What we have here is a prime example of how the Italian filone cinema, no matter how successful it might have been in meeting the needs of its target vernacular audiences, was never going to be recognised by critics.
For in combining bringing together Zorro and Maciste within a pseudo-historical context that seems neither man’s but rather more something akin to a rather ahistorical Spanish version of the world of the Three Musketeers, and in then releasing the film ‘badly’ dubbed into English – with Maciste renamed as Samson – the filmmakers were undoubtedly setting themselves up for all manner of critical derision.
Nevermind that the same critics who likely attacked the film for this combination of anachronisms likely hadn’t seen the original silent-era Maciste in Hell, where the character, still incarnated by Bartolomeo Pagano, is likewise taken out of the ancient world where he originated and placed in the 19th or even early 20th century.
Though he’s here played by Alan Steele / Sergio Ciani and looks more like a Hercules type, with a full head of hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Maciste’s otherwise still the same old figure: a good-natured, easily duped righter of wrongs.
Zorro, here incarnated by Pierre Brice, wears the same all-black outfit and is likewise still a heroic defender of the weak, but his alter ego is not that of Don Diego but rather Ramon, a loyal servant and would-be suitor of the pure and kind Isabella de Alonzon.
Our two heroes are pitted against one another when Isabella’s uncle, the reigning monarch, dies of a fever on an island part of the kingdom; the exact location of this island in relation to the rest of the kingdom remains unclear throughout, as do geographical and temporal locations generally, to thereby establish an appropriately mythical chronotope for anyone who cares about such things.
Knowing that the king will surely have chosen Isabella to succeed him, her evil rival Malva and her lover, Garcia de Higuera, a captain in the guards, charge Maciste with intercepting General Saviera, who is bearing the ex-king’s missive. Unfortunately for both our heroes bandit Rabek, gets to the general first...
True, you can pretty much guess the outcome already, that the conflict between Zorro and Maciste is an evenly matched one where neither man is ever going to strike a fatal blow; that the two men will eventually realise they are on the same side, and that good will inevitably triumph over evil, with – in true Lacanian fashion – the purloined letter eventually reaching its destination.
But this is exactly the point, the way in which the filmmakers give us exactly what the formula dictates they should. And if it’s arguably a case of no more than the formula – here noting the distinct absence of Bava-esque irony and the comparatively straight hybridisation of costume adventure and peplum modes, compared to the peplum and gothic horror of Hercules in the Haunted World – it’s also clear that a lot has gone into the production, with impressive sets, costumes and large-scale set pieces.
Whether or not it’s better than director and co-writer Umberto Lenzi’s other excursions into the filone with the likes of the Steve Reeves starring Sandokan is debatable, but Zorro contro Maciste is certainly the kind of film that you can’t help but enjoy if you’re willing to put yourself into the appropriate mindset of straightforward heroes, villains and situations.
Fans Sergio Leone may be interested to hear the Mexican-styled score from Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, as a possible example of the kind of thing he would have contributed to A Fistful of Dollars had fate not decreed that Morricone would get the job rather than Lavagnino, who had scored Leone's own peplum entry, The Colossus of Rhodes