Set in the period between Greece decline and Roman ascendancy, The Colossus of Rhodes begins with the ceremony marking the completion of the titular Wonder of the World.
Ten years in the making, the giant statue over the entrance to the island state's main harbour promises to alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean, giving Rhodes and its allies a near impregnable base.
Two views of the Colossus, in benign mood / mode
A later fight on its shoulders, giving an idea of the film's scale
Accordingly the Phenecians, the first villains of the piece, have sent an emmisary to Rhodes to negotiate with King Sirse for access to the harbour, the plan being to raid Greek ships and split the proceeds.
Sirse is wise enough, however, to impose a limitation on the number of Phenecian ships and men permitted into the harbour at any one time, both as a means of securing his own position and hopefully avoiding arousing suspicion amongst the Greeks, Rhodes traditional ally.
Sirse's advisor Thar has his own plans and is secretly plotting to overthrow his ruler with the aid of the Phenecians, hundreds of whose troops are being brought into the island in the guise of Macedonian slaves.
Sirse, Thar and the Phenecian emissary negotiate over a model of the harbour – a precursor to McBain's simulacra of Sweetwater station?
In addition another faction amongst the island's nobility also hopes to bring about a regime change, being dissatisfied with Sirse's rule and what they see as the vainglories of the Colossus. Unlike Thar they are loyal to their homeland and are looking to Greece for assistance.
All this means that everyone wants to know where the loyalties of the heroic half-Rhodean warrior visiting his uncle after his recent wartime exertions for Greece, Dario, lie and if he is just the innocent abroad that he appears to be...
Though entirely enjoyable in its own right, the main interest that The Colossus of Rhodes holds for many viewers today – myself included – is likely in its status as the official directorial debut of Sergio Leone and the extent to which it contains the same signature touches and themes as can be found in his later films.
The chief differences from the westerns are that the distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys are more straightforward and obvious, and the failure of the protagonist to play different factions against one another for his own benefit.
As Dario says at one point, “I don't play the hero” – rather he is the hero.
Leone's approach to history is also somewhat distinctive here, playing that bit faster and looser in terms of historical details. Though he acknowledged that it would probably take a lifetime's research to pursue authenticity here, it could be argued that in the case of the western he did do this research into its myths and history. Just like his later films, however, Leone also proves inclined to go for what he felt to be right in terms of the impact or effect it would have on the audience, as with a Colossus three times the size of its historical counterpart, positioned in a different place and tricked out with all sorts of fancy gadgets.
The Colossus reveals one of its secrets, raining fire down on a ship trying to pass beneath it
The film's approach to identity and allegiance is also somewhat reminiscent of Leone's later films, as when the difference between a Macedonian slave and a Phenecian warrior comes down to a uniform or the way in which Dario's love-interest Diala and uncle Lissipus do not revealing their true allegiances until late in the day.
There are also some surprising reversals of expectation, as with the way it looks like these selfsame slaves are about to be sacrificed to the god Baal rather than be housed in the dungeons of the temple until the moment to strike arrives, or the attempted forcible abduction of Dario by the Rhodean rebels after he stubbornly refuses to come along quietly and listen to what they have to say.
While the film is very much on an epic scale, it also largely succeeds at the more intimate level. In particular two of the female characters rank amongst the best developed ones to appear in a Leone film for some time, albeit with a relatively straightforward good girl / bad girl, if not madonna / whore, distinction emerging as the film goes on.
There's also an intriguing aspect to the rebels' motivation. It's not entirely clear what Sirse has done to incur their enmity other than following what they feel – admittedly correctly – to be the bad counsel of Thar and, perhaps, putting his own personal glory above that of Rhodes and the welfare of its people.
Some Blondie-style sharpshooting threatens to send a rebel to i leoni
Nevertheless, the other citizens of the Island seem happy enough with the building of the Colussus and the promise of prosperity and security that it offers, or are at least not generally that vocal in their complaints.
As such, there is perhaps the hint that the conflict is, much like the subsequent representation of American and Mexican civil wars in The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Duck You Sucker, primarily between two elite factions and the kind of thing which the masses would do best to avoid getting entangled in.
A somewhat unexplained, Duck You Sucker style massacre scene
There is a difference from these later films in that it is more idealism rather cynicism that eventually triumphs. Given Leone's remark that the distinction between his and Ford's westerns could in part be attributed to their respective backgrounds – Roman pessimism and American optimism – this may be a reflection of the film's own historico-mythic setting or that Leone was not interested in undertaking a wholesale re-invention of the peplum in the same way as he would later be with the western.
Two of the rebels undergo torture in a classic piece of homoerotic sadism
It is perhaps somewhat curious in this regard that the film is credited to Leone whereas A Fistful of Dollars was originally accredited to the pseudonymous Bob Robertson, such that he moved from being identified with his work to a position non-identification – albeit with a name that referenced his director father, Roberto Leone – before going back to identification from For a Few Dollars More onwards.
Presumably this loss of authority on Fistful can be accounted for by the fact that at the time it was still a relatively untested genre for Italian directors. Whereas the the historical and mythical epic was actually invented by the Italians in the silent era, such that the contemporaneous work of Cottafavi and others could be understood as a post-fascist reclamation of Italian cinematic heritage, the western, like the Gothic horror, was initially perceived as a foreign genre which Italians had no obvious aptitude for, leading filmmakers to attempt to pass off their product as of US or UK origin as generically appropriate.
This said, just as the practiced viewer can easily spot the stylistic and thematic differences between Hammer and Italian Gothics, part of the whole reason for the spaghetti westerns proving so fresh and attractive to many audiences at the time was their evident differences and departures from the Hollywood models.
It is this, despite Leone's attraction to The Colossus of Rhodes as a project apparently residing mostly in the opportunities it afforded him to ironicise the form after his uncredited and unofficial, straight debut on The Last Days of Pompeii, is perhaps where the finished product proves lacking compared to its immediate successors.
The deceptiveness of appearances, as we think the slaves are about to be sacrificed to Baal's gaping maw
The balance between following convention and introducing innovation is more heavily weighted towards the former than would later be the case here, such that cliché and pastiche tending to appear as such rather than as parody, subversion, deconstruction or any of the other preferred oppositional critical terms of choice.
Though some horse riding sequences outside of the city of Rhodes and some brutal and inventive torture scenes could easily have seen service in one of the later westerns with different musical accompaniment, costuming and design, the urban and sea-front locations that dominate elsewhere tend to makes Leone's direction generally that bit more anonymous than it would later become.
The contrasts between close-ups and background vistas are less extreme and more conventional, the former serving more in a classical Hollywood manner than as the exploration of the geography of weather-beaten, life-worn, distinctly unglamorous physiognomies. (As an aside, there is perhaps also a connection to be explored here between Dreyer's Joan of Arc, as the film of the facial close up, Pasolini – who, as Bertolucci notes in an interview, greatly admired Dreyer's film and drew inspiration from it when making his directorial debut, Accatone – and Leone's mature work a few years later.)
The camera assumes an independence from Dario's point of view, circling back to incorporate the seer within the seen of the set.
Leone's rhetorical, mannerist camera style is however in evidence when Dario pursues Diala into the crypts of her ancestors, where a 360 degree pan starts from his point of view and concludes by incorporating him within the camera's gaze as it comes to rest once more. The same sequence also sees a (wo)man with no name incident when Dario, reading out the names atop each mummified noble, encounters Diala standing in a vacant spot and plays along with her – “Hm, no name here” – before continuing on his way as if he had not seen her.
Likewise, traces of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly can perhaps be seen when a galley full of rebels proves to have been beneath Dario at the quayside all along and in a colisseum sequence where ranks of Phenecian archers are dramatically revealed at the back of the arena as Thar makes his bid for power.
Somehow Dario remained unaware of the ship's presence until it was pointed out to him
Similarly no-one in the coliseum seems to have noticed the rank of Phenecian archers amassing above them
As with the likes of the shoot out between Blondie and Tuco and Angel Eyes' gang and in the remarkably silent battlefield the two magnificent rogues stumble into shortly afterwards, there is here the sense of Leone experimenting with off-screen and on-screen space and the relationship between visual and aural data sets, formulating these for the first time along the lines that if you can't hear it or see it within the frame then it doesn't have any existence.
There's perhaps also vague hint of Tuco and Blondie's repeated riffs on “two kinds of people” in Dario's ironic references to Rhodes as the “Island of Peace” every time someone gets attacked or murdered.
A number of the performers like George Rigaud and Roberto Camardiel would go on to be spaghetti western regulars, the two actually appearing together as Scots and Irish patriarchs in Seven Brides for the McGregors, with Camardiel also appearing in For a Few Dollars More.