disappears from the picture at this point, when it could have used more of her smoldering jealousy for fuel.

Marcus can redeem himself by taming the Pannoni once and for all. That means inflicting a decisive defeat on Batone, whose plans for an ambush are thwarted by Helen. There's a big battle, Marcus and Batone fight and the Roman kicks his antagonist off a cliff. For his trouble, Marcus is made governor of Pannonia, enabling him to go off with Helen and, presumably, live happily ever after.

The romantic triangle aspect of the picture is actually stronger than its action spectacle, thanks mainly to Pallotta's performance and her interactions with Mitchell. It's hard to tell whether Baldi was working around some issue with Mitchell or was directing the actors according to his original plan. In some scenes, Mitchell (if not a stand-in) stands or sits in shadow so his face can't be seen. Could this be because they had no dialogue for Mitchell to mouth on the set? Or was Mitchell incapable of reciting it? For that matter, I'm not sure if Mitchell did all of his own dubbing. Some of it sounds like the actor, albeit reading his lines rather flatly; other lines don't quite sound right. Whatever was going on, this approach actually helps convey Marcus's increasing alienation from Julia and, as the dance scene suggests, the whole spectacle of imperial domination. By comparison, the battle scenes are standard, unimaginative stuff. Baldi is better known for spaghetti westerns and apparently had a better grip on mano-i-mano gunplay. While he gets some nice shots of the army on the march, the battle scenes here are by-the-numbers montage, montonously punctuated by warriors jumping on horsemen and dragging them out of the saddle. The climactic single combat of Marcus and Batone has no energy; the leaders practically vanish into the background melee until Baldi cuts to close-ups. While Baldi probably got as much out of Mitchell as was possible, the actor seems stiff in a way that might seem "Roman" but probably indicates his disinterest in the project. Yet he and Baldi would shortly team up again for Massacre in the Black Forest and, despite this film's limitations, I'd still be willing to give that one a chance.

No comments: