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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ulysses

This week's Kirk Douglas film is Ulysses, released in 1955, which kind of kicked off the "peplum" craze of the '50s, which were Italian sword-and-sandal films usually based on Greek myths. Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and Carlo Ponti, Douglas and Anthony Quinn are the only American actors in the cast, and I can't be sure that they dubbed their own lines. The print needs restoration, but as these things go it's not bad.

It is, of course, based on the poem by Homer concerning Ulysses' odyssey back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. He has been cursed by Neptune (this is a big error in the film--Neptune is a Roman God--it's Poseidon that's the Greek god of the sea), but is aided by Athena. Unlike the poem, the gods do not make personal appearances.

The film begins with the tribulations of Penelope, played by Silvana Mangano (who was also Mrs. DeLaurentiis), holding off the suitors who are waiting for her to pick one to marry her (they assume Ulysses is dead). She holds out hope, though.

We discover that Ulysses has washed up on shore on a nearby island, his memory gone. He becomes engaged to Naausica, but eventually his memory returns, and we see the episodes with Polyphemus (the Cyclops), the Sirens, and Circe, the witch, who turns him men into swine (Circe is also played by Mangano). By necessity in a feature-length film, much is cut, including Calypso, the Lotus-Eaters, and Scylla and Charybdis. The proper form for the poem is a miniseries, and there was a decent one made in 1997 starring Armand Assante as Ulysses. With all the platforms for long-form television, it wouldn't be a bad idea to try another adaptation now.

This film does include one of the my favorite scenes in all of literature--when Ulysses returns to Ithaca, dressed as a beggar, and wins the contest (he is the only one who can string his bow and shoot an arrow through the holes in ax handles). He and his son, Telemachus, then slaughter all of the suitors. It's very cathartic.

Douglas, who was quite the he-man, is perfect for the role. While an incomplete version of the story, it won't offend most scholars and is fairly entertaining.

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