Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Ulysses -- Man, Myth, Magnificent Moron? Well, I Like Him...
In 1954, Italian producers Dino de Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti took on the filming of what was at the time a very expensive project, the filming of the story of Ulysses. De Laurentiis is well known for a strangely eclectic variety of productions, including Nights of Cabiria, La Strada, Barabbas (a favorite of mine) and, oddly enough, Army of Darkness and all three of the Hannibal Lector movies. Carlo Ponti is the man who discovered and married Sophia Loren, his greatest claim to fame. One odd little note about Ponti – he was considered for the part of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, despite the fact that he was not an actor. He must have had the ethnic look and background down pat. Either that or he had powerful “friends.” Director Mario Camerini’s works are mostly Italian and unknown to me, except for his involvement in King Vidor’s production of War and Peace.
The fact that Ulysses is an Italian production is easily discerned by the fact that only 2 people in the film actually speak English, Kirk Douglas as Ulysses and Anthony Quinn as Antinous. Everyone else is speaking Italian, and although the dubbing isn’t bad, it’s pretty obvious most of the time. Every other actor in the film has an extremely Italian name, except for one, Tania Weber. I don’t know how she got in there. Maybe Tony or Kirk brought her along. I always wondered what it is like to shoot a movie scene where each person is speaking a different language, especially a love scene. But then, it isn’t unusual for a man and a woman to be talking about love in different languages, even if they speak the same one.
Ulysses is pretty good at being true to Homer’s epic poem, at least the portions that were told in this movie. Some events of the legendary 10-year journey home from Troy are left out completely. *There is no mention of Ulysses’ stay of 7 years on the island of the goddess Calypso. She loved him and he spurned her. I would have to re-read Homer to be sure that he spurned her for the whole 7 years. That’s a long time for a rugged, impulsive, physically perfect specimen like Ulysses to be celibate, but then this story is part history, part mythology, so that must be one of the myth parts.*
*Two other good parts of the story were also excised. Aeolus, master of the winds, gave Ulysses a bag in which he had trapped all the winds except the west wind, and warned him not to open the bag until the right time. Unfortunately, Ulysses’ men were not too bright, and just as they sighted their homeland, Ithaca, one of them opened the bag and the winds blew them half a world away again. The second deleted adventure involves the twin sea threats of the 6-headed monster Scylla and his vast whirlpool partner Charybdis. Wonderful story, but the movie was already expensive, and trying to recreate that scene in 1954 would have bankrupted the company.*
*I was a little surprised that the movie makers did not include the cleverest part of Ulysses’ arguments with Polyphemus. In Homer’s tale, after the cyclops had eaten a few men, Ulysses distracted him with the wine, a potent magical wine that didn't take much to get the cyclops inebriated. Polyphemus asked who he was, and Ulysses said in Greek “nobody.” The cyclops, who apparently didn’t speak Greek, then said that in gratitude, he would eat “nobody” last. To escape, the men actually tied themselves to the undersides of the sheep, and when the blinded Polyphemus ran his hand across the tops of the sheep to be sure the men weren’t trying to ride out, he was fooled. So he opened the rock for the sheep to get out. As Ulysses and his men made their escape, Polyphemus roared out “Nobody has blinded me.” So his fellow cyclops on the island took him at his word and ignored him. Pretty good stuff.*
Soon they come to an island with rocky shores strewn with the wreckage of ships. One of Ulysses’ men recognizes that they have come to the Island of the Sirens, whose wailing song drives men to madness so that they end up shipwrecked and drowned. Ulysses makes every man put wax plugs in their ears to they cannot hear the song, and will be able to sail away. However, his curiosity is intense, and he orders one of his men to lash him securely to the mast. He will not use the ear wax (yuk– well, you know what I mean), because he wants to hear the sirens sing. This is a very powerful scene acted beautifully by Kirk. To him, the sirens sound like his wife Penelope telling him he has reached home, to come to her and be with her, and he is convinced they have finally reached Ithaca. He shouts at the men to untie him, they are home, but the unhearing men continue on until the island is left behind. Ulysses is astounded at the cruelty of the gods and devastated by the event.
Each man tries the bow, but no one can come close to bending, not even studly Tony. Ulysses, still disguised as a beggar, asks if he may try, to everyone’s amusement. He bends the bow, places the bowstring, and shoots straight through the axes. He then shakes off his beggar’s hood, and everyone knows it is Ulysses. He and Telemachus, with the help of the household men, slaughter all of the would-be suitors. Penelope realizes it is Ulysses who has come home at last. *Again, a clever part of Homer’s story is ignored. Actually, Penelope is suspicious and even after seeing his face, is not sure if it is really Ulysses. He must have changed a lot. Ulysses convinces her by telling her that their bed is made from an olive tree that is still growing and rooted in the earth. That is so cool – I want a bed like that!*
Ulysses is a lot of fun, very moving in parts, well made, if you don't mind the funny echoing sound that dubbing often caused in those days, and well worth watching. Just for fun, I’ve written directions below for the way to find a very short video of the wrestling scene on Youtube that makes me laugh. I’m not a prude, far from it – I love a good raunchy joke and have fun with bawdy humor. With that said, this video shows Kirk and another Alpha male in diaper-like loin things performing compromising wrestling moves that are kind of embarrassing. A lot of bare chests, upper thighs and backend glimpses -- we've all seen sword and sandal movies, such as the recent stinko movie 300 (sorry, Gerard Butler fanatics), but at least Kirk and these guys show real muscles!) Anyway, hope you enjoy!
Go to Youtube -- in the search box, type Wrestling Movie Clip - Ulysses. It will take you to the page where the clip is at the top, posted by WrestlingExcellence. It's a hoot!