Director: Jacques Tourneur (uncredited: Mario Bava)
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to contribute to a blog called Natsukashi. The blog’s current series is movies then and now. Participants are supposed to think of a film they saw when they were young, write down all their memories of the film, then rewatch the film and see what kind of a difference a decade or more might have made to their appraisal of the film.
My youth is very far behind me, so my memories of what films I saw, let alone what I remember from them, are extremely spotty; the only fairly reliable memories are from movies I saw as a teen. In addition, I’ve rewatched many of the musicals I saw as a child, like The Sound of Music (1965), more recently than the 10-year limit Natsukashi imposes on contributors.
Nonetheless, I managed to dredge up one film that planted three scenes indelibly in my mind: The Giant of Marathon. Because the film came out in 1959, when I was 4 years old, and it’s not the kind of film that would have been revived only a few years from its premiere, I’m sure I didn’t see it at a theatre. I’m almost positive I saw it on TV because I generally I spent my Saturday afternoons in front of our TV in the basement. A very popular type of film for the networks to show in those days were Italian sword-and-sandal epics. I watched Greek mythology and history paraded in front of me week after week and took great delight in trying to see how well the English dubbing matched the lips of the mainly Italian performers. It was during these afternoons that I became intimately acquainted with the special effects of Ray Harryhausen, whose films I still take pleasure in viewing today. Somehow, the only one of those films that really stuck with me, other than the Harryhausen films, was The Giant of Marathon. Even though I hadn’t seen it since the 1960s, I remembered its name and these images:
1. The tiny figure of a man lifting a giant boulder and throwing it onto the Persian army fighting below on an open plain.
2. A dark-haired woman running from some burning bodies and being struck in the back with an arrow. Her blue, chiffon dress turned purple as a perfect circle of blood oozed from her back.
3. Men underwater being struck through and through with arrows fired by men in a boat above them.
So, this past week, I placed the DVD of this movie in my player and rewatched The Giant of Marathon to see if the rest of it looked familiar and whether my memories were accurate. To the first part of that sentence, the answer is “no.” To the second part, I can say “yes,” but the first two scenes didn’t happen the way I remembered them.
The giant of the title isn’t really a tall man, but rather a very strong man named Philippides. He is played by former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves, who made a career in Italian movies of this type and who became the definitive screen Hercules. When we first meet him, it is in Olympia, where he is demolishing the competition to become the overall winner of the Olympic Games. Although he is a peasant, winning this honor opens doors for him in his native city of Athens.
He returns to Athens, which is under threat of invasion by the Persians. Two members of the Athenian council, Theocritus (Sergio Fantoni) and Creusos (Iva Garrani), are sympathetic to forming an alliance with the Persians. They also are close because Creusos and Theocritus’s father promised their children to each in marriage when the Theocritus and Andromeda (Mylène Demongeot) were children. Unfortunately for the pair, they do not love each other, but a bargain’s a bargain.
One day, Andromeda is playing in a field with her girlfriends. Of course, they’re wearing their play togs, which are barely there short togas. Philippides comes upon the group by chance. He and Andromeda are instantly attracted to each other. She shows him that one of the balls, which looks like an overgrown whiffle ball, has lodged in a tree. She asks him to try knocking it down with another ball, warning him that it’s not easy. Philippides shakes the entire tree, and the ball falls to the ground. “That wasn’t so hard,” he says. Then he throws it, but his superhuman strength sends it soaring miles away. He asks her what her name is, but she refuses to tell him, knowing that her marriage contract makes a relationship with him impossible. Nonetheless, she tells him that she will be praying at the temple of Athena that night.
Theocritus is plotting to win Philippides, as newly appointed captain of the Sacred Guard, to his cause. Theocritus believes that if he can recruit Philippides, the Athenian council will vote for the alliance and the Sacred Guard will pose no threat. He asks Karis (Daniela Rocco), a prostitute, to seduce Philippides and win him over to the Persian alliance. This she tries to do with an invitation Philippides thinks is from Andromeda. He shares her wine, watches a dancing girl perform for him, but declines the sumptuous feast and, of course, Karis. He departs for the temple, anxious to meet up with the girl who has bewitched him already.
Karis reports her failure to Theocritus, who then persuades Creusos to invite Philippides to dine with them. Of course, Andromeda is unmasked when introduced as Theocritus’s fiancée. Theocritus tries to persuade Philippides to join their cause, but as a patriot, he refuses. Theocritus notices Philippides’ ardor for Andromeda. He promises to give Andromeda to Philippides if he accepts the proposal. “Does Andromeda agree to this?” asks Philippides. “Of course,” lies Theocritus. This craven bargain turns Phlippides against Andromeda.
The Persians are on their way to land at the shores of Athens. By now, Karis has fallen in love with Philippides and wants to warn him of the impending invasion. Theo- critus takes her and Andromeda hostage as he prepares to aid the Persian leader Darius (Daniele Vargas). The Athenians hope to persuade Sparta, their historic enemy, to join with them to fight the Persians to avoid their capture of all of Greece. Philippides starts off on horseback to reach Sparta with the appeal, but while crossing a river, his horse is swept away. He makes it to shore and runs the 26.2 miles to Sparta, thus giving birth to the marathon, which we run today. He gives a stirring speech to Sparta, is supported by one of his competitors at Olympia, and gets Sparta to agree to field troops. He returns to Athens to help prepare the Athenian army and Sacred Guard for battle. Of course, Athens wins the day, and Philippides wins Andromeda.
Nothing in this film suggests the artistry Jacques Tourneur brought to his films with Val Lewton—Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943). Nor do we get the suave personality of his classic noir Out of the Past (1947). The Giant of Marathon is a late-career film for Tourneur, no doubt made for money, and not a great reflection of his directorial style.
However, a relative newcomer to Italian cinema, Mario Bava, makes his mark felt with his cinematography and special photographic effects. The skewed angles that depict the Olympic Games bring us close to the strain of athletic competition. The battle sequences make full use of the open plain where strategically resplendent and graphically violent battles between the Persian army and the Athenians take place. The scene that really shows Bava’s ingenuity and experimentation is when Philippides and the Sacred Guard (unfortunately wrapped in what look like diapers) dive underwater to plant enormous stakes in the ocean floor to pierce the hulls of the Persian ships. Further, when the Guard moves to manually punch holes in the vessels behind the impaled ships, many of them are killed by arrows shot into the water. Bava ensures we see arrows and spears piercing straight through their bodies, eyes, limbs, with pretty swirls of blood fanning out from their wounds.
Reeves is a believable hero with a body that makes one believe there are supermen after all. My memory of a giant boulder hoisted aloft by Philippides was faulty, but he did push boulders down on the Persians from surrounding hills, still an impressive feat of strength. As Andromeda, Demongeot reminded me in looks and style of Sandra Dee, only slightly plucky and very girly. She stands helplessly against a rock as Philippides and his men rescue her from the Persians, who tied her like a figurehead to the front of Darius’ ship to prevent an attack by archers, and fight hand to hand to the death. Rocca, the brilliantly stupid wife in Pietro Germi’s wicked comedy Divorce, Italian Style is weirdly made up to look like Mr. Spock. But she gives a memorable performance, playing both a woman spurned and one who sacrifices all for love anyway. She was indeed killed with an arrow to the back among the burning bodies of dead Persians, though my memory of a circle of purple on her dress was faulty. I really liked that her ashes were scattered in honor on the battlefield for her heroism, though mortally wounded, in bringing word of a surprise attack to the Athenian army. “She fought as one of us.”
If I had to say why this film stuck with me, it is because of the thrilling action sequences. Catapults, rows of spears behind body-length shields ready to impale the cavalry soldiers, boulders crushing soldiers, underwater battles as ingenious as any I’ve ever seen, and a heroine in Karis definitely stirred my imagination. I enjoyed it just as much on viewing it now as I did as a kid. There is a mocking version of this film by The Film Crew, and the cheapness of the production and very odd costuming certainly lend themselves to ridicule. Nonetheless, this film is a solid genre piece filled with pleasures I was happy to experience again.
A podcast of my reactions to revisiting The Giant of Marathon is available here.