Monthly Archives: February 2012

Who Was Solomon King?

Saul-and-David

The Old Testament has provided the inspiration for many works of art, from cinema, sculpture and painting, to classical music. In the world of film it has inspired Hollywood epics such as The Ten Commandments and Solomon and Sheba, big budget international co-productions like Sodom and Gomorrah and The Bible…in the Beginning and lower-tier Italian sword and sandal flicks such as David and Goliath and The Old Testament.

In the early 1960s, Marcello Baldi made four films – a short film and three features – depicting various stories from the Old Testament. They were shot on location in Spain and on sets at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, and were Italo-Spanish co-productions.

The short film, Genesis (1963), was 34 minutes and depicted the Creation (via paintings), and then re-reacted with actors the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

Jacob, the Man Who Fought With God (1963 – I patriarchi della bibbia) took up the story, with Abraham and Lot in the Promised Land, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the tale of Jacob and his conflict with his wildman brother Esau.

The film’s reverence is closer in atmosphere to Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew than Hollywood epics or Italian pepla. It was shot on location near Madrid – the landscape looks like the area at Alto De Morcuera – and is poetic, realistic, if a bit plodding and longwinded at 105 minutes, in its telling of a story that isn’t exactly brimming with action.

Saul David (1964) is much better and is perhaps the best of Baldi’s adaptations, thanks to its good performances and large-scale battle scenes. Gianni Garko played harpist shepherd David and Norman Wooland played despot King Saul. Wooland is a monstrosity, his overbearing performance brilliantly dominating the film. Future spaghetti western star Garko is good too, as Saul’s rival for the throne of Israel. Interiors and city sets were at Cinecittà, while location work was lensed in Almeria, southern Spain, on the same deserts and sierras used in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ westerns, which were shot there in the same period. Sergio Sollima (as ‘George Higgins III’) worked on the film’s dialogue, and actors such as Milo Quesada, Antonio Molino Rojo and Aldo Sambrell propped up the supporting cast. It runs 114 minutes, but is never dull.

The Great Leaders (1965 – Il grandi condottieri) brought the series to a close with a 105 minute two-parter. Francisco Perez-Dolz is the film’s credited director, but Baldi oversaw the production. The first episode had Gideon (Ivo Garrani) advised by a mysterious stranger (Fernando Rey) on how to defeat the Midianites and become King of Israel – with a bit of help from Jehovah, of course. Expansive, arid location shooting in Almeria again makes this look tremendous. The second story, the sorrowful tale of Samson (Anton Geesink) and Delilah (Rosalba Neri), is closer in style and content to what we expect from Italian pepla, with location scenes even shot at Tor Caldara, Lazio (as well as in Almeria and Cinecittà). Samson is up against the Philistines, his only weapon the jawbone of an ass. Paolo Gozlino was an excellent villain in Gaza and Ana Maria Noe was well cast as Samson’s mother. If Saul and David is the best film of Baldi’s series, then this one packs the greatest emotional punch.

Marcello Baldi
Baldi’s films were shot on a grand scale, with dozens of extras and convincing sets and costumes. Giacomo Alberione was billed as ‘Biblical Consultant’ and he seems to have carried out his task well. Teo Usuelli provided the music for each film and the magnificent scores to Saul and David and The Great Leadersare tremendously moving, lifting the drama several notches.

These little-seen epics are now available on DVD in a boxed set called, appropriately enough, Epics of the Old Testament. None of them are fantastic picture quality (the blurb claims they are ‘digitally re-mastered’), though they are presented in 1.85:1 widescreen (they should be in 2.35:1 Techniscope). The set also includes Irving Rapper’s Italian-Yugoslavian production Joseph and his Brethren (1960 – Sold into Egypt) which was a retelling of dreamer Joseph and his ‘coat of many colours’. The anglo guest star here is Robert Morley, as Egyptian Potifar. Geoffrey Horne starred as Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery into Egypt, and the cast includes Vira Silenti, Belinda Lee, Arturo Dominici (as usual, the villain) and Terence Hill as Benjamin. It also seems the English language dubbers were having some fun here too.  When an Ishmaelite calls over two of his henchmen – ‘Mohamed! Ali!’ – it is perhaps the only instance of a world champion boxer being namechecked in a Biblical epic.

The set is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US

All the titles are also available separately.

And so as to the identity of Solomon King. The stories told in the Old Testament also inspired one of my favourite pieces of choral music, ‘Zadok the Priest’, by George Frederic Handel. After over a minute’s build-up, the opening lyric to this Coronation anthem reveals:

‘Zadok the Priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King

And all the people rejoiced!’

Read more about Italian Biblical adaptations, including The Bible…in the Beginning, The Gospel According to St Matthew, Esther and the King, Moses the Lawgiver and Sodom and Gomorrah, in Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult.

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Requiem Apache

Last of the Renegades
Before Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns were worldwide hits in the 1960s, there had already been a hugely successful European overhaul of the American western format by a series of West German westerns shot in the ‘wild west’ of Yugoslavia and based on the works of Karl May. His frontier novels depicted the adventures of Mascalero Apache warrior Winnetou and his white ‘blood brother’, Old Shatterhand. In other stories, such as Among Vultures, Winnetou is teamed with another hero, Old Surehand. When 11 of the stories were filmed in the 1960s, Winnetou was played by French actor Pierre Brice, Lex Barker was Old Shatterhand and Stewart Granger was Old Surehand. The first film, The Treasure of Silver Lake (1962) was a massive success – it was the most profitable film of all time in West Germany, outgrossing even the James Bond films, and is still popular today. The second film, Winnetou the Warrior, aka Apache Gold (1963) with Mario Adorf as the villain Frederick Santer, was an even bigger hit and remains the best of the adaptations. The series continued with Last of the Renegades (1964), which had perhaps the best cast – it featured Anthony Steel, Karin Dor, Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill in supporting roles. Among Vultures (1964 – aka Frontier Hellcat) saw Granger take over from Barker as the hero, and Elke Somer, Götz George, Sieghardt Rupp, Terence Hill and Walter Barnes cropped up in the cast.

Amazon UK is currently an interesting four-film set of German ‘Winnetou’ westerns. These films have never had an official release in the UK since they played in theatres in the 1960s. The release is a Danish collector’s edition, is good value and comprises:

The uncut, restored version of Last of the Renegades, in 2.35:1 CinemaScope, with a full English language track.

The uncut, restored version of Among Vultures, in 2.35:1, with a full English language track.

The uncut version of The Treasure of Silver Lake, in 2.35:1. This one is mostly in English, but there are several brief dialogues in German only, with no English language subtitles. I much prefer the shorter International release of this film, which is missing the bits of comedy from Ralf Wolter’s irascible scout Sam Hawkens and Eddie Arent’s butterfly collector, the Duke of Glockenspiel. If you look on Euro-western collector’s DVD sites, you’ll find the abridged international print easily enough. This DVD release is still an excellent version of the film however and the diversions into German don’t spoil this magnificent Euro-western too much – especially given that the film features unsubtitled Indian dialect mixed in there too and the plot is straightforward enough to follow.

Winnetou-und-Shatterhand

Winnetou the Warrior (1963) is also the uncut German version, in 2.35:1, but this differs considerably from the English language release. Much was cut for the International print which is now pacier, with no diversions for comedy. The German version runs 107 minutes, the English language release 87. The full German language version features Chris Howland as an effete, bumbling English photographer, Lord Tuff-Tuff, who is trying to take pictures of Indians for the Oxford Times – all his awful comedy scenes were removed from the international cut of the film. There’s also many bits of German dialogue, from asides to full conversations, from Howland and scout Ralf Wolter (notably a scene where he romances a plump Apache squaw) which mar the pace (and have no English language subs). This is a good example of an International edit prepared for foreign distribution vastly improving a film. If you’re buying this solely for Winnetou the Warrior, then you’d be better off looking for the abridged English language print. The film is worth seeing however for the best set piece of all the ‘Winnetou’ films, the spectacular Battle of Roswell.

The DVD set also includes behind-the-scenes bonus footage (no sound), a short doc on Karl May, and original trailers, all in German with no English subs. The four Winnetou disks are also wrongly labelled, with the film titles indicated differing from those on the disk, but all four films are there. As a bonus, the set also includes Sergio Corbucci’s wintry western The Great Silence (1967) in English language, in a wooden collector’s box.

The four Winnetou movies offer an interesting snapshot at what Euro-westerns looked like before Leone. They boast excellent, percussive scores from Martin Böttcher, some of the greatest CinemaScope and Eastmancolor cinematography of the 1960s, stunning locations in areas of outstanding natural beauty in the former Yugoslavia, and of course plenty of action.

To buy this set, visit Amazon UK.

There’s more about the ‘Winnetou’ films in my book, Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns.

To read more about the true-life conflicts of the Apache Wars, read my Pocket Essential Guide to The American Indian Wars, which is available both in a paperback edition and as a Kindle download.

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