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Plot: colonial prospectors discover feral white girl in the Congolese jungle.

What do you do when the jungle adventures you had been making no longer are profitable? You look to what other countries are doing. That must have been what Romano Ferrara did when he helmed Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (or Gungala, vergine della giungla back at home). Note how close the name Gungala is to the Italian word for jungle (giungla). For one, it really looks like an Italian take on Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) – complete with a near-identical name, story, and semi-naked lead actress. If there was something the Italians excelled at it was reinterpreting and repackaging whatever quantity was popular and adapting it to discerning Italian tastes. Stronger even, the Italians were never below going that extra mile in being exploitative and adding sleaze where required. What better way to get the hottest starlet out of her clothes than to have her play an uninhibited jungle goddess? Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle might not have been the first, but is a good historical document in that transitional post-mondo period where (and how) in the span of just a short few years the safari adventure transformed into the cannibal atrocity and zombie movie that Italy is rightly reviled/revered for.

The mondo documentary - spearheaded by the incendiary Mondo Cane (1962) from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi - signaled a sea-change in regards to how the Italians would treat the jungle adventure from that point going forward. Prosperi and Jacopetti had captured strange (and, preferably, bloody) rituals and the atrocities of revolutionary wars from and in faraway countries (as inheritors of a colonialist past the unknown Black Continent or the Far East appealed to them the most). Mondo Cane (1962) did big business at the box office, and imitations almost instantly followed – some genuine, most doctored for maximum shock. Once the mondo wave crested it was replaced by the cannibal atrocity movie, its closest forebear being Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Man From Deep River (1972). Many will correctly point to A Man Called Horse (1970) as its obvious template. Ruggero Deodato in turn took things in a more shocking and gritty direction with his Last Cannibal World (1977). In Argentina Leo Fleider had already helmed Captive Of the Jungle (1969) (with Ricardo Bauleo and Libertad Leblanc). And the Leo Fleider jungle adventure often looks as a more sensationalist take on this, Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle. The earliest Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) imitation, at least as near as we can tell, was shot in Argentina in the form of India (1959) from Armando Bó and starring his insanely proportioned wife Isabel Sarli. And where did Ruggero Deodato get his first taste of the treacherous jungle? Why, yes, when helming the sequel Gungala, the Naked Panther Girl (1968) (which, of the two, is admittedly the truer imitation, storywise). It probably goes a long way in explaining why there was a female character by the name of Swan in Last Cannibal World (1977).

In the province of Katanga somewhere in the African equatorial jungle European adventurer Wolf (Poldo Bendandi) steals a sacred diamond from the Basoko, one of the indigenous tribes when he’s betrayed and left to die by his partner in the unfriendly environs of the Black Continent. Ten years pass, and Wolf has set up shop as a guide. He’s hired by British aristocrats Johnny Chandler (Conrad Loth) and Fleur Wolter (Linda Veras) who are planning an expedition to prospect the region to either start an uranium mine, or find the existing one hidden in the most unhospitable, dense depths of the Congolese jungle. Wolf volunteers to lead the expedition once he learns from medicine man Thao (Archie Savage) that the locals speak of a feral girl living in the jungle who can communicate with the animals that raised her and wears a mysterious pendant that the Basoko hold sacred. Sherpas are hired and Wolf and the couple set out on their arduous journey. It is then that they discover Gungala (Kirsten Svanholm, as Kitty Swan), she who the Basoko venerate as their white goddess, hiding in the shrubbery and underbrush.

"A wild girl, a big diamond, and a mysterious idol," ruminates the intellectual Fleur, “this adventure full of mysteries fascinates me." Chandler is fascinated by Gungala in a completely different way. She can only communicate in primal roars and growls but the presence of this well-dressed white man has stirred something in her loins. Wolf, meanwhile, feels that he has kept up his charade long enough and takes to grabbing the pendant from Gungala, forcefully if need be, as soon as the opportunity arises. Meanwhile, Gungala, the naked panther girl, has taken a shine to Chandler and when she sees Fleur talk seductively to him, she does her own dance of seduction in return. The chivalrous Chandler does not take kind to Wolf stealing precious gems from the natives. The two men engage in a brawl over the respective spoils, be they Gungala or the diamond she wears as a pendant, and things come to a head. Punches are thrown, blood is spilled, and shots are fired – the imperialist prospectors realize that perhaps the wisest thing to do is to not interfere with ancient tribal beliefs and age-old customs.

Contrary to other examples of the form Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle stars nobody in particular. Outside of Kitty Swan there are no real big names to speak of. The only thing that can be said about Conrad Loth is that he looks like Giuseppe Pambieri. He’s one of those mustachioed rugged men that were popular around this time. Rugged and masculine as he may be, he’s also a complete nonentity. Linda Veras and Poldo Bendandi both were spaghetti western regulars. Veras had, among others, a small role in the Roberto Rossellini World War II drama General Della Rovere (1959) and was two years away from Gianfranco Parolini’s Sabata (1969) (with Lee Van Cleef). Bendandi was in the Louis Malle comedy Viva Maria! (1965) and The Sweet Sins of Sexy Susan (1967) sequel The Hostess Also Likes to Blow the Horn (1970) from Franz Antel, but little of note or interest otherwise. Director Romano Ferrara was a complete nobody too directing 4 films in 5 years. He was the man behind the proto-giallo A Game of Crime (1964) and wrote Spy in Your Eye (1965) for Vittorio Sala. It’s not exactly the kind of resumé to take anybody places, and Ferrera wasn’t a workhorse director of limited skill and dangerous enthusiasm the way Alfonso Brescia was either.

And what can you say about Kitty Swan? Itty-bitty Kitty almost made it. She was this close, before tragedy forced the Dano-Hawaiian wonder into an early retreat that became a permanent retirement. Swan was born Kirsten Svanholm in Denmark, Copenhagen in 1943 and moved to Hamburg, Germany to find work as an actress. Before that she had worked as a correspondent and secretary, and was part of the girl group Quintessence. While in Germany she scored a role as a nightclub singer in Agent 3S3: Massacre in the Sun (1966) (with George Ardisson). She was press photographer for the Skandinakisk Pressebureau before relocating to Rome, Italy to try her luck as an actress. And work she did find. Usually in inconsequential decorative roles or as an uncredited extra. She was the subject of both fotoromanzi (in Bolero, Grand Hotel and Tipo) and tabloid rags. She was dubbed the ‘Danish Dynamite’ in her turn as Calamity Jane in the 1968 Poker d'Assi commercial for the Squibb ‘Getto’ insect spray. In a blitz career that lasted only 6 years Kitty could be seen in the Franco Prosperi thriller The Hired Killer (1966) (with Franco Nero), the Eurospy romp Deadlier Than the Male (1967) (with Richard Johnson), and Roger Vadim’s ode to all things Jane Fonda, Barbarella (1968). It was her role as Gungala in Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle and Gungala, the Black Panther Girl (1968) that she would be forever associated with. Tragedy would soon cut the young starlet’s career drastically short…

On 31 October in 1970 in Rainbow Springs, Florida cameras rolled on Tarzan and the Brown Prince (1972), the latest Tarzan adventure from director Manuel Caño with Steve Hawkes as the titular wild man. For the scene Hawkes and Swan, only 27, were tied to wooden stakes where a lion was to free Hawkes. Everything was prepared for the big scene and shooting commenced. It was when pyrotechnicians lit the cover of gasoline-covered leaves that the fire quickly swept out of control. The lion Samson did indeed liberate Hawkes of his binds, but as panic and fire spread on the set it took a great deal of effort from everybody to free Hawkes and Swan from the blazing inferno. Kitty suffered third-degree burns over a quarter of her face and body, and barely made it out alive. Hawkes, while freed earlier than his co-star, sustained 90% burns all over his body. The two were rushed immediately to a specialized facility in Gainesville, and Steve Hawkes spent the next six months in the hospital recovering. He would write, direct, and star in the cinematic turkey Blood Freak (1972) and a few other Florida cheapos before relocating to Loxahatchee in Palm Beach where he opened the Busch Wildlife animal sanctuary where a plaque on the gate infamously read, “trespassers will be eaten.

For Kitty salvation lie not in America, but in the distant suburb of Novo Naselje (New Settlement) in the sleepy village of Berane – nearby the gentle stream of the Lim River just below Bogavsko Hill and under the protective cover of the Komovi, Bjelasica and Cmiljevica mountains - in Montenegro. History would record that it was not an American doctor who cured the young star (it is said that Kitty could barely walk, move her arms, and suffered from severe depression) but ointments and potions from local herbalist Jovan Šaljić and his wife Dragica. While the Americans suggested corrective plastic surgery, Swan made a miraculous recovery thanks to the ancient homeopathic treatments that Šaljić gave her. While recovering in Montenegro, Swan returned to her first love, singing, and cut a record with Serbian pop-folk singer Toma Zdravković. Swan’s year-long stay with Šaljić was widely publicized in Yugoslavian newspapers of the day. In 1971 Kitty left Berane a new woman. Two years after the disastrous event, in 1973, she married her one true love Roberto Casali and forever disappeared from the silver screen into anonymity and the invisibility of everyday life. Imagine what a superstar (domestic and international) Kitty could have been, what a long and prosperous career she could have had. It’s so very easy to imagine her alongside Edwige Fenech, Barbara Bouchet, Nieves Navarro, Helga Liné, Luciana Paluzzi, Rosalba Neri, and Malisa Longo in any giallo, gothic horror, poliziottesco, or commedia sexy all'Italiana of that era. These days Kitty lives a quiet life sequestered away in metropolitan Rome and is something of an (academically unrecognized) specialist in Roman and Etruscan antiquity, especially ceramic and pottery. While not as tragic a fate as that of Iberian cult queen Soledad Miranda, the story of Kitty Swan is often neglected in favor of that of her Croatian-born co-star. Kitty will always be loved.

Hopelessly tame and antiquated by the titles it would influence in the following decade Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle is an endearing relic from a much less enlightened time. Reflective of the colonialist mindset of the prior decade Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle was not only a starring vehicle for Danish delight Kitty Swan; it’s rife with situational nudity, casually racist depictions of indigenous peoples as superstitious primitives, and veers towards the mondo direction that would soon become the de facto standard. And, unlike the more nihilist and Darwinist exercises that would follow, Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle is sort of humanist and pacifist. Instead of brutally slaughtering the white colonialists for invading their territory and stealing their natural resources, Gungala teaches them a lesson… and sends them packing peacefully. Just like Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) a decade earlier this one too ends with Gungala taking a refreshing splash in a lake. And what else are these expeditions into the Black Continent (or the Far East) and the explorations of their native rituals and customs if not a very thinly-veiled metaphor to help the colonialists understand that most fascinating mystery of all: their women. French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was onto something when he observed that, “the more things change the more they stay the same.

Plot: Praetorian plans to overthrow increasingly despotic Caesar.

Alfonso Brescia may never be remembered as one of the great Italian exploitation directors but his reputation as a director of competent, albeit seldomly inspired, genre pieces made him a worthy footnote in the country’s cinematic history. That reputation had to start somewhere, and what place better to start than La rivolta dei pretoriani (or Revolt Of the Praetorians). As this was Alfonso’s first directorial feature it sets the stage for The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) and as such it is probably the best in the Brescia canon. Not merely for being his first, but because it is genuinely pervaded by a gusto and hunger that would be largely absent in the majority of his oeuvre starting at the dawn of the next decade. Revolt Of the Praetorians meanwhile is testament to the fact that Alfonso Brescia, while not blessed with much of a visual style of his own, was a promising director at one point. What Revolt Of the Praetorians lacks in flair and strong visuals it makes up in sheer enthusiasm.

Over thirty years and about 50 movies legendary journeyman Alfonso Brescia tried his hand at everything from peplum, spaghetti western, Eurowar, giallo, decamerotici, and commedia sexy all'Italiana to science fiction, poliziotteschi, sceneggiata, and barbarians to even the rare action movie. Interestingly, Brescia never partook in the jungle goddess craze following the international success of Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) or Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (1967) back at home. His work underwent a notable dip in quality after Kill Rommel! (1968) and the patently absurd Hell in Normandy (1968) as he rode the dying embers of the waning Eurowar fad. Interestingly he didn’t dabble in the gothic horror revival of the 1970s (renting castles and costumes costs lira, you know). He did direct two surprisingly decent giallo but not a single The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), or Black Emanuelle (1975) knockoff or any fumetti or Eurospy romps. The only real outlier in his oeuvre was his The Beast In Space (1980), or the concluding chapter of his Star Wars (1977) pentalogy and a liberal space opera reworking Walerian Borowczyk's The Beast (1975). Instead of faded American stars and Italian veterans chewing scenery it had Finnish import Sirpa Lane gobbling on more things than just the scenery. Lane had a blitz career that barely lasted a decade. She was in Roger Vadim's The Assassinated Young Girl (1974), Nazi Love Camp 27 (1977), Malabestia (1978), Joe D'Amato's Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals (1978), and Andrea Bianchi's Carnal Games (1983). Lane’s career nexus undoubtedly was the aforementioned The Beast (1975). By the same token did old Al not contribute to the zombie – and cannibal boom of the 1980s. In a surprising turn of events Iron Warrior (1987) took inspiration from Hong Kong and Homicide In the Blue Light (1992) could have been a potential Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987) erotic potboiler had it focused on fabulous Florence Guérin more than its poliziotteschi subplot.

Having worked as an assistant – and second unit director for Mario Caiano, Giuseppe Vari, Mario Amendola, and Silvio Amadio producer Carlo Vassalle gave Alfonso Brescia - who had penned the screenplays for Maciste, Gladiator of Sparta (1964) and The Two Gladiators (1964) - the chance to direct his own peplum with Revolt Of the Praetorians. In his debut feature Brescia tackles a heavily fictionalized take on the historical account of the assassination of Roman emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus in 96. Domitian was the last member of the Flavian dynasty who reigned from 81 to 96. Domitian’s regime exhibited totalitarian characteristics that curtailed the senate’s power which put him at odds with various senators that viewed him a tyrannic despot. He was eventually assassinated by court officials and succeeded by his advisor Nerva. Revolt Of the Praetorians does indeed relay that basic account, but throws in a surprise or two along the way. After all the sword-and-sandal epic was in dying embers by this point. On top of that he was alotted a faded and fading American lead (Richard Harrison) that had found a footing in the Italian schlock market, some noted domestic character actors (Piero Lulli, Giuliano Gemma, and Fedele Gentile) in key supporting roles, and a bevy of national and international babes (Moira Orfei, Paola Pitti, and Ivy Holzer).

In AD 96 Emperor Domiziano (Piero Lulli) has sunk to such depths of paranoia that a multitude of daily executions have become the norm. His concubine Artamne (Moira Orfei) believes what Caesar does is just and assists him whenever possible. Imperial Praetorian Guard Valerio Rufo (Richard Harrison), young senator Marcus Cocceio Nerva (Giuliano Gemma) and elder patrician Fabio Lucilio (Fedele Gentile) realize that Caesar is becoming increasingly unhinged and unpredictable and that his reign of terror will eventually mean the end of Rome. The three decide to hatch a plan to relief Domiziano of his power and install a new, just Caesar in his stead. Helped by court jester Elpidion (Salvatore Furnari) in their efforts, who Caesar believes to be on his side, the forces of the Emperor are assailed by the agile Red Wolf, a masked caped crusader and a defender of justice. Things take a turn for the personal when Domiziano’s preferred soldier (Bruno Ukmar) and his forces threaten life and limb of Valerio’s girlfriend Lucilla (Paola Pitti, as Paola Piretti). With the menace of Red Wolf and intrigue in his court Domiziano senses that something is afoot and orders the rebellion struck down, at any cost…

It’s peculiar how many plot points Brescia would recycle in the years following Revolt Of the Praetorians, no matter what the genre. The following year’s The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) had Piero Lulli conspiring with Hélène Chanel. The masked crusader would be used again in The Colt Is My Law (1965) and Amazons vs Supermen (1973). Likewise does one of the main characters in Battle Of the Amazons (1973) only spring into action until the villains force his hand by threatening something near and dear to him. The general plot outline of Revolt Of the Praetorians would be recycled almost in full for Cross Mission (1988) that saw Riccardo Acerbi turn against his despotic master Maurice Poli who had his own dwarven conjurer with Nelson de la Rosa. Revolt Of the Praetorians benefits greatly from having a screenplay written not by Brescia himself, but by Gian Paolo Callegari. He had writing credits going as far as the 1940s and would direct the spy caper Agent Sigma 3 – Mission Goldwather (1967) and the early decamerotici Hot Nights of the Decameron (1972), among many others. Pier Ludovico Pavoni was obviously an infinitely superior cinematographer compared to later frequent Brescia collaborators Giancarlo Ferrando, Fausto Rossi, and Silvio Fraschetti.

Compared to the surrealist The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) the next year Revolt Of the Praetorians is remarkably conservative and restrained. Which doesn’t mean that old Alfonso doesn’t fill it to the gills with elements you aren’t likely to see anywhere else. Revolt Of the Praetorians is a tale of court intrigue, but also one where virginal maidens are threatened to be lowered in a vat of molten lead, where a little person commandeers an army of insurgents, and where a single Praetorian fights waves of enemies with his hands tied behind his back. Moira Orfei wears beautiful gowns and changes wigs in every virtually every scene she’s in. Paola Pitti is a virginal maiden in the mould of Sylva Koscina in The Labors of Hercules (1957). Piero Lulli and Moira Orfei were both peplum regulars and Lulli would play a tyrant again in The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965). Bruno Ukmar would turn up in Brescia’s spaghetti westerns in the ensueing years.

Ivy Holzer would later end up playing one of the leads in Samao, Queen Of the Jungle (1968) (alongside Edwige Fenech, Femi Benussi, and Roger Browne). Moira Orfei came from a family of circus performers and was known as Moira of the Elephants. As an actress she was a peplum veteran having appeared in a slew of sword-and-sandal epics from 1960 onward. Orfei was in Ursus (1961) (alongside a young Soledad Miranda) and would later figure in Scent of a Woman (1974) and the Lucio Fulci gothic horror spoof Dracula in the Provinces (1975) (with Lando Buzzanca and an all-star female cast including Sylva Koscina, Christa Linder, Ilona Staller and Valentina Cortese). The Orfei family runs circuses to this day. Harrison had something of a career revival in Hong Kong twenty years later with his association with Godfrey Ho Chi-Keung (何誌強). Unfortunately Brescia wouldn’t be able to hold on to the services of director of photography Pier Ludovico Pavoni and the great majority of his subsequent output would be plagued by absolutely hideous cinematography. Likewise would many of Brescia’s later films come with abysmal scores, usually studio leftovers from Marcello Giombini.

There’s a sense of vitality to Revolt Of the Praetorians that makes it an enjoyable slice of low-budget peplum pulp. Brescia might not have been one of Italy’s more colorful or talented exploitation directors, but his early work possesses a sense of character and vigor that his later oeuvre direly lacks. In the mid-1960s there was still hope for Brescia to cultivate what little potential he had as a director. If anything Revolt Of the Praetorians proved that Alfonso Brescia could be counted on to helm modestly budgeted productions that would be able to turn a reasonable profit. Of course no one in the right mind should see Revolt Of the Praetorians voluntarily, but it’s a delectable slice of peplum cheese from a director who would in less than a decade forth would be churning out some of the most low-hanging celluloid fruit imagineable. It’s hard to fathom that Revolt Of the Praetorians came from the same director that graced the world with nearly indefensible cross-genre pulp as Amazons vs Supermen (1973) and the delirious Star Odyssey (1979). In the twilight years of his career Brescia would channel the spirit of Revolt Of the Praetorians with his illicit Ator sequel Iron Warrior (1987). That he followed that one up with the double-whammy of Cross Mission (1988) (where about the only good thing was Brigitte Porsche) and the erotic thriller Homicide In the Blue Light (1992) (that not even a frequently naked Florence Guérin could save) speaks volumes of just how much a hack Brescia truly was. Once upon a time Alfonso Brescia had some mild promise as a workhorse exploitation director and mercenary pulp specialist. Revolt Of the Praetorians is all the proof you need. Tread lightly, regardless.