Watched Tartars last night. It’s one of those sword and sandals epics, 1961, with an all-Italian cast and crew and extras. Well, the director was American, or maybe English, and had actually done a classic or two, of which this was not one. I recorded it solely for the leads. Incredibly Italian looking Victor Mature was the Viking chief Giuseppe the Red, though the only thing Viking about him was, well, nothing actually. Surrounded by extras with wigs plucked from the reject pile in a broom factory, he struts around in moccasins and short shorts, giving commands. An’ I told you ya gotta…, gesturing frantically, wassamattayou? Well maybe not wassamattayou.
Here come the Tartars, aka the Mongols, who look just like the Vikings, oddly enough, but for the black wigs. Their citizen Khan is Orson Welles, yes that Orson Welles, squeezed so tight into Mongol armor he looks set to explode. He had make-up do him up so he does look creepily like, if not Genghis himself, then his son and successor Ogodei, who fat and merry and alcoholic as he was, conquered more of the world and killed more people than the Black Plague. You’ve never heard of him, though, because he died just as the Mongol armies were to about to reduce Western civilization to smoking ruins and pyramids of skulls, the way he’d left the Middle East, from which it never really recovered. But the invasion of Europe was postponed until a new khan was chosen and by then the Mongols were more interested in China than Europe. Talk about luck.
Anyway, Orson Welles had himself made up to look remarkably like the portraits of Ogodei, and rendered his silly assed lines with terrifying enunciation and sneers of cold command and you realized that Orson Welles simply couldn’t act bad, no matter how lousy the movie. And this movie was lousy. Victor Mature throws himself into it too, and if all the rest of the cast had drowned in a tragic boating accident on whatever Yugoslavian river the Viking ships were floating on, it would have been a fun flick, just Orson and Victor Mature. Alas, two actors do not a historical epic make, and certainly not a sword and sandals action flick, so we get to see some feeble battle scenes and goofball catapult hi jinx and unseen frantic steppe lust as well as an ugly off screen rape. Khans will be khans. The actresses all have those oddly blank and vaguely emotive expressions you see in European films back then and are impossible for an American to tell if it’s some sort of Bergmanesque understatement or just lousy acting. My guess is lousy acting. If only Europeans would smile. Sophia Loren smiled. Marcelo Mastroianni never smiled. Neither are in this movie however. But if Victor Mature could be a Viking, Sophia Loren would make a terrific Viking Queen. Marriage Norwegian Style.
I had completely lost track of the plot, if there was one, when about a third of the way in a manly Viking display by Victor Mature faded and suddenly we’re in Orson Khan’s stately pleasure dome watching one heck of a dance, hints of Bob Fosse, people leaping about swishing scary swords and culminating in a man and woman rolling across the floor in choreographed coital ecstasy. The dance ends in more leaping and sword swishing and the dancers freeze. Orson Khan glowers, his thoughts a menacing mystery. Rosebud indeed.
Then I switched it off.