Kendra Steiner Editions

May 14, 2017

I TRE CENTURIONI (Italy 1964), starring Roger Browne and Mimmo Palmara (dir. Roberto Mauri)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 8:28 pm

I TRE CENTURIONI (aka Three Swords for Rome)

released in Italy in December 1964

starring ROGER BROWNE as Maximus

MIMMO PALMARA (aka Dick Palmer) as Fabius

and TONY FREEMAN (aka Mario Novelli) as Julius

with Lisa Gastoni and Philippe Hersent

directed by Roberto Mauri

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December 1964 was relatively late in the cycle of European Peplum/Sword and Sandal/Historical Adventure films. Some were still being released in the first  half of 1965, but by then, the Western and Spy genres began to dominate Italian and European co-production genre-film output. One positive aspect of the Italian film industry’s cranking out of seemingly countless numbers of films in a particular genre (Historical, Western, Spy, Giallo, 70’s crime-police, etc.) is that it allowed for a wide variety of approaches within the established genre. With a title like THE THREE CENTURIONS and stars like Browne and Palmara and Freeman, who were familiar faces to fans, the “product identity” of such a film is clearly established. Its market was clear-cut and an audience was guaranteed. In that kind of situation, the film-makers can get a kind of freedom in that the product was pre-sold, and as long as they make reference to certain tropes of the genre and the film has the expected look, they can go in different directions and explore pet themes and concerns. Hence, the wide variety in tone and theme and even narrative structure in the European historical adventures of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (which is more evident when watching the Italian-language versions of the films rather than the edited English dubs, as much as we American fans of the genre feel a closeness to and nostalgia for the old pan-and-scan TV versions of the films). Actually, the waning days of the peplum genre in 1964-65 brought a number of fascinating films, some of which took the genre in new and unexpected directions (the films starring Kirk Morris tended to be somewhat different and off-the-wall in terms of setting and concept—-I’ll try to review one or two of those in the coming months).  I TRE CENTURIONI is not an odd film, but it’s a thoughtful and interesting film which uses the historical peplum genre to make a number of observations about character and society and government and the vagaries of leadership that give it an almost  Shakespearean feel.

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I TRE CENTURIONI (let’s just call it THE THREE CENTURIONS, since that’s what they are) is an interesting entry in the sword and sandal genre. It takes place around 22 AD in the Roman Empire, when a teenaged emperor, Elagabalus, (who is already debauched, even at a young age) is technically on the throne but manipulated by a conniving mother, who is the real power. (note: look up Elagabalus on Wikipedia sometime–he was a real character who did “reign” for a few years before being assassinated at age 18!) Besides remaining in power, she seems most motivated by self-aggrandizement. Clearly, she cares little about Rome’s foreign policy or what’s happening in the far-flung parts of the Empire, except perhaps making sure that tribute is paid in those lands and that the tribute is high enough to finance her lavish spending. What’s interesting is that many of the underlings in this system are depicted as thoughtful and decent, people who view the Roman Empire as something bringing culture and technical advances to outlying cultures, people who are more interested in mutually advantageous alliances than in conquest.

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(above pic: Roger Browne and Lisa Gastoni)

Because of the cutbacks, three Centurions working in the Eastern provinces (I’m not even going to speculate where this is supposed to be–it has elements of Turkey and also of some of the former Soviet Republics down by Georgia, but it really doesn’t matter as this is a fictitious world) are essentially laid-off….rather than returning to Rome, they decide to seek their fortune in the local area and start exploring. What they discover is a strange fanatical cult dedicated to the Goddess Taife, a cult which (of course) is being manipulated by a few cynical people at the top in order to consolidate power and to keep the masses under the spell of this Goddess. Sacrifices are made, and people are kept in line. At this point–about 20 or 25 minutes into the film–the plot jumps into the deep end of the pool, and from here on out, each of the three centurions handles things somewhat differently.

Of course, being soldiers in an unfamiliar area with some severance pay in their pockets, they manage to find the nearest tavern, where they are ripped off in a dice game, so that starts one of those free-for-all, tavern-emptying fights common to this genre. This one is free-wheeling and is accompanied by somewhat comedic music. It’s also played in the circus-like way you see in the films of Gianfranco Parolini (aka Frank Kramer, though things are not as meticulously choreographed here as in Parolini’s films). Two local officers come in to arrest the centurions after the fight, and the locals are thrown out, which leads to another colorful brawl in the street. Eventually, our three centurions are arrested by the local authorities, Roger Browne’s character establishes eye contact with the queen (and you know where that will lead), and the film then gets into its main focus and we learn about the corrupt local government and the religious cult that manipulates the populace through fear, superstition, and manipulation of imagery which possesses a kind of power over the unconscious of the citizenry.

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One aspect of this film which adds to its quality is the relationship among the three soldiers. Although they are pulled in different directions by circumstances, their friendship seems so deep and so sincere. You get the sense that Browne, Palmara, and Freeman/Novelli genuinely like each other and enjoy each other’s company….and know each other enough to know what each other’s blind spots, each other’s sense of humor, etc. It’s not just what’s in the script….it’s also in the way it’s played AND in the casting, as Browne, Palmara, and Novelli each radiate certain character qualities that cut through any distancing the dubbing in multiple languages may provide. Browne is clearly the leader, the charmer (and the small bits of business with the flute that Browne’s character plays in certain scenes is a very nice touch!), the thinker, the man who represents fairplay and also caution before acting. Palmara, like a career enlisted man or NCO in the military who knows pretty much everything there is to know from his decades of life experience and working with soldiers of all kinds, brings a kind of life-wisdom but at the same time he is head-strong and perhaps a little too emotional to ever get a high officer position which would require a kind of detachment. Novelli/Freeman has a boyish face (as do his fellow peplum actors Kirk Morris and Dan Vadis) and plays the role almost like a Roman Peplum version of the character Moose from the Archie comics—-the strong man who is simple but good at heart, child-like (not that unlike Lennie in Of Mice And Men, but without the tragic element), wide-eyed and discovering the world.

As the intrigue of the film’s middle section forces the three centurions in different directions, and they are tempted in different ways and their different natures lead them different paths, the film becomes quite wise in terms of human nature. I’ve always felt that one reason the peplum and spaghetti western genres were so popular in third-world countries around the globe is that the plots and conflicts-between-characters or groups in society somehow mirrored what average people saw being played out in their own societies, without wallowing in self-conscious allegory (something like William Faulkner’s A FABLE, being an example of self-conscious allegory)–the best allegory never shows its hand and may well not even be intended as allegory by its makers….the storytellers cannot help but reflect what they’ve experienced and what they’ve seen and what they’ve tasted of life when they set out to write. You take insight wherever you can get it, and believe it or not, I find THE THREE CENTURIONS to offer a lot in terms of insight into character, into society, into the nature of how religion is used to manipulate and control, etc. Maybe YOU won’t see that, but I think you’ll at least understand how I can see it!

American actor Roger Browne continued (as did Kirk Morris) making peplum films well into 1965, and these ’64 and ’65 films are quite interesting and also little-known and rarely seen in North America. I’ve watched a number of them recently, and may well write about more of them on this blog. SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD, in particular, was quite satisfying on pretty much EVERY level. Browne is an excellent actor and a charismatic leading man who also made his mark in the Eurospy genre. Many years ago, Dorado Films sponsored a crowd-funding campaign to release Mr. Browne’s well-known ARGOMAN: THE FANTASTIC SUPERMAN film and to have a theatrical screening in Oregon. I contributed to the fund drive and got that DVD and an ARGOMAN pen, which I still treasure!

I highly recommend this film to peplum fans are to open-minded genre film fans who will give it a fair chance. Films like this come and go on You Tube, so just check out its various alternate titles here and there and you’ll probably stumble across a copy of it somewhere, sometime. There are also online sources such as PEPLUM TV and THE PEPLUM CHANNEL, which may offer it. I’ve intentionally avoided giving away a lot of the plot after the film’s first third, as you’ll appreciate it more with the element of surprise. Enjoy!

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