The sword and scandal genre rarely got much respect in the U.S. during its heyday and it was easy to see why. Aimed largely at indiscriminate male viewers, these action-adventure sagas were usually imported from Italy, poorly dubbed in English and featured some of the world’s most famous bodybuilders of that era (none of whom were known for their acting prowess) along with exotic female sex sirens. The plots were usually dumbed-down bastardizations of Greek and Roman myths or history and the production values were variable, mixing picturesque Italian locations with laughable special effects or papier-mache props. Due to their derivative nature and lowbrow appeal, few of these faux epics ever achieved classic movie status but occasionally one would stand out for its sheer weirdness alone like The Giant of Metropolis (1961), which is set in the year 20,000 A.C. and often looks like a Flash Gordon-inspired sci-fi adventure.
Directed by Umberto Scarpelli, the film is an unusual, one-of-a-kind entry in the genre due to its broad mix of mythology (a la the lost city of Atlantis), science fiction, horror and disaster film conventions generously sprinkled with scenes of stylized torture and sadism that were not expected in films usually programmed for kiddie matinees.
Gordon Mitchell, the star of The Giant of Metropolis, was also much more severe in appearance and less familiar to audiences than the two top tier stars of peplums – Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott. While the latter two actors were movie star handsome and capable of expressing a somewhat wider ranger of emotions including a sense of humor, Mitchell was what you might call ugly-handsome in the manner of Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef and other character actors who had chiseled merciless faces. He was often cast as villains in movies because of that visage which was fierce, threatening and cruel. Even his smile has a wolf-like, predatory quality. But all of this makes him the perfect adversary against the formidable villains he must battle in the underground kingdom of Metropolis.
The movie opens with Obro (Mitchell) on a trek with his father (Mario Meniconi) and their clan across a volcanic landscape. They are on their way to warn Yotar (Roldano Lupi), the ruler of Metropolis, that his meddling in scientific experiments will result in destruction and death for everyone. Fate intervenes, the patriarch dies and Obro’s followers are transformed into skeletons by the “whirlwinds of death,” one of Yotar’s many lethal defenses.
Obro is captured and condemned to death by combat but his superhuman strength against a club-wielding neanderthal and a gang of savage biting dwarves impress Yotar and he is subjected to a series of physical endurance tests.
This is where the mad scientist subplot surfaces with Yotar plotting to transplant the brain of his father Egon (Furio Meniconi), an ancient sage, into the body of his young son Elmos (a whining, unconvincing child actor named Marietto) so his heir can achieve wisdom and immortality. Obro also becomes crucial to the operation because “he is endowed with vitality above the ordinary. His blood is a rarity that should not be wasted.”
Queen Texen (Liana Orfei), wife of Yotar, is opposed to the dangerous scheme and plots to rescue Elmos with the help of Obro. Princess Mecede (Bella Cortez), Yotar’s daughter by another wife, is also eventually convinced to join the mutiny. In all ends in an apocalyptic finish as the citizens of Metropolis are finally released from Yotar’s mass mind control just in time to be drowned by tidal waves or crushed by crumbling temples. Yet Obro manages to rescue Mecede and Elmos and the trio are washed up on the shores of a new world.
While the direction by Umberto Scarpelli lacks flair and is occasionally plodding, The Giant of Metropolis makes up for it with imaginative contributions from Giorgio Giovannini’s set design, Armando Trovajoli’s spooky, organ-driven music score and Oberdan Troiani’s atmospheric cinematography which depicts the underworld of Metropolis as a series of shadowy tunnels, Art Deco inspired rooms and garish lighting that would make Mario Bava proud.
The film also revels in the odd detail such as the prime minister of Metropolis being murdered by a pair of giant metal pinchers or Obro emerging from the foot of a colossal statue (hench the title) to spring a surprise attack on Yotar’s guards. Add to this some enjoyably crude special effects, dialogue that is both grandoise and silly and some fetching eye candy (Bella Cortez and Liana Orfei of the cult film Mill of the Stone Women) and you have a peplum that is far from ordinary.
The main attraction, of course, is Gordon Mitchell, who may not be much of an actor but his physique might be the film’s best special effect. Amazingly, he was 38 years old when he made The Giant of Metropolis but he looks like a Greek god – broad shoulders, sinewy arms, muscular chest, ripped midsection, tapered waist and the legs of a gymnast. But compared to peers like Reg Park (Hercules in the Haunted World) or contemporary bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger whose bodies are extreme exaggerations of the male form, Mitchell’s physique looks almost normal in comparison.
What fans of the sword and scandal films seem to forget is that Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Mark Forest, Dan Vadis and other icons of peplum had relatively short filmographies compared to the average working actor. Most of them had less than 30 film and TV credits total but Mitchell was a unique exception leaving behind a legacy of more than 140 films and TV appearances.
According to various biographies, he was born in Denver, Colorado (birth name: Charles Allen Pendleton) and later fought during WW2 at the Battle of the Bulge and later re-enlisted for the Korean War. After that, he completed his education and became a high school teacher while pumping iron at Muscle Beach in Los Angeles. Mitchell recalled, “It was a beautiful place, a golden dream. All the champions were there and we trained all day long, from sunrise to sunset, and it attracted the world . . . all the women that you wanted were down there too! It was a fabulous time.”
At one time, Mitchell joined Mae West’s stage revue as part of her all-male ensemble and in the mid-fifties, Mitchell became an extra in Hollywood movies, appearing in such films as The Ten Commandments (as an Egyptian guard) and The Enemy Below (as a German sailor). After fellow bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves moved to Italy in 1958 and became an international sensation in Hercules, Mitchell followed him to Europe and made his feature film debut in the peplum genre with Atlas Against the Cyclops (1961).
Mitchell made at least 13 more sword and scandal films before the genre died at the boxoffice and then branched out into many other kinds of films – horror (La Vendetta di Lady Morgan, 1965), spaghetti westerns (I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death, 1969), war dramas (Hour X Suicide Patrol, 1969), Euro-crime (The Man from Chicago, 1975) and even softcore sex and Nazi exploitation films. Classic film fans probably know him best for his memorable minor role in Fellini Satyricon (1969), in which he plays a thief who helps Encolpio (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller) kidnap a hermaphrodite and then tries to slay them.
Mitchell died in Marina del Rey, California in September 2003 at the age of 80. If he had ever written an autobiography, it would have been fascinating for his revelations about the two wars in which he served, the Muscle Beach years, Mae West and his long film career in both America and Europe, especially Italy.
The Giant of Metropolis has been available on VHS and DVD in English-dubbed versions from various distributors over the years but the quality has been poor or mediocre at best. Retromedia Drive-In Theater probably has the best possible DVD transfer with minor damage and slightly faded color.
You can also stream a surprisingly attractive copy of it on Youtube. Unfortunately, the peplum genre has been the most ignored category when it comes to Blu-ray restoration of cult movies but The Giant of Metropolis is a prime example of a sword and scandal epic that would look fantastic for the set design alone if given an upgrade. If you are interested in learning more about this neglected genre, read Heroes Never Die by Barry Atkinson (published by Midnight Marquee Press).
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