Now, here at Karavansara, we go for pulp adventure, historical fiction and other less-than-sophisticated forms of entertainment, and it is therefore fitting that we take a look at a movie that was the mother of all sword & sandal flicks, of all the historical movie fantasies and Greco-Roman “peplums”.
A movie that almost exactly one century ago, was the first movie to be shown in the White House.
Clocking at three hours and ten minutes (but the most available version today runs a little over two hours), Cabiria was shot in 1914, in Turin – at the time, the movie-capital of the young Italian Kingdom. The exteriors were filmed in the valleys of the Lanzo area1, in Tunisia and in Sicily.
Tag-lined A Historical Vision of the Third Century BC, the movie is the most famous Italian movie of the silent era. It featured clashing armies, a volcano erupting, Hannibal crossing the Alps, human sacrifices, mistaken identities, passion, espionage, and the sweep of history over the lives of the main characters.
It was, by all means, a colossal in the DeMille style, well before Cecil B. DeMille.
The film is set during the Second Punic War, and follows the (mis)adventures of the titular character – a girl of Roman origin that after her house is destroyed in the eruption of mount Etna, is sold as a slave in Carthage.
Here Cabiria’s path crosses that of Fulvio Axilla, a Roman spy.
Saved as she is about to be sacrificed to Moloch, Cabiria once again becomes a slave, this time to princess Sofonisba, sister to Hannibal.
The whole set of cliches of historical adventure (escapes, captures, betrayals, mistaken identities etc.) is deployed as the war between Rome and Carthage rages.
Again Cabiria faces sacrifice to Moloch (a god that is not to be denied, evidently), and finally rescued by Fulvio.
All’s well that ends well.
The movie is interesting for a number of reasons.
Produced and directed by Giovanni Pastrone, the film features state of the art “special effects” – such as the scene of Sofonisba’s nightmare – wonderful sets and an innovative cinematography by Spanish camera operator Segundo de Chomòn.
Use of such technical innovations as the dolly (patented by Pastrone in 1912) and a tight montage, led many critics, in the following years, to see Cabiria as the first fully accomplished example of cinematic language.
The subject of Cabiria is both popular and literary – and has among its sources both Flaubert’s Salambò and Italian pulp-master Emilio Salgari‘s Carthage in Flames. The mix was supervised by Gabriele D’Annunzio, at the time the topmost Italian poet and a controversial literary superstar. D’Annunzio actually did very little (he basically rewrote in poetical Italian the texts by Pastrone), but his star power was used in the publicity of the movie (his name is everywhere). The aggressive publicity is another innovation by Pastrone, that milked any opportunity to push his movie.
Cabiria also marks the debut of Maciste, the muscular slave that will become, through the 20th century, Italy’s foremost contribution to the fantasy genre and to sword & sandal movies.
Maciste acts as a deus ex machina in the movie – as the sidekick of Roman spy Fulvio Axilla, Maciste is the muscle to his master’s brain, capable of solving most complicated situations with a few well-placed punches and his superhuman strength.
Bartolomeo Pagano – a former stevadore turned actor – would become a superstar in his own right in a series of later movies about Maciste.
The movie had such a terrific impact on the cinematic imagination at the time (it was shown for over one full year in New York) that it was hommaged both by David W. Griffiths (in Intolerance) and by Fritz Lang in Metropolis2. Fritz Lang’s movie also provides (not-so)good-old Moloch with more opportunities for human sacrifices and orgiastic rituals.
Cabiria remains one of the essential movies of the silent era, and shows how, as early as 1914, the Italian movie industry was advanced and ground-breaking.
With its sword & sandal-style historical fantasy, it was also the beginner of a long series of movies defining a very “Italian” genre.
Today, a reproduction of the Moloch statue is part of the exhibits in the Museo del Cinema in Turin.