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.