Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator (1962)

Made back in 1962, Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator most likely was lumped in with all the other musclehead movies coming out of Italy at the time. Audiences then can be forgiven if they thought this one was interchangeable with the latest entry in the Hercules, Goliath, Maciste, Samson, Atlas, Ursus and Ulysses film series.

It is also precisely because of this glut of pretenders that I’m going to cut the Academy a little slack for failing to recognize Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator with the Oscar for Best Picture that year. And lest you think this some artless attempt at being obtusely droll, all I’m saying is that if they can give this movie five Oscars when it came out again in 2000, then it was a shame that the participants in the first one languish in obscurity.

Yes, for those of you who thought that Emperor Commodus’ reign as a nutcase Roman emperor who liked to hit the gladiator arena for a little R&R was strictly an invention of the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie, Gladiator, I’m happy to report that it was done many years before and with much more authenticity. Okay, I don’t really have the faintest idea how authentic The Rebel Gladiator was, but at least it was made by people from the country were it all actually happened centuries before. In any case, Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator is easily the superior film of the two for any number of reasons including the fact that in this version you get two beefsticks for the price of one!

That’s right, whereas you usually are stuck with one hunked up guy who’s badly dubbed and can’t act, in this one you get two! And they don’t skimp on the quality of the beef in this one either. First of all, you’re getting Don Vadis in the role of Ursus (this is Crowe’s Maximus). Don appeared in a number of these sword and sandal movies, migrated over to spaghetti westerns, before staging a homecoming of sorts with his final feature in 1983, The Seven Magnificent Gladiators.

Then you’ve got a smirking Alan Steel (Hercules Against the Moon Men) ruling over all of Rome! Obviously his Commodus is much more manly then Joaquin Phoenix’s was. Joaquin’s version of Commodus shows what’s wrong with Hollywood and how little respect they have for the moviegoing public.

It isn’t enough that Commodus is a crazy emperor who likes to take part in gladiator matches and kills Maximus’ family, but even worse, he’s a big sissy! So instead of a clash of two real he-men, all you end up with is some cheating pansy trying outlast the hero. The Rebel Gladiator though knows that we want to see our hero give a good beat down to a guy just as jacked up as he is. I don’t want to see my Hercules clone beat up a guy that I could whip!

What distinguishes Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator from Gladiator is like the difference between college football and pro football – manly tradition and action-packed busted plays versus flashy posing by overpaid prima donnas. When Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator began with the death of Commodus’ daddy and Commodus promising Rome would be all about peace when he was in charge, only to have the movie immediately switch to a montage of burning and pillaging of villages while the smiling visage of Commodus was superimposed over the scene, I knew that this was one movie that was going to try to score on every play!

Commodus has a thing for fighting guys and likes to mix it up on the field of battle with folks his troops have captured. I was a little concerned though that in his first fight, he had such a tough time dispatching an older, out of shape barbarian. I think a lot of the smart money moved over to Ursus after that lackluster performance. For his part, our introduction to Ursus is more impressive as he battles legions of Roman scum, chucking giant logs at them, heaving them into barrels, chucking the barrels with them still inside down the hill into more Roman scum, and generally dominating the scene like you would expect him to. But this Ursus has a secret weapon, too. He’s a Jesus freak!

It’s one of the things that sets this movie apart from a lot of its brethren and Ursus isn’t one of those shy Christians when it comes time to foist his beliefs on some pagan dirtbag. When  a woman spoke about defying the gods or challenging the gods, he snidely correctly her by saying “God.” Okay, you big hunk of Jesus love, you can quit shoving your monotheism down my throat and go out and kick some Roman ass!

That’s another thing they use his born again status to play up: his aversion to violence. In fact, even as he is punching out the guy running the gladiator training camp that he’s been forced to enroll in because a Roman senator has kidnapped his girlfriend and wants to use Ursus in his plot to assassinate Commodus, he’s shouting “I detest violence!”

Does anything else that goes on in this movie really matter once you read the phrase “gladiator school?” Big dopes getting all trained up on a variety of weapons while our reluctant hero shows all those wimps how it’s done is always a sure fire way to maintain interest.

Loads of violence, muscle, hand to hand combat, and a funny looking fur singlet that Ursus sometimes wears all serve to make this a very solid entry in the Ursus series of films.  You get not one, but two fights between Ursus and Commodus, a rather impressive-sized battle between rival armies, and Ursus and his old gladiator school teacher teaming up to destroy a bridge of vital military importance! Even the political scheming that was sprinkled throughout wasn’t too boring and provided us with a nice scene of the emperor of Rome strangling a Roman senator in a prison cell!

Only the pathetic presentation that Brentwood gives this on the DVD I had the misfortune to view dampens things. Despite the opening credits saying that it was filmed in Eastmancolor, this version is in black and white. It’s also not widescreen, resulting in some ugliness with scenes that were obviously intended for its Techinscope origins. The sound also sucked and the print was generally soft and looked terrible. If you can make it past how awful this one looks though (or better yet, find a really nice color widescreen print), you’ll get that ample dose of sweaty gladiator action you know you crave about twice a month when no one else is around.

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