StarChoice 7: Salammbò

 Salammbò  (Aka: Salambò  / The Loves of Salammbò) (Colour 1960)

During the 1960s, an Indian-born actress of patrician good looks and earthy allure adorned the American and European cinema – an upcoming actress who shone her own starry light. Born in Bombay in 1934 to an Indian surgeon and English mother, she had a smile that would set your heart racing. Regarded in film circles as an “exciting star material who displayed tremendous impact”, director William Wyler cast her in a sexy role in the biblical epic “Ben-Hur” but that part was cut out from the original film because the role was “too sexy” for the development of the story. Likewise, versatile movie director Mervyn Le Roy wanted to cast her in his disaster film “The Devil at 4 O’clock” but found her “too beautiful” to suit the role. While playing in the Apache warrior movie “Geronimo” on location in Durango, Mexico in 1962, she stole the heart of “Rifleman” actor Chuck Connors whom she married in 1963. She’s Kamala Devi who, a year after she was cast in “Ben-Hur”, would act in a pivotal role as the chief maid to the legendary Princess Salammbò in a fictional peplum based on historical facts directed by Italian director/screenwriter Sergio Grieco.

A Fides-Stella Films Production starring French actress Jeanne Valérie, Jacques Sernas, Edmund Purdom, Raf Baldassarre, etc, “Salammbò” features a story that reverberates passionate romance with intrigue, with spectacular action set during the Mercenary War that followed the First Punic War.

The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage has been featured in many Italian epic movies, the famous among them being “Hannibal” (1959), “The Siege of Syracuse” (1960), “Carthage in Flames”. “Salammbò” opens in the second century BC as the “Council of Elders”, a kind of senate of the Republic of Carthage is in session in their Council Chamber. It happens that the mercenaries hired to defend Carthage against the Romans, have not been paid for their services in the Battle of the Aegates Islands (Aegadian Islands) off the western coast of the island of Sicily which concluded the First Punic War (241 BC) and resulted in the victory of the Romans. As an adverse consequence of the war, a raging economic crisis gripped the republic throwing the state coffers barren as Carthage was compelled to pay (over a period of ten years) compensation to the tune of 3,200 gold talents to Rome and also heavy ransoms for their prisoners. Hence, Carthage was unable to pay to its army consisting of about 20,000 mercenaries (according to the Greek historian Polybius (Polybe)) belonging to various ethnic origins whom the exhausted Republic had allowed to settle near the city. Finally, the mercenaries laid siege to the city, threatening to destroy it.

To pacify the situation, Salammbò, the High Priestess of the Goddess Tanit and the daughter of General Hamilcar Barca (Riccardo Garrone), the leader of Carthaginians, intermediates and a pact is sealed between her and Mathòs, the devil-may-care chief of the mercenaries. The mercenaries are to withdraw to a neighbouring valley and soon afterwards will receive their chests full of gold as full payment of wages due to them. After this pact, Salammbò falls in love with Mathòs who was already under the charms of Salammbò whose beauty is renowned throughout the Mediterranean.

Sadly, the pact is not respected by Narr Havas (Edmund Purdom of “Herod the Great, “The Prodigal”), a greedy and notorious member of the Council of Elders who dreams of ruling power and longed to possess Salammbò. He craftily switches the chest full of gold with stones, keeping the booty to himself. The Gallic mercenaries, betrayed of fair game, and wild with rage at the injustice of Carthage, once more march against the city. Ignorant of the treachery of the cunning Narr Havas, Salammbò believes that it is Mathòs who violated their solemn pact. Her love for him soon turns to pitiless hate. During the turbulent course of the events, Mathòs barges into the Carthaginian palace and gets away with the veil of Tanit, which the vestal of the Goddess Tanit and her followers believe is the shield that protects them. But before he escapes from the palace, Mathòs couldn’t resist the urge to declare his love to the sublime Salammbò. What follows comprises the fate of the kingdom of Carthage and the romantic tangle between the erstwhile lovers.

Gorgeous Jeanne Valérie in her bloom of youth and grace breezes through the title role of the Priestess of Tanit with an easeful elegance. She had just completed her roles in Roger Vadim’s “Les liaisons dangereuses” and Claude Chabrol’s “A Double Tour” (Leda), before she went over to Germany in 1959 to appear in “Salammbò”, a film that earned her the title “The Most Censored Star”. The star of a cycle of sword-and-sandal epics such as “Maddalena” (1954), “Helen of Troy” (1956), “Sheba and the Gladiator” (1959), “The Nights of Lucretia Borgia” (1960), the Lithuanian-born French actor Jacques Sernas, with his athletic physique displays the necessary courage and valor of the role of Mathòs. The romantic scenes between Jeanne Valérie and Jacques Sernas, though stylish and tastefully staged, were considered a bit steamy during the time of the film’s release.

The lush camerawork in CinemaScope by Piero Portalupi details panoramic scenes of spectacular battle scenes that pack a real punch. The rousing music of Alexandre Derevitsky, picturesque settings, colourful costumes, vivid hairstyles and likeable performers by the cast overcome the occasional insipidness. The film was cut down by 20th Century Fox to a length of about 70 mins. for the American audiences but the copy in my possession runs to the full “Director’s Cut” length of 94 mins.

Adapted (original dialogue) by Andre Talbet from the book “Salammbò” (1862) by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), the release of the film in 1962 marked the 100th Anniversary of the novel. Author of works such as “The Temptation of St. Antony”, “Madame Bovary”, was criticized for “Salammbò” – for meticulously weaving historical detail around an exotic story. The character of Salammbò is sometimes referred to as a prototype of “the woman and the serpent”, Lilith, Eve and Satan,….. Different representations of Salammbò can be found in illustrations by Gabriel Ferrier, Gaston Bussiere, Rich Lobel, Alfred Lombard, Alphonse Mucha, etc.

Even though this production is the fifth version of the novel (excluding the Opera and comic book versions), 20th Century Fox intended to create spark and fire with their own version of the novel casting either Gina Lollobrigida or Sophia Loren, the then ruling Italian icons, but had to drop the idea due to the production of Elizabeth Taylor-vehicle “Cleopatra”. The film was released on DVD with optional soundtracks in Italian and Spanish language but without subtitles. It is reportedly available only with a few dealers/collectors. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)


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