The Colossus of Rhodes is director Sergio Leone’s first credited feature. Most directors are lucky to hold together a first feature with spit, sweat, bluff and goodwill. Rhodes is an outright epic, with hundreds, if not thousands of costumed extras running around what looks like a full scale reconstruction of the ancient statue guarding the harbor of Rhodes. (Much of it is no doubt matte work, but that’s not cheap either.) It is certainly a very big and loud debut. How successful is another matter.
The impossibly complicated plot has two sets of Rhodians fighting for control of the island while a Really Bad guy amongst the merely villainous has drafted the Phoenicians as mercenaries to mix up things even more. The Phoenicians masquerade as Macedonian slaves (still with me?), while meanwhile men supposedly loyal to the good guys work underground in chains. (That bit never makes much sense.) The film is basically a sword-and-sandal epic on steroids, with suitably flamboyant design, plenty of male pulchritude, a slinky femme fatale, and bucketfuls of violence as everyone fights everyone. While lacking the supernatural element of many sword-and-sandal films, Leone and company compensate with a final battle, earthquake and hurricane/tsunami that might as well invoke the angry gods, because it’s hard to imagine who else could be responsible for all the calamities that strike the island at once.
Yet for all the exploitation of the campiest of camp genres, Rhodes takes events awfully seriously. The good guys are as stolid, stalwart and ineffectual as plaster saints while the villains’ chief qualification seems to be their ability to come up with ugly means of maiming and killing people. As with Leone’s most famous work, the Clint Eastwood “Man with no Name” trilogy, the sadism is executed with great imagination, verve and style (in keeping with most 1960s ancient world epics, the villains dress well and have nicely trimmed beards) but offers few other compensations.
Furthermore, the spaghetti Westerns are marked by Eastwood’s brutal ruthlessness and bleak, nihilistic integrity. The “characters” in Rhodes are more conventional, but just as blank, and for all the athletic pyrotechnics, no one seems to be particularly good at fighting. Rory Calhoun, as the hero Darios, tries hard, but he seems too old and American for the part. Darios, both passive and stupid, more or less stumbles into being on the right side. He’s the hero of the story only because the leader of the rebels is even more inept.
These spicy ingredients make for a rich stew, but The Colossus of Rhodes lacks the giddy, silly charm of the average sword-and-sandal epic while failing to provide anything close to a serious drama. Things move snappily enough to stay moderately interesting, but ultimately, the film’s greatest attraction is the costumes and the sets. Then again, when you think about it, that’s appropriate. When a film is named after a statue, what can you expect?