A lot of folks ask me why they should care about ancient history in general and old Italian gladiator movies about ancient history in particular. Who cares whether some guy named Feces Maximus fought a guy named Flatulence the Elder over a beautiful girl named Chlamydia? What does that have to do with my life here in the futuristic present where people have normal names like Barack and Kanye?
Point taken, but as any nerd will tell you between humiliating bullying sessions, we study history so that we gain insight into our own lives and beliefs. That these ancients may have had strange facial hair and likely smelled atrocious is not in dispute, but they shared the same awesome cultural values that are still important to this very day in Western Civilization – a belief that a pissed off Christian God is just waiting to kick ass on snotty unbelievers and the joy of muscular guys smacking and wrestling each other in a rough display of intimate brotherhood so powerful it strains the very fabric of their briefs!
While it is easy to heap praise on any film championing the loving embrace of both an active vengeful Christianity and man on man hugging and slapping, we cannot give a film like 79 A.D. a free pass just because it features each of these important themes. And mainly we can’t give it a free pass because there just isn’t enough of either!
At a crotch-shriveling 107 minutes, the film is simply padded with far too many scenes where dull stuff happens like guys joking around at a tavern, bad guy Tercius sneering about his latest convoluted scheme to simultaneously discredit hero Marcus Tiberius and take over Rome, and subplots that simply are of no interest to the film’s audience (sexy women romancing Roman muscle hunks). And as if this movie was some sort of test sent down by God himself, the movie opens with three minutes of soldiers just marching through town! By the chiseled smooth chested Christian gods I worship, but Job himself didn’t have to endure such trials and tribulations!
But how much sweeter is the taste of man sweat when you are bathed in it after suffering through a drought of dude dew? Like perfectly round heavy plums dangling in your face, but hanging just out of reach, 79 A.D. teases you with the jacked up Brad Harris (Kill, Panther Kill!, Zambo, King of the Jungle) in the role of Marcus Tiberius, forcing him to ride around town for his victory parade and then attend tiresome parties with Emperor Titus. Even the manliest of audiences can be forgiven for dozing when the skinny mute knife thrower starts chucking blades at his female assistant. Who’s watching this movie to see if a twink is going to stab a sexy broad? What do you think this is? A giallo movie?
Eventually enough odd things happen in Rome (dying friend of Marcus mentions Tercius, drunk soldier mentions a scheme by Tercius and a Senator who denounced Tercius is murdered as soon as he leaves the Senate) that Marcus gets suspicious while the audience has its own suspicions that it was only Marcus and his three friends in all of Rome who didn’t know what Tercius was up to!
More importantly though for us men, Marcus has his first encounter with the gladiator Samson. Marcus is checking out the new shipment of gladiators (for his lady friend of course) when the biggest one starts talking smack to Marcus. Samson then begins the mating ritual that marks all brawny brawls and bends a long pole to show how strong he is. Marcus then takes Samson’s pole and leaves all of us breathless as he firmly grips that hard rod and bends it back! Now that both men have shown their superiority by working over Samson’s pole, the all male grabbing, kicking and backhanding can explode all over us! And with both hunks brawling in their shirt dresses, lots of glorious men in panties shots follow!
Following the explosive climax of that man fight, the movie shifts back into blah blah territory, and I was frankly so spent following Marcus and Samson punishing each other with whatever was handy, I don’t even remember most of what went on after. Something about Marcus accusing Tercius, Marcus sent off to Herculaneum to kill Christians and then framed as a traitor and exiled when he came back and announced that the Christians weren’t so bad after all.
An escape and counterplots by Marcus and Tercius ensue, none of it making much sense. (Wouldn’t it have been easier to poison Marcus or have him stabbed in Rome like the Senator was? Why the elaborate set up that had all sorts of possibility to fail? And hiding your army of mercenaries in a cave for days was just asking for them to be trapped by an avalanche of Marcus! And what was with the plan to have Roman patricians burned alive in the viewing stands at a gladiator show in Herculaneum in a river that Tercius had filled with crocodiles? Just typing that made my head hurt!)
Only a second fight date between Marcus and Samson and the Christians and Marcus being saved from crucifixion by God unleashing Mt. Vesuvius on everyone (and no doubt killing most – Christian and non-Christian alike – though Christians get the last laugh since they are going to heaven while pagan Romans go straight to hell!) redeems a movie that is so slow with all its talk and goofy scheming it feels like you started watching back in 79 A.D.
To his credit, director Gianfranco Parolini (Secret of the Incas’ Empire, Goliath Against the Giants) mixes up the explosions, collapsing models and stock footage of lava flows in an exciting manner at the conclusion, but the lack of any meaningful hand to hand combat between Tercius and Marcus will leave male viewers strangely deflated and unfulfilled.
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