Genghis Khan is certainly one of the great figures in the history of the world. When you say “Mongolia,” he’s the first person of whom you’re likely to think. He conquered China, swept westward, and eventually had a chain of shopping mall formal wear rental stores named after him. Were it not for Genghis Khan’s contributions to society, I would have been at a loss as to wear to rent my tux for the prom back in 1990. But aside from all that, he was one of the world’s great conquerors, and whether he was a hero or a villain depends largely on whether or not he conquered in your name or just plain conquered you. Certainly as with all history’s epic conquerors — Ramses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vlad Tepes, and Bono from U2 — Genghis Khan is a person who lends himself to having a sweeping, vast, and complex movie made about his life and influence. And like most of the conquerors throughout history, he’s still waiting for that movie to be made.
Neil Marshall has basically been making the same movie his entire career, tweaking the formula here and there, refining the process, but ultimately still turning in survival horror about a group of well-trained individuals who find themselves facing overwhelming odds behind enemy lines. Dog Soldiers saw British special forces troops besieged by werewolves in a remote farmhouse. The Descent pitted cavers against subterranean beasts in the wilds of Appalachia. Doomsday threw a crack military squad into a post-apocalyptic Scotland. And then comes Centurion, a movie that is basically “what if it was Doomsday, but in Roman times?” Lucky for me and Marshall, I’ve enjoyed all his films. I liked Dog Soldiers a lot, absolutely loved The Descent, thought Doomsday was wonderful, and was pretty damn happy with Centurion. As far as I’m concerned, he can keep on making the same movie for another ten years or more, and I’ll keep watching.
My latest article for The Cultural Gutter is now up. In keeping with the season, it’s science fiction with the heart of a horror film. Gothic Galactic takes a look at Mario Bava’s brief forays into the cosmos, specifically the influential Planet of the Vampires, with special guest appearances by Caltiki and Hercules int he Haunted World.
On occasion, we here at Teleport City are accused of being, perhaps, not the most discerning of viewers, susceptible to pretty colors, flashing lights, and naked flesh that blind us to the fact that a movie might otherwise be one of the most atrocious pieces of crap ever made. Frustration can occur when someone looks to us, sees us shrug and go, “It seemed all right to me,” and takes that as a recommendation that eventually winds up with them writhing on the floor, clutching their head in agony as they succumb to the mind-melting wretchedness of a movie I thought wasn’t really all that bad. I can’t say I have done such things with a completely clear conscience. I may have mislead a few people into thinking the Star Wars Holiday Special was going to be hilariously awful instead of just regular ol’ boring awful. But for the most part, it’s true that I enjoy a lot of really terrible movies that I recognize other people probably should not watch. And the sad, sick thing is that I don’t enjoy these movies with any sense of ironic detachment or “so bad it’s good” emotional distance; I genuinely enjoy Treasure of the Four Crowns.
But never let it be said that I am totally without standards. Every now and then, something will parade across my screen that is too much for even me to excuse. It’s painful when it happens. As I’ve said many times, I’m hear to celebrate movies I enjoy, not rip apart movies I hate. And it’s doubly painful when I discover that a movie I was certain I was going to like ends up being almost totally unwatchable. Alas, such was the case with Amazons vs. Supermen, a movie that, on paper, seems to have been written specifically to delight me. Three super warriors, including one goofball in a bondage mask and chain mail miniskirt, a big strong guy in studded leather, and a kungfu guy, team up to battle scantily clad Amazons. Oh, and Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio is co-producing, which means the kungfu guy is martial arts movie superstar Yueh Hwa. There will also be flame-throwing wooden tanks (which seems like a terrible combination of vehicle fabrication material and mode of attack). And one more thing: Alfonso Brescia is directing. Now those things are prime ingredients in making any cake I will gleefully gobble down. And yet, by the end of the thing, which seemed to take forever to get to, all I could do was shake my head in dazed confusion as I tried to figure out how it could have all gone so terribly wrong. Of course, many people will throw up their arms and exclaim, “Alfonso Brescia was the director? What about that signaled any chance of success?” To which I can but meekly respond, “Well, I kinda like Alfonso Brescia movies.”
Alfonso Brescia’s career trajectory is really no different than that of most Italian exploitation film directors. He started out in the early 60s, directing a few sword and sandal films, as that genre was wildly popular at the time. Among these otherwise routine entries into the cycle was a film called Conquerors of Atlantis, which proffered a world in which Hercules (the perpetually confused Kirk Morris) teams up with a strapping Arab prince to battle the laser-gun wielding, metallic robe wearing, futuristic wizard army of Atlantis, which for some reason is now underneath the Sahara Desert. There’s really nothing abut the movie that isn’t completely awesome.
After that, Brescia moved along with everyone else into spaghetti westerns, sex comedies, and cheap war movies. In the early 1980s, late 1970s, he directed a series of cheap space opera movies that got made because Star Wars was popular. I seem to be one of the only fans of these movies, which used mostly the same cast, sets, and costumes and included War of the Robots, Cosmos: War of the Planets, Star Odyssey, and then culminated in the XXX rated Beast in Space, which once again used the same sets and costumes but, sadly, not the same cast. I would have paid good money to see Yanti Somer and her awesome crew cut in that movie.
Between the period of westerns and the science fiction, Brescia made a few more sword and sandal movies. Exactly what prompted this brief return to a dead genre I don’t know (the earlier peplum phase had died out by 1966). Perhaps it was the promise that now you could show some nudity. I don’t know for certain, but whatever the case, there was a sudden quick revival in sword and sandal movies, almost all of them this time revolving around the mythical Amazons (which lends credence to my thought that it was all about permission to flash a boob or two). Brescia made two such movies — 1973′s Battle of the Amazons and 1975′s Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte, better known (well, relatively speaking) as Amazons vs. Supermen, though the movie has so many alternate titles that you’d think Al Adamson had been involved with its distribution.
Things start off properly enough, with a village of bikini-clad Amazons (located in what looks to be a rock quarry — scenic!) engaging in those random sorts of deadly games that I think must surely have been the invention of movies. The best Amazonian warriors face off in a series of deadly contests that include standing on platforms and shooting arrows at each other, then all going down to wrestle amid a field of spikes. It’s possible that this was a contest to chose the next queen, but I’m not sure. If it wasn’t, then one has to question the strategic wisdom of having your very best warriors — including your queen — kill one another for absolutely no reason. There also seems to be some sort of schism among different factions of Amazons, but this never becomes a part of the plot apart from having a few women cheer for one person in this idiotic games over another. The games duly concluded, the Amazon queen Beghira (played by gorgeous Euro starlet Magda Konopka in a silly looking curly wig that I guess is supposed to make her appear more Greek) triumphantly announces “We’re going to go get Dharma and make him tell us the secret of the eternal fire!” Everyone cheers, but we the viewers have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.
Nor will we for a while, as the next portion of the movie is taken up with the stories of two different wanderers, each of whom is set upon by a gang of profoundly inept and unfunny comic relief brigands lead by Philones (Riccardo Pizzuti). And here in lies the most significant problem with the whole movie. Had it been played as a straight but weird sword and sandal adventure, as Brescia did with Conquerors of Atlantis, the movie probably would have been a lot easier for me to enjoy. Instead, there is a near constant indulgence in woefully unfunny slapstick comedy and shenanigans. Even when the movie is playing it straight, as with its action scenes, they’re accompanied by “wacky hi-jinks” music that make them impossible to regard as anything other than more dumb comedy — which is kind of a shame, because the action scenes on their own are not without merit. But very few things, no matter how well mounted, can survive “diddle-dee-doo” comedy music and slide whistle sound effects every time someone jumps or falls down. As an experiment, try this: watch one of the big fight scenes in Gladiator, and alter nothing else about it, but instead of Hans Zimmer’s rip-off of “Mars, God of War,” dub in “Yakkety Sax.”
The first of the three wanderers set upon by the comical criminals is a hulking strongman named Moog (Mark Hannibal). When Philones and his wormy sidekick wander into a tavern (while holding their cloaks over the faces like Bela Lugosi’s stand-in in Plan 9 from Outer Space) and see Moog enjoying a bowl of stew, they decide that this is “the man they’ve been looking for,” then promptly call in their “hilariously” incompetent goon squad. Exactly why they’re looking for Moog is unexplained. It’s not like they’re working for some king that Moog offended, nor do they seem to have any prior experience with the man. No, they just decide that in the entire movie, the one guy they want to pick to randomly fuck with is the gigantic super-strong guy enjoying a bowl of soup. That’s like walking up to spindly ol’ Steve Buscemi and Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, neither of whom you know anything about, and going, “Roethlisberger, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Needless to say, Moog beats the tar out of his attackers, including punching one them repeatedly on the top of the head so that he bounces up and down like a basketball. he whole fight scene is, naturally, accompanied by wacky sound effects. He also has a golden ball that he throws at people. It has the magic power to ricochet off of things until it has taken out like ten bad guys. Deciding that this was perhaps the wrong target to shake down, Philones and his crew head out to the woods, where they stage an equally inept attack on a passing Chinese guy, Chung (Yueh Hwa, on loan as part of the Shaw Bros. co-production deal). Once again, Philones is on the receiving end of a beat down. The bulk of the bandits high tail it, but one — a Chinese woman (minor Shaw Bros. actress Karen Yeh Ling-chi) — stays behind for a little extra fighting. Sadly, no one that Yueh Hwa fights was very good at fight scenes, and so you don’t really get to be all that excited about his inclusion in the film. You might even hope that pitting him against another Shaw Bros. talent would result in at least a few thrills, but Karen Yeh Ling-chi wasn’t an action star. Aside from 14 Amazons (no relation to this movie), she did mostly dramas, romantic comedies, and a few sex movies. She was, however, no stranger to the Shaw Bros. cross-over experiment, having appeared in 1974′s spaghetti western-meets-kungfu film co-production The Stranger and the Gunfighter, which starred Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh.
Having spent a considerable amount of time watching Philones and his sidekick fall out of trees and trip over things, we finally get back to the plot in which the Amazons appear. A gang of the scantily clad women warriors ride into a nearby village and demand to know the whereabouts of local god Dharma It seems that Dharma is the immortal protector of the village, and the Amazons want to wring the secret of him immortality out of him. No sooner do the ladies start sticking spears in the faces of old men then there’s a big explosion and puff of magical smoke announcing the appearance of Dharma — the aforementioned man in a bondage mask and chain mail mini-skirt. He doesn’t so much protect the people and fight off the Amazons as he simply does lure the women away with a sort of “Run, run fast as you can; you can’t catch me; I’m the gingerbread man” taunt. He leads them on a chase and manages to lose them using his superior “jumping while accompanied by slide whistle sound effects” skills.
The villages dutifully march down to Dharma’s mountain throne (Brescia is really getting his money’s worth from this rock quarry he rented for the day) to sort of half-heartedly pay homage to him and thank him for, I guess, sort of rescuing them from the Amazons, even though they never would have had trouble with the Amazons if it hadn’t been for Dharma’s secret immortality fire. Dharma, however, is confused, though he manages to cover his confusion long enough to be a dick about the quality of the offerings being laid at his feet (“No peppers, no protection!”). Also, it looks like Dharma has transformed from a buff, fleet-footed lad into a spindly-legged old dude with a mustache. Luckily, the fact that Dharma always seem to appear off in the distance make it difficult for the cloddish peasants to catch onto the obvious fact that this is not the same Dharma who just rescued them.
It turns out that Dharma isn’t immortal at all. Like the comic book hero The Phantom, Dharma is simply a mask, passed down through the generations from one man to another. The current Dharma (Aldo Bufi Landi, nearing the end of an epic career in Italian exploitation film) has been training a buff replacement named Aru (Aldo Canti), who looks like a somewhat terrifying mix of Jack Nicholson and John Saxon. It was the young apprentice who donned the costume and bravely ran away from the Amazons. And while current Dharma is impressed with his chosen replacement’s enthusiasm and ability to leap mightily off hidden trampolines scattered around the countryside, he’s also worried that people might get suspicious if there are too many Dharma sightings involving too radically different looking Dharmas.
Aru soon meets and falls in love with a wounded Amazonian warrior named Akela (Alfonso Brescia company player and occasional sex film starlet Malisa Longo), though the severity of her sprained ankle is suspect since we see Aru and Dharma bandaging it in one scene, then later that day the bandage is off and she’s frolicking half nude in the local swimmin’ hole with Aru. Having known each other for several minutes, the two healthy young kids fall in love. Alas that they are from different worlds. Just as Aru looks as though he’s going to get some, he hears a shout. Amazons find Akela and bring her back home, while Aru discovers that Dharma has been fighting with the persistent women and now has a spear in the chest. It’s time for Aru to become Dharma full-time and put an end to the Amazon scourge once and for all.
Reading all that back, I confused myself (a surprisingly easy thing to do). “This can’t be right,” I thought. “This sounds awesome, but I distinctly remember the movie being so incredibly boring that I almost gave up on finishing it.” But then the fog cleared, and I remembered that part of what makes Amazons vs. Supermen such a colossal disappointment is that, in summary, it sounds like so much fun. But it isn’t. I can’t even put my finger exactly on why it’s so awful, though deferring to unfunny comedy hijinks certainly goes a long way in explaining things. Even when the action comes — and this movie does have a lot of action — it’s just not paced right. Star Aldo Canti was a stuntman, and he certainly throws himself into the physical aspect of the movie with reckless gusto. He spends nearly every moment of his screen time running, jumping, throwing things, flipping around, and bouncing up and down on hidden trampolines. He certainly gets an A for effort and even execution, but his zest for jumping over things is undercut by by indifferent direction, bad pacing, and too many comical sound effects.
Brescia mishandles all three of the film’s biggest action scenes, though to his creative credit, he manages to mishandle them in different ways. The first really big action setpiece comes when Moog the Strongman, Chung the Martial Artist, and Aru-Dharma meet for the first time in the local city. For starters, after establishing Dharma as some sort of local god (even if we know he’s a false one), it seems odd that the guy could stroll into the city and have no one give a crap or even recognize him. So I guess he’s a god local to that one village, but even so, if there’s a city within an easy walk from the village, you’d think word would get around that there was an all-powerful immortal guy living a mile away. The whole film suffers from a similar lack of scale. The speed with which people travel from one location to another seems to imply that Dharma’s village, the city, and the Amazon’s beautiful rock quarry are like a mile away from each other at the most.
Anyway, never minding Dharma’s lack of celebrity status in town, the scene in which he, Moog, and Chung meet and beat the crap out of yet another bunch of Philones’ goons should be pretty exciting. And it does have its moments, mostly thanks to Aldo Canti’s willingness to fling his body around with total disregard for his own well-being. Yueh Hua should be impressing us, but once again, there’s no one on hand who has any idea how to choreograph martial arts, and there are no stuntmen well suited for engaging in such choreography with Hua. That leaves him little to do other than wave his arms in people’s faces and swing a sword around a bit. As Moog, big Mark Hannibal has even less to do. The scene’s biggest problem is that in its best moments, it is only decent, and yet it seems to go on forever. If you are a gang of villains, and you are trying to take down a masked hero who is standing on a picnic table and jumping up every time you lunge at him, does it really take like ten times for you catch on to what he’s doing? I mean, if you really enjoy watching muscular men jump over a low angle camera (and I know some of you do) over and over for no discernible reason, I reckon this scene will be more interesting. For the rest of us, though, it gets old.
The movie’s second big action scene is the rescue of villagers from the Amazon stronghold by Moog, Chung, and New Dharma. Once again, our heroes take on the Amazons mostly by frantically running away from them and umping off of high places. There’s not a lot to this one really. It’s the third and final action scene that is the film’s most frustrating. In the tradition of Seven Samurai, the three supermen teach the local villagers how to defend themselves against the marauding women — ignoring once again the fact that the only reason the Amazons are attacking this village is because they want to capture Dharma. The final battle is a flurry of sword fighting and trampoline jumping — and there are even those wooden flame throwing tanks! I think the finale is actually pretty exciting — but I can’t be sure, since it’s set at night and Brescia fails to light the scene in a way that makes it possible to see anything that’s happening. The whole thing is a black, muddy mess. About the only thing you can be sure of is when an Amazon is on screen, since they were wearing white. It’s a shame, because like I said, the finale might have otherwise salvaged the film. As it’s presented, though, it’s just the final flip of the bird at the end of an entirely unsatisfying parking lot carnival ride.
Brescia applies the same degree of disinterest to the characters as he does to the action and the lighting. Normally, I wouldn’t claim that one comes to a sword and sandal film, even a Johnny-Come-Lately production like this, looking for sterling examples of intelligent characterization. That’s not what these movies are about. But what the peplum stars of the 60s had (well, some of them), and what is sorely lacking here, is charisma. It didn’t matter if Mark Forest’s character was thinly sketched. It didn’t matter if Kirk Morris was a wooden actor. Both men, and many of the others, brought charisma to the screen, and that helped you roll with their other short-comings. Aldo Canti was, as I said, a game physical performer, but he has absolutely no charisma. Dharma is a terrible bore, even when he’s doing his best somersaults an slide whistle jumps. And Yueh Hua? The dude doesn’t even speak Italian, so he pretty much does nothing but smile and stare at his co-stars lips in an effort to pick up his next cue.
Mark Hannibal, whose previous credits were bit parts in television shows, has a slightly more complex character. Well, it’s an effort to give him a slightly more complex character. It’s executed with such woodeness that one doesn’t really care, but it’s nice that the two only black people int he whole ancient whatever country this is supposed to be managed to find one another and fall in love. Dharma has his Amazon love interest, too, but they have almost no interaction after their initial romp in the waterfall, and I guess maybe there was supposed to be a hint of romance between Yueh Hua and Karen Yeh’s character, but that’s even less developed than Dharma’s love story. I know, I know — who cares about the love story? Well, I say if a movie is going to spend time on it, then the movie should at least try not to make it so boring.
As wooden and uninteresting as Aldo Canti is, at least Alfonso Brescia had the good sense to surround him with experienced hands. Unfortunately, none of them are really given much meat to work with, since the movie seems happiest when it’s spending time with Philones and his hammy cohorts. Seriously, if you don’t like plodding, idiotic attempts at comedy, this movie is going to be as bad for you as it was for me. Still, it’s nice to see some familiar faces.
Magda Konopka, who here plays the Amazon queen obsessed with possessing the secret of Dharma’s immortality, is a beauty you might remember from the equally disappointing Satanik. But we can forgive her that crappy film, since she was also in Hammer Studio’s prehistoric blowout, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and that movie is great. Malisa Longo is another world class Eurocult starlet. She appears in pretty much all of Alfonso Brescia’s sci-fi films except, predictably, The Beast in Space. However, it’s not appearing in an hilariously sleazy XXX space adventure was above her. She also appeared in Tinto Brass’ ham-fisted Nazi-sexploitation film Salon Kitty, as well as the cheap and sleazy Salon Kitty/Ilsa She Wolf of the SS rip-off (yes, I know the implications of that statement) Elsa Fraulein SS. She would star in another Ilsa rip-off, Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg, then go on to appear in skin flicks like Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle, so I don’t know why she wouldn’t have shown up in the buff, even in a non-hardcore role, when Brescia decided to pack up all his War of the Robots props and costumes and use them to make a deliciously daft porno movie. When she wasn’t busy flying around in space or taking off her clothes, she managed to pop up in a bit part in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, and around the same time as Amazons vs Supermen, appeared in War Goddess (aka Le guerriere dal seno nudo), another early 70s Italian sword and sandal film that, through some bizarre deal I can’t fully comprehend, was directed by Britain’s Terence Young — who you might remember as the director of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. Sadly, as with Magda Konopka, this movie doesn’t really have any idea what to do with her, other than hustle her off-screen as quickly as possible so we can split our sides laughing at the latest shenanigans involving Philones.
Karen Yeh was, like Yueh Hua, talent on loan from the Shaw Bros. studio in Hong Kong, who had decided for some reason to partially finance this slapdash snore of an adventure film. I don’t really know too much about her, other than the fact that she wasn’t one of the studio’s major stars. She appeared in a few action films, like the gritty The Teahouse starring Chen Kuan-tai, and Shaolin Handlock starring David Chiang, a few comedies and romances, and the saucy, sleazy Sexy Girls of Denmark. Without a seasoned Shaw Bros. action director on hand (they should have traded one of those as part of the production deal as well), even her scenes with Yueh Hua are slow and awkward. As a character, she’s non-existent otherwise, with only a few lines and no real point.
Fairing slightly better is the last of the film’s bevy of beauties (if this film did nothing else right, it cast a lot of very pretty women and then put them in very tiny togas), American actress Lynne Moody. As Moog’s love interest, she really has little more to do than wander in and hug the big guy, but her character is interesting in part because it’s she who pursues the big man. He’s happy to look at her ass as she walks away, but when it comes to actually making a move, it’s all Lynne Moody. She also appeared in Scream Blacula Scream alongside Pam Grier, the mini-series Roots, and had a number of successful runs on television shows, including recurring characters on Hill Street Blues, That’s My Mama, Soap, E/R, and her longest running role, Knots Landing. She’s a classic sword and sandal starlet — not given a lot to do, but she has such a palpable charm and easy charisma that, as a performer, she rises above the rest. And that smile — my God, that smile!
Amazons vs Supermen came at a time when Shaw Bros., flush with cash and arguably the most powerful production company in the East, was spreading its wings and attempting to find success with overseas productions. Having missed the boat on Bruce Lee, and thus the international success that came to his studio with him, the Shaw Bros. were anxious to make a name for themselves outside the Asian market they already dominated. Five Fingers of Death was a huge success on the American grindhouse circuit, even before anyone had heard of Fist of Fury or The Chinese Connection, so maybe the Shaw Bros. felt like they deserved a higher profile.
Unfortunately, while their co-productions with overseas studios have found fans among cult film aficionados, to mainstream eyes they were shoddy affairs. The Shaws never seemed to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to selecting partners. So you get things like them teaming up with England’s Hammer Studios for Shatter and Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires — impressive, except that Hammer was a dead man walking at that point, nearly out of business and with a devalued reputation beyond repair. At the same time, the Shaws were getting involved with Italian productions like this movie and The Stranger and the Gunfighter, cranked out on the cheap and with little regard for quality (though The Stranger and the Gunfighter, at least, remembered to be entertaining).
As a result, the Shaw product never got the respect they wanted overseas. The precision, energy, and exquisite quality of the Hong Kong productions just never carried over to their co-productions, in which they all too often trusted the quality of the final product to men like Alfonso Brescia. If nothing else, the studio could take solace in the fact that, other than Enter the Dragon, no other Hong Kong studio fared much better entering into co-productions with American and European studios.
Shortly after this movie, Brescia would turn his attention to the slew of space adventures I love so dearly. Now those I will defend. But Amazons vs. Supermen? No, you did me wrong. It’s a lifeless bore, cooked up by a director who didn’t care and even forgot to light the big finale. Hey man, if you can’t afford to shoot at night, then set your finale during the daytime. No one will really care about the time change; they’ll all be too happy they can just see the movie. It’s a shame such an opportunity was wasted and that a potentially fun adventure film got shafted because Brescia wanted to make a sub-Franco and Ciccio style slapstick comedy.
And hell, even if he wanted to make a sword and sandal comedy, all he really needed to do was copy Colossus and the Amazon Queen. That movie already had amazons and was already a comedy. The difference, I suppose, is that Vittorio Sala apparently had some idea how to make a comedy (that idea: “point the camera at Rod Taylor and let him ham it up”). Alfonso Brescia did not.
You let me down, Brescia. After all the time I spent defending your oddball space movies, you served me up a movie with everything I should like, but in a dish that was impossible to swallow. I forgot what I was watching where people were confronted with something that sounded awesome but ended up being terrible, and they summarized it with the question, “I don’t know! Why does cheese taste great on Italian food but it sucks on Chinese food?” Amazons vs. Supermen is definitely cheese on Chinese food.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: Italy, Hong Kong | Starring: Aldo Canti, Mark Hannibal, Yueh Hua, Malisa Longo, Aldo Bufi Landi, Magda Konopka, Genie Woods, Kirsten Gille, Riccardo Pizzuti, Lyn Moody, Karen Yeh | Screenplay: Alfonso Brescia, Aldo Crudo | Director: Alfonso Brescia | Music: Franco Micalizzi | Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis, Giorgio Carlo Rossi | Original Title: Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte | Alternate Titles: Barbarian Revenge, Return of the Barbarian Women, Super Stooges vs the Wonder Women
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
Time after time, I’ve sat down to be disillusioned, or to wonder how I could have liked such lowbrow fare when I could have spent my time brushing up on classic works of literature, only to find myself hooting with glee and running about the room in unabashed glee as I witnessed some fantastical orgy of ninja gore or oiled-up barbarians. Think of it as my childlike sense of wonder, if you are feeling generous, or shake your head in sorrow as you realize that I did indeed completely stop growing mentally at age fourteen.
Still, one must assume that even I have my limits, and there must be a film at there that I loved as a kid and would not still love as an adult. I was told countless times by many people I trust that the 1979 fantasy film Arabian Adventure would be that film. Because make no mistake about it — I loved this film when I was it in the theaters. Looking back on it, I could remember very little. I don’t think I ever saw it again after that first time. All I could recall about the film was a genie, something about Mickey Rooney inside a giant golden clockwork robot, and magic carpet dogfights. Heck, I didn’t even remember that it starred venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. I have no idea why I didn’t remember him but did remember Mickey Rooney. I don’t think I was a big Mickey Rooney fan in my youth. In fact, I think I’ve only ever seen two Mickey Rooney films in my entire life.
Anyway, for years I snooped around, hoping to discover that Arabian Adventure had suddenly appeared on home video in some format that wouldn’t require me to shell out $30 for someone’s crappy VHS bootleg with a label hand-written in pencil. But for one reason or another, it always seemed to be MIA, and so I was left celebrating the merits of the film while all those around me who had seen it more recently made with the ominous proclamations of, “You’re going to be disappointed with that one, chief.” Impossible! I mean — seriously: magic carpet dog fights!
Finally, after years of waiting outside a temple, seated in the lotus position and refusing both food and water, ignoring the rain, the snow, the scorching heat, the jackals, the police telling me to move along, after all of that, one day I performed my hopeful little search on Netflix, and low and behold, there it was. Arabian Adventure! Needless to say, I had to bump certain classics, like Kickboxer IV (oh, the things I’ll do for Michelle Krasnoo…the things I’d let her do to me…), a little lower on the list, but it was worth it to move this long-awaited gem from my youth to the top of the queue. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. Would Arabian Adventure prove to be, as has been predicted by soothsayers and friends with my best interests at heart, a massive disappointment, forcing me to call into question everything I’ve ever held dear, permanently casting a gloomy shadow of resentment and melancholy over my childhood? Or would my seemingly indefatigable ability to pleased by damn near anything triumph, reinforcing the idea that I see the world through the rose-colored lenses of a child and also have the brain of a seven-year-old?
Well, I’ve rewatched the movie now, and let me say this: magic carpet dogfights.
Yes, it’s true; my bottomless lack of taste (I’m watching Navy SEALS as I write this) and sound judgment wins again! I enjoyed Arabian Adventure to no end, reveled in every clunky special effect, thrilled to scenes of guys gliding around on magic carpets suspended by wires, and looked with the kind eyes of an old friend upon the visage of Mickey Rooney running around inside not one, but three giant golden clockwork robots. And then there’s venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as the evil caliph Alquazar, doing his usual shtick and sporting a big ol’ mustache. And then there’s a kid with a monkey, a beautiful princess, a dashing prince, a scheming fat guy, some chick who lives inside a sapphire, Peter Cushing as the world’s least convincing Arab, and did I mention that this movie has magic carpet dogfights? Yes, I did.
And what makes my adoration of this film all the more shameful is that it has all these things, but doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. The prince and princess are boring. Mickey Rooney is irritating and seems to have been bitten by a radioactive community theater performer and thus been imbued with all the proportional over-acting and hamming abilities that come with such a position in life. The special effects,while ambitious, are rarely any good. The entire movie plays like a fan-made “greatest hits of the Arabian Nights” highlight reel. And none of that seems to matter to me.
So here’s the deal. The film begins with young Majeed (Puneet Sira) and his pet monkey arriving in a matte painting of the ancient Arabian city of Jhador, populated primarily by second unit stock footage of camels and guys sitting around in doorways. Majeed has arrived in the middle of sweeping events. People are plotting the overthrow of the ruthless Caliph Dracula (venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee), while Caliph Dracula himself is plotting to recover the mystical Rose of Elil, a sacred artifact that will, in some vague way, grant him the ultimate power to rule over the world, or something to that effect. Artifacts that grant you the power to rule the world are rarely clear on exactly how they plan to go about it. They are, in that way, very much like your modern politician — all full of promises and rhetoric, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, the promises tend to fall apart. But that’s small potatoes to worry about for a guy who has somehow managed to imprison his own soul in a fire pit and spends his free time taunting it. For its part, the soul spends most of its time being sort of petulant and whiny and generally making you understand why Caliph Dracula imprisoned it in the first place.
Unable to retrieve the rose himself, for it must be plucked by a pure and righteous hand, Caliph Dracula enlists the aid of dashin’ Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias), who has fallen in love with Princess Zuliera (Emma Samms) despite having never actually seen or met her, and who seems completely oblivious to the fact that Caliph Dracula is evil and enjoys crushing his subjects beneath the iron fist of his mad tyranny. But he looks damn good in his swashbuckling Arabian prince outfit. Majeed ends up in possession of a magic gem that contains a trapped sorceress (Capucine) who, grateful for him releasing her, grants Majeed three life-saving wishes. Through typical movie convolution, this results in Majeed suddenly appearing on the back of a magic carpet piloted by dashin’ Prince Hasan and Khasim (Milo O’Shea), a spy assigned by Caliph Dracula to accompany dashin’ Prince Hasan and stab him in the back (literally) once he has the rose. Needless to say, Khasim is vexed that this half-naked young rascal has suddenly appeared out of nowhere on their magic carpet, and so he spends the bulk of their flight trying to knock him off.
Their quest for the magic rose leads them on a variety of adventures that involve a murderous genie (big Milton Reid, sporting weird googly eyes), a trio of fire-breathing monsters that end up being controlled by Mickey Rooney, and a lake of guys who try to grab your legs. As far as trials go, I have to admit, I’ve seen more challenging. I mean, Hercules had to clean stables that hadn’t been cleaned in dozens of years, and dashin’ Prince Hasan has to defeat Mickey Rooney? That hardly seems fair — especially when Majeed does all the work. I mean, maybe the psychotic laughing genie would have posed a threat if he had been able to hit the broadside of a mosque with his magic firebolts, but he proves incapable of hitting a squirming fat guy all of five feet away — and then he gets defeated when dashin’ Prince Hasan tips over a bottle! That’s Scooby Doo quality adventure right there. The quests get more challenging when Khasim pulls his power play. Before too long, dashin’ Prince Hasan and Majeed find themselves leading a revolution, rescuing a princess, fighting with Caliph Dracula in a lake of fire, and engaging in magic carpet dogfights with Caliph Dracula’s all-carpet air force of guy’s who primary skill seems to be to wave their swords awkwardly at dashin’ Prince Hasan, while he waves his sword awkwardly at them, causing hem to fall off their magic carpets. Someone should look into seat belts or something for those things.
Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist — one of my absolute favorite movie sites on the web — said of Arabian Adventure, “It is hard to imagine any but the least discriminating of viewers — of any age — really enjoying this film.” And I can’t really debate her on this matter. Instead, about all I can do is admit that it has been my goal to live the sort of life and put forth the sort of opinions that would result in my eventual tombstone reading, “America’s Least Discerning Viewer.” My other choice for an epitaph was, “It Took a Dozen Texas Marshals to Finally Bring Him Down.” Anyway, I freely admit that pretty much all of the criticisms that someone could lay at the feet of Arabian Adventure stick with the tenacity of an extra-gooey Wacky Wall Walker fresh out of the gum machine capsule. None of these should come as any shock if you are familiar with the writer-director team who brought you this movie. Because the last couple of movies they brought you were just as bad or even worse (and yeah — I liked them, too).
Director Kevin Conner and screenwriter Brian Hayles are responsible for a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired fantasy adventure films: At the Earth’s Core, starring Doug McClure, Caroline Munro, and Peter Cushing (and featuring one of the single greatest lines and deliveries in movie history: “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!”), and the one-two punch of The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot, both starring just Doug McClure. Hayles and Conner (they toured with Seals and Croft, I think) also made Warlords of Atlantis, which stars Doug McClure but is not based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story . It does often get me confused when I think it’s War Gods of the Deep, which featured Vincent Price and Tab Hunter — and buddy, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure. Oliver Tobias, also, is no Doug McClure.
Anyway, the films of Conner and Hayles are almost universally reviled by everyone except, apparently, me. And I have loved every last one of them. Even The People that Time Forgot. Even Arabian Adventure, though it could have really used some Doug McClure. In fact, given that the wooden dullness of our prince and princess is one of Arabian Adventure‘s greatest weaknesses, the film could have been improved immensely if dashin’ Prince Hasan had been played by Doug McClure and Princess Zuleira played by Caroline Munro. But I guess Doug McClure was too rugged and Joe Don Baker-esque to play a dashing prince (since he specialized in playing cool Americans in British films), and Caroline Munro had already been an Arabian princess in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Still, man that would have been awesome, or at least more awesome than Oliver Tobias and Emma Samms — both of whom look the part but offer very little in the way of charisma.
As bad as Conner and Hayles’ previous movies may have been, at least each of them had something that could keep people from being totally cranky about watching them. Land that Time Forgot enjoyed the services of Doug McClure and features WWI German U-boat guys fighting dinosaurs, and that’s enough for me. People that Time Forgot enjoys the services of Doug McClure with a caveman beard and Sarah Douglas in expedition jodhpurs. And At the Earth’s Core? My Lord! It’s got Doug McClure fighting night immobile paper mache monsters, Caroline Munro in a loin cloth waving a knife around, and Peter Cushing in one of the most hilarious “absent-minded professor” roles ever. Plus, it has the line “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!” — which is bested only by Cushing’s line in Horror Express where, indignant at the suggestion that he could have been possessed by the monster stalking the train, exclaims, “Monsters?!?! We’re British!”
Arabian Adventure does not have the benefit of charismatic players like Munro, McClure, or Peter Cushing — which is an odd thing to say, since it features Peter Cushing. Cushing is one of a handful of “special guest stars,” which is a nice way of saying that they owed Conner some sort of a favor or something. Cushing appears in a bit role as a holy man imprisoned in Caliph Dracula’s dungeon, and as an Arab holy man, Peter Cushing is a very convincing 19th century British scientist. The other guest stars — Mickey Rooney and Milo O’Shea — have larger parts and even pass themselves off fairly believably as Arabs (by the standards of fat Irish guys pretending to be Arabs), but each one seems intent on outdoing the other in the field of hammy over-acting. I suppose that’s good, because no one else seemed all that interested in putting any effort into their parts. Actually, that’s not true. I firmly believe that Oliver Tobias tried really hard. But he’s the film’s Keanu Reeves. He’s earnest, good-looking,and really wants to do a good job; he just can’t. But at least the script gives him some chances to shine, even if he fails as an actor to rise tot he occasion. He gets to have badly executed sword fights, fly around on magic carpets, jump over stuff, and tip over a genie bottle. Poor Emma Samms is saddled with a character so thinly written that the poor actress was doomed to be boring before the first frame was ever shot. Her princess is a sheltered woman who has never left the confines of Caliph Dracula’s palace. She has nothing to do but walk from room to room, and eventually sit around and listen to Caliph Dracula’s imprisoned soul complain about being imprisoned. Eventually, dashin’ Prince Hasan rescues her. Or really, Majeed rescues her and dashin’ Prince Hasan happens to be int he same general area and of legal age, so what are you gonna do?
Speaking of which, although I apparently didn’t mind them as a kid, as an adult I usually hate movies starring children. I don’t care for children in general, so watching a movie about one just seems pointless to me. But young Indian actor Puneet Sira seems possessed of all the charisma and charm that is lacking in Samms and Tobias. It’s hard not to compare him to Sabu, the young Indian star of films like Arabian Nights and Thief of Baghdad. So let me compare him to Sabu. As a Sabu stand-in, he’s exceptional, and we should be thankful that Conner at least took the time to find a likable and talented child instead of just casting Sabu, then in his…oh. Umm, then in his grave. OK, backing away from whatever Old Man Sabu joke I was hoping to make…
Which leaves us with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Although his character is called Alquazar in this film, I prefer to refer to him as Caliph Dracula for two reasons. First, I know doing stuff like that irritates venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee (who I’m sure reads this site all the time) to no end, and any chance I have to irritate venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee is a chance I can’t let pass me by. Second, he basically gives the exact same performance he gave in Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Dracula AD 1972, and the Fu Manchu movies (they apparently let him keep the mustache from those films, because he has it on here), and honestly — most of the movies he’s ever been in. Don’t get me wrong — he does it very well most of the time, but it does tend to get a tad familiar. His character here is given very little to do other than wait around in his lair while his minion does all the hard work (a la Dracula AD 1972), so venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee doesn’t really seem to be giving it his all.
Eventually, he gets in a really clumsy battle with dashin’ Prince Hasan, then chases Majeed up a rock, but that’s about it. Oh, and he turns a fat guy into a frog. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it very much, and once again, I can’t help but think how much better this film would have been if they’d cast someone else — Vincent Price, for example. Oh, now there’s a movie! Vincent Price, Doug McClure, and Caroline Munro! If I had myself a magic sapphire genie, that would be my first wish. My second wish would be that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee wrote me an email about how my jokes hurt his feelings, and then he ends the email with a sad face emoticon. Of course, my third wish would be that George Clooney was my friend. We’re both Kentucky boys, after all. Since Doug McClure is, sadly, no longer with us, I’d let Clooney be in my remake of Arabian Adventure. I don’t know who I’d get for Alquazar. Luckily, Caroline Munro, now nearly 60, is every bit as hot and talented as she was in her 20s. Maybe I could cast Alec Baldwin as Alquazar. Or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee!
So you may be asking yourself how I can spend the bulk of a review talking about how crappy a film is, then use that as criteria for concluding that I love the movie. Hey, this is Teleport City, baby, and the scientific method simply does not apply. And yeah, Arabian Adventure fails on a lot of levels for a lot of people. But not for me, because I had as much fun watching it today as I had watching nigh those many years ago. The lack of charisma in the leads doesn’t bug me. The fact that venerated horror film icon is giving a “just collecting a paycheck until I can go on to better films like Howling II and An Eye For An Eye” performance doesn’t bother me. The weak effects don’t bother me. The film is childish and clunky, and I love it. I love the magic carpet dogfights. I love the crummy sword fights. I love all the opulent but obvious matte painting backgrounds.
Speaking of obviously painted backgrounds, now is as good a time as any to breach the subject of the special effects. In 1977, as you may have heard, Star Wars was released upon the unsuspecting masses, and whatever its merits as a film (and I’m not trying to seem edgy by being a Star Wars hater — I loved it then and I love it still today), there’s no real credible way to deny the profound impact it had on special effects. It represented a quantum leap forward, and while you can say that nothing was ever the same after that, the fact is that there were a few stragglers that came in post-Star Wars but with very pre-Star Wars effects. Sometimes this had to do with the effects supervisor. Sometimes it had to do with the budget. In the case of Arabian Adventure, I’m pretty sure it was both.
Like most sci-fi and fantasy films that came in the wake of Star Wars, Arabian Adventure billed itself as a Star Wars like special effects extravaganza. If Star Wars was like watching Harry Houdini make an elephant vanish, Arabian Adventure was like watching a clumsy kid try to pull off a trick from his Blackstone the Magician illusion set. It’s cute, even charming in its way, but also sort of awkward and embarrassing.
Special effects supervisor George Gibbs shoots for the moon and ends up a fair distance from his target. He was early in his career, having worked previously with director Kevin Conner on Warlords of Atlantis, and then doing some model work on Richard Donner’s Superman before moving on to this film. Hamstrung by a small budget and limited resources, I think he intended to rely heavily on the gee whiz quaintness of his approach and on the untrained eyes of young children. The most ambitious effects are the magic carpets, realized through a combination of rear-screen projection, hoisting guys around on wires, and then letting little plastic guys tear around scale models of the city. None of these work terribly well, but there is a charm to watching little action figures on flying carpets wobble about in between scale model minarets. The other big effects are the genie — which is simple superimposition and animation, and sahib Rooney’s giant monsters, which are miniatures that rely on forced perspective shots that are sometimes effective and sometimes make Majeed look like a giant.
Still, I always appreciate a crude effect, and Arabian Adventure is endearing in its unwillingness to live within its means. This film certainly didn’t kill Gibbs’ career, and he went on to create all sorts of wildly uneven visual or effects for everything from 1980′s Flash Gordon to Conan the Barbarian. Obviously, the got really good at his craft pretty quickly, and he went on to work on films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Brazil, Alien 3, and more recently, From Hell and Doom. His work in Arabian Adventure is without a doubt a throwback to effects that probably weren’t even considered all that good in 1969, let alone 1979, but like I said — they’re sort of cute. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked on the effects for this film went on to very successful, and in some cases award-winning, careers. It goes without saying that none of those awards were for Arabian Adventure.
I have a tremendous weakness (one of many) for fantastic romanticized visions of ancient Arabia, and as pedestrian as some may find it, Arabian Adventure manages to satisfy the kid in me. I mean, don’t misunderstand — this film is nowhere near the caliber of the old Arabian Nights film, or either the Douglas Fairbanks or Sabu versions of The Thief of Badhdad. And it’s not in the league of the 1960s Sinbad movies with effects by Ray Harryhausen. But as dumb Saturday matinee fare, I still enjoy Arabian Adventure despite the sundry flaws. It would make a perfect double bill with Sinbad of the Seven Seas starring Lou Ferrigno.
Release Year: 1979 | Country: England | Starring: Puneet Sira, Oliver Tobias, Christopher Lee, Milo O’Shea, Emma Samms, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Mickey Rooney, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Brian Hayle | Director: Kevin Conner | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Ken Thorne | Producer: John Dark
I think that one of the most forbidding things about Bollywood cinema for those Westerners who might dare to sample it is its apparent hostility to Western notions of genre. For armchair adventurers through world popular cinema like ourselves, such notions normally provide a reliable safe harbor, even when we’re struggling through the most alien of terrains. While a given country’s cinematic repertoire might present us with some disorienting cultural peculiarities, we generally feel secure in the knowledge that we can find within it such universals as horror movies featuring ghosts and monsters, thrillers pitting detectives against masked killers, and adventure films showcasing the exploits of costumed superheroes — any of which we can use as a familiar jumping off point from which to explore those aspects of the landscape with which we are less acquainted.
Once you’re done with the knowledge-based cherry picking, there are a wide variety of factors that come into play in deciding which are the potential gems among the selection of five dollar Bollywood dvds at your local Indian grocer or favorite online vendor. Familiar names or faces in the cast or crew of a film are always helpful, but there are also certain thematic or conceptual lures that might serve to tip the scales. In the case of Dharam-Veer, for instance, it certainly didn’t hurt that the cast included the stunning Zeenat Aman–and while its male lead, Dharmendra, isn’t one of my favorite actors, I do harbor a lot of good will toward him thanks to his co-starring role–with Amitabh Bachchan–in the classic Sholay, as well as his appearance in other highly enjoyable films such as Ankhen and Alibaba aur 40 Chor.
Asoka is a pretty funny guy to know absolutely nothing about. In terms of ancient world history, he was a man the caliber of Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan or Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of China. And like these men who were more familiar to me, Asoka embodies all that is noble and ruthless, admirable and despicable, about men who live lives of epic scale. These complexities in great men — “great” referring to the scope of the accomplishments and the impact they had on the world around them more than being a description of their demeanor or potential as a drinking buddy — make for superb cinema if you are willing to deal with these complexities. Many times, a movie is not, and you get a rather shallow, white-washed impression of the man (Julius Caesar more so than any of the others, at least in the West).