DirectorMario Camerini/Mario Bava
Release Date(s)1954 (November 17, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Mythology is a good subject for film. Fantastical creatures, daring exploits, the intervention of the gods, and dramatic confrontations contribute action and melodrama, and the cinematic format makes possible the impossible. Ulysses, a simplification of Homer’s Odyssey, takes advantage of these cinematic abilities, to a degree.
Ulysses’ (Kirk Douglas) prideful dishonoring of Neptune has provoked the wrath of the sea god, who condemns him to roam the seas for twenty years. Only then will he return to his kingdom of Ithaca, where his loyal queen, Penelope (Silvana Magnano), and son, Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi), pray to Athena for his safe return. Persistent suitors fill her house, living off her largesse while demanding that she declare Ulysses dead and marry one of them. She has been keeping them at bay by claiming she must first finish weaving a tapestry dedicated to the gods. Secretly, each night she undoes the weaving done that day so that little progress is made.
When the brash Antinous (Anthony Quinn) turns up, he demands that the competition among the suitors by which Penelope must choose a husband begin immediately. He woos Penelope by strutting into her private quarters and declaring, “I have come to end your loneliness.” Penelope fears that the first thing a new husband will do is secure the kingdom to himself by murdering her son.
Toward the end of his wanderings, Ulysses is washed ashore half dead on an island and is rescued by the king’s beautiful daughter, Nausicaa (Rossana Podesta). Though he is nursed back to health, he suffers a loss of memory and can’t recall his name or his country. He and Nausicaa fall in love and are about to marry when he begins to piece together past events, shown in an extended flashback. He remembers his exploits in the Trojan War, the dangers on the high seas, a confrontation with the giant Cyclops Polyphemus (Umberto Silvestri), how he escaped the lure of the Sirens’ song, and his encounter with the sorceress Circe (Mangano, in a dual role), who changes his men into swine and distracts him with her magic and her charm.
The climax of the film finds Ulysses back in Ithaca disguised as a beggar. He reveals his true identity only to Telemachus, and together they plan vengeance against the opportunistic suitors.
The screenplay, credited to seven writers including Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw, is briskly paced, but much of the dialogue is preposterously stilted, perhaps to suggest the tone of an ancient epic. Douglas conveys Ulysses’ commanding presence, ingenuity, and disastrous overconfidence and pride, but is at his best in the swashbuckling finale. He infuses a bit of comedy into the role as his Ulysses outsmarts the man-eating Cyclops by getting him drunk on gallons of wine (from freshly squeezed grapes?).
The two leading ladies are lovely but rather wooden. Ms. Mangano is somewhat more convincing as Penelope than as Circe. She plays Penelope with a quiet regality and resolve but never adequately conveys Circe’s irresistible magnetism. Rather than eliciting intensity in her portrayal of Circe, director Mario Camerini relies on her elegant beauty photographed through colored gels to suggest the sorceress’ ethereal allure and mystery.
There are two versions of the film available—one with the Italian actors speaking their own language and one dubbed into English. The Italian version is better at conveying the fire in Ms. Mangano’s performance as Penelope. The English dubbing is routine, but Douglas and Quinn have been allowed to use their own voices.
The special effects of the time are not very believable. The Cyclops is filmed mostly from a low angle to suggest his towering size. Ulysses and his men are seen in the same frame with the Cyclops only a few times through matting. In a couple of scenes, we see only the giant prop legs of Polyphemus as Ulysses hands him vast quantities of wine. The most impressive “effect” is Ulysses’ full-scale ship. A lifelike miniature is used for a storm-at-sea sequence. A studio mock-up with wind machines and torrents of water pouring onto a set of the ship’s deck unconvincingly simulates a raging storm at sea. The transformation of men into pigs is done with lots of mist and a quick cut. The action sequences are perfunctory and rushed, lacking the scope of later mythological and Biblical epics.
One of the last Italian epics shot in full-frame format, Ulysses never achieves cast-of-thousands widescreen grandeur. CinemaScope would alter the look of the screen epic soon after.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the new restored 4K Blu-ray of the film from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The restoration is quite pleasing, with grain, color, and contrast looking great and showing nice detail, especially in Douglas’ facial hair, the Cyclops’ cave, Ulysses’ ship, and the rocks along the shore. Harold Rosson’s Technicolor photography offers warm flesh tones, and his lighting is especially atmospheric in the Circe sequences. Mediterranean locations and attractive costumes provide impressive production value. A few scenes are shot day-for-night, providing bluish shadows. Walls are bathed in colored light and lit at an angle to bring out the stone relief. There are no scratches, dirt specks, fogging, light leaks, or other imperfections on this pristine release.
The soundtrack is English or Italian Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English subtitles are available on both versions. The English dub is often loose and out of sync. The dialogue is clear but often stiff rather than conversational. Only Douglas and Quinn manage to sound natural. It might be better to watch the Italian version with English subtitles to experience the original performances of the Italian actors since the dubbing can be distracting. Sound effects are well balanced with music and dialogue.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, alternate US opening and closing titles, and a set of theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – The commentary by film historian Tim Lucas can be heard only on the Italian version. Lucas notes that Ulysses was one of the post-World War II films that took advantage of Italy’s talent pool, beautiful scenery, and production facilities. Known as “Hollywood on the Tiber” beginning with Quo Vadis (1951) and continuing with romantic comedies such as Roman Holiday and Summertime, Italy enjoyed bustling movie production. Ulysses was shot over seven months on a budget of $3 million and was nearly a year in post-production. A linear structure might not have yielded the appropriate level of energy, so the flashback structure, or film-with-the-film format, was chosen. It’s noted that Homer’s Odyssey has an element of flashback. The story of Ulysses was first portrayed on screen in a 4-minute short by Georges Melies in 1905. Released by Paramount, Ulysses earned $124 million at the domestic box office alone and provided a template for Italian productions to come. The emphasis of the film is Silvana Mangano, the wife of the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis. Penelope represents half of the film’s story. The finale is “shockingly violent” and holds up well today. The film had its premiere in Rome in October, 1954 and its New York premiere in August, 1955. Of the many Italian “sword and sandals” epics filmed between 1954 and 1966, most were shot in a widescreen process. Ulysses marked the end of standard format spectacles. Two big Italian studios shut down because costs had risen and Italian producers could no longer afford to pay their top stars, such as Rossano Brazzi, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida. Producers sought alternate, more economical locations in Germany, Spain, and Yugoslavia.
Alternate US Opening and Closing Titles – These titles are in English and include the film’s prologue and epilogue as well as a full cast and technical credits.
Trailers – Four theatrical trailers are included: Ulysses, The Vikings, Jack the Giant Killer, and The Magic Sword.
Ulysses is a CliffsNotes version of Homer’s epic that offers some effective action scenes, intrigue, and a good lead performance by Kirk Douglas. It’s an ambitious precursor to later, far more lavish epics set in ancient or mythological periods that would become a staple of Hollywood’s output from the mid 50s to the mid 60s.
– Dennis Seuling