"Victory - Or DEATH!"
Designed to instill a greater sense of nationalism among Italians close to the outbreak of WWII, Scipio Africanus chronicles the pivotal battle by the Roman military leader that quashed Hannibal and his mighty band of warriors and pachyderms at the Battle of Zama, in 202 B.C.
It's an obvious propaganda piece, designed to instill patriotism near the end of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War by Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, but Scipio is less politically overt in spite of some heavy borrowing from the work of Hitler's favourite director at the time, Leni Riefenstahl.
Veteran director Carmine Gallone - whether by his own decision or from the supervision of Mussolini and his 21 year old son Vittorio - employs the same-styled cutaways to waves of saluting, cheering masses, and even mimics the declarations of loyalty by provincial followers when Scipio calls out to fellow Romans for support.
There's no doubt Riefenstahl's brilliant use of montages and music were used to model scenes of moving masses: early sequences are underscored with the same over-abundant, Wagnerian-styled orchestral fugues and chorus that dominate the opening celebrations in Riefenstahl's Olympia: Part 1, but in Scipio, the Riefenstahl riffs are jarring and disjointed, and the decision to mimic a Germanic musical style is a glaring cultural interpolation.
The only sequence where Gallone's nod actually works is at the very end, when a full scale Roman forum is gradually filled with victorious citizens, bearing flaming torches. The dark sky and backlit edifices parallel the sweeping crowds of flame-bearing soldiers in Triumph of the Will, as they assembled for a massive book burning ceremony; or the famous sequence of marching soldiers surrounded by columns of light in the Nuremberg stadium.
(A rare moment of humour, and one evocative of more familiar American WWII action/war genre, has an older Roman gob boarding a military ship for Carthage. Lamenting a lack of action back in Rome, he says he's back to get the job done. From an American angle, it's the familiar pro-active Average Joe who's willing to sacrifice his life for the nation; in Scipio, his stance is a bit more critical, inferring Rome 's power has been completely emasculated by Hannibal and his barbarians, and the only route to victory lies in kicking some Carthaginian butt.)
One key problem with Scipio is Gallone's amazing dull direction, which relies far too much on static shots bearing bland compositions. Whereas an eccentric like Joseph Von Sternberg would've exploited the Roman setting with more expressive set designs, Gallone goes for workmanlike setups covering fairly theatrical sets. Worse are clumsy edits that make one ponder whether it was more stilted dialogue from the reportedly longer Italian 117 min. version that was trimmed to create the shorter English edit (retitled Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal) used for this DVD.
The Scipio script is just plain banal, and the English dub track - feeling more like a sixties effort, with some occasional streetwise American tonalities - tries to distill the basic relationships and plot to even more simplistic conflicts; throw in a captured wife (Isa Miranda), and you've got a character marker for the audience to follow the cross-cut narratives, before the warring sides finally meet on the battlefield.
Gallone does effectively uses cross-cutting as the Roman and Carthaginian armies anxiously await the first aggressive step that will kick-start the battle. This stylistic ploy may also have been used in earlier scenes, as characters like the separated Roman couple - the hubbie in Scipio's infantry, the wife now Hannibal's concubine - disappear for a long chunk until the grand finale.
Allegedly patterned after Benito Mussolini, Annibale Ninchi's performance is much more reserved than expected, and the military hero is relegated to a posing icon, mostly administering the nitty gritty battle tactics after throwing the pivotal lance that incites Hannibal 's pachyderm division. As with many good villains, the only figure of genuine interest is Hannibal.
Camillo Pilotto as the cruel invader has some strong scenes, including a few brief moments as he hashes out some theoretical strategies with soldiers in his tent; and, most oddly, when he meets the captured upper-class wife of a Roman soldier (Miranda), whose home was trashed by brown-painted soldiers, and who clearly gets raped off-screen by the self-serving ruler.
Revenge is a main theme in Scipio, and the film opens with a sea of bodies, and a lone Roman staff that beckons justice; reclaimed and elevated to a symbolic relic, the staff manages to survive the bloody Battle of Zama in a severely hacked up form, and bookends Scipio as a sign of sweet revenge.
The action finale is a real mixed bag, largely because the production used real elephants in the combat scenes, and some were clearly maimed and killed for 'authenticity.' Scipio marshals his wary soldiers into battle by grabbing a lance at throwing it right into the eye of a mounted elephant; later scenes show the poor creatures getting lanced in the legs, and a mother dying on her side, while the baby - 'humanely' spared by a smiling Roman - hovers close by.
The rest of the battle is fairly standard, as Gallone never manages to impress the immensity and scope of the battlefield in spite of actually having fields full of infantry and cavalry to play with. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are decent, and unusually gory for the era. (Hollywood 's Production Code mandated sadistic stabs be generally reduced to clean and fatal pokes in the tummy or back.)
In their witty, satirical, and informative 1984 book, The Hollywood Hall of Shame, writers Harry and Michael Medved chronicled Scipio in their 'Fascist Follies' wing, and describe the film as the epic that would restore Italy's stature in the filmmaking world. The film did win a prize - the Mussolini Cup at the 1937 Venice Film Festival - but according to the Medveds' research, the $2 million spectacular lasted a week in Italian cinemas before it was reduced to free screenings at diverse public events, and yearly grade school assemblies in Italy. A New York City premiere failed to ignite the interest of critics and cinemagoers, and the film ultimately disappeared in the art house circuits.
Alongside Stalin's The Fall of Berlin and Goebbels' Kolberg, Scipio Africanus is one of three legendary propaganda epics released by IHF on DVD. The source print for this disc is the shorter American release version, and while in decent shape, the print has some harsh contrasts that detract from scenes that one must assume were shot with greater care for richer shades of gray. The mono mix is standard, and the DVD comes with a brief text essay that provides a good intro, and warns viewers about the animal cruelties.
Director Carmine Gallone explored an interesting mix of genres throughout his long career, notably (or infamously, depending upon one's blick) the silent mega-production, The Last Days of Pompeii / Ultimi giorni di Pompeii, Gli (1927), shot on location among the ruins, and costing seven million Lire. After Scipio, Gallone chose to focus on several biopics and filmed operas (including Madame Butterfly, with Asian actors in a unique Italian-Japanese co-production), and returned to the historical epic in 1960 with Carthages in Flames / Cartagine in fiamme, which featured Camillo Pilotto among the cast.
Film editor Oswald Hafenrichter later edited Carol Reed's Fallen Idol and The Third Man, and an eclectic mix of projects, including the Peter Sellers comedy, Smallest Show on Earth, and several British horror and sci-fic films during the 1960s.
Annibale Ninchi later appeared in Frederico Fellini's La Dolce vita and 8 1/2, and Isa Miranda maintained a lengthy career, popping up in a trio of cult films: Dorian Gray (1970), and Mario Bava's Roy Colt and Winchester Jack / Roy Colt e Winchester Jack (1970) and Twitch of the Death Nerve / Bay of Blood/Reazione a catena (1971).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan