Thursday, July 12, 2018
DVR Diary: SANDOKAN THE GREAT (...la tigre di Mompracem, 1964)
The late Umberto Lenzi (he died in October 2017) may be best known today for his cannibal films of the 1970s. He started out making period adventure films, and by 1964 he was assigned an Italian pop-culture icon: Sandokan, the anti-imperialist Malaysian pirate hero of Emilio Salgari's novels published between 1883 and 1913. Contemporaneously with Italy's infamous failure to conquer Ethiopia and the establishment of colonial rule over Libya, Salgari's protagonist battled the ever-expanding British empire. The anti-colonial 1960s were a ripe time for a Sandokan revival with Steve "Hercules" Reeves in the title role. Sandokan the Great, as it was called in the U.S., was the first of a four-film series, the first two of which starred Reeves under Lenzi's direction. The series carried on with a new director and Ray Danton as Sandokan while Lenzi made two more exploitation pictures featuring a character called Sandok, offered as "The Maciste of the Jungle." In the premiere outing Reeves traipses about in a costume out of Hollywood's Arabian Knights fantasies and is overall less concerned with flexing his famous muscles than with something more like swashbuckling. He, his tea-obsessed sidekick Yanez from Portuguese-ruled Goa (Andrea Bosic) and Sandokan's mostly-loyal followers wage guerrilla warfare against the Brits, who answer less to the empire proper than to a character here called Lord Bromm who is really John Brooke, the historical White Rajah of Sarawak, the big bad of Salgari's books. Along the way Sandokan kidnaps a British official's daughter who gradually becomes radicalized (Genevieve Grad) and must worry about a traitor within his ranks. The traitor mystery is handled rather half-assedly and the action overall is rather unspectacular, and quite landlocked for the adventures of a reputed pirate, until we come to the climactic attack on a British fort, where Reeves gets to show some strength and the pace quickens as we near the end. The film's main assets are Lenzi's locations and Reeves's reliably heroic presence. Apart from the exotic locales and the appearance of a somewhat less civilized yet friendly tribe, nothing here really suggests what Lenzi will become as a director. Compared to his horror films Sandokan is kiddie stuff, and it probably was such on its own terms. TCM broadcast Sandokan recently while you can find its immediate sequel, as I did years ago, in some cheapo Mill Creek boxed sets. If you don't expect much from them they make for undemanding light entertainment with just a hint of progressive political consciousness to make it worth some people's while, but not so much to turn others off.