I recorded this 1961 Italian film off of TCM on June 14th!
From 280 BC to 226 BC, a 108 feet high statue of the sun-god Helios stood in the Greek city of Rhodes. It was reportedly built to celebrate a major military victory and it overlooked the harbor, serving to both welcome friends and intimidate enemies. No one’s quite sure what it actually looked like but we do know that it was considered, by its contemporaries, to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. No trip to Greece was complete without a stopover in Rhodes so that the curious could feast their eyes upon the Colossus. Eventually, the statue was destroyed in an earthquake and it was never rebuilt.
The statue serves as the centerpiece for the aptly named 1961 film, The Colossus of Rhodes. The film opens with its dedication and ends with the earthquake that toppled it. (Of course, in the film, the earthquake occurs just a week or two after the dedication.) The film imagines that the Colossus was not just a monument to a God. No, instead, this film suggests that the Colossus was an elaborate torture chamber, one that could pour fire down on anyone trying to sail underneath it. Inside the Colossus is an elaborate labyrinth of dungeons, where anyone who has displeased the king is punished.
And, indeed, quite a few people have displeased the king. King Serse (Roberto Camardiel), it turns out, is a mad tyrant who spends all of his days eating grapes and having people executed in the coliseum. (He’s like Nero but without the artistic temperament.) Not only do the rebels want him dead but so does his evil second-in-command, Thar (Conrado San Martin). With the people angry that they’ve been forced to build a giant statue for no reason other than their king’s vanity, it seems like a perfect time for a revolution!
Caught in the middle of it all is Darios (Rory Calhoun). Darios is from Athens and the only reason he came to Rhodes was to visit his uncle and see the statue. At first, Darios is more interested in trying to get laid than the revolution. When that doesn’t quite work out, Darios tries to leave the island, just to discover that, thanks to the Colossus, escape is impossible. When Darios is accused of being a supporter of the revolution, he has no choice but to take up arms against Serse, which is exactly what Thar wants him to do…
The plot’s is more than a little convoluted and Darios is never the most sympathetic of heroes but The Colossus of Rhodes is still an enjoyable example of the peplum genre. Though the acting is frequently stiff, the film is visually impressive, with both the Colossus and ancient Rhodes brought to wonderfully decadent life. The idea that the Colossus was actually just an elaborate torture chamber is handled well and the frequent battle scenes are well-choreographed. (I was particularly impressed with a scene of Darios fighting off an army while also trying to maintain his balance on the Colossus’s arm.) And, of course, the climatic earthquake is as grandly operatic as you would hope. Say what you will about the Italian film industry, it always delivered what audiences wanted.
That said, the main reason that The Colossus of Rhodes is known today is because it was the Sergio Leone’s first directorial credit. (It was, however, the second film that he actually directed. Though uncredited, he previously replaced Mario Bonnard as the director of 1959’s The Last Days of Pompeii.) While The Colossus of Rhodes was obviously very different from the spaghetti westerns for which Leone is best known, there are some thematic similarities between the film and Leone’s future work:
For instance, much like Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy, Charles Bronson in Once Upon A Time In The West, and the gangsters in Once Upon A Time In America, Darios starts out as an amoral hero. When Darios does join the revolution, it’s reminiscent of James Coburn aiding Rod Steiger in Duck, You Sucker.
The corrupt and greedy Serse has much in common with the crooked land barons and businessmen who lurked behind-the-scenes in Once Upon A Time In The West.
Even the torture chamber in the Colossus brought to mind the grisly torments that both Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach had to endure in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
(Unfortunately, unlike other Leone films, Ennio Morricone did not provide the score for The Colossus of Rhodes. Instead, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino provided a rather standard “epic” orchestration.)
The Colossus of Rhodes may not be a great film but, as an early work of a great filmmaker, it’s definitely worth watching.