a.k.a. I sette gladiatori
directed by Pedro Lazaga
1962 / Atenea Films / 93
written by Sandro Continenza, Bruno Corbucci, Alberto De Martino, Giovanni Grimaldi, and Italo Zingarelli
cinematography by Marcello Giombini
starring Richard Harrison, Loredana Nusciak, Gérard Tichy, Edoardo Toniolo, José Marco, Barta Barri, and Nazzareno Zamperla
After being let go from a Roman arena thanks to a very tenacious performance during a fight that was supposed to kill him for helping in the escape of five other gladiators, noble Spartan Darius (Richard Harrison) returns home, fully expecting a more pleasant rest of his life.
But things have changed in Darius’s years of absence: his father – a very democratically minded leader beloved by all – has been murdered by the evil would-be tyrant Hiarba (Gérard Tichy) who made the whole thing look like a suicide committed because Dad was supposed to have ambitions on becoming a tyrant. Before Darius has even really arrived home, and has been warned off by his wet nurse, Hiarba sends some of his men to secretly assassinate the ex-gladiator, but the blackguard has not counted on his enemy’s superior fighting abilities, nor on the fact that the son of Darius’s wet nurse suddenly pops out to lend a sword.
Hiarba is a flexible guy, though, and, once he’s realized Darius has the curious yet strangely plot-convenient habit of letting his sword – even if it’s the only thing he inherited from his father – stick in the dead bodies of his enemies, changes his plans to frame Darius for murder, the sword standing as proof enough for the young upstarts clear evil. While he’s at it, Hiarba also uses said weapon to kill the father (also a co-conspirator in changing the murder of Darius’s father into a suicide who now starts to develop a conscience) of Darius’s childhood love and woman-Hiarba-would-like-to-
Of course, the tyrant may be smirking too soon anyhow, for Darius escapes all attempts to arrest him, and spends the next half hour riding through the countryside, recruiting the five former gladiators (remember them?) who owe him their freedom as his own, private, tyrant-crushing fighting force. These five – the thief, the pretty one, the strong one, the alcoholic, and the bald one who doesn’t like shirts – plus Darius and wet nurse Junior make up the seven gladiators of the title (even though wet nurse Junior technically never was a gladiator), and are all too capable of fighting through whatever Hiarba throws at them.
The title of Spanish director Pedro Lazaga’s Gladiators 7 (an Italian-Spanish co-production that for once really seems to belong to both countries on a creative level, too) may suggest a peplum variation of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven school of films, but it’s not a film that keeps as close to the structures and motives of its predecessors all of the time as to be called a rip-off. Sure, there’s the number of heroes, and the ritual assemblage of the group by Darius well-known from other movies of this type. The rest of the plot, however, is more in a typical peplum vein than in that of a Whatever Seven films; there is, at least, no poor village that needs protecting.
And, unlike those other films, Gladiators 7 is strictly centred around its hero Darius, with the rest of the gang getting somewhat effective one-note character types and no character development whatsoever. Six of these seven are strictly there to have characteristic fighting styles that make the action sequences more interesting and let Darius look like a more rounded character. Look, he even has friends!
While I prefer the slightly more egalitarian ways of those other Seven movies, as well as their interest in questions of personal morality (something the film as hand just waves away with a disinterested expression), I’m certainly not going to call Gladiators 7 a bad movie, for it is a film doing perfectly well what it actually sets out to do: using the story of one shirt-hating guy’s personal vendetta against an evil tyrant to show off some quite exciting, diverse, and often shirtless action sequences in front of very photogenic sets and locations, spiced up with scenes of typical, competent melodrama. The film fulfils the action part of its agenda without much visible effort. There’s an obvious influence of the fights from swashbuckling adventure movies on display, so there is none of the lame action choreography many peplums suffer from (alas also none of the pillar wrestling), and instead there’s a lot of jumping, swashing, and buckling, all performed by actors who may not be the greatest thespians on Earth, yet sure know how to look as if they knew how to handle a sword. Which, of course, is something you expect from a film starring Richard Harrison, who has never been known to be much of an actor, but always was quite an action actor.
Gladiators 7 also features manly belly-laughs, jokes that aren’t completely horrible, and an entertaining bad guy whose particularly evil brand of evilness I attribute to Bruno Corbucci, one of the Scriptwriters Five responsible here. If someone wanted to call Gladiators 7 the platonic ideal of the non-mythological peplum (for alas, gods, rubber monsters and destructible buildings have no place in it), I would not have it in me to disagree.