Ulysses’ grunt

I was intrigued about the 1954 Italian ULYSSES by Mario Camerini and boy it’s handsome — Harold Rosson (THE GARDEN OF ALLAH) as cinematographer, Mario Bava operating, production design by Flavio Mogherini (who didn’t do that many period movies, oddly, but had done the Loren AIDA, the movie with the biggest shoe polish budget ever). It has a lovely misty look.

The script is by Homer but with quite a lot of help — six scenarists, in the Italian/DeLaurentiis tradition, including Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw, ffs. And the main thing that the result doesn’t have is an effective structure, something Homer had managed quite well all on his own. The hero is introduced, voiceless, in silent flashbacks to the Iliad, then loses his memory and regains it in a series of different, subjective flashbacks, and they keep cutting to Penelope because she’s the producer’s wife, even though Penelope’s situation isn’t really developing much. She’s just waiting for Ulysses. They try to fake a sense of progression but you can only do so much.

We watched the Italian dub because the audio on the English version was pathetic, sounding like it was recorded in a tin shack on the Adriatic, missing whole music cues. But losing Douglas’ voice was a considerable detriment. Like a dark tinted window descended between audience and actor. Whoever was doing the voice sounded quite nice and the orotundity of the language was helpful, but it didn’t seem to connect to the face onscreen. I’ve seen dubbed performances which, though flawed, kinda worked, and this one didn’t. I played back the sirens scene in English: MUCH better. (Silvana Mangano doubles as the voice of the sirens, and later trebles as Circe with the aid of a green fill light.)

Lots of bad scenes where people just stand and talk at each other in groups for ages.

But a decent cyclops (unlike Harryhausen’s, this one talks, though his cave is not worthy of Plato: Plato would have kept looking for something in his price range), a lovely ship and the ending is surprisingly drawn-out for a commercial film (because they want more Mangano) so we get a lot of the stuff that might normally get left out. A badly edited fight with the suitors but it still manages to be quite hardcore and intense. Kirk “gives it both knees,” as you’d expect.

We rarely get the impression that we’re watching people, behaving, though when we do it’s because Kirk has done something good. But we frequently get the impression we’re hearing a legend that has been told for hundreds of years, and that is preferable to the other feeling that threatens to prevail, that of watching a daft fantasy epic.

ULYSSES stars Vincent Van Gogh; Tadzio’s Mother; Paul Gauguin; and Helen of Troy.

8 Responses to “Ulysses’ grunt”

  1. This was shown in my high school film club one evening. Mr. Sayegh told us he had to call in a lot of favors to get permission to show it, and argued mightily to convince the School Board it was dead serious and in no way salacious. We had to get permission slips signed by our parents. Half the people in the room were teachers or administrators. Mr. S. gave a brief speech thanking everyone including the Superintendent of Schools. “And now,” he said, “Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’”

    The Cyclops was fuckin’ awesome, tho.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I saw this when it came out and greatly enjoyed it. it was my first exposure to a quasi-Italian film with an American lead. I love the scene where he’s chained to the mast and of course the Cyclops. Now I want someone to make a film of the great John LaTouche musical version “The Golden Apple”

  3. I was thinking we could do a podcast on Strick’s Ulysses, Camerini’s Ulysses, the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? and maybe Bava’s TV Odissea and Konchalovsky’s The Odyssey. But then that seemed like too much work.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Let’s not forget Godard’s Contempt where The Odyssey is the crucial touchstone for the entire movie.

    I’ve never understood why there’s never been a big epic movie about The Odyssey. It’s quite cinematic, and structurally it’s cohesive, centered on three characters (Telemachus, Odysseus, Penelope). And it can be done as a single 3-hour epic if you get the money and resources lined up. The main issue I think would be Odysseus himself, because if you do the story true, he will have to come across as a total scumbag albeit an entertaining one. Kirk Douglas in heel mode (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Vikings, Ace in the Hole) is quite a good choice, but not Kirk Douglas trying to be likable and noble (Spartacus).

    My personal preference would also be Robert Ryan, whose performance as John the Baptist in King of Kings is the only time I’ve seen an American actor convincing as someone who belonged in the ancient world.

  5. This one was apparently lined up for Pabst to do originally — I don’t know what happened, but the connection may have conceivably inspired Godard’s Lang idea.

    Odysseus isn’t very coherent in this — we’re told he’s wily, but a lot of the time he behave stupidly. Only at the end does Douglas really get a grip on it, though he has fine moments along the way (eg the sirens scene, a single shot tracking into his increasing frenzy).

    I tried looking at the Konchalovsky miniseries, but it has that nineties miniseries vibe all over it, I just couldn’t.

    Great article, David E, I hadn’t seen that one!

  6. Joe Dante Says:

    I saw this when it came out at the age of 9 and marveled at what I thought was an ultra-realistic mechanical giant cyclops! Couldn’t figure put how they got the skin to be so realistic! >sigh<

  7. Well, a lot of people in ’33 thought the same about Kong. “A bunch of people piled up together in a big ape suit.”

    Mind you, the cyclops’ legs are built full-size, plus I think a briefly-glimpsed hand, so you weren’t totally wrong.

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