Tag Archive | travel

Viva Italia – 1: Padova – An Oasis of Calm

Padova – An Oasis of Calm

The last time we were in Paris was in March 2012. Our sojourn was the briefest of our stays there – but quite enjoyable at the Radisson Blu Hotel which is ideally positioned closer to Charles de Gaulle Airport (just seven minutes drive), from where we could conveniently catch the EasyJet flight to Venice. La Cockpit, the ground floor restaurant in Blu was the right venue for us to enjoy a delectable dinner laced with French Red in the cozy ambiance of vintage 1900 style décor. It felt good for us to get away from home for sometime as it is always good to get back home, as well.

View from Radisson Blu CDG airport Paris. The hotel offers free shuttles to the CDG airport terminals.

My devotion to Italy had not matured gradually nor as part of a general interest in Europe as a whole. Italy has always been special to me for many reasons. People from everywhere are drawn to its famous charms, the sense of space and air! Like Spain, it’s a country of long and splendid history. Both have excelled in the beautiful arts, in literature which lasts. Who couldn’t visualize the Piazza San Marco of Venice, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Piazza del Campo in Siena, the St. Peter’s Basilica, the Collosseum, Tuscan wine….. or the famous people like San Francesco d’Assisi, San Antonio de Padua, Santa Caterina da Siena, the Borgias, the Medicis, Dante, Savonarola, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Gali..…… they are all special people like Velàzquez, El Greco, Goya, … and I could go on typing forever. It’s a haven for tourists – serious and the “just looking” ones – which brings to my mind a serious traveler who found joy in tallying columns of the Roman Forum with the number stated in a guide book.

From Venezia Aeroporto Marco Polo Tessera, the ideal way to go to our initial destination, Padova (maybe less romantic than relaxing in a taxi) is the SITA bus available right outside the main exit – between the third/fourth pillars to the right with a blue sign. Yes, you can bring your luggage cart up till the bus. The seats are comfortable and there is ample space in the lower locker-holds to tuck away a couple of bags per person. The tickets (Euro:16/- for two) are available in the airport arrivals lounge, less expensive than on board the bus.

On that spring day, it took us about an hour to reach Padova through the bright Veneto region, considering that this blue coloured diesel-powered bus made a brief stop at Piazzale Roma in Venice before it sped through the Causeway up the Route via Mestre to Padova.

Oh, to touch Venice – all those footpaths with no motor traffic, the Canale Grande, the gondolas, Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar…. – it saddens me to think that the place is sinking. Anyhow, more on Venice later….

The premises of the bus stand at Padova is devoid of taxi stand, but, simple enough, they are easily available 5 minutes ahead at the taxi rank at Piazzale della Stazione before the railway station. It felt good to be back in Padova. For us, the way into the heart of Italy is, preferably, more often than not through Padova.

Pic left: The watercourse near Via Beato Luca Belludi leading to Basilica San Antonio. This road is named after Blessed Luca Belludi who was the companion and successor of San Antonio; Pic right: Display of coloured powders in a shop at Via Beato Luca Belludi.

A great part to hold a traveller’s joy is the uniqueness and variety. What is this spell of Padova? Being one of the most important art cities in Italy with an artistic and cultural heritage, Padova has many charms for the visitors. Slide shots flipped over in my mind:

Interior of The Cappella degli Scrovegni all’Arena – Giotto’s canvas.

The Cappella degli Scrovegni (Arena Chapal), is an annex of the Musei Civici Eremitani, and closer to the railway station. It is an ideal place to talk art and admire the famous figurative art featuring the life of Christ, the Last Judgment and the life of the Virgin Mary, by the Florentine painter, sculptor and architect Giotto di Bondone better known simply as Giotto (1266-1337).

Palazzo della Ragione

Besides the many attractions of the Palazzo della Ragione (the Seat of Justice), the “Railing Stone” and the “Wooden Horse” built as a replica of Gattamelata’s horse for a tournament that was held in Piazza dei Signori in 1466, are not to be missed. The bronze equestrian monument to the Commander of the Venetian Republic Gattamelata (known as Erasmo da Narni – died in Venice in 1443) by Donatello (1386-1466) is located in the courtyard of the Piazza del Santo. The tomb of Gattamelata is inside the Basilica de San Antonio which also house Donatello’s reliefs and statues for the high altar. I prefer to write more about the Basilica of the Saint,where my favourite saint is laid to rest, at a later date. A direct live view of the entrance to the Basilica can be seen from http://www.santantonio.info/

Pic left: The Basilica di Santa Giustina (BSG); Pic right: BSG: The unfinished façade.

The imposing Basilica di Santa Giustina, the most ancient Christian place of worship in the city, built in honour of Giustina who was killed probably in 304 A.D, is situated facing the huge elliptical square Prato della Valle, (Prà) the customary site for entertainments and fairs. Constructed in the form of a Latin cross with Byzantine domes similar to the Basilica de San Antonio, it houses the tombs/relics of St. Urius, the Benedictine Abbess St. Felicity, St. Mathew the Apostle, part of the body of St. Luke the Evangelist, besides many frescoes and sculptors by Luca Giordano, G.B Maganza, Giovanni Francesco de’ Sordi, Paolo Veronese (Martyrdom of Santa Giustina) and his brother Benedetto Caliari, etc.

Pic left: Interior of BSG: The central nave with the wooden Crucifix from the first half of the 15th century; Pic right: Interior of BSG: The sarcophagus containing the remains of St. Luke the Evangelist.

From the ancient University where Galileo Galilei taught, to the famous Café Pedrocchi, to Orto Botanico, to the colourful frescoes by Altichiero da Zevio in the Romanesque edifice, Oratorio di San Giorgio, to Palazzo del Capitano with its astronomical clock made in 1344, Padova is a treasure trove of attractions worth discovering.

Top row Pic 1: Interior of BSG: The main altar; Pic 2: Interior of BSG: The Ark of St. Matthias in the right arm of the cross (by Giovanni Francesco de’ Sordi (1562)); Bottom row Pic 3: Interior of BSG: The main altar; Pic 4: Interior of BSG: The Corridor and Well of the Martyrs (1566). Statues of saints made of terracotta adorn the four surrounding pillars.

This time round we stayed at Hotel Casa del Pellegrino (at Via Melchiorre Cesarotti) which is a stone’s throw away from and facing the Basilica de San Antonio. Simple and comfortable, the rooms are spacious, fitted with necessary amenities and they have separate restaurants for breakfast and lunch/dinner. We have had many a happy moments in that room “with the view” and we would go to sleep very late at night, but being an early riser, I would get up in time for breakfast at the hotel’s separate wing, served by very friendly staff. It was nice to wake up to the chimes of the church bells. Reminded me of my young days in Ernakulam.

Top row Pic 1: Interior of BSG: The Well of the Martyrs; Pic 2:Interior of BSG: Some worshippers; Bottom row Pic 3: Interior of BSG: Some worshippers from Poland; Pic 4: Interior of BSG

We had always stuck to our golden rule to visit places strictly according to the freedom of our own itinerary and timing – and never opted for the discomforts of set timing, set food, set places, service (sometimes from indifferent employees) of some “follow-the-umbrella” tour packages – the “I would rather have spent half hour in Milan than never have been in Milan” kind of tour packages. It lifts our spirit in working our own hours, to go around at our own pace, have a good meal at our selection, choice of a comfortable room and bed, and enjoy service from people with friendly attitude – aspects which are all important to us. One example is Hotel Casa del Pellegrino where we can always look forward to that good, old, friendly hospitality.

Pic left: View of Basilica San Antonio from Hotel Casa del Pellegrino; Pic right: A holy procession during Easter 2012 at Prato della Valle.

Time does fly by, doesn’t it? The five days we were there to savour again the spirit and mood of Padova, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet up with our friends, including the dear Franciscan abbots of the Basilica de San Antonio and also to make more friends. Before we left India, I was talking to a friend in England whose passion is music. He knew the entire histories of many individual songs (psychedelic rock) – and many other details such as who wrote it, who and what influenced that song, the year it was recorded, etc. His knowledge in that was exemplary. But one suggestion from him turned out to set us scurrying around seeking food in Padova. No, my friend didn’t pull a fast one on me! He had honestly recommended that, to sweeten the day of arrival in Padova, we eat the initial night’s dinner at a restaurant closer to the Basilica which offered a true symphony of flavours and dishes. We dearly love the delightful cuisine and red wine of Italy. No day is so good that it can’t be made more good with a wonderful night out. But the shape of things to come seldom revealed its presence among us. True to my friend’s word, walking through the entrance a bit late into the night, we found the restaurant fairly full of happy customers around richly laden tables, but we hastily left after a couple of drinks when we knew of the day’s special, a Veneto specialty.  Asino! In Italian, I couldn’t swing it until a waiter named it in plain English “Donkey”. We have sampled Cavallo (horse) in Paris, but couldn’t be connoisseurs of asino on that day! Anyhow, the ass looked great on plate.

My memory wanders back to a night out at Trattoria da Renzo situated up the hills in Albignasego at the gates of Padova where our lovely friends Francesco and Marzia treated us with a delicious dinner. About one km from Prato della Valle it offers great food, best Italian wine amidst décor keyed to the region, fantastic ambience and hospitality (closed on Sundays). Rather a romantic place with a magnificent night-time view of Padova down in the valley below. And don’t forget to have the king of spring dishes, Padovan asparagus, if you are there during spring time.

Besides the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful array of friends in Padova, it also allows us at some point, a quick dash to Venice, for the umpteenth time. (One way fare from Padova to Venice Santa Lucia Railway Station by train is Euro:7/- per person). Likewise, many who stop over at Venice take a detour to cover Padova as well.

The Basilica de San Antonio.

Some places connect with you distinctly. It draws you there and holds you. Most importantly, a visit to Padova is a special occasion for us to visit the tomb of our beloved San Antonio. Every single grace comes to us there and we always leave little bits of us at his tomb – like rags and shreds of our life. The gift of faith.

Pic left: Interior of the Basilica de San Antonio: The tomb of the Saint; Pic right:Cloister of the Chapter (Magnolia) of the Monastery attached to the BSA.

It’s time to bid Arrivederci. Reluctantly, we tear ourselves from Padova to catch our train for the one-half-hour journey to the historical city of Firenze (Euro:74/- one way for two), beckoning us at the other end of the journey. Shortly on arrival at Firenze (Florence), we have got a lot to do before the day is over – especially, a tryst to keep –with none other than Cosimo …, Lorenzo de……. the Medicis! Now that’s another story, for another time. Ciao… Jo

 

 

Above Pics in order of appearance: Interior of the Basilica di Santa Giustina: One of the two aisles on both sides of the central nave;  Brass fresco/door-handle on the main door of the BSG;  Brass fresco on the main door of the BSG;  Brass fresco on the main door of the BSG;   Easter 2012

(Photos & Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive.)

StarChoice 10: THE FIVE MAN ARMY

(Aka. Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini  / Die Fünf Gefürchteten – Italy – Colour – 1969)

In July 1969 when the U.S Astronaut Neil Armstrong (who died last week) landed on the Moon, Italian film director Dario Argento was in his initial foray into movies through his appealing stories and screenplays that derived into movies such as “Every Man is My Enemy”, “Heroes Never Die”, “The Love Circle”, “The Five Man Army”, … – an interim period before he embarked into directing thriller movies such as “The Cat O’Nine Tails”, “Deep Red”, “Suspiria”, etc and went on to establish a career that would leave an indelible impact on modern horror films and popular culture.

Back in 1968, a movie titled “Oggi a me…. Domain a te” (Today It’s Me…. Tomorrow You!) co-written by Argento with Tonino Cervi came out and met with moderate success. Starring Montgomery Ford (born Brett Halsey) and Bud Spencer and shot in Manziana (in the Province of Rome), it had characteristics of Japanese Samurai films – a fount of style from which directors like Sergio Leone onwards drew ideas for their western films shot mainly on locations in Spain.

By late 1960s, Italian producer Italio Zingarelli (who would later show industry wisdom in bringing the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy duo together) had tried his hand in almost all genres (sword & sandal to westerns) and was engaged in the production of two screenplays written by Dario Argento “La rivoluzione sessuale” (1968) (co-written with Riccardo Ghione) and “La Stagione de sensi” (1969) (with Barbara Alberti).  Argento had completed his collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci on the story for Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, and was preparing for his directorial debut “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), a landmark giallo film that would be nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award for best motion picture. Argento had also prepared a third treatment “Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini” (The Five Man Army), in collaboration with Marc Richards, an interesting premise of cowboys and samurai that followed the adventurous path of movies such as “The Magnificent Seven” series, “Kill Them All and Come Back Alone”, “The Deserter”, “The Dirty Dozen”, etc.

The direction of “The Five Man Army” produced by Zingarelli and presented through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is credited to American actor/director Don Taylor (actor: “Stalag 17”, “The Men of Sherwood Forrest” – Director: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”) but a small mystery surrounds the identity of the director of this film. Though Taylor is confirmed as the director by Dario Argento and Peter Graves, other sources, including actress Daniela Giordano, remember that Taylor did the direction only on the initial few days and the remaining part was done by producer Zingarelli himself who is also credited in some Italian posters and sleeves of DVDs. Anyhow, this contradictory opinion and why Taylor left is yet to be clarified.

To determine requisite economical locations in Europe, quite similar to the geographical formations of Mexico where the story is set, the natural choice was Spain, then known in the movie circles as “the west of Europe”, which offered sun and proper range of accessible locations – relatively ideal conditions for film making. The locations ranged from Almeria (where Zingarelli’s last main hit, the western “Johnny Yuma” was shot) to Madrid to Barcelona where hordes of film makers were exposed directly to the kind of places they were supposed to be portraying. Further enticement was the railroad and farmhouse sets of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) which was still in good condition. Only the remaining scenes were to be shot at Incir de Paolis Studios near Rome which Zingarelli had used earlier to produce “Ciccio Forgives, I Don’t” (1968). The Spanish crews are no less generous, warm, and enthusiastic like the Italians who worked in team spirit – at times charged with sambuca and coffee. Yes, there is something very special about Spain.

As the story goes ……: It’s 1914. Mexico is caught in the middle of the revolution. The country is reeling under dictator Jose Victoriano Huerta Marquez, the Military General who became the President of Mexico in a coup d’état by executing the Constitutional leader, President Francisco Ignacio Madero Gonzalez and his vice president during La Decena trágica (The Ten Tragic Days). By circumventing the great fighting and other “encounters” of the Mexican Revolution, the story of “The Five Man Army” is set few months prior to Toma de Zacatecas (the Battle of Zacatecas) when on June 23, 1914, the Division del Morte of Pancho Villa defeated the troops of General Luis Medina Barrón at the last stronghold of Victoriano Huerta’s forces which led to the resignation of Huerta on July 15. To set the mood of the historical background, the film’s opening credits are shown intermixed with illustrations in black and white depicting the tragedy of the ferocious Mexican Revolution (including a disclaimer citing the events of the movie as fiction) enriched by the melodious music of Ennio Morricone’s “Un Esercito di Cinque Uomini” which will take the hold on you from there and never let go.

The main protagonist of the film, the Dutchman has planned to assemble a group of four acquaintances who are specialists in their individual fields, to assist him to rob a heavily guarded military train carrying a shipment of gold valued at $500,000/- which is being sent as a fee to General Vertbas (meant to be Huerta?) by his friends in Europe to protect their interests in Mexico – literally to finance the Mexican Revolution. Each man of the group will be rewarded with $1000/- on successful completion of the job.

A former circus acrobat, the outlaw Luis “Flying” Dominguez (played by Italian actor Francesco “Nino” Castelnuovo who acted as the white-clad, whip-slinging sadistic Junior in “Tempo di Massacro” (1966)) who attacks his opponents with his lethal sling shots, was send by the Dutchman to Texas to round up the remaining three men which are shown in three interesting episodes. Luis had been locked up many times for robbing banks until he escaped by killing two guards that earned him notoriety with his face plastered on every wall in Mexico.

On the casting side, the 6-foot-2 blond American star Peter “Aurness” Graves was roped in to play the Dutchman, the leader of the group. From 1967 onwards Graves had been portraying the cool spymaster in the American television series “Mission: Impossible” (1967 – 1973) for the remaining six seasons when he was offered the lead role in this film. Besides, Graves knew director Don Taylor from his role in the WWII movie “Stalag 17” (1953) in which Taylor was also a star.

For the role of the hunk Mesito, the Italian actor Carlo Pedersoli (Silver medal winner for Swimming at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics) popularly known as “Bud Spencer” was signed. Spencer who sported similar facial features of producer Zingarelli, had finished his appearance in the second installment of his friend Giuseppe Colizzi’s “Cat Stevens” spaghetti western trilogy “Ace High” (I Quattro dell’Ave Maria) and Giuliano Montaldo’s “Dio è con noi” (The Fifth Day of Peace). Interestingly Spencer’s own voice was allowed in the English version of the movie while his voice for the Italian version was dubbed. Mesito was an employee of the Kansas City Railroad before he was kicked out when he stole a train load of market-ready beef and tried to sell it back to its original owner. He broke loose from the prison he was locked up and was secretly working in a farm “feeding chicken” when Luis recruited him. Mesito is a great lover of food (especially cooked beans or a chunky leg of lamb – the bigger the better) who likes knocking baddies down by crashing his chubby fist on top of their heads.

Popular American TV/stage actor James “Firman” Daly was cast as Capt. Nicolas Augustus who gets his kicks out of blowing up anything with dynamite. Daly had won an Emmy in 1966 for supporting actor in the then popular Drama series in the Hallmark Hall of Fame show “Eagle in a Cage.” Augustus was recruited right from the middle of a card game with coalminers.

And the last of the five, the Samurai was portrayed by Japanese actor Tetsurô Tamba (born Shozaburo Tanba). The selection of Tamba was easier since he was already famous as “Tiger Tanaka” in the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” (1967) and for appearances in “Bridge to the Sun” (1961) and “The 7th Dawn” (1964). Unlike Tatsuya Nakadai who starred in “Oggi a me…. Domain a te”, Tamba, in his one and only appearance in a Euro-Western, spoke English and didn’t require an interpreter. However, in the role of samurai, he was hardly expected to display verbal brilliance. The Samurai who had once escaped from his native country and wound up slicing six men in three seconds, was located at a circus sideshow flaunting his expertise with knives aiming at a lovely “lotus flower”. One of the great samurai swordsmen, his mastery in handling the sword will be revealed later as the movie progresses.

As the story unfolds, the four of the group, dirty, sweaty and dusty, ride to the Mexican town of Sierra Morales to keep rendezvous with the Dutchman to constitute the five man army. They found the townsfolk gathered in front of the church to witness the Mexican army prepare for the execution of the rebels’ leader Manuel Esteban (Claudio Gora). For them, it’s either a bullet or hanging. A bullet ended things quickly.

As the condemned man was brought to the square, the townsfolk, suppressing their anger and humiliation, but in deep bereavement, broke into a poignant song (Muerte Donde Vas). Soon after the visitors recognized the Dutchman amongst the crowd, they made the move to save the condemned man. Before the firing squad of four could pull the trigger at the “traitor”, they were shot at and killed by the five man army. In the ensuing shootout and commotion, Esteban was injured, but the soldiers present there were either shot or mauled to death collectively by the protagonists and the enraged crowd. The Mexican Revolution is certainly based on popular participation.

Once Esteban’s bullet wound was found not serious and he was left to recuperate in the safety of a room, they indulged in the modest extravagance of the womenfolk of the town who, keeping up with the Mexican custom of eating the main meal at midday, served them a fine feast. One of the generous Mexican women, Maria (Miss Italia 1966 Daniela Giordano), always sporting a joyless expression, was evidently more interested in the Samurai. No less behind, Samurai himself had noted her lazy feline grace and her physical magnetism.

Mesito, always ravenously hungry, was happy at the sight of the food, especially the cooked beans and a jug of red wine. In this room, the four were introduced to each other by the Dutchman and the nature of the mission is revealed. He informs that Estaban, the leader of the revolutionary forces is their paycheck, knows from where they can pluck half million dollars of gold – from a bank on wheels – a big fat juicy train. The gold is to be handed over to the revolutionary forces to support the revolution but he never explains why he is in league with the Revolutionaries.

A dreamer by nature, Mesito was only interested in the prospect of sharing that enormous loot with his comrades in arms. The Gold Fever….. he would buy 200 heads of cattle – honestly this time. Things are surely looking up for Mesito. But the gambler Augustus who believed in the Dutchman, with whom he had spent five years in the army in Cuba and had gone hiding after he blew up the safe of the Cuban army during the Cuban War, nevertheless had doubts and qualms about the viability of the plan.

Sometime later, fearing retribution from the soldiers for killing their comrades, the peasants were leaving Sierra Morales to a safer place. Before their exodus started, Estaban let two of their young women, Perla (earthy Annabella Andreoli) and Maria, accompany the five men in a horse cart.  Should they be stopped, it’s better to have a family. They camped for the night in the quite of an abandoned building, but were subsequently captured by the Mexican soldiers and produced before the sadistic and ambitious Capt. Gutiérrez (effectively portrayed by Carlo Alighiero), in whose jurisdiction they have been captured.

In a parody reminiscence of the interrogation scene in director J. Lee Thompson’s “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), they are lined up in the Comandancia Militar of Gutiérrez (named after Eulalio Gutiérrez Ortiz, Mexican President between Nov. 1914 – Jan. 1915?) for questioning. Having found them embracing the cause of the rebels, they will be shot except for American Luis who will be hanged, very slowly, because he is an outlaw on the run from the Mexican army.

In order to go free they must reveal their names, what they are doing in Mexico and who send for them and gave them hospitality. That’s all. Having met with silence, Gutierrez decided to wait until they cracked. While they were led to the prison, another fiasco was unfolding in the courtyard where the Mexican soldiers were preparing for the execution of a batch of rebels. On seeing the Samurai, Maria ran to him and secretly slipped a knife under his right elbow before they were taken away.

This leads to their daring escape from the prison cell through a trap door on the roof. As Maria and Perla were being interrogated by Gutierrez, the Samurai bursts in and makes some expert carvings with his sword that would thrill the audience and quicken the yen in Maria’s heart for him. In the ensuing shoot out the soldiers were killed and the ARMERIA is cheerfully blown up by Augustus well after securing sufficient dinamita sticks from the arsenal for later use. They escape from there with Maria and Perla in the horse cart and before the five man army headed for the mission, they send off the two women to rejoin with their people. This unwished for separation was a quick and sad parting for the Samurai and Maria (in a role devoid of dialogue like the Samurai). Love happens when you least expect it. They had been granted only few moments of paradise and then cast into the darkness of frustration. But, Maria would be waiting for him.

Riding at an angle away from the chasing soldiers scouting for them, they soon gave the slip to the soldiers on their trail with the help of revolutionaries. Soon, the Dutchman provides his men with their first view of the target train. They were by now convinced of the importance of meeting with success in the mission, but getting their hands on the gold appeared to be impossible considering that the train was guarded by a good number of heavily armed soldiers, a cannon and a work train that would travel ahead of the gold train by twenty minutes to ensure the tracks are clear and safe from assault. Besides, there was military corps stationed at six mile intervals along the railway track to ensure the safe passage of the real train.

Once an army truck is hijacked for their later use, the Dutchman took them to an isolated railroad station house ideal to settle down and fine tune the finer details and prepare to pull off the job within three days. What follows are the thrilling action sequences featuring their ride under the train from Puebla Railway Station, their raw skills aboard the train, the Samurai running for the departing train, the daring robbery, and………….

Being an Italian- American co-production, “The Five Man Army” has high production values.

The excellent Cinematography by Enzo Barboni (“Django”) in Metrocolor/Deltavision reproduces a real atmosphere of Mexico and U.S in the Spanish locations by capturing the beautiful solitude of vast desert regions; panoramic views of lush country side; the enchanting mood of the isolated, dusty village; the well-crafted interiors by art director Enzo Bulgarelli and set decorator Ennio Michettoni – all of which are masterfully framed, blended with appealing trolley and crane shots.

Notwithstanding the ablest performers chosen for the film, the thrilling action scenes (about twenty two minutes) aboard the train makes our attention glued onscreen, tracking the skillful maneuvers of the protagonists in a series of sequences as they take on whatever hair-raising perils were necessary to defuse the guards and complete the mission, proclaim great film making without the help of back projection or computer graphics.Then the music really takes its thumping rhythm (Una Corsa Disperata) when the Samurai speeds after the train (sequence of about four minutes). The rousing and melodious score by Morricone is a perfect accompaniment for the film. Morricone had skillfully left certain scenes devoid of music (especially the train sequences), leaving the action to carry the story forward at its gripping pace and suspense, which unmistakably relate to Dario Argento’s contribution.

Backed by the brisk and cutting-edge editing by Sergio Montanari, the script by Argento and Richards never allows for a boring moment by keeping the action fast-paced and dotted with humour (especially the boy peeping at the Dutchman hanging under the train; the waving of the hands of the dead soldiers), shifting the characters quickly from one sequence to another, and most of the time, never letting a scene run longer than necessary.

The film portrays the protagonists as believable human beings and the chemistry between them as they plan and successfully complete their mission weathering all the great obstacles is fantastic. The interesting romantic angle between the Asian Samurai and western Maria has credibility and “sparkle” – offering ample scope for improvisation. But this is hardly a movie about love. Besides, the story is devoid of brutality by many prowling tigers, but limited to the villainy and absolute power of the Mexican Capt. Gutierrez, the baddy who is sliced up by the Samurai even before the five men embark on their mission.

By underlining Mesito’s colourful and immature character with his dreamy sequences, greed for food, gimmicks in fighting the baddies, makes him appealing to the general audience while at the same time paved the way for advancement of a style that will be fully utilized in Spencer’s later films, starting with the slapstick western comedy “They Call Me Trinity”, the directorial debut of Cinematographer Enzo Barboni under the pseudonym E(nzo).B(arboni) Clucher, and the sequel “Trinity is Still My Name!”, which Spencer co-starred with Terence Hill (born Mario Girotti).

The Dutchman depicted by Graves has come across effectively as a solitary man, a loner without a home though, curiously, the leadership of the Dutchman is asserted by the avertable scene in which his old friend Mesito is slapped on the face as he spread his arms to greet him. Likewise, the scenes depicting execution of the rebels, the townsfolk who mournfully sang during the execution of Esteban while the soldiers abuse and brutalize them in their attempt to end the song, are emphasized as catalysts to generate easy displeasure in the audience towards the Mexican army and thereby to elevate the five men to the status of heroes. It’s a wonder that the film, which was a hit, didn’t spawn a sequel or a series like “The Magnificent Seven”.

A harmless entertainment, The Five Man Army is a western film full of “sunny” adventure, of getting people together and remembering. It’s about heroes – and heroes need to be remembered. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

(PS: This review is my special tribute to all those brilliant talents who made this wonderful movie possible. JS)

StarChoice 9: ZARAK

 ZARAK (aka: Zarak Khan / Zarak le Valeureux – Colour – 1956)

Yesterday I watched a movie in which the music teacher of a school held a chronometer in hand to measure how long her students could hold their breath. That stint was pretty short compared to the few months required for the decks to be cleared and a new chapter in the life of the British spy James Bond will be revealed. The media is abuzz with news about the upcoming movie “Skyfall” which is the twenty-third installment of the Bond movie franchise of Eon Productions founded in 1961 by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, a Canadian producer working in England who had options on all available James Bond novels.

But a decade before “Cubby” Broccoli ventured into Bond’s territory, he had formed another production company in 1951 called “Warwick Film Productions Ltd” in collaboration with the Polish-American producer Irving Allen, a partnership that launched about 24 independent feature productions until they went their separate ways in 1961. So far, so familiar.

Warwick Film Productions kick started its activities when American actor Alan Ladd, who had left Paramount Pictures over contractual disputes, signed with them for a three picture deal. Ladd’s regular scriptwriter Richard Maibaum was brought in to co-write with Frank Nugent the script for Warwick’s first movie “Paratrooper” (The Red Beret – 1953). This film, the first one directed by Terence Young for Warwick, is the debut movie of Broccoli as a producer. (Young would later direct three James Bond movies for Eon Productions of which most of the production crew would be from “Paratrooper”.)

They gave emphasis to make films of solid production values, on international locations, with British crew featuring American actors. The films were contracted for release through Colombia Pictures with whom, in 1956, they negotiated a deal for producing 13 pictures in a period of three years. They also took advantage of Government grants to film producers under the British Empire development schemes to promote shooting of films on location in British Commonwealth countries.

Back in 1949, author A.J. Bevan published a book “The Story of Zarak Khan” about an arrogant and deceitful Afghan brigand called Zarak Khan who fought the British across the great tract of the North West Frontier (a British invention) for nearly twenty years. He was later captured, convicted and deported to the Andaman Islands from where, for leniency obtained for obedience, he was allowed to fight for the British, and gave up his life for them. Adventure and action being the mainspring of Warwick Films, the book was chosen for adaptation into an epic scale movie to be made under the direction of Terence Young assisted by Yakima Canutt and John Gilling since Terence Young had finished direction of the adventure film “Safari” at Kenya and in England which starred Victor Mature and Janet Leigh.

The film Zarak stands a bit outside the accuracy of history. Though Cubby Broccoli didn’t believe in messing with the original storyline of books, reportedly at Allen’s insistence, the historical accuracy of the story is compromised to provide emphasis to the human element under in-house scriptwriter Richard Maibaum who would later find fame for writing more than a dozen scripts for James Bond vehicles. Zarak went into production in early 1956.

Presented through Colombia Pictures, the film opens as the entourage of merchant Akbar (Alec Mango) is passing through the dangerous terrain of the North West Frontier to the village of Haranzhai located amidst lush and rugged countryside. Haji Khan (Frederick Valk), the despotic Chieftain of Haranzhai tribe, though at first reluctant to see Akbar, changed his mind to give him audience. To suit this purpose, he sends Salma (Anita Ekberg) away from his tent. Salma was the most beautiful, youngest and favourite of Haji’s many wives.

Grabbing that opportunity, Salma slips out of the village into the depths of the mountain to meet her secret lover Zarak, who is Haji’s eldest son. But unbeknown to her, she had been observed by one of Haji’s sons and the visiting merchant Akbar. A little later, she cozies up with Zarak in the seclusion of his mountain den and implores him to either take her away from the village or take her back to her own people. The dynamics of their interaction emphasizes the notion that up till then she had enjoyed the adventure of adultery without forfeiting the security of monogamy and she had no intention to jeopardize their safety in that closed community. Zarak disagrees to her appeal on reason that she’s one of his father’s wives and leaving Haji would bring him shame and also to Zarak. She countered him with the fact that she’s also shameful for having been sold to a man she hates.

When Zarak, her ray of hope, forbids her to visit him or talk to him anymore, she grabs his dagger and tries to stab him. Though Zarak easily managed to thwart her attack, the ensuing struggle between them merge into a maze of illicit passion that progresses into a passionate embrace and high-charged kiss. Just then the needle stuck in the groove.

A love affair of this nature doesn’t run smoothly. Unaware of his wife’s exploits, but certainly tipped off now by his son and Akbar, Haji Khan together with his sons, Akbar and some henchmen walk right into the fervor of the lovers. The consequences were predestined and predictable. Disgraced and furious with rage, Haji Khan orders his son to be killed immediately before his eyes. The offense is so serious that only bloodshed can wipe out the shame. However, he quickly changed his mind and instructed his men to flog Zarak to death as a knife is too quick, too merciful. Horrified with dread and fear, Salma could only protest as they took Zarak away, but she pleads to her husband that it was she who is to be blamed. Cast with the stigma of a promiscuous woman, her husband condemns her to death by throwing her down to the rocks from the hills of Chamin. Instantly, Akbar, who hungered after her, proposed to Haji to sell her to him.

While Zarak was being flogged, the holy Mullah walks in to the village on his way back from Mecca. Mullah who considered Zarak as “the eye of an eagle” was distressed at the sight of Zarak being flogged in the village square, in front of the women. He promptly requests for the life of Zarak which was denied. However, when the elderly Mullah persisted with his intervention, Haji Khan, in a tone of high morality and out of reverence to the holy man, agrees. But he declared Zarak as an outlaw and ordered that he be stoned out of the village. As is common with the people of these tribal areas which the contemporary British officers called Pathan (Pashtun), life is led almost according to the tribal customs and follows a rigorous code of behaviour. Zarak was stoned and expelled from his village.

In a sudden upsurge of confidence, his two brothers, Biri and Kasim, disgruntled by the tyranny of their “honourable” father, decide to follow their elder brother. But the great virtue of that disaster that befell Zarak was that it gave him the possibility of demonstrating his fire before the British. Zarak becomes the head of the brigands he had formed to fight the British forces. Soon they travelled the bumpy path to notoriety, leaving a trail of fire and destruction along and beyond the strategically vital Khyber Pass.

Due to increased insurgencies led by Zarak, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) declared a reward of Rs.5000/- (a sizeable amount at that time) for information leading to the capture of Zarak Khan of Haranzhai. These lands were annexed to the British East India Company in 1849 following the Second Anglo-Sikh War and many conflicts took place to protect the land from Russian expansion, which also resulted in conflict with the frontier tribesmen.

Some twenty miles from Fort Abbott, the provincial fort of the British forces in the tribal territory, a horse driven Royal Mail Coach (HMC 1476) was rolling through the rugged mountain path. It carried Major. I.P. Ingram, a military specialist of the British army with secret assignment to capture Zarak Khan and put an end to the insurgent activities in the area and to keep the whole provinces safe. With a price set on his head for opposing the British, but handy with the information about the arrival of Maj. Ingram to finish him off, Zarak decides to play a prank on the British Major, The coach was blocked by a camel squatting in the middle of the stony road, with its master settled next to it. When the soldiers tried to get them off the path the master of the camel (Zarak) signals his brigands to attack.

A fight between Zarak and Maj. Ingram erupts and Zarak rides away with the Mail coach which was soon lost over the cliff into the steep rocky slope. Maj. Ingram, seemingly incapable of bitterness, had to walk almost twenty miles to the town of Ziarat where he is assigned to take charge of the Political Agent’s office. In fact, Ingram’s valiant reputation had preceded his arrival to Ziarat. There is talk among the British Frontier Corps that when the new Major takes over as the Political Officer, there will be no more bandits within a hundred miles of the Khyber Pass, especially no more Zarak Khan who’s first on their list. As the Major immersed into the official activities, his wife Cathy surprises him with a sudden visit.

Meanwhile, at Peshawar (one of the most important bases on the frontier), Zarak learns that his father Haji Khan has died and being the eldest of the sons, the tribesmen expected him to be their new chieftain which is promptly declined by Zarak. He visits an entertainment tavern where, unbeknown to him, the beautiful houri Salma is the main floorshow attraction. They meet after Salma sends for him and renew their passion for each other in her private quarters inside the tavern. Zarak learns from Salma that Akbar the merchant was kind and had saved her. Akbar had let her buy back her freedom – and, no, she’s not married, yet. She refuses Zarak’s proposal to marry her claiming that it’s written “to do not marry the same woman as your father married.” She wouldn’t budge even though Zarak proposes that they would make their own laws.

On the rebel front, Zarak and his men were on a rampage disseminating a reprehensible panic among those thought to be made of sterner stuff. The British army soon increased the reward amount on his head to Rs.50,000/- which would lead to further bloody encounters and develop an unseen bond between Zarak and Major Ingram…

The film “Zarak” strikes a note as a curiosity considering all those upcoming landmark people of show business involved in making it. Even author A.J Bevan rendered his services as a technical advisor.

The role of Zarak was originally intended for Errol Flynn, who was then going through a bad phase of personal financial difficulties. Besides, owing to commitments to a string of movies such as “Let’s Make Up” (Lilacs in the Spring), “The Warriors” and “Istanbul”, the role ultimately went to Victor Mature.

Even though adventure stories (especially Biblical movies like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Samson and Delilah”, etc) were exclusive vehicles of Victor (The Hulk) Mature’s road to stardom, he had also captured the imagination of the audience with his roles in movies such as “My Darling Clementine”, “Million Dollar Mermaid”, “The Last Frontier”, etc. Mature, freelancing after expiry of his contract with 20th Century Fox had earlier starred in Warwick’s “Safari” (1955) directed by Terence Young. A man of some style and a sense of humour, Mature had finished acting in director Richard Fleischer’s “Violent Saturday” in Bisbee, Arizona and was available. Mature was signed to play the role of Zarak Khan even though he considered doing his own stunts as an impediment to his performance, something renown from the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” when he declined DeMille’s request to wrestle the tame lion of M.G.M.

Actress Claire Bloom in her memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House” relates Mature once saying “I wouldn’t walk up a wet step”. The matter was solved by assigning the stuntworks to the legendary wham-bang stuntman Yakima Canutt and his team of daredevils. With the stunts taken care of, all Mature had to do was act the way he always did. According to the biography of another reputed actor, Mature once made a remark about his acting to a director: “….. I got three expressions – looking right, looking left and looking straight ahead. Which one do you want?” However there was also a kind of passion he brought to his work that held on. Besides, the directorial skill of Terence Young also figured to establish the real character of gallant Zarak which proclaim the nobility of the human spirit.

For the grace and sensuality of the role of Salma, the alluring beauty of 25-year old former Miss Sweden 1951 Anita Ekberg (Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg) was found most appropriate to decorate the film with. She had no qualms to flash her voluptuous body during the two skimpily clad erotic dance scenes choreographed by Tute Lemkow. The scenes of glamourous Ekberg gyrating her hips to the invigorating tunes of classical Pashto music accompanied by scantly-clad girls and men in a room filled with heady smoke (meant to be sweet scented fragrances of Persian tobacco, herbs and spices, coarse sugar, oudh, …) drifting from hookahs certainly appear exotic to the senses. These provocative scenes of Ekberg depicted in British film posters generated protests from the House of Lords. Unfortunately, this tall pin-up who was reportedly once promoted as “Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe”, would show some improvement only later in Federico Fellini’s“La Dolce Vita” (1960). After her marriage in 1956 to the tall and dashing English actor Anthony Steel in the huge square outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (with no hat, no gloves and no stockings) following the release of “Zarak”, Ekberg would take a breather before she would co-star once again with Mature in Warwick Productions’ “Pickup Alley” (1957).

The English gentleman Michael Wilding, hailed at that time as another David Niven, did a realistic portrayal of Maj. Ingram in bright scarlet (Red Coat) of the British military uniform, in spite that in 1956 he was going through a wretched personal crisis. Though he was slated to act in M.G.M’s “The Scarlet Coat”, the film didn’t work out for him since his contract was not renewed. On the domestic front, though his wife Elizabeth Taylor had accompanied him to the locations of Zarak in Spain and Morocco during early spring of 1956, their marriage, which was going through a bad patch then, would finally culminate in their separation by July that year.

Finlay Currie as the Mullah, and bejeweled Eunice Gayson (attired in beautiful Victorian costumes designed by Phyllis Dalton) as Cathy Ingram, provide fair performances in the supporting roles. In addition to music by prolific British composer William Alwyn (played by Sinfonia of London and conducted by Muir Mathieson), to add more spice to the film, it features the hit song “Climb Up the Wall” sung by British singer Yana. Snippets from Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” (An der schönen blauen Donau – 1867) and Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” (1788) for the couples swishing on the dance floor during the New Year Ball for Armed Forces, proclaim the elegance of a life in the past.  The studio scenes, primarily of the town tavern and the colourful bazaar full of flavour of the East, by Art directors John Box and Bill Andrews were filmed at the M.G.M Studios, Elstree, England. The titles are shown on colourful paintings depicting the ensuing scenes from the movie. For authenticity, the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket is mostly used as arms for the British soldiers in the film.

Cinema communicates through emotions, behaviour and relationships which are related to in many memorable scenes in the movie, viz. Zarak playing the flute on pretense to get the camel off the road; the pole dances (may be the first of its kind in a movie) by Salma; the rapport between Maj. Ingram and Cathy; the Pashtun’s Khattak dance at the court of Ahmed Khan’s Citadel in Afghanistan, etc. The factual errors include the constant changing of the sky from plain to cloudy in consecutive scenes.

The action scenes breathe instant authenticity: the cavalry swirling across open plains; the rip-roaring battle scenes (shot in CinemaScope on locations in Morocco and Spain by Ted Moore/John Wilcox and Cyril J. Knowles); the daredevil stunt-works are ample evidence of Yakima Canutt’s gift of skill (thank heavens) to create the chaos and arrange it into a semblance of order. Then there is the exotic Anita Ekberg, the potent ingredient to certainly provoke the viewers’ level of admiration for her. So sit back, relax and watch Zarak as a quite joy. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

(PS: The character of Zarak has nothing to do with the 1963 Italian movie “Zarak der Rebel” (Original title: Il Pirata del diavolo) starring Richard Harrison. – JS)

StarChoice 3: The Secret of Santa Vittoria

In an illustrious career spanning more than 30 years, American film producer/director Stanley Kramer (1913 –2001) made many hit films which include “The Pride and the Passion”, “The Defiant Ones”, “Judgment at Nuremberg”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, etc. But the one I like most is “The Secret of Santa Vittoria”, a Stanley Kramer production shot in the tiny Italian village of Anticoli Corrado near Rome.

Set in the summer of 1943, just after the fall of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, it tells the story of the simple people of the wine-producing hillside village of Santa Vittoria who desperately attempt to hide 1,317,000 (more or less) bottles of wine from the German army who are coming to occupy their village and commandeer the wine which constitutes its wealth. Starring my favourite Anthony Quinn (in a performance that somewhat equals the one in “Zorba the Greek”), his old friend volatile Italian actress Anna Magnani (La Magnani), sultry Virna Lisi (her second teaming with Quinn after their outing in The 25th Hour), and German actor Hardy Kruger (Hatari!), it is a wonderful movie that’s not to be missed.

Following their sterling performance of fleshed-out characters in “Wild is the Wind” (1957), the combination of Anthony Quinn as Italo Bombolini, the bumbling, drunken Mayor and Anna Magnani as his shrewish, nagging wife Rosa Bombolini is so hilarious at times, that this comedy drama has now gained a cult following. Who could forget the antics of Quinn on top of the water-tank; the fight scene of flying utensils, rolling pins and cooked spaghetti between Rosa and Bombolini; Rosa explicitly explaining about sex with a stalk of celery and two apples; the final transformation of the village clown into great esteem as the village’s hero; and the wonderful dance riot of the village folk?

An extraordinary fictional story that resonates with realism, no wonder this film was nominated for two Academy Awards (Editing and Best Music Scoring). It won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Comedy. The musical score by Ernest Gold is so fantastic that it will hang around you long time after the movie is finished.

For a detailed storyline of this charming and inspiring movie, read the book “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” by Robert Crichton (Carroll & Graf Publishers – 1966).

This review is based on my book “A Visual Documentary on the Making of The Secret of Santa Vittoria” (Feb. 2011). Enjoy this bumbling, hilarious movie with a glass of red wine.

(© JS/Manningtree Archive.)Image