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Monday, August 13, 2012

DAMON AND PYTHIAS -- DVD review by porfle

I was expecting the usual comic-book-level sword 'n' sandal yarn with DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962), but this Italian/USA co-production--released by MGM--aims to be a sober, respectable historical tale and in its own relatively modest way manages to hit that mark pretty well.

When the ruler of Athens dies, Pythias (Don Burnett) is sent to Syracuse to fetch his replacement, a missionary named Arcanos (Andrea Bosic) who is there preaching brotherhood and equality while being hunted by the guards of tyrannical emperor Dionysius (Arnoldo Foà).  Pythias falls victim to and then befriends a charismatic street thief, Damon (Guy Williams), who finds inspiration in Pythias' bravery and beliefs. 

When Pythias is captured and condemned to death by Dionysius, Damon offers himself as a substitute so that Pythias may return to Athens to visit his ailing wife Nerissa, with the promise that he will return in two months' time.  Dionysius agrees, confident that Pythias will never return and thus disprove the Greek's liberal philosophies in the eyes of the people when Damon is publicly executed. 

Filmed partly at Cinecitta studios in Rome, DAMON AND PYTHIAS is colorful and eye-pleasing, with attractive sets and some scenic locations along with several impressive and authentic-looking subterranean interiors.  While the sword 'n sandal flicks that this closely resembles seem inherently juvenile, this production succeeds in presenting its story with maturity and restraint but can't avoid also being rather dry and slow-moving.  Only when the substitution deal is made does the plot take a suspenseful turn that puts some spark into it. 

With so much dialogue, it's good that the writing is fairly sharp and most of the cast are able to carry it all off well.  Arnoldo Foà's subtlety and lack of the usual villainous traits make his Dionysius interesting to watch--he even bursts out with delighted laughter at an insult the captive Damon levels at cruel head guard Cariso (Carlo Giustini), and shows fatherly love for his son even while earnestly teaching him the most vile philosophies.

It's fun to see Guy Williams of TV's "Zorro" and "Lost in Space" as one of those cheerful rogues who constantly taunt and elude authority figures while running around doing roguish things.  His evolution into a more thoughtful and responsible person under Pythias' influence is touching.  As Damon's steady gal Adriana, the beautiful Liana Orfei proves as adept at playing a fiesty peasant woman as she is at being the Queen herself, as in HERCULES, SAMSON, AND ULYSSES a year later. 

Don Burnett makes a rather bland Pythias, especially next to Ilaria Occhini as his emotional wife Nerissa. Her deliciously overwrought performance is a delight, with Occhini becoming wonderfully unhinged during her final scene with Burnett, perhaps the film's dramatic highpoint.  Fans of THE GREAT ESCAPE will recognize Lawrence Montaigne as Damon's flute-playing accomplice in thievery.

German director Curtis Bernhardt, whose other credits include MISS SADIE THOMPSON, THE MERRY WIDOW, and KISSES FOR MY PRESIDENT, gives the entire production a stately veneer but manages a few effective action sequences.  In the film's final moments, Pythias attempts to return to Syracuse only to be headed off by Dionysius' guards, later engaging in a hand-to-hand clash with Cariso himself. 

Best of all is the sequence midway through the film in which Damon, Pythias, and Arcanos flee from a band of guards via horseback and horse-drawn cart, staged thrillingly by Bernhardt with some amazing stuntwork (including, alas, one of those cringeworthy horse-tripping stunts).

The "manufactured on demand" DVD from the Warner Archive Collection is in 16x9 widescreen with Dolby 2.0 sound.  No subtitles or extras.  The print used looks pretty good to me, although as I've said before I'm not nearly as picky about such things as the usual videophile. 

What might've been a much more emotional ending is simply cut short abruptly--there's no follow-through to send DAMON AND PYTHIAS home with a genuine emotional catharsis.  Then again, the film doesn't gush all over us to get its message across, but states it simply and succinctly before bowing out.  I may not have been deeply moved, but I felt pretty good overall about having watched this surprisingly thoughtful and mature film about the true meaning of friendship and brotherly love.

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