Rhonda Fleming Cracks a Whip of Resistance in Italian-made Film of Christian Persecution
DIRECTED BY NUNZIO MALASOMMA/1960
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 4, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
If the success of Aquaman has taught us anything, it’s that the presence of glistening beefcakes, preferably scantily clad, can reel mass audiences into whatever contrived other world, complete with all of the stiff exposition, goofy outfits, awkward actors, and stagey action scenes are rolled into the package.
Granted, 1960’s Revolt of the Slaves (La rivolta degli schiavi), a late-Biblical era Roman dramatic spectacle, is supposedly based upon history, not superhero comic books. But, seeing how those two categories have, for years now, been blending in ways more effortless than even the staunchest true-believer might’ve expected, is the comparison really all that soggy?
Hunky Lang Jeffries stars as tortured Christian slave, Vibio. He and costar Rhonda Fleming make for quite the bland on-screen couple, despite the fact that they were briefly married shortly after this film wrapped. (This according to his IMDb page, but not hers). Fleming, a red-haired Hollywood sensation of the CinemaScope era, plays Fabiola, the daughter of a prominent patrician. Her character eventually falls for Vibio, taking up the plight of he and his fellow aggressively persecuted Christians, if only primarily from afar. Though the film’s poster (also the cover art for this new Blu-ray release) prominently presents Fleming as a high riding woman with a whip, Fabiola turns out to be neither. (That Forty Guns reference is made with full apologies to the great Barbara Stanwyck, who may’ve bumped into Fleming at Republican conventions over the years, managed still to ride high above her, and the rest).
Ettore Manni, an Italian leading man with a striking presence, plays San Sebastiáno, who would later be known and venerated as the early Christian saint and martyr, Saint Sebastian. The Saint Sebastian “origin story” aspect to Revolt of the Slaves is one of its most fascinating and engaging elements. Christian martyrdom born in a certain doom of directly speaking truth to power is a bold notion and increasingly foreign concept these days.
Made in a more innocent time when Christians were identified for their collective commitment to peace and justice as opposed to, say, support for the narcissistic and brutal emperor, Revolt of the Slaves portrayal of them depicts just that. Literally outlawed, hunted, rounded up, tortured, and killed for public sport, there’s no persecution complex necessary for these followers of Christ circa 300 A.D. The state provided more than enough of the real thing.
Today, modern Christians living comfortably in affluent and powerful countries not altogether unlike Rome love to fancy themselves underdogs. Perhaps this film, even in its day, was helped along at the box office by some sense of inflated cultural victimization, even without things like an annual “War on Christmas” to pump it up. But more likely, good old fashioned exoticism ushered this one along. Today, megachurch pastors would get slick marketing packets, clip packages, and sermon notes about pitching Revolt of the Slaves to congregants.
Of course, not unlike Cecil B. DeMille’s decades-earlier (and superior) The Sign of the Cross (1932), the righteous Christian Faith angle is wrapped up, delivered, and received in a package of promised sex and violence. There are the aforementioned ad campaign images of star Rhonda Fleming appearing leggy and with a whip. (“WANTON . . . TEMPTRESS . . . She put the torch to an empire of sin!”) The violence angle is far more honesty realized on screen, as Revolt of the Slaves is, entirely by 1960 standards, quite the bloody show. This international large scale production, though forgotten by time, was likely helped along in its success by its liberal outpouring of bodily red amid the violence and tumult of it all. Not a great movie by any stretch, but, while not exactly being The Passion of the Christ, it has to be noteworthy, in this area, for its bloodletting.
Film culture and film history being what they are today, it’s easy to forget that this kind of Biblical epic/“sword and sandal” movie was quite the popular niche for a time. We can ask ourselves why, exactly, has the fandom for movies of this ilk evaporated while other big screen “histories”, such as the national myth-stirring Western genre, persist. Its true that these days, we tend to get about as many Gladiators and Gods of Egypt as we get new big screen Westerns. And, were it not for the Italian spaghetti westerns coming along (generated by the same film industry as Revolt of the Slaves, Knives of the Avenger, and the like- check the post-synch dialogue throughout), maybe that genre’s back-catalog would’ve also faded from contemporary interest by now. But it’s true all the same that the common perception is that sword-and-sandal/Biblical pictures have not aged well. Though they’ve clearly aged just as any film grouping has. its fair, then, in regard to the above comparison and today’s world to ask, why?
It’s no secret that America likes to see itself through a lens of rugged individualism and wide-eyed pioneering as opposed to being made to relate to oppressed individuals living under an empirical dictatorship. Maybe that’s why vintage “sword and sandal” films are much rarer on Blu-ray and elsewhere?
Or, maybe it’s simply that the broad array of them, like Revolt of the Slaves, truly haven’t aged well, at all. Even the new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics doesn’t exactly qualify as audio/visual presentation of the year. Although it’s widescreen framing is intact, the sharpness and color quality rank just above how one might’ve expected to experience this movie years ago on Saturday afternoon local television. As for disc extras, there are none, excepting the film’s trailer, and a few other assorted trailers that Kino has deemed relevant.
So, it turns out, that though stagy and ham fisted, the easily overlooked Revolt of the Slaves offers plenty of food for thought. (And its slaving depictions- Roman-utilized dark-skinned Africans whipping and managing hordes of white slaves- has heretofore gone unaddressed). Not quite the Aquaman of its day, it is an uneven, un-super movie that proudly displays warm beefcake that audiences of the time failed to resist.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.