Goliath And The Dragon

Director: Vittorio Cottafavi   
Mark Forest, Broderick Crawford, Gaby Andre

Probably by now you know of my love for Italian cinema, at least of the kind that made real movies up to the late '80s when the industry finally collapsed due to a number of factors. My long-term plan is for this site to eventually have at least one review of each the most popular genres ever to come out of the country. So far the genres I've covered are spaghetti westerns, the giallo realm, Terence Hill & Bud Spencer slapstick fests, '70s crime dramas inspired by Dirty Harry, post-holocaust movies a la Mad Max, killer-animal movies inspired by Jaws, and zombie movies inspired by Night Of The Living Dead. Not bad so far, but I know I've still got a way to go before I feel I have properly looked at this country's cinema. I know someday I will have to look at Star Wars rip-offs, and fortunately I already have a copy of The Humanoid waiting for me when I feel that day arrives. There is also the "Mondo" genre, documentaries inspired by Mondo Cane, though I don't know at this point which one to pick - not that the genre is anywhere a favorite of mine. Maybe I'll find I need to cover Lucio Fulci, though word-of-mouth is making his movies less unknown all of the time. Anyway, with this review I am able to cross off another genre off my list, a genre that many might be surprised that I have not reviewed earlier. I'm talking about the peplum genre, which in fact was the genre that first showed the world that something good other than the food was starting to cook in Italy. (What about earlier movies like The Bicycle Thief and La Strada? Come on, who really cares about them?)

Peplum, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is an alternate name genre fans give to what are more commonly known as sword-and-sandal movies, "Thanks for the offer of help, but I'm already wearing a pair of trunks!"taking place thousands of years ago in the Roman-dominated Mediterranean area. These movies typically showcased heroes who possessed the strength of many men, boasting equally he-man names like Ursus, Sampson, or Hercules. In fact, it was a Hercules movie that really kick-started the genre, the 1959 version starring Steve Reeves that producer Joseph E. Levine brought to the U.S. and mass-marketed to great financial success at the box office. A wave of imitators followed, but by the mid-60s the genre was all but dead. Having seen several of these kind of movies, I think I have a good idea why this particular genre burnt out quicker than the others that came out during Italy's heyday in filmmaking, which also happen to be reasons why this particular genre has never been terribly entertaining to me. One reason is that more often than not you will find their tone to be quite childish - even as a kid, I preferred movies that didn't talk down to me even if I wouldn't understand everything. Another reason is their often cheesy production values; replicating ancient times and displaying efforts of superhuman strength takes money and expertise to do properly, two things these movies always never seemed to have quite enough of. This consequently leads to the third problem I find with these movies - there is often far more talk than anything else. And not interesting talk - just boring dialogue consisting of assorted declarations, threats, and the like that all seem totally interchangeable with any other peplum movie.

It therefore isn't surprising to find out that of the peplum movies that got released on this side of the Atlantic, most were released directly to television instead of getting any release in theaters. Still, even the money received from an American TV sale would go far in Italy, so the Italians were eager to make any arrangement with American distributors. The American distributor that was most involved with these peplum movies was American-International Pictures. They got involved earlier in the game than their competition, and were able to make a small fortune in the brief era of the peplum film, not just buying television rights, but theatrical rights on several occasions. One of the latter instances was with Goliath And The Dragon. Filming had actually halted midway due to a lack of funds, and American-International was invited to look at the finished footage; they provided money to complete the movie, though after reworking the screenplay with the Italian production team so that newly-shot scenes would best use the completed footage. Knowing this behind-the-scenes turmoil, it becomes understandable why the finished results are often quite bizarre. There are inconsistencies, things that are not explained, and just plain strange moments. But it somehow all holds together to be pretty fun all the same, complimenting often cheesy peplum production values that, for once, are amusing instead of pathetic to behold.

Mark Forest plays the hero of the movie, who is actually named Hercules in the original Italian version, but A.I.P. changed his character's name during the dubbing stage. No, he's not the dragon, in case you are wondering, but is the one named "Okay, so I'm Oh, Emilius then... wrong again? So I'm Goliath? I'm really confused..."Goliath. Of course, this particular choice of A.I.P. for the hero's new name brings potential confusion with the Biblical character, so they used a convoluted way to clear things up, adding an onscreen title crawl that reads in part,  "This is the story of Emilius the mighty, who, because of his tremendous strength and prowess, was given the name of Goliath." It would have been easier just to keep the original name of the character, if you ask me - after all, Levine didn't have copyright control over this public-domain character. Anyhow... After opening the movie by descending into the bowels of the earth in order to fulfill a request by the gods, Goliath is ready to settle down in the countryside of Phoebes with his wife Dejanira. But trouble's a-brewing; his brother Illus is in love with Thea, a woman whose parents killed his parents. Thea loves Illus, but happens to be the fiancÚ of Eurystheus (Crawford, Born Yesterday). Eurystheus is a power-hungry... well, I'm not sure what his official occupation is in this bordering territory, but he's scheming to conquer Phoebes, and would have done so already if it weren't for that pesky Goliath. He plans to use his female slave Assinoway in his schemes, plus his loyal legion commander Kindar. Kindar, by the way, happens to be in love with Assinoway. And Kindar also has a sister named Ismene, who happens to be in love with Eurystheus.

Well, there's certainly one thing you can't say about Goliath And The Dragon - that it lacks in plot. I haven't even mentioned the character of the centaur that makes his way into the going-ons, and who he is in love with. In fact, with all these characters (and more) running around, each with his or her own desires and schemes, it's sometimes difficult to keep everything straight while watching the movie. Not helping matters are also a number of separate plot threads that are extremely or totally lacking in explanation. For example, take the character of Eurystheus, not just with his job title being unrevealed. It's mentioned that he feels he has to marry Thea so he can "get respect". Why does he feel he needs respect, and from whom? It's not like there's anyone around, seeing how he had years earlier destroyed her town and apparently killed everyone there including her parents, a fact that he's somehow managed to keep secret all of this time. Then take that relationship between Thea and Ilus. Why did her parents kill the parents of Goliath and Ilus? This is never answered, and the fact that this situation is shown to be bothersome for Goliath early on in the movie is never resolved. And how did the two meet and fall in love with each other despite that past tragedy no doubt hanging in the air long before they met, especially since Eurysthus has been keeping Thea under tight security at his fortress for what seems to have been a considerable time?

In another movie, questions similar to these would probably linger in my head and be bothersome enough to lessen the chance of enjoying the viewing. But in Goliath And The Dragon, it actually comes across as a "How did I get this scar? Well, I was drunk, and my eyeliner pencil was sharpened too much..."perfect fit. The portion of the story that we manage to keep straight in our minds is so contrived, so unbelievable, that it's only natural to expect some things in the end won't make sense. You wait with anticipation for the next crazy event or scheme to come along and tickle you. It's an insane world where anything can happen, and things can change for no reason at all. Take our hero, for example. As it usually is in movies like this, we get a scene where he uses his strength to help some ordinary citizens with a chore of some kind - in this case, ripping completely out of the ground a tree about ten stories tall, and showing hardly any effort while doing so. Now, I think we can all agree that this would take an immense amount of strength to do. Yet when he later wrestles with an elephant... catches a ten-foot tall stone statue that topples on him.. or even picks up a boulder about the size of a big beach ball... he visibly has to put a great deal more effort into these things. It's not just Goliath's strength that's schizophrenic. Take a later scene when everything is going wrong, causing him to yell out loud, "Gods, from this moment on I shall be your enemy! I will no longer recognize your laws, nor obey you!" After a heartbeat, he then adds, "Help me to rescue Dejanira!"

There's a lot more hilarious dialogue where that came from. At one point someone says, "You're only a mass of fat and muscle, full of violence and brutality!" Later on, the voice of the Gods travels through the wind to tell Illus that the wine Goliath has in his hand is poisoned; while that by itself is not amusing, the fact that the Gods have to repeat that warning over and over (for what seems to be forever) until it finally clicks in Illus' brain ends up making the scene extremely funny. But those aren't the most unintentionally amusing sequences in the film. As you may have guessed, it's the scenes involving special effects that provoke the most laughter. To be fair, I will give some kudos to the set designers; overall, their various sets - cave interiors, the temple, the palace grounds and interior - aren't that bad-looking to the eye, surprisingly. They have an acceptable amount of detail, and they're often photographed in unconventional angles that not only lets the viewer see these familiar settings in a different way, but also lets you see how spacious they are. And there are a couple of moments involving collapsing walls in these sets that the special-effects crew does extremely well; you really do get the feeling of a massive amount of heavy rock falling to the ground.

But it's the incompetent special effects that are the real treat in Goliath And The Dragon. There's a three-headed fire-breathing dog that looks like it was made from a moth-eaten fur coat, and even though it has some ability to move a few "Let's see... lots of long sharp teeth... yep, this must be the dragon!"steps despite the chains tied to it, stays in one place and becomes an easy opponent for Goliath. (Two heads may be better than one, but I guess three aren't.) Then there's the man-bat - a humanoid winged flying figure covered with fur (probably from the same ratty coat) that is very obviously being swung through the air with the use of wires, and subsequently gets into a wrestling match that has a remarkable similarity to the one Thor had with Satan in Rock 'N Roll Nightmare. Then there is the title monster (the dragon, not Goliath), which is brought to the screen with two different special effect techniques - stop-motion animation, and full-scale puppetry. I guess the stop-motion isn't that bad, but I wish the camera had been closer, because in these shots the dragon looks more like a garden lizard than dinosaur-sized. The less said about the puppet (of whose neck and head is only shown), the better, though I was curious why even though this was supposed to be a tough dragon, why Goliath's mighty strength still didn't result in an instant decapitation (or even a wound of any kind) with the first swing of his sword. There I go, asking questions again. But this is a silly movie after all, and with silly movies like these, picking them apart is what provides a lot of the entertainment. This is one event that you can bring a knife to that your mother will approve of.

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See also: Hearts And Armour, Quest For The Mighty Sword, Sinbad Of The Seven Seas