Inspired by my pal Clayton’s recent reviews of Italian sword-and-sandal films (known as peplums or pepla, from the togas worn by the ancient Romans) at his Claytonology blog, I decided to check out one of the few films of this type in my collection, Giant of Marathon (La battaglia di Maratona, also known as The Battle of Marathon). Expecting some cheesy fun, I was surprised to get quite a respectable historical adventure film, with plenty of romance, intrigue and big-scale, violent action.
The movie opens with strong man Phillipides (Steve Reeves) winning the Olympic games and bringing much honor to his home city of Athens. He is offered a position with the Athenian Sacred Guard. Phillipides is a simple farmer and not particularly interested in the life of a soldier, but accepts the honor as a patriotic citizen, knowing as he does that Athens is under constant threat of a Persian invasion led by its king, Dario (Daniele Vargas).
Phillipides meets cute with the beautiful Andromeda (played by French stunner Mylene Demongeot), but despite her instant attraction to him, she refuses to tell him her name, for she is bound to marry the traitorous Teocrites (Sergio Fantoni) by her father Creusos (Ivo Garroni). To facilitate the Persian invasion, the scheming Teocrites plans to sway the people of Athens by bringing man-of-the-hour Phillipides over to his cause, by any means necessary. First he tries to get the sultry Karrise (Daniela Rocca) to seduce him, which fails; learning of the champion’s love for Andromeda, Teocrites offers her to Phillipides in exchange for his support in the scheme, which Phillipides adamantly refuses. Deceived into believing Andromeda’s complicity in the plan, Phillipides spurns her and, dejected, quits the Sacred Guard to return to his farm.
He is called back to arms when, its fleet demolished by the Persians, Athens asks Phillipides, as the one man the Spartans may trust, to travel to Sparta to enlist their help. The Spartans are reluctant to come to the aid of their old enemy, Athens, and at any rate are forbidden by their gods to fight until the end of the full moon. Learning that the Persian fleet, led by Teocrites, plans a surprise attack on the harbor of Piraeus the next morning, Phillipides must call on all his strength to run the original marathon to warn Athens, and rally the Sacred Guard to fend off the attack in the hope that the Spartan reinforcements may arrive in time…
Daniela Bocca as Karrise
Giant of Marathon is a total blast, full of spectacle and blood-and-thunder action. There's some notable talent behind the scenes: it was directed by an aging Jacques Tourneur (famous for such classic "suggestive horror" films as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man, not to mention the famous film noir Out of the Past), with cinematography and special effects work by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. The film's simple but strong story benefits from a good script, featuring a few tasty complexities of plot and character, as well as the occasional bit of nice dialogue, especially for the Machiavellian Teocrates.
Sporting a muscular but slightly slimmed-down physique (compared to his earlier two Hercules pictures), Steve Reeves makes a winning hero; Phillipides has no demi-god powers, but is stalwart, noble and true. Reeves and the gorgeous Demongeot, who gives an innocent, heartfelt quality to Andromeda, make a very attractive couple. Daniela Rocca is fine as Karrise, the "bad" girl who falls for our hero. Best of all is Sergio Fantoni as Teocrites, who gives a richly menacing and wily performance. He seems to relish in his perfidy, which is a key component for a memorable bad guy in my book.
There’s a good deal of action throughout, but the two main battle scenes are impressive. According to Tim Lucas’ wonderful and exhaustively researched Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, the battle at Marathon scene was filmed at some expense in Yugoslavia, but the raw footage was a mess and had to be saved in the editing, and with several days of clever re-shoots, by Bava himself (as Tourneur had by this time left the picture). The finished product is good, full of elaborate chariot spills and some cringe-inducing horse falls, but the best sequence is the final naval battle, storyboarded by Bava and directed by producer Bruno Vailati. This epic battle is rousing and fierce, as Phillipides and the Sacred Guard set up a series of underwater pikes in order to ram the Persian ships. We’re treated to some startling, bloody violence, with arrows to the eye and throat, sword slashes to the face, and spears through the abdomen as the Athenians, led by Phillipides, desperately try to pierce the hull of the enemy ships. Seeing Andromeda imprisoned on Teocrites' ship, Phillipides clambers aboard to rescue her and engages the traitor in a final mano-y-mano reckoning. Great stuff, and worthy of better-known historical epics.
The film would cement the 33-year-old Reeves’ brief status as a superstar in Europe and around the world, and the ex-bodybuilder from Glasgow, Montana (like Phillipides, a farm boy himself) went on to star in many more films before retiring from acting in 1968. Mario Bava would go on to direct his own entry in the peplum genre with 1961’s Hercules in the Haunted World. Tourneur made only a few more films, focusing more on TV work for the remainder of his career.
You can find Giant of Marathon on a decent quality “Steve Reeves Collection” DVD from Infinity/Retromedia, double-billed with 1961’s War of the Trojans (also known as The Trojan Horse). It's ideal escapist viewing for those who love a good sword-and-sandal swashbuckler, a perfect way to while away a rainy Saturday evening, swept back to the romantic, dangerous and colorful days of ancient Greece.
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