3 September 2001 | frank_olthoff
Too cheap a try: where's "the grandeur that was Rome"?
If you are pretty mediocre as a director and they want you to make a film with only very little money, what's the outcome? - "I due gladiatori" is an excellent example of the cheap-produced Italian historical pictures of the early sixties. Relying partly on models such as "Ben-Hur", one could call them monumental, only there was nothing monumental left in 1964.
For instance: when a man is holding a rat that has been hunted by the hungry crowd, the next take shows a juicy meal, and, as the camera zooms, we see it being brought to the emperor at a small party. Nice idea so far, but we can be sure that Mario Caiano would have loved to show a vast orgy in consequence, but there's nothing more to eat than the bit that has just been carried in, and there's just a small number of guests standing around. As more examples, the arena fighting scenes are reduced to taking place at the 20-foot front of the stadium's wall, and what is supposed to be a battle between Romans and - Gauls (did I get that right?) is merely a skirmish of some 30 against 30.
The story, however, is somewhat interesting though not new at all. It is based on the true fact that emperor Commodus (180-192 AD) used to fight as a gladiator himself from time to time. Writers Amendola and Brescia also made use of the fact that Commodus had a twin brother (who died early); here, he survived and grew up unknowingly. - Now that emperor Mark Aurel has died (awkwardly dated into 191), his son Commodus succeeds to the throne and turns out to be a despot (that idea is poorly established). Loyal senator Tarrunio gets on his way to seek the twin brother he once was ordered to kill but saved. This man, Centurio Crassus, follows Tarrunio to Rome (hey, what about the Gallic invasion?) in order to overthrow the tyrant.
A couple of the ideas, especially the setting, are taken from Anthony Mann's "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1963, with Christopher Plummer as Commodus), while the linking of brothers Commodus and Crassus reminds of Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston's doomed relationship in "Ben-Hur" (1959) - "closer than brothers", as Boyd says.
Handsome Richard Harrison is a poor replacement for Boyd (in "The Fall..."); but especially the task of writing effective women's rôles into the story remained unaccomplished. (Moira Orfei is a beautiful temptress as ever, though.) Giuliano Gemma and Alvaro de Luna as Harrison's faithful friends add to the hero's nonchalant bravado. Mimmo Palmara is an excellent fighter (as he has often proved in the genre), but as Commodus he is colourless. Peplum's classic heavies Piero Lulli and Alberto Farnese do well as the emperor's sinister advisors Cleander and Leto. Yet, it is not enough to make this cheap flick average at least, in a genre that had lost most of its momentum and magic anyway. Composer Carlo Franchi, too, has contributed better scores before.