The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1983) The Seven Magnificent Gladiators / I Sette Magnifici Gladiatori (1983/1984)        -***

     In the mid-1960’s, the Great Italian Ripoff Machine turned on a dime from mass-producing peplums to mass-producing Spaghetti Westerns. I’m not sure that has anything directly to do with The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, the film that Lou Ferrigno made during the downtime between his two Hercules movies for Luigi Cozzi and the Cannon Group, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it once I realized that this picture really was going exactly where its title seemed to imply. Of all the Italian contributions to the sword-and-sorcery boom of the 1980’s, The Seven Magnificent Gladiators is the one that most closely resembles an early-60’s peplum in terms of setting, tone, and subject matter, with its overt references to Roman culture and its relatively light touch with the fantastical elements. At the same time, though, its plot is lifted wholesale from The Magnificent Seven (which, of course, lifted it wholesale in turn from The Seven Samurai), the movie that arguably did more than any other to inspire the Spaghetti Western craze. I imagine this movie played very differently at home than it did in the United States, where it got washed away in the deluge of largely interchangeable cheap programmers about beefy, shirtless dudes running each other through with magic swords in fulfillment of hackneyed prophecies.

     As is so often the case in these movies, The Seven Magnificent Gladiators establishes its villain well before it establishes any of its heroes. The village of Clousia is one of several groaning beneath the tyranny of Nicerote (Dan Vadis, from Zorikan the Barbarian and The Ten Gladiators). Basically, Nicerote is running a protection racket. He and his rather ragtag army keep out the Romans and other invaders, in return for which service they claim an extortionate share of Clousia’s produce at each harvest, leaving the villagers themselves teetering constantly on the brink of starvation. He’s already recruited or killed all of his territory’s men of fighting age and condition, too, so there’s no serious prospect of Clousia or any of the neighboring settlements ever standing up to their oppressors. Of course, men of fighting age and condition are also men of soil-tilling age and condition, so the tyrant has only himself to blame for the rapidly diminishing returns on his scheme.

     Hang on a moment, though. One good look at Nicerote’s forces should be enough to make you ask how this rabble could possibly defy the world-conquering legions of Rome. The answer might best be described as elegantly unreasonable: Nicerote is literally a demigod, born of a dalliance between the seeress Anakora (Barbara Pesante) and some unnamed deity! He’s invulnerable to any weapon forged by mortal hands, and may even be immune to death by natural causes. And in an especially grim irony, Anakora plies her prophesying trade in Clousia, making her in a sense the originator of her own community’s misery. The thing about gods, though, is that they tend to hand out boons to counteract every curse, and vice versa. Hidden in Clousia’s idol to Jove is the Sword of Achilles, forged in the immemorial past by the Olympian smith Vulcan. Nicerote’s divine blood will afford him no protection against so mighty a weapon as that, but the Sword of Achilles can’t be wielded by just anyone. No, that sword requires the hand of a hero, and as soon as Nicerote and his men withdraw from their latest foray of polite plundering against the village, Anakora sends out a quartet of maidens under the leadership of Pandora (Carla Ferrigno, from Black Roses and The Adventures of Hercules) on a mission to find one. Naturally, Anakora reckons that they ought to start the search in Rome itself, which claims to be ruled by a god, and undeniably seems to be favored by them. That said, Pandora must by no means limit herself to emperors, generals, and the like. The gods are capricious, too, so even the lowliest slave or cutpurse might be the man destined to carry the Sword of Achilles to victory.

     Meanwhile, in Rome, an unnamed emperor whom I shall dub Flaccidus (Yehuda Efroni, from Hercules and Lemon Popsicle: The Party Goes On) is enjoying a chariot race not fit to entertain the dux of some Joveless backwater in Illyricum. Foremost among the contestants are veteran charioteer and ex-gladiator Scipio (Brad Harris, of Samson and The Mutations) and a fast-rising newcomer to the sport by the name of Han (Lou Ferrigno, from Sinbad of the Seven Seas and Return to Frogtown). The trouble for both men is that the race ends in a tie, and Flaccidus finds ties ever so disappointing. He wants to see a clear winner— and more to the point, he wants to see a dead loser. Scipio has been doing this sort of thing long enough that he’s willing to oblige in the ensuing one-on-one rematch, but Han is not. And when Han wins despite all Scipio’s best efforts, he grabs his beaten opponent and drives off with him out of the hippodrome, leaving Flaccidus to seethe impotently at the charioteer’s disobedience. Say… Was that an act of heroism we just saw?

     But returning now to Pandora, the first person she and her companions encounter in the city is a kind but crooked fellow named Vendrix (Women’s Prison Massacre’s Robert Mura). The girls don’t seem to realize that he’s trying to get laid when he chats them up on the street, and he certainly doesn’t understand that they’re searching for a hero to fight an evil demigod on their behalf. The miscommunication results in Vendrix agreeing to be “put to the test,” which is to say that he has to take hold of the Sword of Achilles as if to use it. That doesn’t go well for him. When someone of less than heroic stature grips the hilt of the sword, it becomes excruciatingly hot to the touch, even as it grips the holder’s hand in return, preventing him from letting go until he loses consciousness out of sheer agony. Incredibly, that experience will not sour Vendrix on the idea of following Pandora and her companions about, making horny puppy-dog eyes at them— especially at that cute brunette, Cornelia (Françoise Perrot, from Caged Women and Depravity).

     Inevitably, the Clousian women are soon meet up with Han and Scipio. Fortuitously, it happens just in time for the charioteers to save them from a pack of lepers who prowl the city streets, rolling anyone whose almsgiving they deem inadequate. Pandora doesn’t immediately get the chance to find out what the Sword of Achilles thinks of her rescuers, though, because Han and Scipio are arrested almost immediately thereafter, and brought back before the emperor to face his wrath. Now it’s Pandora’s turn to save them. After all, she’s under explicit instructions to offer the Sword of Achilles to Rome’s ostensibly divine ruler, but Flaccidus turns out to be even less worthy of it than Vendrix. Now Han takes his shot at the sword, provoking an altogether different and more positive display of supernatural fireworks.

     Even then, however, our now capital-H-ed Heroes have not heard the last of Flaccidus and his minions. Han and Scipio will have to fight their way out of Rome with the help of two more retired gladiators known as Festo (Giovanni Cianfriglia, of The Trojan Horse and The Invincible Barbarian) and Glafiro (Sal Borgese, from Daughter of the Jungle and Girls Will Be Girls), and a gambler, thief, and occasional girlfriend of Scipio’s, by the name of Julia (Sybil Danning, of The Phantom Empire and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times). And if they all have to flee the city regardless, then they might as well ride off to Clousia to settle Nicerote’s hash. You’ll notice that Han, Scipio, Julia, Festo, and Glafiro amount to just five Magnificent Gladiators, but that’s okay. Vendrix tags along, too, much to the others’ annoyance at first, and Han recruits a seventh champion— a massive but gentle-hearted bruiser appropriately named Goliath (Emilio Messina, from The Arena and Messalina vs. the Son of Hercules)— along the way.

     The Seven Magnificent Gladiators surprised the hell out of me. Although it would be greatly overstating the case to call it good, this movie offers a degree of entertainment value considerably in excess of what one normally expects from collaborations between director Bruno Mattei and screenwriter Claudio Fragasso. Mind you, it probably helped that the skeleton of the plot already existed, so that all Fragasso had to invent himself was the dialogue (terrible as usual) and the details (insane, as is also usual) distinguishing his version from earlier, better known takes on the story. And I’m sure it helped as well that The Seven Magnificent Gladiators was a Cannon Group production. Mattei almost never had that kind of money to spend, and the only time this movie looks as pathetically junky as his work usually does is during the chariot race, which attempts to do Ben Hur with four guys and eight horses, on a track about the size of a Wendy’s drive-through circle. Cannon Group money also bought something faintly resembling star power, including not just Lou Ferrigno and Sybil Danning, but also Brad Harris and Dan Vadis— bringing the film’s total number of erstwhile Herculeses to three. Most of all, the backing from Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus meant that Mattei could afford to employ a competent stunt coordinator, and maybe even a fencing coach. The fight scenes, although small in scale, are much more plentiful than I anticipated, and they’re all convincingly staged affairs. What might be the most enjoyable surprise in The Seven Magnificent Gladiators is that Ferrigno and Danning both turn out to be pretty good at this sort of action when given the proper support. That was by no means evident in Hercules, which focused more on feats of superhuman strength than on gritty, toe-to-toe brawling with spatha and gladius.



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