Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Featured Film

Sign of the Gladiator

Directed by Guido Brignone (uncredited: Michelangelo Antonioni, Riccardo Freda, Vittorio Musy Glori)

Starring Georges Marchal, Anita Ekberg, Jacques Sernas, Chelo Alonso, Gino Cervi, Mimmo Palmaras, Lorella De Luca and Alberto Farnese.

Score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino

Released in 1959, both in Italy and US


"Unmitigated Junk " exclaimed the New York Times

"The deepest thing about Sign of the Gladiator is Anita Ekberg's cleavage"

For once, critics were right. But is SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR that bad of a movie? Not really as I've seen much worse than this but it is one sloppy unsuccessful film. It was plagued with production problems and, sadly, it shows on screen. The original director was fired and 3 other directors had to step in, including Riccardo Freda and Michelangelo Antonioni (huh?!?) with 5 screenwriters credited for the unmemorable script, including Sergio Leone. With so many cooks, the whole thing feels spoiled, with no impetus or focus about the story or actors. As a whole, it's flat and almost pointless and in the end does come across as junk but individual scenes within the movie are effective, which might reflect the different directors at the helm.

As a fan of the PEPLUM genre, to me the cast is amazing: Anita Ekberg, Georges Marchal, Jacques Sernas, Chelo Alonso, Mimmo Palmara, Gino Cervi, etc. Wow! As good as it is, some of the choices are odd to say the least: Anita doesn't look Persian and Chelo is supposed to be what exactly? But who cares really as they work well together. 

Talking about the producers?

The story is simple enough but it's made to be more complicated with characters endlessly plotting against each other. No one should be trusting each other but if they didn't, there wouldn't be any story. The film starts with Marcus Valerius (Georges Marchal) captured and made a slave/prisoner. Queen Zenobia (Anita Ekberg) notices him, as he's a Roman soldier but, more importantly, because Marcus is handsome (Georges looks like the David Beckham of Rome), and so it starts. Marcus convinces Zenobia that he's a dead man if he goes back to Rome and that he'd be more useful at her side. Of course both of them slowly fall in love even though Marcus is basically acting as a double agent, all an elaborate plot to drive Zenobia's army into a trap. Unknowingly, the Queen's Prime Minister is also plotting against both the Romans and her.  

Queen Zenobia is considered one of the greatest female characters in history, on par with Cleopatra but in SOTG, Anita is often shown lounging around, walking nervously. She's made to look like a bored housewife than a Queen.  Clearly, all the writers and directors didn't know what to do with her.

Georges Marchal and Jacques Sernas share a scene. Rome might not forget 
but Hollywood does forget as Jacques, who starred in the epic HELEN OF TROY, 
is not even credited prominently on the US movie poster of SOTG.

The sub-plot with Jacques Sernas and Bathsheba is dull and underdeveloped. Jacques Sernas, in top form here, is woefully underused. I wished he and Georges Marchal had more scenes together. If one would cut those scenes out, it would not make a big difference to the film. Things are made a bit more funny as Georges and Jacques sorta look alike and the already muddled production feels even more muddled. What's even more incredible is seeing Jacques in a supporting role when a few years earlier he starred as the main male character in Robert Wise's massive Hollywood retelling of HELEN OF TROY. From starring role to total obscurity, with not even a prominent credit on the movie poster for SOTG. Ouch.

Lorella De Luca barelly registers as Bathsheba, with busty Anita and sexy Chelo eclipsing every other female presence in the film.

Jacques Sernas and Folco Lulli during the climax.

Folco Lulli, as Zenobia's Prime Minister, is terrible. A cliched character straight out of a cartoon...even though he looks more authentic than the Nordic-looking Queen.

Love and death in the desert

The scene when Zenobia and Marcus Valerius are ridding in the desert alone together, without the usual soldiers guarding the Queen, is absurd. But the movie is, in essence, a Romantic PEPLUM and these scenes are de rigueur. They are probably the best scenes in the entire film.

The abrupt conclusion was obviously conceived to end the film on a happy note as it seems Zenobia was beheaded or was paraded around as a prisoner in the streets of Rome (wikipedia).

SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR, in its own weird way, is a very important film in PEPLUM history: made in the late 1950s, just when BEN-HUR would be release, it's an example as what the genre would provide/become in the future and how it would be sold around the world but more importantly to the US market.

American International Pictures purchased the film and re-titled it with a nonsensical title (inspired by the equally nonsensically titled Jack  Palance opus, SIGN OF THE PAGAN?). The original Italian title translates as SIGN OF ROME. The current title is point blank stupid because there are no gladiators in it. Arf. This practice of re-titling Italian/European S&S films with absurd titles would be common practice with US distributors during the PEPLUM explosion and a lightning rod for film snobs and non-snobs alike to dismiss the entire genre as utterly worthless. I guess this was only a sign (!) of things to come. When the movie was a success for AIP, the low-budget US film company sought more EURO PEPLUMS to bastardize at  will in order to make a quick buck.

I've only viewed this film in its original Italian version with English subtitles which highlights the incredibly elaborate dialogue. For a B-movie (and yes, it's a B-movie), the dialogue is, huh, profound. Here are some examples:

Heavy stuff!

The soundtrack is excellent and will sound familiar to most as it would be re-used in dozen of other films. The only problem with the soundtrack is that it should have stood out more to at least give the film some much needed life.

The elaborate but clunky battle scenes during the climax would also be re-used in other films, including SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS. The climax is truly badly edited and looks completely drunk.

The film is filled with several incredible technical goofs. The most obvious, and the most egregious example of the troubled production, is the feast scene. Anita and Georges  unexpectedly switch sides midway into the scene. It's pretty funny.


SOTG also has its share of anachronisms. Chelo's Cuban jiggles and shakes don't belong in this film, as entertaining as it is. During the feast/dance sequence, Chelo is surrounded by male dancers wearing leopard spotted trunks. Hmm...

With better editing, a few scenes shortened here and there and a more prominent soundtrack, SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR could have been a tad better but as it is, it's a hot mess. 

Rating: 5 out of 10

SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR is not in 3D? Oh well...


- cool and sexy main cast: Georges Marchal has chemistry with Anita Ekberg and Chelo
- lotsa fun peplum cliches, like millstone, crucified, dance sequence, etc
- big battle scenes
- Anita Ekberg's gold-platted battle costume
- excellent score


- feels rushed;  not very convincing
- secondary plot is dull
- Jacques Sernas wasted
- sloppy editing
- it doesn't know what it wants to be: historical? Action/adventure? Romance? All of the above?
- weak supporting cast
- talk, talk, talk
- painfully obvious expositionary dialogue
- unspectacular sets
- Chelo's dancing is pure anachronism
- full of techinal goofs
- uninspired locations
- many horses were obviously hurt during the battle sequence

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