søndag 5. september 2010

Thor and the Amazon Women/Le gladiatrici

Italy, 1963

Directed by Antonio Leonviola

Susy Andersen, Carla Foscari, Joe Robinson, Harry Baird, Janine Hendy, Maria Fiore, Claudia Capone

A while back I bought a DVD set called the Warriors 50 Movie Pack, which consists of a whooping 50 Italian peplum movies from the 1960s. It's currently selling for $26.99 on Amazon, which means you're getting 50 films for roughly $0.5 each. Sounds like a great deal but, unfortunately, most of the films are given horrible presentations – having been culled largely from cropped, battered and washed-out TV prints. In fact, the majority of the prints are practically unwatchable. There are, however, a few exceptions, and one of those is the 1963 film Thor and the Amazon Women, which not only has one of the better transfers in the set - it's also a very enjoyable little flick.

Unlike most of the other films in the DVD set, this one doesn't play out in ancient Rome. Instead it is set in a kingdom ruled by a tribe of bloodthirsty women who have enslaved all the men - keeping them as caged prisoners and forcing them to work in a mine. The evil black queen (Janine Hendy) is a particularly nasty number who takes great pleasure in the pain and suffering of others.

One day, however, a laughable-looking sibyl with green-ish skin and white hair foretells that a brave and powerful man will defeat the queen's all-woman army and overthrow her. This brave man would seem to be kind strongman Thor (Joe Robinson), whose strength and heroic deeds the oppressive women have caught wind of.

The sibyl makes a predicament...

...and it's not to the queen's liking!

Naturally, the queen is none too keen on the prospect of being overthrown, so she sends out her troops to capture Thor and thereby prevent the sibyl's prophecy from being fulfilled. The queen's female army, led by the shapely captain-general Yamad (Maria Fiore), soon succeed in finding Thor and confront him in an unintentionally sidesplitting scene where Yamad matter-of-factly announces: “We have come to capture you, Thor. You must come with us!” Unsurprisingly, Thor refuses, and when the women attempt to seize him he starts backing away while shouting: “Stand back! Don't move! I do not fight against women!” Hilariously, Thor's English-dubbed voice sounds terribly wimpy here - making the supposedly heroic strongman come across like a big coward. Anyway, Thor keeps backing away from the women till he ends up falling off a cliff! Fortunately for him, he is carried to safety by his muscular black sidekick Ubaratutu (Harry Baird), who hides them in a cave.

Thor and Ubaratutu

Thor the wimp

Yamad and her army don't have to leave empty-handed, however, as they come across the beautiful, blonde Tamar (Susy Andersen) and her annoying little kid brother Homolke, and decide to take them prisoners instead. We quickly learn that Homolke and Tamar aren't just simple village folk. No, their father was actually the king of the kingdom that is now ruled by the merciless black queen. She had the entire royal family massacred so she could take over but Tamar and Homolke were able to escape and have been living quietly in exile among a friendly village people ever since. All of this is revealed to us through some terrible expository dialogue in which Tamar actually tells her little brother the whole story about how the two of them escaped when the rest of their family was slaughtered. As if Homolke - who, after all, witnessed all of this together with Tamar - wouldn't already know!

Tamar and Homolke

Luckily for the royal siblings, though, their captors have no idea of their real identity but they are quickly separated. Homolke is put with the rest of the captive males, while Tamar is put in gladiator training. Apparently, all female prisoners must become gladiators and fight to the death in the arena for the enjoyment of the queen and her women. Tamar is given 21 metals bands to wear on one arm - representing the amount of gladiator battles she must fight and survive before she will have earned her freedom. For each battle she wins, one band will be removed. So far, however, not a single one of the gladiator women have managed to win their freedom but there is one who is very, very close: the wicked Ghebelgor (Carla Foscari), who only has two bands left on her arm.

The perils of gladiator training

Evil, sexy Ghebelgor is willing to do whatever it takes to lose those last two bands...

But where is our big hero Thor in the midst of all this? Oh, he actually spends most of the film bed-ridden in the cave, where he recuperates from his fall down the cliff! Some hero, huh? If anything, Thor is more a supporting character than any sort of hero. Eventually, he does get back on his feet and helps the gladiator women to revolt but he takes a definite backseat to the film's strong, sexy ladies. And that's not a bad thing! On the contrary, keeping the focus on the women is one of the main strengths. Gladiator movies were popular at the time, thanks to big Hollywood spectacles like Spartacus (1960) and Barabbas (1962), but this film manages to stand out in the crowd thanks to the gladiators being female. Sure enough, this wasn't the first Italian film to portray domineering women who live in a society free of men - an earlier example includes Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1960) but that was a pretty toothless affair leaning more towards comedy. Furthermore, Thor and the Amazon Women notably pre-dates the somewhat similar but far more well-known Italian female gladiator flick The Arena (1973) - starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov - by 10 years.

All the gladiator-related stuff in the film is really cool and well-made. The fights are impressively executed and are far more brutal than you'd expect from a 1963 movie. Furthermore, Tamar is a likeable central character who is easy to root for. The growing tension between her and the villainous Ghebelgor is very well-handled, and their inevitable face-off in the gladiator arena is one of the film's highlights.

Some surprising bits of gladiator violence

From a visual point of view, it's obvious that director Antonio Leonviola had a limited budget to work with, which is no doubt because he shot this back-to-back with the similar Tor - Mighty Warrior, which features much of the same cast. Most of the money seems to have gone into this companion film, and hence Leonviola had to perform a couple of cost-cutting maneuvers on Amazon Women. The most obvious example of this is a scene early in the film where a woman tells the queen of one of Thor's heroic feats, and her speech is accompanied by footage of Thor wrestling with a gorilla inside a cage. This footage is actually lifted from Leonviola's earlier peplum adventure, the wonderful Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules (1961) with Mark Forest. So, naturally, it's Forest we see wrestling the silly-looking gorilla, and NOT Joe Robinson - a fact that is painfully obvious!

Recycled gorilla wrestling

Much of the film was shot on location in the famous Postojna caves in Slovenia, and this adds a certain atmosphere and partly makes up for the budgetary restrictions. However, it was obviously very cold in the caves as there are many scenes where we can see frost breath coming from the mouths of the scantly dressed actresses.

The Postojna caves

While the film's original Italian title Le gladiatici - i.e. the gladiatrices - is in keeping with the film's themes, the misleading English title is certainly not. 'Thor and the Amazon Women' makes you think this is going to be a film about Thor - when in fact he's a supporting character at best. Whenever he is on-screen, all he seems to do is recuperate in bed or goof around with his black sidekick, Ubaratutu, who is supposed to provide comic relief by behaving like a clumsy fool. Ubaratutu is portrayed as highly unintelligent and clearly inferior to his white pal Thor, whom he addresses as "master". Black actor Paul Wynter had previously played a similar character in Leonviola’s Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules, so it seems that this type of stereotypical portrayal of blacks is a common trait in Leonviola’s films. One can’t help but feel bad for Harry Baird, who plays Ubaratutu. This handsome-looking, muscular guy should have been given something better to do than to embarrass himself as the bumbling, unintelligent sidekick.

Ubaratutu in all his glory

To me, the only interesting thing about Thor and Ubaratutu is their strange, homoerotically charged relationship. This is said about lots of pepla and most of the time it’s a case of people reading way too much into the Italian way of male bonding. In this film, however, the gay vibes are unusually strong - with Ubaratutu intimately sucking poison out of Thor's leg and gently nursing him back to health. And it doesn't exactly help that Thor shows a surprising disinterest not only in leading lady Tamar but actually in all of the women in the film. Yeah yeah, I know I'm reading way too much into this but I had to try and find something interesting about the Thor character and there really wasn't much else! To me, the fact that the homoerotic vibes are most likely unintentional just makes it funnier.

One of many awkward moments between Thor and Ubaratutu

But, fortunately, it doesn’t matter much that Thor is a bore because the sexy female cast more than make up for this by livening up the screen with their presence. Blonde, statuesque Susy Andersen is best remembered for her starring role in the 'Wurdalak' segment from Mario Bava's anthology horror film Black Sabbath (1963), and she makes Tamar a strong, sexy and likeable heroine who is considerably tougher than your average peplum heroine. Then there are the wicked villainesses, whose delightful bitchiness adds volumes to the film's camp entertainment. The gorgeous Janine Hendy is great as the evil black queen who rules the all-white village with violence, while her black superiority is symbolically demonstrated by her carrying around a little white cat. You gotta love this kind of charming bluntness!

But my absolute favorite of the lot is the diabolical Ghebelgor, who is a really amazing piece of work. Curvy, raven-haired Carla Foscari plays the part with real gusto and clearly relishes the opportunity to play a character that is so wonderfully ruthless. Her huge grin when she is given the task of executing a girl who refused to kill her gladiatorial opponent is priceless.

Tamar and Ghebelgor battle it out

It’s really interesting to see how nearly all the women are depicted as strong and independent. These gals are definitely are far cry from the helpless damsels in distress we see in most pepla. That said, this is not in any way a feminist action flick. Far from it! If anything, writer-director Leonviola seems to want to show us the horror of how society would be if ruled by women. His view on a woman's real place in society is clearly demonstrated through some outrageously non-PC dialogue by the captain-general Yamad, who rebels against the female rulers because, as she herself puts it: "a woman cannot deprive herself of every human sentiment in the name of a superiority that nature never meant to assign to them!" Leonviola clearly shares her views, and while this is a horribly offensive attitude, I couldn't help but find it endearingly amusing. They just don't make films with a message like that anymore!

Some viewers will no doubt be put off by the film's attitude towards blacks and women, and while I do not support such views, I think it's important to remember that this is just an obscure Italian action film from the early 1960s. When looked at through nostalgic glasses, its non-PC attitudes are actually more humorous than offensive. Plus there is so much else to love! The gladiator stuff is amazing and the strong female characters are really cool. The only reason I'm not giving Thor and the Amazon Women a top recommendation is due to the tired and unnecessary scenes involving Thor. Still, the rest of the film is surprisingly well-made and definitely worth checking out!

© 2010 Johan Melle

The cast:

Susy Andersen as Tamar

Carla Foscari as Ghebelgor

Joe Robinson as Thor

Harry Baird as Ubaratutu

Janine Hendy as The Queen

Maria Fiore as Yamad

Claudia Capone as Agarit

??? as Homolke

??? as The sibyl

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