No Pain, No Gain: Search for Beauty (1934)

searchWell, folks, I finally found it: for my money, the most cheerfully indecent, blatantly prurient film of the pre-Code era.

No—not The Story of Temple Drake.

Not Red-Headed Woman.

Not even Baby Face.

I announce the winner: Earle C. Kenton’s Search for Beauty, which could easily be retitled The Search for Booty. This quasi-fascist beefcake fest provokes more utterances of “What the…?” per minute than any other flick made before 1934. And this camp Holy Grail includes more head-scratching moments, for that matter, than most movies made since. No matter your taste, gender, or orientation, this film really hedged its bets. You will probably be both offended AND turned-on at some point of the show.

You want giggly male fantasy Toby Wing and a super-young platinum blonde Ida Lupino dancing on top of tables in silky nightclothes? You got it.

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Ultra-buff Buster Crabbe changing out of an Olympian swimsuit and getting into the shower onscreen? Yep.

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Four bare male bottoms in one frame? Look no further, my friend.

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Lithe female athletes in terry-cloth gym suits dragging Gertrude Michaels out of bed to join an exercise chain gang? Sure thing.

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And, most egregiously of all, a final shot of James Gleason’s atrophied keyster in gym shorts? Oh, would it weren’t so…

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If this gallery of offenses doesn’t leave you gobsmacked, how about the fact that Picture Play magazine declared, in their review of Search for Beauty, “Here’s a picture unreservedly recommended for the whole family.” How the hell did the reviewer miss the nudity? The near-nudity? The groping? The five solid minutes of soft-core flexing? Was he sitting behind a woman wearing a triple-decker hat? Was he on dope? Or was he pulling a prank on all those parents who were going to have to answer some mighty tough questions after the movie?

I don’t know about you, but I’m agape.

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Even the plot of Search for Beauty was built with raunchiness in mind. A bunch of con artists (sassy Gertrude Michaels, skinny James Gleason, and burly Robert Armstrong) zero in on a get-rich-quick scheme. They buy a bankrupt magazine, Health and Fitness, with the intention of turning it into a porno mag.

However, to shield themselves from the censors and the law, they pass the publication off as an exercise guide. The crooks also recruit two bright-eyed Olympians, Barbara and Don (real-life 1932 gold medalist Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino in her American debut), to be the honorary editors and unwitting spokespeople for the scandalous rag.

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Unaware of their partners’ skullduggery, these two good kids stage a publicity stunt to promote fitness and increase magazine circulation: Don tours the world looking for “perfect youths.” [Cue the montage sequence of gratuitous flexing and grinding workout routines here!]

Meanwhile, back in New York, Barbara is getting progressively more disgusted with the immoral stories and illustrations that the magazine is publishing—all under the stamp of her 100% pure name. So, when Don gets back with his crew of beautiful bodies, they start a fitness camp and try to break away from the magazine—despite the shysters’ attempts to turn the workout camp into a bordello. Of course, Barbara and Don thwart the salacious scheme. Virtue triumphs and so forth.

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In this movie’s defense, I will note that it impresses me by objectifying the male body almost as much as the female form—pretty unusual for Hollywood. We sense an avid female gaze inscribed on the screen in lingering shots of Buster Crabbe and his rock-solid compadres.

Search for Beauty attributes a robust leer to both genders. It’s all about equal opportunity lechery. For instance, the first time Gertrude Michael’s character sets eyes on Don Jackson, the swimmer, we get a POV shot of her turning her binoculars downwards to get a view of, well, his swimmers.

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There’s also a hysterical scene in which that same shady lady convinces a whole bunch of women at the hair salon to enroll in fitness camp—after she “accidentally” drops a whole packet of glossy photos of Buster and company in various Adonis poses. A woman playing procuress to other women strikes me as a rare occurrence even for pre-Code Hollywood; we detect something modern in how these women unabashedly drool over the nubile dudes, presented solely for their enjoyment.

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When Gertrude Michael asks the coiffeuse, “Think any of your customers might give him a tumble?” the hairdresser replies, “Tumble? If they were anything like me, they’d give him a double summersault!”

Meanwhile, in a swanky bar, James Gleason is peddling pictures of girls in fitness suits amidst a bunch of lascivious, but comical extreme close-ups of ears and mouths. Earle C. Kenton’s lurid attention to expressions of lust translates out to a visual “Yuck!”

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If the two scenes parallel each other, the women certainly come across way better—more genuine, articulate, and sincere even in their objectification of men.

I also give this film a lot of credit for anticipating—and mocking—its own critics’ arguments. In one scene, we listen to two vapid pre-Code working girls talking about the smutty stories that get published in Health and Fitness. One girl longs for a life of vice, but notes that the women having fun in the steamy adventures always end up in trouble. Her companion dismisses such slap-on-the-wrist endings, saying that the writers just make that up as a moral excuse. In real life, she insists, the wages of sin are pretty darn generous.

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Girls! Shame on you! How dare you read that smutty magazine that I endorsed!

Now, how many pre-Code films follow exactly that formula of wanton pleasure… followed by some unconvincing punishment or redemption in the last reel?

And, what’s more, Search for Beauty sure fits that formula! It’s not just smut. It’s meta-smut. But that self-referential irony also explains why the film strikes me as so vaguely unsettling: while we’re encouraged to identify with the perky protagonists, we’re also watching the exploitation of those kids.

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In fact, Search for Beauty represents the culmination of a gimmicky real-life worldwide quest for beautiful youths, orchestrated by Paramount, which garnered a great deal of attention in fan magazines of the time.

A 1934 issue of Picture Play magazine described the search as “One of the most colossal stunts ever used to publicize a picture… [T]he promotion idea was the holding of beauty contests in every English-speaking country—Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, et cetera—the winners being brought to Hollywood and put into the film.”

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The more cynical Photoplay magazine referred to them as “raw material for the cinema mill,” just so much fleshy fodder to get ground up by the Dream Machine. The 30 studio-selected winners from around the globe were given five-week contracts at $50 per week and rewarded with dubious onscreen exposure time (in more ways than one).

If these chosen kids were expecting an Ella Cinders style discovery, they were holding out in vain. A reviewer of the time observed, in Motion Picture, “What one sees of the winners in a health drill, as well as at closer range, may cause you to question their superiority to your favorite life guard or hat-check girl, but you won’t begrudge them the trip to Hollywood, nor the return home of all but six. You will agree that they will be better off there.”

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To my knowledge, only one of the “winners” made the big time, so keep your eyes peeled for Clara Lou Sheridan—whose name was wisely changed to Ann Sheridan—the Oomp Girl, our Dallas Beauty Winner.

Even as Search for Beauty lampoons the exploitation of innocent youngsters by crooked sex fiends, the movie basically sponsored the same kind of large-scale exploitation! I don’t believe that the Paramount execs brought this gaggle of beautiful people to Hollywood merely for an infusion of talent. Photoplay punctured this theory by crankily noting, “Maybe there is a potential Garbo or Gable among them, but it seems to me the chance is just as good, if not better, of finding a potential star among Hollywood extras.”

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Indeed, the film medium itself gleefully participates in the less-than-aesthetic contemplation of idealized bodies. During one montage sequence, the news of Health and Fitness’s search for talent spreads around the world; men stack piles of magazines for distribution, crying, “Up! Up!” Cut to a photographer snapping naughty photos of one of the magazine’s pin-ups as the cameraman instructs the curvaceous ingénue to pull up her skirt, “Up! Up!” Get it?

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The business of posing and creating publicity shots also serves as a target for Search for Beauty’s satire of the “sex sells” mentality. In one memorable scene, James Gleason presides over a whole group of women, each with one ideal feature. The photographer in the room hopes to take pictures of their beautiful individual body parts and then composite them to make a non-existent perfect woman.

This practice may sound primitive and laughable. However, the glossing over of “bad traits” and the creation of an unattainably flawless image foreshadows our generation of stressed-out women, constantly comparing themselves to Photoshop-slimmed, impossible dream girls.

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On the one hand, by going behind the scenes to make fun of beauty magazine tropes, Search for Beauty helps to break them down and show viewers what a sham they are. On the other, this paradoxical movie reveals the sleaziness behind the same kind of global beauty pageant that the studio perpetuated by producing and promoting it.

The excessive eye candy climaxes in a five-minute-long sequence that consists of nothing other than synchronized aerobic exercises performed by lines and lines of ripped men and women in skin-tight gym suits. Waving banners and flags. Marching. Leaping. Jumping. Lunging. To the tune of John Phillips Sousa-esque marches. This is an erotic spectacle. It’s Buns of Steel on steroids. There is no way around it.

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So, although Search for Beauty amusingly satirizes commercialized sex, the movie and its  publicity stunt also massively participate in that same commercial exploitation.

As I ponder this movie (and I might be pondering it longer than the producers did), the mise-en-abyme quality of its message or moral sucks me in. Speaking of mise-en-abyme, the opening credits show up over shots of beautiful girls in gym suits doing exercises in a mirrored room so that reflections and reflections of reflections stretch into the distance.

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In Search for Beauty, reality and parody blur and mingle. Aat times, the camera’s leer assimilates with our own implied drooling absorptionm and I don’t feel comfortable with that. I’ll leer when I want to. Don’t you dare tell me when to leer!

And yet, Barbara and Don emerge victorious, with help from a secret government agent dressed up as a priest (don’t ask). Not only do these plucky bodybuilders usurp the fitness farm compound, but they also hustle all the bad guys out onto the exercise field to punish them with a workout. No gain for the would-be pornographers and pimps—just a lot of pain.

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Of course, what really scares me silly about this film is that it was made in 1934. In 1935, Leni Riefenstahl decided to remake Search for Beauty—albeit played for a little less comedy—under a new title, The Triumph of the Will.

Obviously, I’m joking. I have no way of knowing if Riefenstahl ever saw this pre-Code fitness fetish romp. I’m guessing she never did. But the similarities between this and Riefenstahl’s propaganda opuses practically scream in your face and tell you to drop and give ’em thirty.

Just how tongue-in-cheek was this film meant to be? Are we supposed to side with the dirt-bags or the frighteningly determined Aryan bodybuilding police?

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I’m inclined to take the side of director Earle C. Kenton, the man behind perhaps the greatest horror film of the 1930s: Island of Lost Souls, based on Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. That courageous, grotesque movie foreshadowed the brutality of dictators that were rising to political prominence when the film was in production. The sadism of megalomaniacal mad scientist Dr. Moreau shifts our sympathy to the “monsters” which he torments and dominates with painful medical procedures.

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In his crazy schemes to transform animals into humans, Moreau sought to breed men without recognizing his own paucity of human traits like kindness and empathy. During the movie’s most famous sequence, the mad doctor, wielding a whip, forces his creations to recite “The Law” in an elaborate call-and-response ritual. The refrain “Are we not men?” spoken by a group of subservient, unnatural creatures rings out with bitter irony.

Just as Dr. Moreau’s obsession with evolving a new race of creatures parallels the eugenics movement, Search for Beauty’s emphasis on perfect, streamlined bodies and tyrannical fitness almost veers into fascism. In the finale of the latter film, as I watched the waggish cons dragged from their beds, coerced to engage in a group exercise, I could help but think of the line, “Are we not men?”

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In comparison to the bulky, rippling pecks of the male bodybuilders, James Gleason’s fragile frame looks woefully subhuman. We do giggle at his humiliation as these grade-A specimens haul him out to the playing field, but I think we also cringe a little.

As someone who was recurrently picked last in gym class (in spite of my superior strategic talent in Capture the Flag), I dread the thought that some day a bunch of physically fit loonies will grab me and make me atone for my sins with public perspiration. Society needs dorks, shysters, molls, runts, and rejects, too. And who’s to say what constitutes being a reject? (And if you said ‘having a blog,’ I will come and get you.)

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Most important, if you went to see Search for Beauty, you’re probably much more likely to relate to the venal con artists than to identify with the unattainably flawless protagonists. The barbarism of groupthink glints in the otherwise harmless display of just desserts at the conclusion.

Maybe we should we take it all in stride and emerge a little wiser to the evils of both extremes. If the pre-Code era had one virtue, it was the ability to make us aware of serious things, while refusing to be serious about them.

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So, watch Search for Beauty and chew on its moral tangle. Because I know you’re not the kind of reader who comes to my blog merely for ripped dudes and dames. Wink, wink.

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Well, let’s see what hunky dude Nitrate Diva’s writing about this week!

And if you find a weirder, raunchier, more problematic pre-Code movie than this one, I want to hear about it!

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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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