Body Politic: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

posterIf Douglas Sirk, Akira Kurosawa, and Caravaggio teamed up to remake Quo Vadis, the result might turn out similar to The Colossus of Rhodes.

This splashy, yet affecting peplum epic gave audiences their first true glimpse of Sergio Leone’s vibrant talent, even if it wasn’t his directorial debut. And who doesn’t love the chance to watch a great artist’s vision emerge from otherwise standard programming?

Leone fills the widescreen TotalScope format with saturated, dynamic tableaux that look painted rather than filmed. Expect moments of cheesiness, for sure, and I’d personally be disappointed if I couldn’t taste the asiago. Yet, I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was watching the history of the epic—from Greek vases, to Roman mosaics, to Renaissance and Baroque painting, to grand scale silent films—being relived and rediscovered.

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Colossus lovingly integrates all of these layers of grandeur. It compiles the all harmony of composition, the pageantry, the sumptuousness that we associate with the best of Western Civilization. And to this heritage, Leone adds a key ingredient: a terse après-guerre dose of disillusionment.

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Our tale focuses on a Greek war hero, Darios, who visits the island of Rhodes for a pleasure trip. However, you don’t have to be Socrates to smell something rotten on the island. Nobody likes the isle’s ginger-bearded tyrant—who’s nearly assassinated twice over the course of Darios’s first day there—and a bunch of rebels work on stirring up discontent wherever they can.

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A toga party gone horribly awry.

These freedom fighters initially try to kidnap Darios, hoping to convert him to their cause. Freaked out, the hero attempts to flee Rhodes and thus unintentionally ends up becoming an enemy of the state and an ally to the underground cause. Needless to say, Darios encounters torture, sexual politics, treason, nasty proto-gladiatorial death spectacles, and many, many opportunities to provide the camera with peplum buffalo shots.

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If that plot sounds like “a rip-roaring corn harvest,” as the New York Times called it, well, believe me, the material yields surprising insights in Leone’s capable hands. His grim eye for the prospect of mortality and ruin even in the midst of celebration recalls that special “something to do with death” that he would later harness to illuminate the tropes of the Western.

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For instance, when Darios prepares to relax on his first night in Rhodes, he enters the ruler’s opulent party digs to find a bevy of beautiful maidens and a few exotic acrobats flipping around in the middle of the space. A graceful, slightly blurred and dizzy almost 360-degree pan swivels around the room, taking in the sheen of the women’s clothes and the succulence of the food… as the acrobats dart in and out of the frame.

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These bodies interposing between the camera and the already decadent panoply create a kind of visual hyperbole. Jean-Luc Godard used the word “delirium” to describe the impact of Douglas Sirk’s striking colors. Here, Leone attains a similar phantasmagoria, a practically 3D splendor larded with the trappings of wealth and power. Your eyes glut themselves; they feel like they need a trip to the vomitorium.

Okay, remember that pan shot. I’ll return to it in a minute.

Darios reclines and starts chatting up the luscious, if inscrutable Diala. I’m guessing Darios had a whole phalanx run over his head once, because he dopily follows this femme fatale down into the catacombs under the palace gardens.

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Stumbling into a tomb of mummies, Darios calls for Diala. And we get another long, patient pan shot, this time a full 360-degrees, morbidly surveying the desiccated, wrapped bodies lining the stone funerary chamber, still wearing gold ornaments that are now useless to them. These two parallel pan shots, in successive scenes, deliver a potent, spooky moral: all is vanity, all is decay. The colorful ecstasy of that celebration will inevitably end in a tomb.

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Entropy haunts Leone’s films. Whole towns rot into nothing or burn to the ground. Characters we love die. Cherished schemes fall through. I admit that neither my analysis nor the idea of decay and decline are likely to win any awards for originality, but what does mesmerize me is the eloquence and concision of Leone’s observation, enabled by the cinematic form.

With that pair of pans, one displaying hedonist delights, the other expressing a detached stoic view of mortality, Leone brings millennia of philosophy to the screen. Death looms over us all. Should we bury ourselves in sensuality and try to forget? Or should we look hard at the world and at ourselves? Those are the big questions. Leone etches a little metaphysical dilemma on the surface of his story with two camera movements.

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Speaking of surprisingly deep aspects of this movie, the central conceit of the film, an enormous watchtower statue of Apollo that holds vigil over the harbor of Rhodes, also resonates outside of the framework of a lusty sword-and-sandals fest. The producer of the film flipped out when he realized that the title wasn’t referring to a hero, but to a statue, thinking that the plot would lack dramatic value and a prerequisite hunky protagonist. The statue serves as a point of reference for the entire film, and the extent to which this major set piece received billing and attention as a thematic element obviously went beyond what those financing the film were expecting.

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According to a very interesting article on this film at TCM, Leone initially wanted the Colossus, the titular main attraction, to resemble Mussolini—even to stand akimbo like the swaggering Il Duce. So it’s safe to assume that the master did intend to deliver a message about tyranny and modern politics, even if he set it thousands of years earlier. Fortunately this heavy-handed anti-fascist statement didn’t come to fruition, but that didn’t stop Leone from using the statue, actually two 30-meter halves of the body, as a powerful metaphor for government.

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I mean, when you think about it, our conceptions of the body and politics intertwine quite a bit. Even in English, words that we associate with hierarchy or order often include “corp” which comes from the Latin word for body. We talk about organs of state. People in charge still receive the title of “head.” Our language has hardwired us to consider the state as a human organism, a single body with various functioning parts.

The colossus, really a defense base for a corrupt regime, provides us with an image of the state as a body and of a body as the state—both of which prove dysfunctional. This huge, cast-medal figure inspires awe initially, as the camera slowly tilts up to reveal its size.

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Yet, in crowd shots, the statue occasionally appears to be standing on the masses, as if they’re all carrying this burden without recognizing it. Parts of the body often disrupt or break up with widescreen frame—a foot occupies half of the screen, great big legs divide the sky in half, a huge face gives us a close-up even as the men next to it are tiny as bugs.

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All humorous allusions to North by Northwest and Sabotage aside, the colossus visually suggests to us the theme of individuals dwarfed by a totalitarian regime. This supreme, inanimate body exists as a rampart and a weapon; though it takes the form of a man, it contains no humanity.

Nevertheless, the various parts of the Colossus sometimes comment on the action. For example, when Diala’s conscience starts needling her, the eye-windows of the statue seem to stare inwards at her. This creepy décor gives the impression of looking, even if it clearly can’t see her.

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During the film’s most memorable fight sequence, Darios climbs out of the statue’s ear to spar with guards on the colossus’s arms. The contrast between the flailing struggles of the little men and the unchanging, unmoving, unwieldy behemoth strikes me as slightly comical. Like a totalitarian government, the colossus might be strong, but it’s pretty dumb!

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When the “invincible” colossus finally does clatter into the sea, Leone dwells on its total defeat and destruction. We witness it teetering back and forth, suddenly looking human for the first time, like a drunken soldier.  Then it hurtles towards a face-plant into the waves in a long shot. Cut to a disdainful high angle shot as it ignominiously belly-flops onto the surf and the breakers dash it to pieces. There’s nothing dignified about it; the only tragedy is one of waste and broken illusions.

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Thus Leone undermines the very concepts of hero worship and iconography which often bend to serve the whims of oppressive governments. We’re dealing with a director who, let’s face it, has a love-hate relationship with myths, because myths both deceive us and give our life meaning.

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In the end, this kind of fetishized representation, investing a single person or object with absolute power, risks destroying the very civilization it supports and nourishes. Behind the paintings, the frescos, the mosaics of the ancient world lurk the many bad, brutal men, presented as ideal leaders with ripped bodies. The Colossus of Rhodes exalts the glory of Western civilization while exposing its obsession with dominance, hierarchy, and authority.

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When Leone chooses to shatter all pageantry and pomp of this peplum epic, he doesn’t do so for mere spectacle value. He smashes the idols as an admonition to the viewers never to trust bread and circuses—including the ostensibly safe bread and circuses of the peplum epic.

Although The Colossus of Rhodes does end with a glimmer of hope, the storm sequence surprised me with its whirling despair and indiscriminate violence. We watch acts of selflessness and crime being punished the same way: with pointless death. Looters get struck down by falling debris. A man runs into a burning building to save a child, but no sooner has he brought the little one back to its mother than a collapsing beam kills them all. A strong man attempts to pull a heroic stunt by holding up a building himself. He is crushed.

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The innocent and the guilty alike perish in droves during this tempest of indigo skies and heaven-sent fires. In this senseless carnage, we recognize the Italian World War II experience of endless bombings and humiliations that the population suffered for the sins of their abominable, neo-Roman government.

It’s easy to groan at the storm in Colossus as a deus ex machina that gets the protagonist off the hook without him having to do anything. However, Leone fully exploits the horror of the near-apocalyptic tempest. This manifestation of the gods’ wrath not only tears apart the wicked city, but also rips away at the idea of traditional heroism. The good as well as the bad (and, oh, what the hell, the ugly) meet sticky ends. Any Herculean theatrics will probably get you mown down more quickly.

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Darios helps a few people, but mostly concentrates on grabbing his girl and taking shelter. We understand that staying alive itself may represent the highest form of wisdom and heroism when the world goes crazy. The irate poetry of this sequence, with whole impressive sets crumbling, orange flame spurts licking the sides of the screen, baggy ancient garments whipped about in the wind, recalls the end of Seven Samurai and prefigures the disastrous beauty of Apocalypse Now’s napalm shots.

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Be sure to dig up The Colossus of Rhodes. The pacing lags and, admittedly, the acting doesn’t exactly thrill. Rory Calhoun runs around in his man-skirt, looking affable, performing adequately, and making the part of Darios into a 20th century dude. He’s a self-indulgent man at the top of the food chain who’s mostly interested in himself; only when he gets embroiled in the conflict against his will does he develop any sympathy for the underdog.

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The tyrant acts tyrannical, the traitor acts treacherous, and the sad rebel girl acts sad.

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Only the elusive Diala, played by Lea Massari (Anna from L’Avventura), generates any major photogenic energy with her majestic gait, and I-don’t-give-a-damn default facial expression, and tough winged eyeliner.

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You get plenty of eye candy in the form of street magicians, brightly-dressed mobs, and fleets of hunky soldiers, choreographed with a skilled eye for space and balance. Plus, you can drool over the obligatory pre-sacrifice liturgical belly dance performed by priestesses in ancient Greek cheerleading outfits. Honestly, I think that’s the only reason those Greeks made sacrifices at all.

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But, best of all, savor Leone’s gift for dismantling myths and heroes and unmasking bullies and madmen, as he takes one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world and stunningly smashes it to smithereens.

I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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2 thoughts on “Body Politic: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

  1. Wow. I was only vaguely aware of this title and considered it merely a “stepping stone” to the Dollars Trilogy, but now I have to see it. Well done!

  2. This is an excellent read. Considering how beloved the Dollars films are, it’s surprising that this film’s pedigree has not been more fully exploited. Only a forgotten 2007 DVD from Warner Home Video appears to be available. I’d love to see Warner Archive put the full force of their curation behind a Blu-ray release.

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