Sunday, May 15, 2011

DUEL OF CHAMPIONS (Orazi e Curiazi, 1961)

Less than a decade after making Shane, Alan Ladd's career was on a stark downhill slide by the time he went to Italy to shoot this international co-production based on the ancient wars between Rome and Alba. While the credits list Ferdinando Baldi as the director, they also identify Orazi e Curiazi as "a Terence Young film." IMDB lists the men as co-directors, the Englishman presumably filming Ladd's dialogue scenes. Young had directed Ladd previously in The Red Beret (aka The Paratroopers), so the American presumably would not feel entirely lost among the Italians. Still, it was apparently an unhappy shoot. In February 1961 UPI reported that Ladd had walked off the set because the Italian producers had not forked over the $20,000 advance he'd been promised. A fresh infusion of money from another production company apparently saved the day. But gossip columnists reported that Ladd's pet dachshund had died on the last day of production. According to legend, Ladd was desperate to remain a top-billed star, and at this point going abroad seemed the only way to retain that level of stardom. But his Italian project was doomed never to receive a general U.S. theatrical release, and a year after completing it Ladd shot himself. In 1964, after finally accepting subordinate billing for The Carpetbaggers, he suffered a fatal overdose, though history still questions whether or not he did it on purpose.

The best-known pictorial representation of the story of the Horatii is the 18th century Frenchman Jacques-Louis David's painting The Oath of the Horatii. The Horatii were three brothers who volunteered to settle the long feud between Rome and Alba by triple combat with a band of Alban brothers. The Roman historian Livy tells us that the Horatii won, three kills to two.

A team of Italian writers, including directors Carlo Lizzani and Giuliano Montaldo, embellished the ancient legend, crafting a more character-driven screenplay than many contemporary "sword and sandal" products. They make the lead brother, Horatio (Ladd), a military commander who suffers disgrace due to miscommunication. Ordering a subordinate to take command of the main body of troops while he attempts a flanking action, he is wounded and taken prisoner while unconscious. Meanwhile, his messenger is killed before he can fully convey the order, and Horatio's fellow soldiers become convinced that their commander fled the battle as a coward. His own name is disgraced in pre-republican Rome, but the disgrace doesn't extend to the entire family. Instead, King Hostilius (American character actor Robert Keith) offers the hand of his daughter Marcia (Franca Bettoia), originally promised to Horatio, to the next brother in line.

Meanwhile, Horatio is condemned by the Albans to death in an outdoor carnival. In a nice tracking shot, the Roman is shoved through a circus of activity, including fire jugglers and wrestling women, before he's dumped into a wolf pit. A sympathetic captive girl (Ladd's daughter Alana) tosses Horatio a rock to bludgeon the beasts with, and later helps him escape captivity altogether.

Returning to Rome, Horatio finds himself an unperson. His father remains ashamed of him, still believing him a coward, while his brother and once-intended bride are profoundly embarrassed by his presence. King Hostilius is happy to see him, however, because he can help his brothers fulfill the prophecy of a sibyl who had predicted that the war with Alba would be settled by three brothers fighting three brothers. Feeling disrespected, Horatio refuses to fight and leaves for neutral country.

Adding another complication is a history-based subplot involving the sister of the family, Horatia (Jacqueline Derval). While out bathing with some girlfriends she gets kidnapped by the very Alban brothers who've been assigned to fight the expected Roman trio. One brother is clearly smitten but determined to have her immediately. He vows to make her love him eventually, but all it takes is a single kiss and she's his. I suppose this was necessary to make it not look like she was falling in love with a rapist, but it still does seem that way.

Marcia implores Horatio to return to Rome and do his duty, but he tells her to consider him a dead man. Before long, however, yet just in time, he arrives in front of the city's walls to take his place beside his brothers, who are promptly killed by the Albans. While this gives him a chance to win Marcia back, it also leaves him outnumbered one to three. The better part of valor in such a case is to ride into the woods. The Albans think that means Game Over, but since this was supposed to be combat to the death, Hostilius isn't going to surrender until the Alban brothers go into the woods and bring back Horatio's corpse. The Albans comply confidently. Numbers still favor them, but the woods offer plenty of opportunities for ambush, and before long it's down to one on one, Horatio versus the very man his sister now loves. No matter who wins, there won't be triumph without tragedy. In the end, the movie softens the legend. According to Livy, Horatio kills his sister when he sees her mourning the Alban. In the film, Horatia kills herself out of grief and the chastened survivors hasten to make peace.

Despite its relatively ambitious script, Orazi e Curiazi is a mostly uninspired film. While an atrocious fullscreen Mill Creek Entertainment DVD leaves me unable to judge the cinematography, I feel I can still fault the film for unimaginative staging of action. For some reason Italian sword-and-sandal or peplum films rarely live up to the standard of action staging set by the Americans and Japanese. The swordfights lack energy and distinction and the early mass battle is unmemorable apart from the flaming balls sent hurtling down on the Romans in emulation of Spartacus. The sets are unimpressive and the music sounds like nearly every other peplum of this period. The music of this genre is even more disappointing when you consider what Italian composers were doing or would do with nearly every other genre in this period.

Alan Ladd's performance would never have won him new friends in Hollywood. He's convincing only when his character is sulking, but the actor seems to be sulking through the entire picture. He looks fatigued throughout and invests his dialogue with little emotion. Worse, he undermines his credibility as an ancient Roman with throwaway Americanisms like "Hey, you!" His lack of confidence in the project is obvious, and it seems like a great effort for him even to smile occasionally. This is a star near the bitter end of a career, and while it may exert the morbid fascination of a trainwreck there really isn't anything amusing about it. The other actors do what they can, but the dubbing is lifeless and the script (or at least this English-language cut of the film) lacks the character and relationship-establishing scenes that would have made the conflicts among the Horatii more compelling. The writers went far enough to prove that there is strong dramatic potential in the Horatii legend, but they didn't follow through fully enough to realize that potential. It might be worth trying again someday, when no one's career is on the line.

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