Tuesday, January 22, 2019

DVR Diary: REVOLT OF THE SLAVES (La rivolta degli schiavi, 1960)

The Emperor Maximian never ruled the Roman Empire on his own. Made a partner in rule by Diocletian in the late 3rd century, he later formed part of a tetrarchy. At Diocletian's urging he retired with him to establish an orderly procedure for procession, but soon reclaimed a share of the throne, only to be forced out by Constantine. But from the evidence of Nunzio Malasomma's film Maximian (Dario Moreno) is sole and absolute ruler of Rome. Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians; in this picture that's Maximian's work. It's a tough job, since a good chunk of Rome's ruling class are clandestine Christians, to the dismay of headstrong, chariot-driving Claudia (Rhonda Fleming). Revolt of the Slaves is the story of Claudia's discovery of Christian love, and her romance with a rebellious Dalmatian slave, Vibio (Lang Jeffries, early in his short stint as Fleming's husband). The title may create expectations of a Spartacus-style adventure, but there's really only a late uprising of militant Christians determined to free their brothers and sisters from the arena. We get a bit of gladiator action as well, including a whip fight over a burning pyre, but the martyrdom is actually pretty dull stuff. Each Christian is made to run for their lives, only to get a spear through his or her back. You'd think Romans would be jaded by such stuff but the crowd cheers every kill until Agnes gets them on her side by refusing to run. Instead, she gracefully walks over to pay homage to her spiritual teacher, who's being crucified and slow roasted at the same time. So impressive is her performance that when Vibio and his gang burst into the arena, they promptly decide to drop their weapons and die. Claudia decides to die as well, and it looks like we'll get the Sign of the Cross finish until the mob in the stands demands that Maximian spare the Christians. He's about to have his African personal guard massacre the Nazarenes but the Praetorian Guard, usually the bad guys in Roman stories, shows up to cancel the African threat and force the Emperor to declare a happy ending. This African element may have been the most provocative part of the film for American audiences. History says that the Praetorians lost their traditional standing as the emperors' personal guard during the Tetrarchy, but it doesn't appear that Maximian or his partners relied on Africans instead. In the film, the African commander Iface (Van Aikens) is an unprincipled schemer -- his troops are often made to look incompetent when fighting Vibio and friends -- who's willing to take a huge bribe from Claudia to let some Christians go, only to spurn her when he gets a chance to become the emperor's chief of security. He taunts and threatens Claudia (and even lays hands on her) to the point that it surprised me that he didn't suffer any real comeuppance. I wonder if those scenes were cut out in some parts of the U.S. In any event, Revolt is a well-staged, well-budgeted but indifferently performed Italian epic, worth seeing mainly for its production design and cinematography. I was glad to see TCM run it letterboxed, since it's still relatively rare to see peplum pictures that way on American TV. This particular picture might not deserve too much respect, but the genre as a whole, from Hercules knockoffs to more ambitious stuff like this, might not be so despised if more people could see them the way they were meant to be seen.

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