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Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
I recently purchased this box set out of curiosity. I guess I would summarize by saying
it's a real curio for film history buffs. Whether you want to spend $29.98 to satify your
curiosity depends on how much disposable income you have for home entertainment.

The reason I went for it was to see Sergio Leone's "Colossus of Rhodes". As a Leone fan, it's always interesting to see the early works of notable directors. Unfortunately, none of the Leone 'style' is
in this first feature although it's above average for the sword and sandal genre. I recall
watching these movies on Saturday morning when I was a kid. I didn't think they were
particalarly good but they were very strange and surreal. The sets were imaginative,
there were lots of extras, some action and occasional sadism. The dubbing was awful and the sound muddy but that seemed to be common for all Italian films in the era.
Aside from the Steve Reeves pictures, I recall a series imported by Joseph Levine
for television syndication called "The Sons of Hercules". They were re-cut, re-dubbed,
pan/scanned versions of Italian films with characters called 'Maciste' or 'Samson' but now
re-named as 'sons' of Hercules (Steve Reeves) who must've been quite a stud to
have so many offspring. As I recall, some were pretty outrageous including "Medusa vs.
Sons of Hercules". While I assume the Leone film was shown on Saturday mornings too,
I must've missed it so this was the first time I was able to screen it. Fortunately, they
mastered it on DVD in the original widescreen ratio. The sound is murky but overall
the picture quality is decent for such an old film derived from dupicate negative elements
at MGM. (I assume the Italians have the original camera negative). The story is a bit
convoluted and over complicated but so were Leone's later Westerns so perhaps this was
the first indication of his narrative technique. The performances are hard to judge with
the dubbing. I guess most of the actors look okay in their costumes with the exception
of Rory Calhoun who looks very out of place in this setting. He also isn't particularly
muscular for this genre. However, the actual Colossus statue is very interesting with
a series of mechanical devices inside to fight off enemy attacks. There's an end battle
scene that is pretty good. The picture will work better for you if you
happen to like these types of movies rather than being a representation of Leone as
a director. There have been far worse 'first' movies for major directors so this
one is a decent genre entry and because it was profitable, enabled him to make
"A Fistful of Dollars" a few years later.

The second movie in the set is Howard Hawks, "Land of the Pharoahs". Hawks disowned the
movie and it's hard to believe he directed it since it contains none of his style nor themes. It's not bad as these things go but when a director is a great as Hawks
(i.e. "Red River"), you're expectations are high and you're bound to be let down
as a result. There are no excuses like the Leone picture (a first try). Hawks
was well established by then and it's never really explained why he wanted to make
this type of movie.
The acting and screenplay are poor. At least the set design and climax are fun but it takes a long
time to get there. Lots of extras give it better production value than the budget would suggest.
The widescreen transfer is acceptable although a tad grainy and soft. That might be a result
of the sub-standard CinemaScope lenses of the time which tended to
distort the anamorphic image.

The third movie, "The Prodigal", is a complete bore relieved only by impressive set design.
Virtually no action and lots of talking. Purdom looks okay in period clothes and he ended up
going to Italy to make many more of these types of pictures after his Hollywood career was over.
The transfer is the best of the lot because MGM took good care of their in house negatives (as
opposed to imports like the Leone movie).

The sound on all three is disappointing and certainly not up to the quality of other fifties epics.
I would guess that "The Prodigal" probably was released in four track magnetic stereo. It doesn't
appear that MGM still has these tracks (or they deteriorated beyond use) so it has a two channel
mix which sounds weak. The sound on the Leone film is typical for dubbed Italian films
as mentioned above (shrill and muddy). The sound on the Hawks film is acceptable but no more.

One of the problems of all three movies is the grainy opticals (fades, dissolves, titles) which was
common for Eastmancolor films back then. You'll notice that in Technicolor films the effects look
fine but that's because they began A & B rolling the negatives so the dissolves were 'first generation'.
In other words, each roll of negative was assembled in two rolls (Roll #1A and Roll #1B). The entire
shot for a dissolve would be contained on roll #1A when it appeared. The matrix printer would then
mechanically fade out the end of that shot. Then Roll #1B would be put into the printer which had
the entire shot that was going to be dissolved with the shot on #1A. The printer would mechanically
fade in that shot so that the final release print (in dye transfer Technicolor) would have a dissolve that
matched the rest of the negative. In Eastmancolor, they didn't have that option so when Metrocolor
movies needed a dissolve, they would have to make a duplicate negative of that shot and splice it into the camera negative. The duplicate negative stock in the fifties was terrible. Very grainy and contrasty. It looked so bad that in some cases they would keep the camera negative of the shot until the actual dissolve, then splice in the dissolve (continuing the action) within the same image. That's why the film will look fine for a while then there will be a visual 'pop' and the image cuts to grainy duplicate footage for the dissolve then pops back to camera negative footage for the rest of the shot.
Very distracting but I guess if you wanted the 'greatest name in color' you would go
to Technicolor instead of Metrocolor or Warnercolor or other cheap Eastmancolor labs. In any event, all three films on these discs have those awful Eastmancolor opticals which look very fuzzy on DVD. DVD is unique in that the digital mastering process seems to exacerbate the attributes or liabilities of the negative. If the negative is sharp (i.e. "North by Northwest" in VistaVision and Technicolor), the DVD is going to look ultra-sharp, if not sharper than it is on film. If the negative is soft or grainy (Eastmancolor opticals, CinemaScope lenses etc.), it's going to look even worse on DVD.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspects of this box set are the commentaries. In fact, you might
say these movies were more fun to talk about than watch. Christopher Frayling gives
an excellent survey of Leone's career that is almost worth the price of the set (almost).
Director, Peter Bogdanovich, does a pretty good job with the Hawks film although there are some silent gaps during the running time. Drew Casper almost
makes you think that the Purdom film has some value with his discussion. I've got to hand it
to all three men. It can't be easy recording a commentary for films that none of them really think are top quality pictures.

So use your judgment. If you want to own everything Leone directed, buy the box set and watch
"Colossus" with the understanding that it's a first picture in an entertaining but schlocky genre.
Listen to the commentaries of all three and watch the climax of "Land of the Pharoahs" which is fun. You'll only be able to watch "The Prodigal" if you're an afficianado of MGM set design. From a marketing perspective, I can see why they're starting to do these box sets. It's probably the only way to derive income from films like the Purdom movie. Incorporate it into a package with better titles.

The final comment I have is to question whether any of these movies
should be classified as 'cult' titles. Camp...yes, cult...no. None of them have been seen for decades and I don't think they have a following among film buffs nor are they really 'bad' enough for repeat viewings like an Ed Wood or Hershell Gordon
Lewis movie.
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