The Biceps That Launched A Movie Genre: Steve Reeves IS The Man
We live in the Golden Age of Movies. It’s not that the movies currently being made are so damn great, but that we can actually own virtually any movie, classic or craptacular, that we might care to. Case in point, the two Steve Reeves epics I discuss in this installment of CREATURE FEATURE.
I saw both of these when I was a kid, a couple of times each, on the old media (ie, television). I’ve been looking for them in a desultory fashion every since, whenever some random neuron would fire up in my brain and I’d think, say, I’d really like to see THAT again. Since neither ever had a DVD release, I’d bid on VHS copies of them on Ebay now and again, only to lose out to more dedicated fans with deeper pockets. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that one has finally gotten a real (not dubbed) DVD edition, so I snapped it up. That same week I got beat out on Ebay yet again for the other, so I told myself enough already and found a tape on Amazon that was actually substantially cheaper than it was going for on Ebay (ie, under ten bucks) and snapped it up, too. Viewing both for the first time in thirty-some years was a mixed experience, but in the end I was glad to finally see them again.
Steve Reeves made both of these films during the core years of his career (1958-1963) when he appeared in an amazing fourteen movies and was the star of virtually all of them. Reeves joined the army when he was in his teens and saw action in WW II in the Pacific. After the war he became interested in body-building and won his first contest in 1946. He quickly moved up the body building ladder, as the titles of the successive contests he won attest: Mr. America, Mr. World, and, edging out the tough competition from Altair Seven, he completed the trifecta as Mr. Universe in 1950. It took him awhile to conquer the celluloid universe, but when he made LA FAICHE DI ERCOLE (or, as we plain-talking folks here in the States like to call it, HERCULES), in Italy in 1958 he was on his way to stardom of Herculean proportions, along the way creating the sword and sandal movie genre.
Face it, Steve was a good looking dude (and also, one of those guys who looked totally different with a beard) with sculpted, handsome features. In his physical prime the six-one actor weighed 216 pounds, and was more sleek and human-looking than the steroid pumped comic-book like freaks who inhabit the body-building universe today. He was an accomplished horseman and often did his own stunts. Though no one would ever confuse him with Bruce Lee, he moved like an athlete and was convincing in a fight, whether it was with a sword, a length of chain, or picking guys up, pressing them over his head, and giving them an airplane ride.
No one would confuse him with Laurence Olivier, either, or any of those Brit Shakespearean- trained thespians, but then none of those guys were ever convincing when they had to fight mythological creatures, either. He had limited range as an actor, but he was good at what he did: portraying a steel-jawed hero with a streak of tenderness in him when the plot called for it.
THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (Italian title: IL LADRO DI BAGDAD): 1961 (100 minutes)
Starring Steve Reeves and a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of.
THIEF is an unabashed fantasy with winged horses, faceless men, creepy strangler trees, and Steve Reeves as Karim, the titular thief with no background but who was apparently a Baghdadian Robin Hood who distributed his ill-gotten gains among the poor of the city, who all look suspiciously like Italian peasants.
Knowing a good opportunity to obtain loot when he sees it, Steve dresses up in an improbably snazzy outfit for a street criminal and infiltrates the palace where he takes the place of the newly arrived Prince Osman (the sneering bad guy), steals everybody blind, ends up in the seraglio where he meets the beauteous Amina the sultan’s daughter, and steals her heart as well. (They fall hard and fast in these movies.)
Osman, naturally, wants to make Baghdad part of his empire, so with the aid of the sultan’s evil factotum, comes up with a scheme wherein Amina is rendered ill and the sultan offers his kingdom to anyone who can find the spell’s antidote, which turns out to be the mystic and scarce blue rose. It’s special effects time as a number of young blades saddle up for the quest for the rose. The sinister Osman spikes their water bags and leaves them to fry in the desert, but not to worry, as Steve, helped by a somewhat annoying old man who turns out to a sorcerer himself, arrives to share his supply and join in the effects-laden quest through the seven doors to find the blue rose.
None of this breaks much in the way of new ground as far as quest-themed movies go and the effects are adequate for the time though I’m sure that the current generation would scoff at them. I found them largely charming and a tad sinister when they were supposed to be. In general, the sets, many with a kind of Maxfield Parrish look, and costuming were exotically charming. They fit nicely with the tone of the movie, which is slyly comedic rather than threatening and sinister (except for the bombastic Osman, who is kind of bombastically threatening and sinister). Even the final confrontation between Reeves and Osman’s army (well, a couple of platoons anyway) is bloodless, though Osman does get a well-deserved drubbing.
The final scene makes a thoughtful and tender point. Amina has taken to her bed, not comatose like Sleeping Beauty, but suffering from that undefined ennui which princesses often get that causes them to become all languorous and fall into irreversible decline. Steve enters her chamber to revive her, but the blue rose has been destroyed during combat with Osman. Everyone goes, oh no, but the pragmatic Reeves plucks an ordinary rose from a nearby vase and offers it to her, saying, “If you love me, this is a blue rose.”
Words to live by.
MORGAN THE PIRATE (Italian title: MORGAN IL PIRATA): 1960 (93 minutes; 95 in Italy)
Starring Steve Reeves and another bunch of guys you’ve never heard of.
MORGAN THE PIRATE is a straight historical movie, even if some of the pirate costumes do look a bit gay. (There, I said it.) And by gay, I don’t mean bad, just lacy and frilly and satiny, with puffy white shirts and high leather boots. You know, dramatic.
It follows (sort of) the life of the real Henry Morgan, who was the pirate who sacked Panama City and finished out his career as the Vice-Governor of Jamaica.
There’s nothing much wrong with this movie. It’s just too damn short. In the first twelve minutes Steve battles slavers, giving several well-deserved airplane rides while having his shirt torn off for not the last time in the movie; gets bought by the babe who’s the daughter of Panama’s governor (a pity buy); exchanges meaningful glances with her at the palace; delivers a pregnant mare and smooches the babe in the manger; gets caught and is sent off to the brig; where he’s condemned to die by quartering (which is really unpleasant) for fooling with the top shelf merchandise; but, hooray, it’s a holiday or something and only one of the criminals gets quartered; gets sent to be a gallery slave; says screw this, mutinies, and takes over the ship; becomes a pirate; and shows up at the pirates headquarters of Tortuga, which is a pretty nice island that looks suspiciously like part of the Amalfi Coast or maybe a beach in Spain.
Here we meet the pirates. They are exceedingly well-dressed pirates. Amazingly well dressed pirates. I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in pirate fashion, because clearly these guys in Tortuga represent the peak of the evolution of piratical garb. They must have blown half the film’s budget on pirate outfits. And on laundry, because their shirts are ALWAYS white and neat, even after battles.
We also meet Concepcion the dancer, played by Chelo Alonso, who is one of the main reasons to watch this film. During the opening credits she is not listed under “with,” or “featuring,” or “co-star” or even “star,” but is set apart from the other cast members under the unique (to my knowledge) title of “With The Extraordinary Participation Of,” so you know you’re going to see something special. And she does bring home the groceries, or as many groceries as you can sack in a movie made in 1961. Nicknamed “The Cuban H-Bomb,” Alonso was an ex-exotic dancer in the Folies Bergeres who made her mark in a handful of films around this time as, I’m guessing, a dancer. She also gets to make a few speeches, one of them starting, “I am a woman,” which is probably the most obvious statement ever made in any film.
Once Steve joins the pirates, the movie catches it’s breath and the pace becomes more leisurely.
There is a one particularly hilarious scene where Steve has to fight the current pirate chief, naturally. The chief pulls out a knife, sticks it in a convenient table top, and starts unlacing his puffy white (and very clean) shirt, pulling it up over his head. In the meantime, Steve also disrobes and the pirate, catching sight of Steve’s naked torso, kind of goes, huh, and puts the knife away. He draws a foil and Steve, nonplused, draws his own and kicks his ass, anyway.
So, Steve and his crew become pirates, shoot up a bunch of Spanish ships, squirrel away a ton of treasure in Tortuga (nowhere to spend it, I guess, though they must get their outfits somewhere), meet up with a bunch of Englishmen who dress even more foppishly than they do, and, after a false start and (let’s face it) pretty bad planning on Steve’s part, eventually do sack Panama City.
Kind of hard to root for that, I guess, but still, those Spaniards had it coming for being so damn mean to Steve earlier in the movie.
Not a great movie, but it has it’s moments. For them, I’ll give it an 8.