In the early 1960s, Roger Corman won a reputation for spinning tiny budgets into expansive-seeming films like his Poe pictures, but this shot-in-Greece stab at the then-popular peplum genre is a throwback to the days of Viking Women and the Sea Serpent or Teenage Caveman, in that limited resources severely hamper any epic ambitions. Shot under difficult circumstances, it seems more threadbare than the cheapest Italian muscle-man quickies: Corman even has to play one of the helmeted soldiers himself, battle scenes are shot with blurry close-ups of very few extras tussling, and most of the supporting performances are stiff. Those drawbacks aside, it has positive qualities: screenwriter Charles B. Griffith at least tries to do something ambitious with the stock figures of Hercules/Maciste-style peplum hero and tyrannical bad guy.
Praximides the Tyrant (Frank Wolff) besieges the democratic city state of Thenis, a stalemate which prompts defending Archon Telektos (Andreas Filippides) to suggest the issue be settled by single combat between champions. Praximides gleefully offers to fight the bearded dotard, but Telektos means his muscular son Indros (Christos Exarchos) should be Thenis’s champion. Praximides heads to the Olympics (not exactly spectacular) with philosopher sidekick Garnis (Walter Maslow) and high priestess Candia (Barboura Morris) to recruit prize-winning wrestler Atlas (Michael Forest) whose father jokingly named him after the Titan. Most peplum heroes can spot a baddie on first sight and resolutely pit their muscles against the oppressor, but Atlas doesn’t rush to judgement – Praximides sells him a skewed version of the story of the war, and Atlas agrees to fight Indros because he has no inbuilt prejudice that new-fangled democracy is better than Praximides’ proud, pragmatic commitment to tyranny. Of course, Atlas wins but doesn’t kill his fallen foe, and Telektos keeps his end of the agreement by welcoming Praximides’s army into the city, whereupon the sneaky bastard runs what we now call a ‘false flag’ operation and has his own red-uniformed men dress up in Thenian blue to foment a ‘rebellion’ which gives an excuse to massacre many civilians (not seen). Having picked the wrong side (something Steve Reeves would never do without sorcerous influence), Atlas spends most of the film playing it neutral: he sits still at a celebratory feast which turns into ‘an old-fashioned orgy’ when Praximides’s men strip the virgin temple dancers and start raping them, and witnesses the show-trial of Telektos where Praximides enjoys himself arguing for the prosecution and Garnis puts up a surprisingly spirited defense of the railroaded innocent.
Atlas joins the rebels well after we expect him to – then the film hurries through a climactic uprising which ends with the villain dead, Thenis democratic and Atlas and Candia riding off for more adventures which never came along. Not as muscular as most mythic movie heroes, Atlas is a more interesting character, an inquiring sceptic who needs a reason to fight, and Forest plays him surprisingly well, often just standing back and paying close attention to Wolff’s genially overcooked but shaded baddie. Praximides actually makes a reasonable case for the advantages of tyranny, and we see him express genuine concern for his soldiers after a fight – in most of these films, you wonder why anyone would remain loyal to a maniac who wastes minions’ lives without showing gratitude and often kills his own men just to show how rotten he is. The villain and hero both have interesting relationships – though Maslow is flat, Garnis is another unusual character: a pet ‘philosopher’ kept in court because he isn’t a yes-man (Praximides isn’t displeased when Garnis gives him a good debate in court) and the scene where the villain almost regrets killing his last remaining friend is quite affecting. Morris is out of place as a Greek priestess, and seems to be wearing a bathing suit and a scarf, but looks lovely in pastel colour and shows a lively, engaging personality – the hero is smitten with Candia as much for her intelligence as her looks. Famously, speeches justify the use of modern ruins as a backdrop (the country has been at war so long everything is in ruins) and the tiny army (Praximides argues that a small force with superior tactics will defeat an undisciplined rabble – we see this demonstrated in a sequence that feels like a 99cent riff on the climactic battle in Spartacus) but borrowed Greek locations give it a bit more scope.