Life isn’t pleasant in Ancient Crete. For a generation or so the Cretans have made yearly human sacrifices to the Minotaur, whom its priesthood sees as a protective godhood rather than a monster with a tragic backstory roaming a labyrinth. Crete’s king Minos (Carlo Tamberlani) changes his mind about the whole human sacrifice thing when his wife begs him on her deathbed to abolish the practice. After all, she even has proof the god’s don’t care about these sacrifices, seeing as she secretly hid away one of their twin daughters with foreign peasants to protect her from being sacrificed as the later born of every twin pair in Crete should be, and was not punished by the gods for it.
That argument is enough to convince Minos, and while he’s planning on breaking with traditions, he also decides to bring that twin daughter, Ariadne (Rosanna Schiaffino) to court. Alas, his other daughter Phaedra is not very happy with another claimant on a throne he already sees at hers, and the man Minos sends out to find Ariadne, Chiron (Alberto Lupo), is all too willing to fulfil her wish to see her sister dead rather than rescued.
Chiron’s tactics as a political assassin are bad, though, for instead of locating Ariadne and then silently letting her disappear, he hires a horde of bandits to snuff out the whole village where she lives. Fortunately for the forces of justice, hero and prince-of-Athens Theseus (Bob Mathias) and his best buddy, the Cretan noble Demetrius (Rik Battaglia), are in the area. As Greek heroes, they are quite willing and able to push back a mere horde of bandits, even though Ariadne’s adoptive parents and a lot of villagers die in the attack before the duo can get in on the action.
Since Ariadne is a bit of a stunner, and Theseus really a nice guy, he takes the now orphaned girl to Athens to be taken into his father’s house and romanced. Demetrius’s confused reaction to the girl looking exactly like his princess our hero just laughs off.
Of course, this won’t be the last attempt on Ariadne’s life, and of course Theseus and Demetrius will sooner or later have to set out to set things right in Crete. However, things will become more dangerous and complicated than anyone could have expected, with Phaedra falling in love with Theseus, the involvement of the Cretan resistance of people who sit around drinking wine instead of acting, and war and doom coming for Athens.
Silvio Amadio’s Teseo came as a bit of a positive surprise to me. I do love my peplums, but I generally don’t expect too much of them, so when a film delivers so much more of interest as this one does, I tend to get a little giddy. It’s only fair, too, for there is much to be giddy about here.
Some of the film’s positive aspects are easily explained by the fact that it came relatively early in the peplum cycle, when the budgets for films of the genre often were a bit higher, and the productions could afford to hire extras for mass scenes and put more effort into their production design, which is always helpful in films as soundstage based yet in need of spectacle as these tend to be. Consequently, there are often more people on screen here when the script needs it than one would expect, giving the handful of battle scenes and the obligatory storming of the bad guys’ throne room (though it’s the sacrifice chamber here) a bit more weight and believability through the sheer number of participants. Compared to classical Hollywood monumental epics, there aren’t still all that many participants, but when you have seen enough of these films, you get rather thankful when an army consists of more than ten people. Depending on your taste in historians, you may even see the not quite as large armies as more realistic, though I doubt anyone involved here was interested in historical authenticity as much as in producing as much of a visual spectacle as the budget allowed.
Weight and a bit more believability seem to have been important when it came to the production design too, for every set and every costume is created with a love for telling details, from the walls of the houses of nobles actually being adorned with pictures and wall hangings, to the ubiquitous minotaur and bull depictions in Crete. This extra effort helps make the film’s Mythical Greece feel more like a world with its own coherence and its own rules than a series of sets.
Yet even an army of extras and the most beautiful production design in the world need a director equal to the task of using them properly. Amadio is more than equal to the task, with a sometimes painterly eye for the staging of scenes to the greatest visual effect, and a wonderful sense for the use of vivid colours. Amadio’s Mythical Greece may not be as dream-like and magical as that of Mario Bava, but it never is bland or colourless, and always vivid and larger than life.
The word “bland” unfortunately does lead me to the film’s greatest weakness, Bob Mathias as Theseus. His performance isn’t bad at all, but rather painfully neutral, as if that awesome (in the classic sense of the word) hero Theseus the other characters are speaking of had just stepped out for a moment only leaving his body there. Mathias’s blandness isn’t enough to ruin the film or even to annoy me much, yet it may be a stumbling stone for some.
The rest of the cast is much stronger, with Schiaffino able to play her double role well enough to keep Phaedra and Ariadne believable as two distinctively different persons; even though the script tends to make Ariadne a bit too virtuous and Phaedra a bit too evil for my tastes. But that sort of thing is part of the genre, and on the other hand, Ariadne is a bit spunkier than peplum heroines usually are. It’s probably not necessary to mention that Alberto Lupo could play the type of heel he’s playing here in his sleep; he’s clearly not asleep here.
On the script side, the film underplays the mythological elements of the story for most of its running time, making this a very entertaining and melodramatic story of Mythical Greek palace intrigues with an influx of swashbuckling, that just happens to include a surprise rescue by Amphitrite, and the battle against a not very threatening but rather lovely Minotaur with a very mobile but also very confused looking face. I also have to applaud the writers for their use of interesting and not always the most obvious parts of Greek myth here. They take their freedoms with it, but they sure do seem to know what they are doing and why.