Duel of the Titans

English Title: Duel of the Titans

Original Title: Romolo e Remo

Country of Origin: Italy

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Producer(s): Alessandro Jacovoni

Screenplay: Sergio Corbucci, Ennio de Concini, Luciano Martino, Giorgio Prosperi, Duccio Tessari, Franco Rossetti

Cinematographer: Enzo Barboni, Dario Di Palma

Art Director: Saverio D’Eugenio

Editor: Gabriele Varriale

Runtime: 107 minutes

Genre: Peplum

Starring/Cast: Massimo Girotti, Steve Reeves, Jacques Sernas, Gordon Scott

Year: 1961

Volume: Italian

Romulus and Remus are the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the god Mars, nurtured by a she-wolf and raised by the shepherd Faustolo. In defiance of the tyrant king Amulius, they take advantage of a pagan celebration to steal horses from his stable. Romulus is captivated by Julia, daughter of Sabine king Tatius, and abducts her during the raid. Though resentful of Romulus’ presumption, Julia clearly reciprocates his romantic interest. Captured, tortured and forced to fight in the arena, Romulus is rescued by Remus, who seeks to overthrow Amulius and claim a kingdom for himself. Having defeated Amulius, the brothers lead an exodus to find a new home in a valley surrounded by seven hills, pursued by the army of Tatius. En route, they quarrel and divide their followers into two camps. Remus’ group are caught in a volcanic eruption, while Romulus and his people face Tatius’ forces in battle and emerge triumphant. With Julia’s urging, Romulus spares Tatius’ life and forges an alliance with the king. Remus returns to challenge Romulus to single combat. Romulus is the victor and the city of Rome is founded.

Five years before Django (1966), one of the most influential Italian westerns, Sergio Corbucci established himself as a leading director of pepla with Romolo e Remo and Il figlio di Spartacus/Son of Spartacus (1962), both starring sword and sandal icon Steve Reeves. In a genre prone to bland production-line assemblage, Corbucci’s pepla stand out in terms of narrative development, pacing, characterization, technical finesse, visual imagination and thematic interest. Romolo e Remo was also the first – and arguably only – major peplum to feature a second muscle-bound star, in this instance former Tarzan Gordon Scott.

Romolo e Remo is unusual among the pepla for its emphasis on male vulnerability as opposed to invincible strength. While Reeves’ Hercules is a fully formed hero of established status, Romulus and Remus are first seen as helpless infants, dependent on maternal protection, whether human or lupine. The brothers are also associated with powerlessness, trapped, captured and tortured; Romulus is tied to a wheel and whipped, while Remus barely survives the erupting volcano. Only one of the brothers will evolve into a heroic figure exhibiting great strength of both body and character.

Romulus’ relationship with Sabine princess Julia has an equality rarely found in the peplum.  She saves him from summary execution when his physical strength and combat prowess prove inadequate against superior numbers. On a visual level, his dark hair and light tunic are complemented by her blonde hair and dark costumes. It is notable that the famous Reeves torso is exposed over just three sequences and, furthermore, displayed voluntarily for Julia’s eyes only. Depicted as an independent woman, Julia perhaps reflects the changing social and economic climate in Italy and elsewhere at the time of the film’s production. Whereas other pepla often mark powerful, self-sufficient women as both hostile and ‘unnatural’ – such as the Amazons in Le fatiche di Ercole/Hercules (Pietro Francisci, 1958) – Julia is represented as an ally rather than an enemy.
The casting of Scott plays with viewer expectations, the former Lord of the Jungle transformed from hero to fallen idol, if not outright villain. While Remus is established as a noble, if authoritarian leader of the oppressed, he addresses directly the fascistic subtext often associated with the peplum. Learning of his semi-divine origins, Remus expresses his now dismissive attitude to ordinary men, ‘Something different flows in my veins; something superior to the others.’ Former allies and friends are now just ‘spineless shepherds’ as meek and powerless as their sheep.  The gradual and inevitable distancing of the brothers – on moral, ideological and political levels – is underlined in the associated framing, composition, and costuming of the actors. The climactic struggle between Remus and Romulus is arguably that between totalitarianism and democracy. Having defied both men and gods, Remus pays the price, Roman mythology’s most famous – and justifiable – act of fratricide.

Author of this review: Daniel O’Brien