Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Scott the Magnificent

To keep myself "in the zone" during this final phase of working on the Bava book, I've found it helpful to watch movies that aren't by Mario Bava but that reflect the era and industry within which he worked. Therefore, I've been spending a little time each day watching some peplum, or "sword and sandal" movies I haven't seen in awhile. One fact that has particularly been driven home by my little retrospective: while Steve Reeves is certainly the once-and-still-reigning icon of the Italian pepla, almost supernaturally handsome and proportioned and with a wooden style of acting that could almost reflect the otherness of a Greek demigod, the finest actor of all the musclebound myth-makers was Gordon Scott.

Somehow, during a magical period spanning from 1959 to 1963, Scott had the good fortune to always be featured in films that were a cut above the norm -- and he made them better than they would have been without him. A former Las Vegas lifeguard named Gordon Werschkul, he made his screen debut in 1955, replacing Lex Barker in producer Sol Lesser's Tarzan series, bridging the character's swing from black-and-white to color with TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE (Scott married his co-star Vera Miles, whose loveliness here is sufficient reward to watch the picture) and 1957's TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI. 1958's TARZAN AND THE TRAPPERS was Scott's only backward step, a return to black-and-white that cut together episodes of a unsold television series. The series was quick to rebound with TARZAN'S FIGHT FOR LIFE, an all-color feature made the same year, but it was the next two films that stood apart from every Tarzan feature that came before -- new series producer Sy Weintraub realizing that this Tarzan was being held back from true greatness by old series trappings like Jane and Boy (who was called Tartu in TARZAN'S FIGHT FOR LIFE) and especially the comedy relief of Cheta.

"You stay here," Scott tells Cheta early on in TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) and the chimpanzee shenanigans were also wisely left out of TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960). Both of these films starred Gordon Scott as a solitary, "noble savage" Tarzan in raised-stakes adventures that many Edgar Rice Burroughs devotees regard as the finest films ever made about the character. Under the solid, respective direction of John Guillermin and Robert Day, with strong scripts (Berne Giler is the common name between the two) and handsome photography by the likes of Ted Skaife and Nicolas Roeg, these are the rare Tarzan films that transcend series standards to meet the highest demands of non-series action/adventure entertainment. Scott's robust physique may well look overly trained, the product of weight-resistance reps rather than the result of natural exercise, but he is the only Tarzan who looks at home while more than half-naked on location in the jungle -- and he performs most of his own stunts, as well. Both films also illustrate the credo that a film is only as good as its villain, with GREATEST ADVENTURE opposing Scott with Anthony Quayle and a young Sean Connery (in his second or third picture) and THE MAGNIFICENT with John Carradine and Jock Mahoney. For vague reasons, Scott was subsequently replaced by Mahoney in the Tarzan role; Mahoney was a better-than-able stuntman and a good actor, physically fit without being "pumped-up," but he was ill-suited for the role. Nevertheless, Mahoney's Tarzan films -- TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES and TARZAN GOES TO INDIA -- are even more epic in scope and worth seeing.

Legend has it that Steve Reeves recommended Scott to play his headstrong, ambitious brother in ROMULUS AND REMUS, which became DUEL OF THE TITANS when it was released here in America by Paramount (to whom Scott was still under contract). I was just a kid at the time, but I can vividly remember what a big deal DUEL OF THE TITANS was when it opened: lots of TV advertising, big titan-sized posters and standees, and people were genuinely curious about which of these men's men would triumph. And the movie didn't disappoint the expectations aroused by the ballyhoo; it was directed by Sergio Corbucci, one of the finest Italian action directors, and the many-authored script featured input from none other than Sergio Leone. Even in its somewhat reduced US length, the film had the scope and feel of a genuine historical epic, one of Reeves' better performances, and was made particularly fascinating by Scott's hellbound determination to prove himself as an actor and as Reeves' equal (or better yet, superior) in the genre he launched, and also perhaps to vindicate himself after losing the Tarzan role. The jealousy between two brothers is at the heart of the story, and you can feel Scott's personal investment in the material. It's probably his finest performance and one of the best films of its kind.

Next came MACISTE CONTRO I VAMPIRI, became GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES in the States, where the name Maciste carried no mythic resonance. (Maciste was first introduced on the silent screen in 1914's CABIRIA, as an heroic Nubian slave played by a Caucasian dockworker, Bartolomeo Pagano, who was such a hit that he subsequently continued as an actor, always playing Maciste and always billed as "Maciste," even in modern day adventures that found him fighting for right in a suit and tie.) Co-directed by Corbucci and Giacomo Gentilomo, this is more of a finely styled matinee potboiler than an epic adventure, but Scott is well supported by its supernatural villain Kobruk (a horrible apparition fed by the blood of women abducted by pirates!), villainess Gianna Maria Canale, and its SUSPIRIA-like lighting techniques. Scott is excellent as always and the climax gives him opportunity to actually clash with himself, as Kobruck assumes the human form of Maciste.

Scott returned as Maciste in Riccardo Freda's MACISTE ALLA CORTE DEL GRAN KHAN (1961), which became SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD when released by American International. (In the French version, Maciste/Samson became Hercules!) I was so impressed by my reacquaintence with this movie that I've watched it three times in the past two days. Freda recognized the opportunity to make this film while directing the action scenes for the epic film MARCO POLO, and made hand-me-down use of its lavish period Asian sets and costumes, as well as the shared duties of enchanting lead actress Yoko Tani, who gives arguably the finest female lead performance in any of the pepla. Though he's best remembered for his work in horror films, Freda was most truly in his element in the realm of historic adventure, and this film allowed him to blend this nobler art with the pulpier, commercial interests of the pepla. Scott is absolutely tremendous here, actually picking up one adversary and swinging him around by the ankles to knock over other comers -- something I've never seen done for real, or so effectively, in any other movie. But his best scene takes place in the arena, where (without the benefit of stunt doubles) he commandeers a chariot with bladed wheels before it can reach a row of prisoners buried up to their necks in the ground, waiting to be decapitated. The film lost a couple of reels in its American release, and I imagine the whole "seven miracles" angle was an invention of the people who dubbed the movie, as the fifth miracle is the first to be mentioned... unless the first four were somehow covered in the reels that the movie forfeited under the banner of AIP. SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD is presently available on DVD from Alpha Video and as a DVD-R from other sources like Sinister Cinema, but the movie is ill-served by this 20-minutes-shorter cut and its pan&scanned presentation. (For once, AIP's "Colorscope" fronted a legitimate anamorphic process -- Dyaliscope.)

Scott's work in Italian films remained solid for at least until Giorgio Ferroni's THE CONQUEST OF MYCENAE aka HERCULES VS. MOLOCH (1963), and he also did well in the made-for-TV film HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY (1965). He disappeared from films around 1967, but he has made a number of convention appearances in recent years, including one convention show with Steve Reeves before Reeves' untimely death in 2000. People tell me that Scott isn't easily recognizable as himself anymore, wearing a baseball cap and having succumbed to middle-age spread, but that would describe many a man in his 40s or 50s -- and Gordon Scott, born in 1927, is a year or two shy of 80.

I can think of few things I would welcome to DVD more enthusiastically than properly presented versions of TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE, TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, DUEL OF THE TITANS, GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES and SAMSON AND THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD. Gordon Scott was a great screen hero and deserves to be remembered. More than half of this job could be put into motion at Paramount; as for the two Maciste pictures, the prospects are dimmer. GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES was a Dino De Laurentiis production, so there's a degree of hope there; but the SAMSON picture was produced by a long-defunct company called Panda and is now pretty much a public domain title. If these ever surface given the respect they deserve, uncut and in widescreen, they will probably have to happen as import discs. My fingers are already crossed for an English subtitles option.

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