Tuesday, March 20, 2018


When the wave of Italian-made Peplum films were being marketed in the US in the 60’s and into the early 70’s, they were aimed to some extent at a juvenile audience, or in a broader sense at a family audience. In fact, those of you who frequent junk stores or flea markets can still find for a dollar or so old VHS tapes and public domain DVD’s of Peplum films that had a Christian element in the plot (persecuted Christians, etc.) and were marketed at the evangelical American “family” market. I’ve seen copies of THE OLD TESTAMENT with Brad Harris, PONTIUS PILATE with John Drew Barrymore (as Judas, of course), and maybe 7 or 8 others aimed at that audience, spilling out of the budget bins along with cheesy Bible-related documentary videos. Another element that connected with the juvenile/family audience was the “storybook” aspect. Some historical films featured violence, brutality, sexual intrigue, political elements, and the like, which would engage the adult audience, but some tended to have a kind of generic storybook feel, as if some children’s fairytale/adventure book came alive on the screen, with larger than life hero characters who were non-threatening, bad guys who were cartoonish, female characters who could be the princess in a fairy tale, etc. These kind of Peplum films were perfect for Saturday or Sunday afternoon TV showings, for 16mm showings at churches or public libraries, for Saturday or Sunday children’s matinees, etc. You would not find, say, a historical adventure starring Cameron Mitchell as some tortured military leader facing complex adult Shakespearean personal crises in these settings; you WOULD find something like the Steve Reeves version of THE THIEF OR BAGDAD or MORGAN THE PIRATE, or the Tab Hunter vehicle THE GOLDEN ARROW, or the film under review today, VENGEANCE OF URSUS, starring Canadian bodybuilder/actor SAMSON BURKE.

Of course, Burke would have already had juvenile fans in the US by the time this film played TV in the mid-60s, because after VENGEANCE OF URSUS, he starred in THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES. When Stooges producer (and Moe’s son-in-law) Norman Maurer decided to cast Burke in the Stooges film, one wonders if URSUS was the film he screened to make that decision. There would have been a lot of North American bodybuilder-actors available to play that role in the Stooges film, but Burke was an amazing physical specimen AND someone who had a commanding presence…..AND someone who came across as warm and kind. A three-year-old (and I’ve got a grandson who is three going on four, so I can attest to this STILL being true!) could look up to Samson Burke and admire his strength but at the same time expect that Mr. Burke might give him a hug or a glass of chocolate milk when the scene was over. Not everyone has that quality—Samson Burke does, at least in this film and the Stooges film. You get the sense that if he would corner a villain, he would not crush him to death or put a spear through him—he’d pick him up, as if picking up a can of soda, set him down, and give him a Mister Rogers style lecture about being a good person and thinking about others’ feelings. Ursus even has a juvenile sidekick here—his little brother to whom he is a kind father-figure—so it’s got the same juvenile “viewpoint character” for the young audience members you’d find in many serials and adventure TV shows aimed at children.

For those of us who are children-at-heart and not literally children (EDITOR'S NOTE---I am a fetus at heart!), the film has a lot more to offer than just being warm and family-friendly. Director Luigi Capuano has an impressive filmography in the historical adventure genre, and I’ve seen and enjoyed at least a dozen of his films, including TERROR OF THE RED MASK with Lex Barker, ZORRO IN THE COURT OF SPAIN (aka THE MASKED CONQUEROR) with George Ardisson, THE EXECUTIONER OF VENICE with Guy Madison, and TWO films with the great Gordon Scott: ZORRO AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS and the phenomenal LION OF ST. MARK. Capuano always manages to use existing scenery in fresh ways, to photograph landscapes to make them look full of grandeur, to keep the films moving, and to get the best out of his lead actors. He seems to sense their strongest or most distinctive qualities, and to direct them and film them in order to highlight those qualities. He clearly “gets” what Samson Burke has to offer and tailors the film to that. So it’s both an impressive looking film, especially in a sparkling widescreen print, and the actors look impressive and are impressively filmed and blocked.

We’ve also got two of the best villain actors in the Peplum genre here. GIANNI RIZZO (the stocky man pictured) is always wonderful in Nero-like roles, where he is foppish, petulant, and greedy (his picture should be next to the word “sniveling” in the dictionary), while LIVIO LORENZON  is always convincing in a brutal role. Long before I knew the names of the supporting actors in Peplum films, when I would watch them on a small black and white TV on a UHF station as a child, I knew these men by sight. With their unique presence and their commanding acting styles, you could dub them into any language, and they would still communicate quite clearly.

The copy of the film I have on DVD-R is what’s called a “fan dub.” In this case, someone has taken a beautiful Italian letterboxed version of the film and edited English dialogue from an American 16mm TV print into it. Most of the time, this works smoothly. On some occasions, though (I’ve read where the Alpha Video and the Sinister Cinema versions of the film both are choppy and with a lot of small splices/cuts….and also that the Alpha copy is horrible visually and not worth even a dollar or two), where there are a few words missing in English due to splices in the American print, the film awkwardly cuts back into Italian in mid-sentence, and then back to English again….and you can hear the lines “punched in” with differing background sounds. Fortunately, that happens most in the first five minutes and then it’s over (and you’ve gotten used to it). There is a bit of untranslated Italian, but it’s clear from context what’s happening. These few quibbles are worth it to get such an impressive widescreen copy, though.

This film also has nothing to do with the previous Italian URSUS film starring Ed Fury, or with any other Ursus film which came after. In some territories (Germany, for instance) it was dubbed as a Hercules film. You can see the film for free (as of this writing) on You Tube. Just look for the version that’s in widescreen and has the PEPLUM TV logo on it. If your inner 8 year old is crying out for a dubbed sword and sandal epic on some rainy Sunday afternoon, VENGEANCE OF URSUS is what you’ve been looking for.

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