Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ulysses -- Man, Myth, Magnificent Moron? Well, I Like Him...

Homer’s tale of The Odyssey has to be one of the richest stories of Greek history and mythology ever written. It is chock full of incredible adventures, sex, cruel Olympian gods, the most famous faithful wife in history, sex, drunken cyclops, wailing sirens, longing for home, and – did I say – sex. It doesn’t sound like something an old blind man would come up with out of the blue, does it?

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.

Kirk Douglas turns in a wonderful performance as the brave, strong, sometimes clever, stupid at the worst times, braggart and adventurer, Ulysses. Kirk really chews up the scenery with this one, and it works. After all, Ulysses is a larger-than-life character, and he deserves all the emoting Kirk can give. Kirk was in his prime in this movie, young and handsome and charismatic.  Gorgeous Silvana Mangano (wife of lucky de Laurentiss) plays Ulysses' long-suffering wife Penelope. Mangano also plays the temptress Circe, a wonderful idea for the film as Circe’s resemblance to his beloved wife makes it pretty easy for her to seduce Ulysses and keep him there on her island for a year (after turning his men into swine). Unusual woman.
The movie begins with Ulysses washed up on the shore of an island. He has total amnesia, and becomes engaged to the daughter of the ruler of the island. She is a really beautiful girl with the unfortunate name of Nausicaa. I suppose it didn’t sound funny to the ancient Greeks, but it's a bit stomach-turning in our day. Ulysses makes plans for the wedding, engages in a wrestling match, and all the while memories are surfacing. His story is then told in flashbacks as he looks out at the sea.

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.*

However, there is plenty to enjoy in this movie. My favorite part is the adventure of Ulysses and his men on the Island of the Cyclops. In the movie, only one cyclops is evident, Polyphemus, giant son of Poseidon.  *In Homer's poem, the island is occupied by other cyclops as well.* When the men come ashore looking for food and water, they discover a giant cave. Inside are sheep and cheese, and they are delighted. Why their leader Ulysses isn't too worried that everything in there is of enormous size, I don’t know. Maybe he was just too hungry to notice. In a bit of bad luck, Polyphemus comes home while the men are inside the cave. He rolls a gigantic rock across the entrance, and promptly eats one of the men for a snack. Ulysses reveals his clever side, sparring with Polyphemus in order to secure their release. He introduces Polyphemus to wine, and the giant is ecstatic. He drinks all of their wine in a couple of gulps, goes outside to get giant handfuls of grapes, and demands that the men make more wine. The scene is very amusing, as the men dance on the grapes to make wine, faster and faster, and the giant drinks and drinks until he gets drunk. Ulysses is apparently a little dim-witted in the fact that fresh grape juice isn’t going to do anything but give Polyphemus, well, shall we say digestive problems, but that’s where suspension of disbelief comes into play for the viewer.

While Polyphemus lolls like a drunken sot, Ulysses finds his giant club and whittles one end to a sharp point. At the opportune moment, Ulysses and his men drive the nasty weapon into poor Polyphemus’ only eye. In a literally blind rage, the cyclops ends up moving the rock and the men slip out and hightail it back to the ship. As Polyphemus roars in his frustration at not being able to find them, Ulysses shouts out in triumph his name and heritage, his homeland, so that the giant would know who had defeated him. Not a smart move. Polyphemus tattled to his Dad, Poseidon, and Dad cursed Ulysses’ voyage, saying he would not reach Ithaca for 10 years. *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.*

Meanwhile, back on the home front, poor Queen Penelope has raised their son Telemachus and waited 10 years for the husband she believes will return. However, she is being forced to remarry by the men who want to be king in the long-gone Ulysses’ place. Penelope, desperate to hold off this event, has told the men she would make her decision after she finishes weaving a large tapestry. Unknown to the men, every night Penelope would undo the weaving she had done during the day, and naturally the tapestry was not coming along very fast. The men live in her house, eat her food, and have a good old time waiting. Finally, one man comes who is not patient. It is Antinous, played by Anthony Quinn. He almost manages to seduce the lonely Penelope, and it is not hard to understand why she might give in. Kirk is great, but my grief would suddenly disappear with Tony making moves.

All this time, Ulysses tries desperately to get home, but Poseidon’s curse prevents him. He and his men land on the island of Circe. She wants Ulysses, and tries to keep him there with every spell at her disposal. She turns his men into swine (which some women say isn’t hard – just kidding, guys). Ulysses is seduced by her – um – charms, and a whole year goes by while he thinks it’s only a few days. Circe accedes to his desire to leave, the men are returned to their former human selves, and Ulysses and the crew depart.

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.

At this point in the movie, Ulysses remembers who he is, tells the lovely but poorly named Nausicaa that he is sorry, and finally reaches Ithaca. He comes to his home dressed in rags and pretending to be a beggar to see what has been going on in his absence.  He wants to be sure Penelope still loves him and has been faithful to him.  Now that's what I call nerve.  He's had 7 allegedly celibate years with Calypso, one totally sexually abandoned year with Circe, and has been engaged and probably intimate with the beautiful (urp) Nausicaa.  OK, so he can explain -- I was bewitched, I don't remember a thing -- right. Telemachus meets him, and father and son are reunited. Telemachus explains that just that day Penelope has agreed that whoever can complete a task she will devise, can marry her. She has decided that whoever can bend Ulysses’ bow and string it, then shoot an arrow through the holes in the heads of 10 lined-up axes, may marry her. Penelope knows that no one has ever even been able to bend the bow of Ulysses, much less succeed at the axe trick, and feels safe. Ulysses also meets Penelope, but she does not recognize him in the beggar's outfit, and tells him of her sorrow and faithfulness.

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!


  1. Becky, I can tell that you had fun writing this review. I haven't seen ULYSSES in years, but (surprisingly) remembered most of it as I read your review. I have a fondness for the Italian epics of this time period with their international casts and scenic vistas. However, this one is not one of the best for the reasons you described. Also, though I think Kirk does OK in the lead role, he seems fundamentally miscast. A less brawny Ulysses who emphasized the more cerebral aspects of the mythic hero would have made for a more intriguing film. Of course, it probably would have been a good deal less exciting.

  2. Rick, I thought you might be interested in something I read while researching the movie. One critic said that it was "Homer's Odyssey for kids." He had a good point. There was a lot of subtle irony, sorrows and cleverness to the full story of Ulysses, much more cerebral, as you mentioned. But these guys apparently weren't going for the well-read adult crowd. As the action picture they made, Kirk was good. I didn't put it into my article, but the recent TV version of Ulysses was superior in that aspect, with Armand Assante giving a full-range, wonderful performance.

  3. I enjoyed this as well. It's funny, I haven't seen "Ulysses" in decades but it was one of those movies that seemed to be on TV all the time growing up. Fast forward 20-30 years and I can remember only sporadic airings since. I don't know why this happens.

    Growing up, there were two 1960s science fiction movies that seemed to be on every other week in the Chicago area in the 1970s - "Cyborg 2087" with Michael Rennie and "Destination Inner Space" with Scott Brady. As prevalent as those showings were, I don't think they've been seen since.

    "Ulysses" was the same and I had the same experience as Rick while reading your review. Haven't seen it eons, but a lot of memories came flooding back as I was reading. Nice job, Becky.

  4. This was on TV all the time when I was a kid. I loved it, but felt sorry for the Cyclops. I know he was a bully, but geez. I'd love to see it again. Also, Helen of Troy and Jason & The Argonauts.

    Speaking of cleaning up a story - after Jason ran off with the Golden Fleece and Medea, her father the king pursued them. So Medea chopped up her brother and threw pieces of the corpse into the sea so the pursuing ships had to stop and retrieve them. (Or she lured her brother into a trap and Jason killed him) Instead, the movie ends on a note of happy romance.
    Of course, if they made a sequel the plot include how Jason got betrothed to another woman. You would think he would know better than to trifle with the affections of a sorceress.) In revenge Medea gave her a dress that stuck to her and burned her to death on the wedding day. The napalm bride's dress! The fearing the reprisals against her sons by Jason, she killed them too. That's just a few of the things that happened after the golden fleece.

  5. Becky, I don't think I've ever seen this film in one sitting...parts here and there, but never all at once. Loved reading your amusing review (your asides were comical!) and I think I might try to sit down and watch the entire film. BTW, you and I disagree about Tony and Kirk...have to take Kirk over that horrible haircut--and where are the muscles?

  6. Becky, this was very well done and a delight to read! I especially liked your comments about the dubbing. Italian productions are usually dubbed, even the Italian language. In many of the 70s & 80s horror films I've seen, there are American stars (like Jennifer Connelly in Dario Argento's PHENOMENA). Typically the U.S. stars would speak their lines in English, while the Italian stars would speak theirs in their native tongue, and then it would be dubbed in Italian and English. So with a DVD, you can alternate between the Italian audio track and the English, and both of them, at varying moments, will be in sync. Consequently, it's difficult to determine which language was intended as primary. There are also DVDs with English soundtracks that look good, but then previously cut sequences only have an Italian audio available. It's all so confusing!

    Anyway, thank you for a wonderful read. It was, much like the film itself, gloriously epic.

  7. Kevin, I remember Ulysses being shown a LOT on TV a long time ago too. Then it just seemed to disappear!

    Panavia, I felt a little sorry for the cyclops, but having eaten one of the men, I figure he got what he deserved!

    Kim I'm glad I made you laugh -- I had a great time writing it. I guess it isn't hard to tell I love the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, we will just have to agree to disagree about Kirk and Tony. You are quite right about Tony's haircut -- it's pretty bad! But I love his looks, voice and just manly power -- LOL. And I don't care about muscles much, that just isnt' my style! So we can each have the one we want and keep our friendhsip intact!

    Sark, thank you so much for your complimentary comment. I would like to try that with the language features on the DVD -- that sounds fun. You made me remember the original Godzilla -- remember Raymond Burr as the sole American speaking English while everybody else is speaking in Japaanese SO badly dubbed? I don't think Raymond was anaywhere near the actual set -- he always seemed to be just sitting in a rather bare room for his appearances....

  8. Becky, When I first saw this movie many years ago, I thought the beginning was quite slow and did not stick with it. But, after reading your wonderful review I want to give it another try.

    I'm a huge fan of both: Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, two excellent actors.

  9. From the moment I saw your wonderfully witty title I thought this must be written by the clever pen of Becky. I paged down 10 times, which may be a record!, and found that I was correct. I love mythology, too, and "Ulysees" does not disappoint. But your commentary along the way was priceless. Loved it!

  10. Thanks so much, Dawn. I think you would enjoy seeing it again.

    Toto, it really is 10 times -- I didn't even realize -- Wow, I did go on too long! I guess I needed an editor. I'm so glad you trekked your way through it and liked it. More than the movie, I love The Odyssey, and loved writing about it along the way. I guess I could practically have posted the whole of Homer's poem in the space my article takes! Well, I guess most people have something about which they get carried away. You are always so complimentary about my stuff, and it means a lot to me -- doing commentary on this one was fun!

  11. well...awesome it is...I love the jibes/pokes/jabs/asides...this is a film for when we were young...why they changed so many plot elements is beyond me, especially the POLYPHEMUS/NOBODY part...interestingly, NAUSICAA was used for the name of an alien race in the original STAR TREK and used by HAYAO MIYASAKI as the name of his heroine in NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WINDS!!!

    1. Well, it's not surprising - it's a name from mythology. Nausicaä means "burner of ships."