Saturday, January 1, 2022

#2,687. Ulysses (1954) - Spotlight on Italy


A precursor to the Italian Sword and Sandal / Peplum subgenre (which hit the height of its popularity following the release of 1958’s Hercules, starring Steve Reeves), director Mario Camerini’s Ulysses also feels like a spiritual ancestor of the fantasy films of the 1960’s

Based on the classic story by Homer, Ulysses picks up ten years after the war with Troy (which we see only briefly in an early flashback). Ulysses (Kirk Douglas) has not yet returned to his kingdom in Ithica, and as a result, many suitors, chief among them the arrogant Prince Antinous (Anthony Quinn), believe the hero is dead, and have moved into his palace in the hopes of wooing his “widow” Penelope (Silvana Mangano).

Penelope, however, is convinced that Ulysses is alive, and with the help of her son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi) is doing everything she can to delay the suitors on the off-chance her beloved will one day return.

As for Ulysses, he and his men traveled far and wide, battling monsters and sirens, until an encounter with the witch Circe (also played by Mangano) costs the great hero both his ship and his crew.

Washing up alone on the shores of Phaeacia, Ulysses no longer remembers who he is or where he came from, and finds himself falling in love with Nausicaa (Rossana Podesta), daughter of King Alcinous (Jacques Dumesnil). Though welcomed as an honored guest in Phaeacia, Ulysses knows his destiny lies elsewhere, and holds out hope that his memory will eventually return.

A big-budget production (the estimated cost was the equivalent of $3 million U.S. dollars), Ulysses is a gorgeous film, with excellent costumes and lavish set pieces. There are also some memorable action sequences, like when Ulysses, still suffering from amnesia, defeats the Phaeacian wrestling champion; and a well-realized flashback to when his ship was almost destroyed in a storm is both tense and exciting.

The strongest scenes in Ulysses, though, are those that blend adventure with fantasy, like when Ulysses and his crew outwit the giant Cyclops Polyphemus (Umberto Silvestri), or the scene in which his ship encounters the Sirens, who try to coerce the hero into abandoning his vessel. The film’s most imaginative sequence, however, is when Ulysses is under the spell of the Goddess Circe, who transforms his men into swine and promises to grant the hero immortality, thus allowing him to take his place among the Gods of Olympus. There’s even a creepy scene where Ulysses is visited by the ghosts of his fallen comrades, all of whom lament the fact that they are dead. Though lacking the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen, moments such as these would have been right at home in later fantasy movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.

Kirk Douglas is perfectly cast as the heroic title character, as is Anthony Quinn as the treacherous Antinous, and Mangano shines in her dual role as the distraught Penelope and the conniving Circe. In addition, the cinematography of Hollywood’s own Harold Rossen (The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In the Rain) is top-notch, and director Camerini (allegedly assisted by the great Mario Bava, who remained uncredited) makes great use of the film’s many picturesque locales, including Tuscany, North Africa, and the coast of the Mediterranean. That said, the most engaging aspect of 1954’s Ulysses is undoubtedly its story, which features action and wonder in equal doses.

Ulysses will definitely appeal to kids, but there’s plenty here to get the parents excited as well.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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