The Archivist #90: Sergio Leone’s Debut THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961)

Warner Archive brings the sword and sandal epic to Blu-ray

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was an imposing, colossal statue of the god Helios that stood on the harbor of the Greek island of Rhodes.

The 1961 film Colossus of Rhodes puts the famous statue at the center of a “sword and sandal” political adventure, imagining it as a sort of fortress with a climbable internal structure, like the Statue of Liberty or Gateway Arch. This towering vantage point offers not only a view of approaching threats, but the ability to rain fire upon any boats entering or leaving the harbor’s single point of entry. With the completion of this fortress guarding their harbor, the island of Rhodes celebrates the security and political power that it provides.

Present for the celebration is Dario (Rory Calhoun), a military hero in town to party. Getting lost in the labyrinthine castle while pursuing a potential tryst, he stumbles into a strategic council, arousing suspicion that he’s a spy.

Prohibited from leaving the island and determined to leave, he gets mixed up with a force of rebels who offer to help smuggle him out. At first uninterested in their politics, he becomes sympathetic to their plight against the island’s oppressive rule. Ironically, it’s the suspicion that he’s trying to subvert order which inadvertently causes him to do just that.

Helmed by the great Sergio Leone, the film is his directorial debut, though it lacks much of what would become his signature style, working almost exclusively in the western genre for the rest of his career. Instead, the film takes cues from the sword and sandal films of the era, offering up familiar scenes of an opulent royal court, torture chambers, and arena combat. It’s a bit campy but certainly enjoyable, going for huge epic scope and sometimes clearly feeling smaller than it wants to.

One subplot that lands with a big thud is the lopsided romantic triangle — most likely patterned after Ben-Hur — which pairs Dario with women on both sides of the tale’s conflict. In execution, though, the film’s far more interested in bad girl Diala (Lea Massari), and Dario only settles for one of the two women after his first choice becomes impossible.

The execution of the colossus is technically impressive, mixing models with full-scale interior and exterior sets to achieve the appearance of enormity. One of the more iconic scenes features Dario fighting a group of soldiers atop the exterior of the Colossus, calling to mind the Mount Rushmore finale of North by Northwest.

The film is one of the few cultural references to the Colossus of Rhodes, a fascinating historical icon which isn’t nearly as well known or explored as it deserves to be, and this alone is reason enough to give it a watch. Getting to see a master hone his craft on an enjoyable adventure makes this an easy recommendation, but tailor your expectations accordingly.

The Package

While the film is technically Italian, star Rory Calhoun is American (and primarily a western actor at that). This Warner Archive Blu-ray is in English, preserving his performance, and offers subtitles.

Special Features and Extras

Commentary by Film Historian Christopher Frayling

Trailer (2:26)

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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