Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Featured Film: SALAMBO (1914)

SALAMBO - Suzanne De Labroy

Matho - Mario Guaita-Ausonia

Spendius - Uncredited

I'm a fan of silent films and try to watch as many as possible when the opportunity arises. And being a  fan of Sword & Sandal films as well, I finally had the chance to see the 1914 version of SALAMBO. Compared to the masterpiece CABIRIA, also made in 1914, this film is a mess of sorts.

The film lasts 75 minutes and for the first 25 minutes or so we *only* see a series of establishing shots with intertitles telling us what's going on. That's it. No close ups. No panning or anything interesting. Only wide static shots of large crowds scenes with the main characters somewhere in there. This wouldn't be so bad if the scenes weren't filmed in such an uninteresting way (angle, composition, etc). Once Matho climbs up the aqueduct of Carthage the action finally starts (this scene is very similar to the scene when Maciste and company climb up the wall of the fortress in CABIRIA). And by action I mean the camera follows the characters and the characters actually exchanging dialogue, not necessarily action as in action-packed stuff. Moviemaking was still in its infancy which might explain the odd and confusing narrative structure of SALAMBO. 25 minutes of mostly static shots to set-up a story is way too long, even for that time.

The story is simple enough:

The story in a nutshell

Well, there's more to it than that. The story revolves around Matho and his friend Spendius. Matho is the leader of mercenaries who were duped in some payments of gold from the fine folks of Carthage. Spendius, on behalf of Matho, asks a wise old man how to defeat the Carthagenians and get the gold and/or exact revenge. The wise old man says the intertitle above. So Matho and Spendius enter the walled city of Carthage via its aqueduct, get the sacred veil of Tanit and create chaos. Matho falls in love with Salambo and kidnaps her. In a funny bit at the end, thanks to Spendius, all ends well. 

Accessing Carthage via its main aqueduct; this is a veritable 
PEPLUM cliche and I'm guessing this is the first film to use it.

Once it settles down to a clear storyline, it's pretty good and the magic of silent cinema finally takes hold but it's still a mess of sorts. Unlike CABIRIA, you really can't identify or empathize with any of the characters here. They're more like figures or shadows moving across the screen than characters. For instance, Salambo herself barely figures as a character (on the left: Matho discovers a sleeping Salambo). She's more of a prop than anything else, which is a bit odd when she's main character in the title. There are things that happen to the characters and I'm not quite sure why. No intertitle/dialogue telling us what just happened. There are some close-ups but they are rare. I think the first close-up within the story occurs 40 minutes into it! There are some close-ups of the actors at the beginning but those are there just to introduce the cast of characters.

One of the few close-ups in SALAMBO(1914); 
Mario with uncredited actor who played Spendius

The sets are pretty good, the crowd scenes are grand. But these things can't overcome the sloppy editing and the wobbly, unfocused narrative. Reviewing the acting for this film is difficult as everything was mostly shot at a distance. Mario Guaita-Ausonia was handsome and a pretty good, expressive actor. Mario was also in SPARTACO(1913) which I also have and I'll be viewing it soon enough. I wish there were more close-ups of him or the other actors. The one interesting aspect of this film is that one of the main characters is black, Spendius, and he's not played as a caricature or as someone unimportant. He's vital to the story and it's cool to see that in a film made in 1914. One of the most startling scenes is when Spendius grabs gear and weapons from dead soldiers sprawled tightly over each other as far as the eye can see. It's startling and reminded me of the scenes with the massacred people in Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS. Also, when Spendius enters the statue of Tanit, and what happens afterwards, well, it's probably the best moment in the entire film.

Big & spectacular sets!


The film on the DVD starts with an introduction of the characters and with the words THE PRIESTESS OF TANIT. That's not the title. The opening title is missing and just starts with list of characters but there is a silent film called THE PRIESTESS OF TANIT made in 1911 and I thought I had the wrong film. But the intertitles have the name SALAMBO on them so I sighed and believed it was the right film. Just by the artwork, I thought I was buying the 1925 made-in-France version but when I played it what I really got was the 1914 made-in-Italy version. I only then realized that the distributor of this DVD incorrectly used the artwork of the 1925 French production of SALAMMBO instead of anything from 1914 Italian version titled SALAMBO, with one M. The distributor should use different artwork or a photo from the actual 1914 film to sell this version. Talk about Cinematic Confusion! Oh well. I didn't have the Italian one so it's fine with me but I still have to find the 1925 French one now.

Incorrect DVD cover: the poster on the left is the original artwork for the 1925 French version; the image on the right is the one they used for the DVD but it's not correct as the film on the DVD is the 1914 Italian version. Oy!

The music, credited to Lou McMahon, didn't go along with what was happening on screen but this is not uncommon with silent films in general as the original score is often lost. A new score or finding the original score would be an improvement over this one. I had to turn off the sound from time to time to enjoy it more.

The story was adapted into a much sexier French-Italian co-production in 1960 titled SALAMMBO starring Jacques Sernas and Jeanne Valérie. You can see some similarities between the two but the 1960 version, even with its minor faults, is more successful than this one. I'll probably do a "Fan Fix" of this 1914 film: re-edit it and try to change the score and it's good I'll upload it at my Youtube channel.

Different yet similar. Scenes from the 1914 and 1960 adaptations:

Matho and Spendius looking at the statue of Tanit and the sacred veil.

From the 1960 version: Jacques Sernas as Matho enters the chamber with the statue of Tanit and the sacred veil

Matho and Spendius walk about in the guarded Temple without any concern as 
 guards are terrified into submission because of the sacred veil wrapped around Matho

Matho (Sernas) wards off guards by waving the sacred veil in front of them

Rating: 6 out of 10


- amiable tone
- big sets
- Mario and the uncredited actor who played Spendius were good actors
- beautiful costumes
- once story gets going, it's fun
- brilliant ending


- confusing start
- 25 minutes intro/set-up is TOO long
- unfocused direction
- sloppy editing, even for that time
- no score; generic silent score added to this DVD version
- no actual characters; difficult to care for them


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