Legendary Italian director Sergio Leone intentionally gave himself a long apprenticeship, working as assistant or second unit director on numerous projects throughout the fifties, including William Wyler's version of Ben Hur. He wanted to pick up as much experience as he could before beginning his own projects. The films he eventually made became renowned, particularly his westerns. But in between his apprenticeship and beginning the Dollars Trilogy he made this little-known and little-seen sword-and-sandal adventure, his first time in the director's chair.
Colossus of Rhodes is one of a vast number of peplums that were being produced in Italy in the early 1960s. Just as the boom of ancient world epics (Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, Spartacus etc) was losing momentum in Hollywood a new rush of low-budget copycats was appearing in Europe. Terribly scripted, terribly acted cheap and nasty affairs, they have largely been forgotten. Colossus of Rhodes is an exception mainly due to the later fame of its director. However Leone fans hoping to discover an example of his fledgling genius will probably be disappointed.
On the face of it, this does not look like a typical Leone picture. But then of course it is a very different genre to the westerns that form the bulk of his career, with a different look and a different scope. And while there are no gritty close-ups and no sweeping landscape shots, there are one or two moments that definitely smack of Leone's style. Perhaps the strongest of these is around ten-minutes into the film, when a would-be assassin has his bluff called by the villain. We see rapidly edited shots of all the characters involved staring at each other, while the background music blares and the tension mounts. This is clearly a forerunner to the long-drawn out standoffs that began with Fistful of Dollars. Another moment which stands out comes as we head to the finale, and we see a lone dog trotting across a deserted street. Here and there too there is the occasional little touch of class that proves this wasn't just any run-of-the-mill b-picture director at work here. There is a certain neatness to the shot composition and a grace to the timing of movement.
There are some pretty good action scenes too, mostly of the sword fighting variety. In look these owe more to the Errol Flynn swashbucklers directed by Michael Curtiz than anything else, and are really not bad at all. It's a shame in some ways that Leone never really got to do this kind of action scene again, since from here on it would all be guns. One thing that does strike me – you can really tell Leone was getting ready to direct a western. There is a whole subplot which involves plenty of horse-riding through rugged terrain, the look of which was replicated almost shot-for-shot in certain scenes in Fistful of Dollars.
Aside from the direction, Colossus of Rhodes suffers from all the hallmarks of a cheap European production – lousy screenplay, bad dubbing, and some really cringeworthy overacting. Thankfully Rory Calhoun is pretty good in the lead role even if this is an unusual part for him. He cheerfully smirks his way through the performance, and the credit probably goes to him for creating a very likable hero. The only other treat on the acting side of things is Roberto Carmardiel (playing King Serse) a noteworthy Spanish character actor who possesses perhaps the creepiest smile and the beadiest eyes in cinema.
Perhaps the biggest weakness in this picture is the screenplay. The dialogue is a kind of lifeless hand-me-down from corny 50's Hollywood epics. Someone seems to have told the screenwriter he'd get a raise every time he gave Rory Calhoun the line "So this is the island of peace?", since he says it about twenty times. The overall story is moderately engaging, with a few good if predictable twists and turns, but the actual specifics of the narrative are pathetic. Time and again one of the good guys will get into trouble only to be saved by the most uninspired, improbable last-minute heroics, to the point where the villains are unbelievable because they just look like absolute pushovers.
It's interesting though that, just as the Italians would create westerns free from rosy moralism a few years later, this Italian-made sword-and-sandal flick also seems to have dispensed with most of the kind of sickly nobleness that plagued the US epics of the 1950s. While retaining the popular slave revolt theme, the rebel characters do seem a lot more genuine than any patronising Charlton Heston character, despite the deficit in acting talent.
For Leone fans it's a bit difficult to know how to class Colossus of Rhodes. Many don't even properly count it as one of his films. Presumably either he took the project on as a kind of dummy run of directing before going onto more personal projects or it was simply a studio job he had little control over - in all likelihood a combination of the two. When all's said and done though, it might not be good, but it's not terrible. So long as you don't get your hopes up too high, it's a watchable two hours.
http://www.filesonic.com/file/38508989/The Colossus of Rhodes 1961.avi