Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

April 10, 2017

La magnifica sfida (aka Falcon of the Desert), starring Kirk Morris (Italy-Spain 1965)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 8:02 am

La magnifica sfida (aka Falcon of the Desert, aka El halcón del desierto)

Italy-Spain 1965, starring Kirk Morris, Aldo Sambrell, Dina Loy, Franco Fantasia, Red Ross

produced by Osvaldo Civirani, directed by Miguel Lluch

falcon 1

PROLOGUE (written on screen after credits): One of the most powerful states of the Arab Peninsula in the Eleventh Century was the Sultanate of Semares. The city stood in the heart of the desert in the midst of a vast expanse of burning sands that had to be crossed by journeying for days and days without encountering the refreshing coolness of an oasis or the relief of a welling spring.

FALCON OF THE DESERT came along very late in the cycle of sword and sandal films, being released in Italy in September 1965…and even later in Spain (1966) and France (1967!!!). Being set in the Arabian Peninsula and NOT in Greece or Rome perhaps gave the film some novelty value, and since no one appears shirtless and muscle-flexing in this, it should probably be classified as “Arabian adventure” and not peplum or sword and sandal.

When I first heard of the title 10-15 years ago, I wondered if it might be an alternate name for one of Kirk Morris’ other films, such as TERROR OF THE STEPPES or ATLAS AGAINST THE CZAR or DEVIL OF THE DESERT AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES or HERCULES OF THE DESERT…..but no, the poster made clear this had a different cast and credits, and now that I own the film (which has NOT been reviewed on the IMDB), I can attest that this is a completely different film. All of Kirk Morris’s adventure films of 1965 (again, VERY late in the sword and sandal cycle) have exotic settings, such as THE CONQUEROR OF ATLANTIS and MACISTE, AVENGER OF THE MAYANS (the latter being cobbled together with footage from two other films), and this one completes the sequence.

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The film I was initially reminded of when watching FALCON OF THE DESERT was the 1944 Columbia serial THE DESERT HAWK, starring Gilbert Roland, but these adventures set in a homogenized “Arabic” desert setting go back to the days of Valentino, and even something like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA could have inspired the producers to tap into that vein when looking for an “exotic” project in which to star Kirk Morris to compete for the remaining liras or francs or pesetas available in the dwindling sword-and-sandal market.

My copy of this, which was duplicated from an obscure Dutch VHS release, is somewhat letter-boxed, though not fully, but even in that altered form, the vast expanses of sand and sun look impressive, and when mixed with the clanking of swords and the pounding of hoofbeats, create a delicious fantasy world. The booming musical score (which seems borrowed–some passages I know from earlier films, one of which I know used a re-purposed score, so this would be its THIRD use, at least….these low-budget Italian peplum films from late in the cycle sometimes use music from earlier films) also helps to create a dynamic sense of adventure.

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Director Miguel Lluch (not a name one would soon forget!) seems to have worked exclusively in Spain on projects I don’t think ever got dubbed and exported to North America. I follow Spanish films of the 1960’s, and I had not heard of any of them.

As for producer-writer Osvaldo Civirani (also credited as director of photography on this film, and the desert landscapes and battle scenes are impressively photographed), he is a familiar man to fans because of his peplum (Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun, Kindar the Invulnerable), western (Rick And John, Conquerors of the West; Return of Django), and spy (The Beckett Affair, Operation Poker) work. I would make a point of watching anything with his name somewhere on it.

Aldo Sambrell (unforgettable in his brutal role in NAVAJO JOE, the man who does the vicious scalping before the title credits) has a large role in this film, as Kames, a complex man who is working for the corrupt ruler of Semares, named Atatur, and who befriends Kadir (Kirk Morris), when Kadir saves Kames from a certain death as Kadir happens to be travelling through the area near Semares. This is another film with the plot of someone who is returning to his homeland after many years/decades away and finds that the place has degenerated and come under the rule of a brutal tyrant. This brutal tyrant, Atatur, is interesting in that he talks about his control strategies to his underlings, almost as if he is proud of his Machiavellian machinations and wants everyone to know how creative and imaginative he is in his nefarious scheming. While he does have the usual trappings of the cliched evil ruler, his soliloquies on the management techniques of brutal enslavement seem like a distant relative to something out of David Mamet.

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KIRK MORRIS (though not from this film)

Kirk Morris has always been an interesting screen presence, and when one looks at his body of work, it’s clear that his projects are often off-the-beaten-track in terms of concept and setting. He certainly projects authority, in that post-Steve Reeves way one expects in the peplum genre, but he also has a boyish face and radiates charm. Morris (real name: Adriano Bellini) had a film career lasting 11 years. In that period, he appeared in 15 films that could be fit into the general peplum / sword & sandal / historic adventure category, and then he worked in other popular Italian film genres such as westerns, war films, and sci-fi. In my discussion with other fans of the peplum/sword and sandal genre, Morris is always a favorite, and with a number of his films picked up by AIP-TV for North American television in the 1960’s (in dubbed, pan-and-scan versions), his is a name well-known and well-loved among those who saw his work on Saturday or Sunday afternoon slots devoted to “Hercules”-style films or at 3 a.m. on UHF or indie TV stations.

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KIRK MORRIS (in later years)

I’ve sometimes wondered if the popularity of these films internationally (and they played all over the world) had to do with their archetypal quality–they were fictional “legends” that existed outside of time, and like paraphrases of Old Testament stories which left inconvenient specifics behind in their quest for allegorical truth, these films were both simple entertainment and archetypal projections of political intrigue and social unrest and elemental human emotions….and they were timeless, beyond any particular era or any particular place because they were existing in no actual location. Yes, there are a handful of these films which deal with a specific Roman ruler or historical situation, and we can discuss one of those elsewhere (I probably have discussed one or more elsewhere on this blog), but something like this, despite the miles of desert sand, the generic “Arab” costumes, and the dropping of the name Allah into the conversations, takes place in an Arabian Nights fantasy world, a storybook setting. Because the characters and situations here exist in no actual place, they can became mirrors of ANY place or time. Also, the dubbing, with its stilted and somewhat formal tone, helps to capture the feel of a “great Bible stories” book or film short….or an old-fashioned “literary” reading aloud of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. At least, that’s how a film like FALCON OF THE DESERT strikes me.

The many battle scenes, all featuring swordplay on horseback in the desert, are impressive, the court intrigue and the philosophizing of dictator Atatur are fascinating and surely were an important element to the writer of the film, and each actor creates a vivid impression, despite the dubbing (and remember, an Italian film such as this was shot without sound, MOS, so ALL versions were dubbed, even the native Italian version), of his/her character, playing the role in a manner where each functions kind of like a chess piece.

FALCON OF THE DESERT is not the easiest film to find, but for fans of this genre, it’s a novel and interesting and entertaining experience, and a precious example from the final year of the sword and sandal genre, when chances were being taken and boundaries were being expanded. By 1966, the next year, the genre would be over in terms of active film production (though the films were distributed overseas for a few years after that, and of course have had decades of life on television and video….and from what I understand, are STILL being shown in the middle of the night on European cable TV networks as filler). I’ve acquired some other obscure 1965 peplum titles in recent months and hope to discuss some of those over the Summer. Stay tuned…

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