Duel of Champions (1961)

Here’s a movie that’s going to satisfy that contingent of gladiator fans that like watching old, short guys near the end of their life strapping on the Roman soldier outfit and battling a bunch of guys half his age and still come out on top. Sure, in the end both of his brothers are killed in the battle, his sister commits suicide, and his father has been accusing him of being a coward and a traitor for most of the movie, but other than that, he came out on top.

Plus he got to ride off into the sunset with his old girlfriend whom had married his brother while everyone thought he was dead. Who says that if you don’t just hang in there long enough, that things won’t work out? Remember that age old maxim about success: 90% of life is just showing up. The other 10%? Outliving everyone else.

The old coot who manages to stay alive while everyone else about him gets stabbed is Alan Ladd. Ladd is most famous for the great film noir flicks he made such as This Gun For Hire, The Blue Dahlia, and The Glass Key. Later, Ladd would star in another classic, Shane.

Sadly, if you didn’t know any of this while watching Duel Of The Champions, you would be wondering what this little guy was doing in a role obviously meant for a guy like Alan Steel or Mark Forest. You would also be wondering why this guy was the only Roman in the movie with a John Wayne-ish drawl.

One of the last roles before his death (Ladd’s final role was as Nevada Smith in the spectacularly ultra-trashy The Carpetbaggers), his part of Horatious may have been too action-impaired for the regular crew of sword-wielding muscleheads you’d expect to find here. There were some battles of course and the entire movie built up to a ridiculous three Roman brothers versus three Alban brothers fight with the very fate of Rome hanging in the balance, but Ladd spent a great deal of the film moping and whining about what a crap sandwich life had served up to him when he managed to escape after being captured by the Albans during a battle.

First he was presumed coward, then he was presumed coward and dead, and then once he returned triumphantly back to Rome, he was presumed coward again with the added bonus that his girlfriend had gone and married his brother. Keep in mind all this happened in less than three weeks. Things moved rapidly in the ancient world.

The movie begins ominously enough with a narrator giving us a history lesson about the early days of Rome when it was still an upstart city state. While I watched a bunch of soldiers on horseback riding around, this guy kept muttering about Rome, Alba, and the Etruscans. I don’t know about anyone else, but whenever someone starts in with their Etruscan talk, I immediately shut down.

This is a gladiator movie. I’m here to see guys dressed in leather miniskirts throwing nets on each other in arenas. Guys should be wrestling lions and going to gladiator camp where they will have to fight for their freedom. Instead, this dude is busy explaining the conflicts upon which the film is based on. Rome vs. Alba. Tough battle for both sides. Virtual stalemate. I get it. Can we get on with the gladiator training montage?

If you think Alan Ladd is going to be enrolling in gladiator college when he’s almost sixty, you’re nuts. Anthony Quinn did as the eternally crabby title character in Barabbas, but at least he was over five and a half feet tall even if he was an octogenarian. You can make a guy look taller than everyone else with the right camera angles if he’s sitting on a horse, but it’s going to be tough to disguise Alan’s midget status in an barracks full of gigantic he-men. Director Ferdinando Baldi is a genius as evidenced by his entries in the early eighties 3-D revival (Comin’ At Ya! and Treasure of the Four Crowns), but he’s no miracle worker!

The story manages to be quite dull for the first hour despite being highlighted by Alan being dumped in an Alban wolf pit where he has to fight a bunch of surly dogs. After escaping and being nursed back to health by peaceful mountain people who are tired of war, Alan goes back to Rome where he’s read the riot act for supposedly deserting his troops and also discovers his old lady’s unconditional love was entirely conditioned on her thinking he was still alive. Really Al, does it matter whether she waited three years or three days? You’re just as dead either way.

Time to move back in with his mountain buddies where he can pout in peace. Of course once the gods prophesied that Rome needs three brothers to fight three Alban brothers, they all come back begging Alan to pitch in for the big Brothers vs. Brothers Match. He steadfastly refuses and the next thing you know he’s riding back to Rome to take part in the match. Huh?

Too much talking about Rome and Alba and too much of Alan Ladd thinking he’s back in one of those movies that requires him to be a tortured soul. While being world weary and tired of everyone’s double crosses is really cool when you’re in your twenties starring as a hit man and hanging out with Veronica Lake, it tends to lose something when your face is sagging and you’re wearing a funny looking helmet and red cape while surrounded by actors and actresses you probably couldn’t even communicate with off camera.

The fight scenes at the end were quite lackluster and I wasn’t really impressed with Al’s strategy of winning the big fight by hiding in the forest and ambushing these guys. The subplot involving his sister being in love with one of the guys he kills is equally absurd since they managed to fall in love about an hour and a half after he kidnapped her while she was boating in Alban territory.

This was as much a chore to sit through as Alan made it look like making it was. A forgettable and utterly embarrassing effort for a guy that was so huge in his heyday that he had his own comic book series. (Really. The Adventures Of Alan Ladd ran for nine issues between 1949 and 1951. And I’ll bet none of them had him dressed up as a Roman centurion.)

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