"Virtually everyone who has written about Maciste agrees that his strength, energy and vitality are meant and were understood at the time, as a nationalist allegory for Italy and a nation coming into its own…” Robert A. Rushing, Descended from Hercules: Biopolitics and the Muscled Male Body on Screen
After the epic Eagle of France, the Lion of Italy who turns out to be something of a pussycat or a least a Top Cat with a smile almost as broad as his chest and a twinkle in his eye signalling fun more than anything else.
It was time for some swords and sandals and some pumped up adventure at the Bioscope and a reminder of the simple joys of silent adventures into past. Maciste had originally appeared in Cabiria played by the mighty Bartolomeo Pagano as a black slave but he was brought back as a modern Italian through the meta-textural route of a woman phoning the actor's agent in Maciste (1915) after having seen him in Cabiria.
Pulled, impossibly, from the past, Maciste was a character from a simpler age engaging with a modernity that was changing Italy more quickly than some might like. Then as now people were attracted to the simple solutions born of strength rather than obscure strategies: a one-man “squadrismo” being a more effective solution for problems than debate with experts or establishment…
|Bartolomeo Pagano throwing fellow cast members around in an earlier film|
Maciste was a phenomenon that spanned Italian cinema’s early golden age, its commercial false dawn (371 films were made in 1920 and just 8 in 1930 according to Jacqueline Reich in The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema) through to the 1960s and two films from the notorious Jess Franco in 1973 – one of which was, of course, The Erotic Exploits of Maciste in Atlantis.
Its original star was a former Genovese dockworker was either the winner of a competition to appear as the strongman in Cabiria or had been talent-spotted by actor Dominic Gambino. Either way he went down a storm and Maciste Innamorato was his eight outing. It represented a real departure as this was apparently the first time the character had ever fallen for a member of the opposite sex which is surprising as he is Italy more than he’s an Italian?
The woman in question is the worryingly petite Ada Thompson (the lovely Linda Moglia who was so good in Cyrano de Bergerac) who is in conference with several other bright young things on her father’s terrace when they notice a Maciste film being made. Excited by the movie star in their midst she insists on inviting him to dinner and dad (Orlando Ricci) is only too happy to oblige.
It’s not just the women who flock to admire Maciste, he carries two of the young men, one on each arm, up the steps and all are excited to see how his physical exuberance will express itself over dinner – how big a plate will he actually need.
But as the elite entertain themselves, the disenfranchised are being secretly up by Thompson’s min competitor who is encouraging them to strike with the aid of three employees he has bribed. These men, the wonderfully named Sherlock, Job and Bile are superb creations craven cowards who will prove very useful a throwing implements as the story unfolds.
The strikers advance on the Thompson mansion and start smashing windows. Boss-man Thompson bravely faces them down but it’s only when his super-strengthened new friend wades in that they initially retreat with one man held aloft by a pole Maciste casually drops when the agitators become film fans and start back for his autograph. Ah, the power of celebrity to sooth even syndicalist passions.
|Maciste persuades the striking workers...|
But even this new intervention won’t stop the baddies and they kidnap Ada in an attempt to blackmail Thompson into selling his business ridiculously cheap. He’s tough and his new pal is even tougher and the fightback begins with extraordinary round after round of capture, fight, flight and re-capture as Maciste runs rings around the hapless baddies who’s only advantage is numbers.
Call me cruel but I did especially enjoy his use of Bile or was it Job, as a human battering ram or when he casually flung Sherlock over his shoulder: in those days of high-quality good-guys it was tough work being a henchman.
Directed by Luigi Romano Borgnetto it’s all done remarkably well and the pace is mostly maintained throughout. It’s a feel-good movie, a Fit Club and a world in which might is not just right it’s funny too: Maciste is a winner in almost all things…
|Some impressive framing from Borgnetto|
Meg Morley accompanied and perfectly matched Maciste with musical muscle that flowed easily from covering his table-turning machismo to his more heart-felt moments: even the strongest man in the world can have his heart broken. Meg was there for him.
Before the main feature we were treated to a lovely-looking L'esclave de Phidias (1917) directed by Léonce Perret. This film featured many wonderful set-pieces from maidens mournful in summer gardens to heroes anguished on rugged coastlines. Based in ancient Greece this was a tale of forbidden love and over-vigorous revenge as sculptor Phidias (Luitz-Morat) falls for his model Callyce (Suzanne Delvé) and cruelly dumps his courtisane Quinta (Madeleine Ramey).
Quinta frames her former man, arranges for Callyce to be flogged and lives it up in transgressive all-comers style as he is exiled. The lovers have the lasting love though as they are joined in loving exile against sparkling Aegean seas.
|Luitz-Morat and Suzanne Delvé|
John Sweeney accompanied for this film and I could have sworn he was wearing a toga… or at least sandals.
There can never be enough films about the ancient world and those Greeks with their quaint notions of democracy before a fall.
Both films were projected on 35mm on prints supplied by the BFI: a real treat.