The Colossus of Rhodes

English Title: The Colossus of Rhodes

Original Title: Il colosso di Rodi

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Cineproduzioni Associate, Procusa Film, Comptoir Français du Film

Director: Sergio Leone

Producer(s): Michele Scaglione

Screenplay: Luciano Chitarrini, Ennio de Concini, Carlo Gualtieri, Sergio Leone, Luciano Martino, Aggeo Savioli, Cesare Seccia, Duccio Tessari

Cinematographer: Antonio L Ballesteros

Art Director: Ramiro Gómez

Editor: Eraldo Da Roma

Runtime: 127 minutes

Genre: Peplum

Starring/Cast: Rory Calhoun, Georges Marchal, Lea Massari

Year: 1961

Volume: Italian

Athenian war hero Dario seeks relaxation on the island of Rhodes, home of the imposing Colossus that guards the harbour. Thar, the King’s counsellor, is plotting with the Phoenicians to take control of the island. Simultaneously, there is much unrest resulting from the tyrannical construction of the statue. Dario pursues Diala, unaware that she is in league with Thar. A group of rebels hopes that Dario can persuade Athens to help save the island but they and he are captured, before being freed by other rebels. Dario also pursues Mirte, sister of the rebel leaders, who plan to penetrate the Colossus and free political prisoners held within it. Thinking their plan is suicidal, Dario goes to Diala for aid and tells her where the rebels are hidden. She has him arrested, and the rebels are re-imprisoned. Dario redeems himself by aiding the rebels in the arena and trying to release the prisoners from the Colossus. He is captured, Diala defers his execution, the Phoenician armada arrives to carry out Thar’s plan, and an earthquake erupts, along with a rebellion. Diala frees Dario only to become killed by the quake. Thar escapes the Colossus and is killed by a rebel. When the quake subsides, Dario and Mirte reunite and stay on Rhodes.

Il colosso di Rodi is Sergio Leone’s first film as credited director and shows marked improvement over his uncredited Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei/The Last Days of Pompeii (1959). It has a stronger script and a more interesting plot. It is well acted and well shot, the sets are impressive, and the catastrophic climax is more intricate and better paced than that of Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei - especially in the Italian remastered DVD version. Numerous horseback moments and an elevated level of torture and violence presage Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

Inspired by the enormous statue built on Rhodes between 292 and 280 B.C., then destroyed by an earthquake 56 years later, Leone’s film is a pseudo-historical rather than pseudo-mythological peplum. The most obvious theme of the film - the inflated egoism of humanity (the Colossus) in contrast with its fundamental insignificance (the swiftness with which nature can level a civilization) - is handled competently, and lends itself to part of the parody that dominates the film. Leone borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959) for his representation of a kind of monumentalism - the Colossus recalls Hitchcock’s Mt. Rushmore - that miniaturizes all humans. The Colossus’ size and placement in a harbour evoke the Statue of Liberty, reprising it as a symbol of tyranny that, instead of ‘welcoming the huddled masses’, pours boiling liquid upon them. The monumentalism also evokes Fascism and is thus generalized to embrace a host of authoritarian governments from ancient to contemporary that end up dwarfed by the march of time, the power of nature, and/or the destructive forces they themselves unleash.
The film’s ‘size matters’ parody is accompanied by a satiric view of the (American) hero, again with a nod to North By Northwest. Leone has linked Dario to Hitchcock’s Roger O. Thornhill, describing both as spoiled children involved in circumstances they can’t fathom. The parody of Dario begins with costuming: not so much standard peplum garb as a mixture of peplum and women’s summer fashions. More metrosexual than muscleman, he gets trapped in a labyrinth by Diala and knocked out with one punch by Peliocles. He spends most of the rebellion locked up in the Colossus and has to be spared and untied by Diala. His heroism comes and goes with comic unpredictability. The American focus of Leone’s parody is implicit in Rory Calhoun’s nationality - as well as in Dario’s role, like that of Hercules, as a hero from outside, (supposedly) cleaning up other people’s messes. His initial unwillingness to get involved reflects American isolationism. He is shallow and naïve, extroverted, friendly, and swashbuckling - a compendium of clichés identifiable as ‘American’, particularly from a European perspective.

Less parodic than cynical is Leone’s take on the revolutionary peplum of which Il colosso di Rodi might be considered a part. As in Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, political or social change takes place only because of a natural catastrophe, and in this case, the rebels’ earnest and principled activities (like all else) seem largely trivial in the face of forces beyond human control.

Ably played by Lea Massari (the enigmatic Anna of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, 1959), Diala is an even more complex female protagonist than Giulia of Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, concealing and expressing a wide range of conflicting motives and emotions, and the characteristic peplum opposition of ’good’ versus ‘evil’ woman is complicated by the fact that her antithesis, the angelic Mirte, uses her sexuality with great ease to get men (including Dario) to do what she wants.

Rory Calhoun’s ‘tired nonchalance’ (Leone’s words) inspired the Clint Eastwood persona of the dollars trilogy, an intense exploration of (anti)heroism that clearly had its roots in Il colosso di Rodi.

Author of this review: Frank Burke