Friday, April 3, 2009

Mill Creek Roulette: The WARRIORS DVD Collection

For many of us, Mill Creek Entertainment box sets are like Egyptian tombs. We look for buried treasures of various kinds and sometimes find them, though treasures are often in the eye of the beholder when it comes to public domain cinema. What we're after is an unusual point of view or an extraordinary performance, or just an outlandish moment that you couldn't have seen anywhere else. Any given Mill Creek collection will have some of those moments, or so I've believed. But I'm beginning to have my doubts about the Warriors box set. I still have a long way to go with it, but the results have been uninspiring so far. That may be because many of the films in this set are from that most despised of genres, the peplum or "sword and sandal" film. The Italians had the golden touch, it seems, when it came to genre cinema from 1964 forward -- that being the year of Blood and Black Lace and A Fistful of Dollars. Before that, for nearly a decade, the peplum was the dominant genre in Italy, or at least its main cinematic export, but few of those films have stood the test of time. Only a handful have had anything close to respectful treatment on DVD, in America at least. Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World and Sergio Leone's Colossus of Rhodes come to mind, but there's little else. But our subject is Mill Creek Entertainment, and none of their sets is complete without some films that don't really seem to belong to the subject genre. Would that make a difference? Possibly -- for the worse. Here's an example.

Cleopatra's Daughter my eye. Yes, that's what the American title says, and the American version gets a title card and a voiceover proposing a travesty of history in which Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, sent a daughter to be raised by the Assyrians. This princess Shila (Debra Paget) was then captured and forcibly married by a new pharaoh in Egypt. You might think that the Romans would be interested in the heir of their great enemy, but they are strangely absent from this narrative, though they ruled all the lands in question. You'd suppose from the synopsis that someone's insulting the audience's intelligence, but on this count the Italians are innocent. They made an honestly mediocre film set in Ancient Egypt, centuries before Cleopatra's time, called The King's Sepulchre, released in 1961. Two years later, with expectation mounting for the Liz Taylor Cleopatra, opportunistic Americans slapped the Cleopatra's Daughter title and the little voiceover on the Italian film, with little regard for history.

And one wonders what the American suckers made of this thoroughly dull and completely derivative story. There is barely an original idea in the entire film. Instead, it's like a puzzle assembled from pieces of different films. We have a physician as the hero (The Egyptian). He shows his goodness by helping a fallen old woman (The Ten Commandments). The climax involves bad guys getting trapped and buried alive in the king's tomb (Land of the Pharaohs). But I suppose there might have been people in Italy in 1961 or here in 1963 who had seen none of those films. For me, however, the only points of interest were the moderately crazy pharaoh, who at one point invites his entourage to watch him rape his wife, but never fulfills his promise, and a fight between our physician hero and a vicious embalmer who says, "I'm tired of slitting the bellies of only dead bodies."

But if "Cleopatra's Daughter" is thoroughly mediocre, The Conqueror of the Orient is consistently inept. This time the Americans faithfully translated the original title, and they apparently retained the original's vagueness about where or when the story is taking place.

All we know is that the place is ruled by a usurper named Dakar, who is resisted by Nadir (Rik Battaglia), our beefy hero. Guess what? Nadir turns out to be the some of the previous defeated king, and the rightful ruler of the land. But we can't take his foster-father's word for it. In this country you have to prove your lineage by trials of strength. Nadir's tests are some of the most insipid in all the history of fictional history, and among the least cinematically imaginative. The first test requires him to grasp two rods, each of which is gripped tightly by a number of men. His task is to pull the rods toward him so the men end up practically on top of him -- when your ideal show of strength should be to send a bunch of guys flying away from you. But that's not all. Nadir has a greater challenge to come: a dude throws a log (I think) down at him from the top of a tree. His ability to hit this projectile with his wobbly sword proves beyond doubt that he is the one, true and legitimate king of Wherever. The rest of the film is really an afterthought, but then again, so was the earlier section. The only other details worthy of commentary are the poor quality of the swords and the poorer quality of the swordfighting.

Though neither of these films is your standard muscleman movie, they share the flaws of a larger overall genre of period costume films. The main flaw is an absence of creativity on any level. The stories are generic in the worst way. The pictures are unfairly represented by fullscreen transfers of widescreen movies, but there's little evidence (less yet in Conqueror than in Cleo's Daughter) of any inspiration in cinematography or art direction. Even the music, the strong suit of many Italian films, is unimpressive; there were two different composers, but they sounded nearly identically bland.

I know there are plenty of Mill Creek fans out there, so I wonder whether anyone has found a hidden winner in the Warriors set, or whether the rest of you were smart enough to steer clear of this one.

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