Colossus and the Amazon Queen

People unfamiliar with genre films sometimes have this weird idea that the movies all carry themselves with an air of complete seriousness, that a particular type of film can’t possibly be aware of its own cliches and pitfalls until some smarmy mainstream director steps in and makes a spoof. That spy movies, even James Bond, can’t be aware of their own absurdity. Or that horror has never noticed its own cliches. The fact of the matter is that genre films are far more aware of their own short-comings and trappings than most mainstream films. For better or for worse, genre films — science fiction, horror, sexploitation, action, and so forth – have been self-referential and satirizing themselves since the early days. The Italian sword and sandal films that were so popular during the first half of the 1960s were no exception.

Since peplum films were a blend of all sorts of ingredients, including comedy, doing a satire of the genre seems somewhat redundant. What’s the point of spoofing something that isn’t meant to be all that serious to begin with? Well, redundancy never stopped anyone — especially in film — from doing it anyway. While the peplum comedies are not as plentiful as, say, the peplum horror or peplum sci-fi films, there’s still a couple out there that tried to up the yuks while delivering a solid action outing. Maciste against Hercules in the Veil of Woe gave it a try in 1961 with good-natured sport Kirk Morris and a plot about pro wrestling promoters who travel back in time. Unfortunately, the movie stars comic duo (and I use the word “comic” as in “painfully and profoundly unfunny”) of Franco and Ciccio. More palatable for the distinct lack of Franco and Ciccio is the peplum spoof Colossus and the Amazon Queen. Instead of a comedy team whose shtick is about as funny as inviting Roberto Benigni around to do three hours of improv while he boils your crotch in a tub of sulfuric acid, you get a load of gorgeous women, gorgeous Rod Taylor in a saucy little tunic, and peplum pretty boy Ed Fury.

Born Edmund Holovchik in June of 1928, Fury started out as a body builder, but he took beefcake to cheesecake levels with lots of spicy “naked haunches” type photos with him being caught up in fishing nets and other goofy scenarios in “physical culture” magazines. I always wondered what must have been going on for a naked bodybuilder to get tangled up in someone’s fishing net, but then I quickly realize such quandaries are best simply accepted as a gift from Poseidon. Fury brought the same sense of goofiness to a lot of his sword and sandal roles, which include such films as Ursus (1961), Ursus in the Land of Fire (1963), Samson Against the Sheik (1962), Ursus in the Valley of the Lions (1961), and The Mighty Ursus (1961). Obviously, the guy was really into Ursus — but what young man doesn’t go through an Ursus phase? It was Fury’s somewhat silly approach to the muscleman character that makes some people love him while other can’t stand him.

His acting career started on the stage, and he later moved into small roles in films like Athena (alongside Steve Reeves), Abbot and Costello Go To Mars, and Wild Women of Wongo. In 1960, he packed his bags and set sail for Italy, where he made his sword and sandal debut in the wild peplum comedy Colossus and the Amazon Queen. It was the first of the peplum comedies out of the gate, and it manages to balance the humor and the action fairly well, without excelling at either one. Certainly there are more exciting sword and sandal adventures out there, and funnier comedies. But it’s not a bad blend, and the movie is all the funnier for its willingness to exploit the genre’s growing reputation for homoeroticism and rather limited roles for women. Not that it takes a brain surgeon or a trained master of film criticism to recognize homoerotic undertones in films full of naked, sweaty men wrestling with each other, doing that Spartacus “gripping the forearm” handshake, and getting greased-up and stripped-down then bent over a table covered in spikes while being whipped mercilessly by some foppish henchman.

Since you can’t really expect subtlety in the action of a peplum film, you shouldn’t expect any subtlety from the comedy or the self-referential jokes. Taken for what it is within the confines of the peplum world, this is a clever film that plays off the gender clichés already emerging in the genre. The ladies of sword and sandal films almost never do anything other than get rescued, swoon, faint, engage in erotic tribal dancing, or make strange proclamations and predictions. The important stuff, like throwing rocks at monsters, plotting dastardly schemes in the throne room (OK, some women — you know, the evil ones with black hair and black hearts — sometimes get to take part in throne room scheming), and pushing over columns, is left up to the men. In Colossus and the Amazon Queen it’s the women who perform tasks like hunting and fighting and belching while the men all mince about and need to be protected. It’s also one of the only peplum films to feature a hero who shouts, “Yahoo!” in a high-pitched voice.

Colossus and the Amazon Queen shares a plot for just about nine million movies in which a society of strong women dominate a bunch of men. Almost every one of them involves a strapping hero and his men who arrive and upset the balance of things, with the women eventually admitting the equality (or superiority) of the men when they all have to team up and fight some band of brigands. The film decided to have some fun with things by turning everything upside down while also delivering sexy peplum adventure. The city of the Amazons is a subversion of everything people expected from peplum. Effeminate men prance around and swap tips on getting the whites whiter when doing laundry. When the women return from hunting and killing, the men all giggle and run home to engage in arguments with their wives in which the wife complains that the men don’t understand the value of a hard day’s work while the men whine, “You think cooking and cleaning all day isn’t hard work?” Eventually, some marauding pirates threaten to upset the Amazonian society, and the two sexes must unite on equal ground in order to combat this common enemy. Luckily, Ed Fury and Rod Taylor are there to help the dames come around. All things considered, I bet the ancient Greeks would have loved it. It’s a classic farce (well, maybe not classic), and it would have given everyone a break from The Frogs or that dreary Antigone.

Part of the clue that this isn’t going to be your standard peplum adventure — even if it still includes all the requisite ingredients — is the fact that director Vittorio Sala wasn’t among the “stable” of regular peplum directors. Not that the stable had fully formed by 1960, but most of the directors who were making peplum films made quite a few before moving on to westerns or spy films once the sword and sandal well dried up. Sala, however, only made the one peplum film, and as an outsider he probably found it easier to lampoon what he saw. Similar effects were achieved when Mario Bava was hired for Hercules in the Haunted World, but while Bava isn’t known as a peplum director, he’d at least worked as a cinematographer on sword and sandal films before helming one himself. Sala never had nor ever would have again any experience with the genre, so his is a unique point of view. He also made a couple Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon inspired beach party movies, which helps explain the goofball festive feel surrounding most of what goes on in Colossus and the Amazon Queen. Beach party movies always have at least one bodybuilder character, anyway, so it makes sense that this movie possesses a very strong “beach party” feel.

Although more than a few fans of peplum films have been put off by Fury’s slapstick approach to his heroic roles, within the confines of this movie it works well. He is a more human, more vulnerable sword and sandal swashbuckler. But everyone is outclassed by what may be the only case of an internationally famous and somewhat respectable actor fulfilling the role of the hero’s little buddy. Rod Taylor stars as sashaying, womanizing con-artist Pirro, quite happy to pretend he’s a subservient male while he seduced young, impressionable Amazons behind the back of the ever-watchful queen. Just as the presence of Christopher Lee in Hercules in the Haunted World gave that film an air of sophistication above it’s contemporaries, Taylor’s comical turn here makes the film seem more important that it really is. He’s best for his turns in films like The Time Machine, World Without End, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. At least one of those films, World Without End, contains a similar theme about a society where the women are healthy and energetic and the men are milquetoast and weak. And The Time Machine lets Taylor spend even more time amid a cast of beauties in tiny little mini-togas. But only Colossus and the Amazon Queen puts that handsome hunk of man in a mini-tunic of his own.

The requisite tribal dancing number is one that can only be described as fabulous. I’m guessing with that many dandy lads around, they must have one hell of a Broadway-esque production company going on the island of the Amazons. This particular dance number is possibly the weirdest, goofiest, and funniest of any peplum dance number. Golden men in loin cloths with little dangly bits up front start things off with some spriteful leaping about, after which the chicks sashay onto the floor for a saucy go-go number that culminates in all the scantily clad ladies writhing around on the floor while Rod Taylor reflects on his good fortune. I won’t even get into the guy who looks like a white Sammy Davis Jr. who, upon being chosen as a mate for a couple women, purrs “Y’all is my womens now,” with a sassy Southern queen drawl.

For those who find the peplum genre a little much to swallow, this may be a good action-packed way to still get a taste of the fun. It’s kind of similar in spirit to In Like Flint – it delivers all the goofs on the genre you want, but without disrespecting anything or forgetting that it still needs to be a good genre film. Ed Fury handles himself very well in the stunt sequences. Like Gordon Scott (but less serious) or Kirk Morris, Fury is leaner than Steve Reeves or Reg Park, which means he does less strongman type stuff and more flipping and jumping about. His shtick may have ruined more serious films, but it’s right at home here amid this world of dominant female warriors and the men who do their washing.

More than anything else, the flip-flopping of traditional gender roles gave the makers of the film a chance to show even more sexy women in tiny tunics while also packing in dozens of over-the-top gay man caricatures. No one walks out of Colossus and the Amazon Queen stroking their chin and going, “You know, it really made me think about gender and gender roles in society.” If you have to come up with any one thing that truly epitomizes this movie, it wouldn’t be anything about a bold challenging of genre conventions. It would, instead, be Ed Fury howling “Yahooo!” as he graces the world with a buffalo shot while swinging from the rafters.

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