Atlas (1961)

Atlas is a Roger Corman production, his one and only attempt at a historical peplum-style sword-and-sandal movie (a genre that was insanely and inexplicably popular in the early 1960s). It's a fairly uneven attempt, even by Corman's standards, but it does have some good scenes here and there and the dialogue is surprisingly crisp throughout. Eh, I've seen worse.

Our movie opens in ancient Greece (and kudos to them for correctly calling it "Hellas") where a petty two-bit tyrant is besieging a local city-state with his army. The siege has lasted for months now, neither side shows signs of cracking and damage and casualties have been high for both. Weary of this costly investment, the leader of the besiegers, a dude named Proximates, calls for a meeting with the leader of the city, an older dude named King Telektos.

Proximates is played by Corman vet Frank Wolff, and his character here is a mix of charm, insanity, courage, and duplicity. Wolff chews scenery like a shark and emotes like Shatner, not one single line read is in a "normal voice", everything he says is either oily with exaggerated bravado or spat out with seething rage. Me likes.


Old King Telektos is just some old Greek guy with an Amish beard. He is really tall, though.

King Telektos.

The old king, perhaps out of desperation as his city is running critically short of water and food, offers to settle the matter by a one-on-one duel of champions. And yes, a rip-off of Achilles and Hector in The Illiad, but to my knowledge that sort of thing was fairly common in the Bronze Age world (I actually have a degree in Anthropology with an emphasis in Old World cultures, go figure). The city has their fighter already picked, a big strapping lad with huge John Elway teeth, but Proximates asks for ten days to find his own champion.

And where would he find such a man? Well, coincidently at that time the Olympic games are being held nearby. Imagine the odds! He leaves the siege to go to the Olympics, which due to the severely limited budget Corman was working with, consist of ten people crowded into the stands watching two guys wrestle.

Proximates travels with two companions. The first is Candia, the "high priestess" of his people, and also his lover. Candia is played by 29-year old hottie Barboura Morris, who was one of those middling wannabe actresses that never really quite made the big time, but was either talented enough or had perky enough breasts to make a decent living in these sorts of b-movies.


His other companion is his "state philosopher" Garnis, played by bit actor Walter Maslow. Garnis is a comedic fellow and provides a foil for Proximates' often crude humor, as well as being a gofer and spear holder for his boss.


At the Olympics they find a medal-winning wrestler named Atlas (it's explicitly said that he's not the legendary Titan come to earth, but just a dude named Atlas). Atlas is played by 32-year old American Michael Forest, one of Corman's favorite ex-pat actors and a fairly good one at that.

Atlas, voted 550b.c.'s Man-Beaver of the Year.

After the match, Proximates and his companions work on Atlas to get him to be their champion. What follows are some lengthy scenes of dialogue as the worldly and wise Atlas banters back and forth with Proximates and his philosopher Garnis about the nature of good and evil and death and just what exactly was in that gyro I had at the Greek Island Cafe in Vegas a few years ago that gave me explosive diarrhea. Some of this dialogue is predictably lame, but there are some really cracking exchanges and some "ah-ha" moments that frankly surprised me. The fact that the actors are all pretty capable also helps, a credit both to them and to Corman's direction.

When Proximates fails to convince him with words, he instructs the fetching Candia to butter him up with her million-drachma smile and her ample bosom. As you can expect, this works like a charm, but in the process it seems that a genuine spark is ignited between Candia and Atlas. This does not go unnoticed by the jealous Proximates, though he lets it go because he needs Atlas' services.

Atlas and Candia chat each other up, she looks hot here all reclining and stuff.

Eventually, Atlas agrees to be their champion (though he says he won't kill anyone) and they travel back towards the city together. They pass through some ruins, which Proximates says are part of his lands, ravaged by years of warfare (this movie takes advantage of every National landmark that the Greek government would allow them to shoot in, regardless of the condition).

Soon they are ambushed by "rebels"! These refugee-looking brigands, played most unconvincingly by two-dollar-an-hour local kids, rush headlong at the soldiers with tinfoil swords and dime store bows. The soldiers quickly form a phalanx formation, three rows deep, and the rebel advance is smashed to bits. The survivors are driven into a nearby cave and then burned out to face the sword.

Ambush by the rebels!

In an odd and not-well-scripted moment, one rebel is still alive, though wounded, and he sees Atlas ride up and give him a sympathetic look. Remember this guy.

They continue on to the besieged city and pass review by Proximates' troops. We see here that Proximates is indeed sincerely good to his soldiers, greeting each one, asking about wounds and slapping a lot of backs. This has always been one of the smartest things any tyrant could do, keep the guys with swords firmly loyal to you no matter what. A tyrant is only as good as his army, after all.

The next day comes and we have the fight between the two champions, held in a nearly-deserted stadium. The only people in the crowd are the opposing leaders and their retinues, one group on each side of the stadium. In an amusing bit, the bad guys cheer lustily when the game is announced, but the put-upon city people just sit there in silence (well, it was funny when I saw it, but not so funny to describe).

The crowd for the duel.

As you might imagine, Atlas wins the contest in the end, after the two of them have tried real hard to kill each other with spears, swords and knives. The final round is wrestling, and we are treated to yet another display of sweaty men in skimpy loincloths grasping and hugging each other (and by "yet another" I mean that DVD I found in an alley, the one with the German "wrestlers" in it...). Atlas, true to his conscious, refuses to kill his opponent, but just knocks him out cold. The rules are a bit vague, it seems, because that is apparently enough for the bad guys to win, despite the "until death" clause that was mentioned several times.

With that decided, the old king honors his promise and his city is opened to the bad guys. We get a solemn scene of the red-clad enemy soldiers marching through the streets as the dejected citizens stare from windows and porches. This is another one of those scenes where the pitifully few number of extras is very apparent. In different shots of the same scene, you can see the same guy standing in as a citizen and then marching by as an enemy soldier.

Bad guys marching into the city, notice that several of them are either girls or 12-year old boys, a sign of the lack of extras.

Proximates graciously throws a banquet for the conquerors and the vanquished, supposedly to solidify ties between the two peoples. The banquet rather quickly turns into an orgy! Well, really just some dudes rolling around on the floor tamely with some butt-ugly Greek women, all fully clothed. This being 1961 and all, that's about as orgy-tastic as you are going to get.

The, ahem, "orgy".

Ah, but that wily Proximates knows that he has to do something to increase his power in the city more than it already is. Having already agreed to a peaceful take-over, he now has to find a way to toss that out and start grinding the citizens under his boot. To do this, he arranges for a unit of his personal guard to don the Tar Heel blue uniforms of the locals and attack the banquet! All this violence sets off a general revolt by the newly-captured and surly citizenry. This revolt is brutally crushed, and it's said that "600 civilians" died during the night of bloodshed (which is a lot).

And now we have the trial of King Telektos for his role in the uprising. It's more of a show trial, held before occupying soldiers, judged by an enemy general and defended by a biased appointed lawyer. The result is predictable, the old king is sentenced to death. Proximates gloats with sick glee, knowing that he actually incited the riot, but now has the moral high ground to further enslave the population under martial law. He wouldn't be the first or the last tyrant in the world to do just this same thing to increase his power.

The show trial, nice yellow robes, dude.

Ok, throughout this movie, the hunky Atlas and the ignored wife Candia have fallen in love (come on, we all saw this coming). To be fair, these two have had several scenes just the two of them and they do seem to have some real chemistry. Corman was a lot of things (cheap, really cheap, a cheap bastard...) but he could direct actors and his framing and composition in these scenes is top notch, even if the dialogue is often hokey. They agree that they will run to Egypt to escape, even though they know that Proximates is just psycho enough to chase them.

So Atlas and Candia flee, but, as predicted, they don't get far before they are caught by Proximates and a squad of soldiers. Atlas puts up quite a fight, killing three soldiers, but they are both overwhelmed and led off in ropes. Proximates plans on killing them both publicly once they get back to the city.

But before much else can happen, they are in turn ambushed by a group of rebels! This battle is quick and vicious, with the outnumbered soldiers being forced back, split and routed. Proximates escapes on his horse alone, the rest of his troops decimated.

The rebels.

The rebels free Atlas and Candia and invite them into their fold. One of the rebels is that guy from before that Atlas saw, so I guess it all ties in somehow, though it seems a bit forced. This movie suffers from the common b-movie disease of way too many characters muddling up the action. Atlas agrees that they need to take care of Proximates once and for all for the benefit everyone before they head for Egypt. They all march off to a secluded hide-out in a canyon and plot.

One of the main rebel leaders has a sister trapped inside the city. This potential bargaining chip escapes, however, due to Garnis, who has fallen in love with this sultry local woman. Enraged by this betrayal, Praximates kills Garnis with a knife. It seems that killing his best friend finally unhinges him completely (though he's been pretty twitchy since Candia ran off with Atlas).

Garnis and the sister.

Now fully in nutso Nero mode, Proximates orders all his troops to march out and attack the rebels in the canyon. His fate is sealed, however, as the rebel spies have seen him coming and the canyon is empty when he arrives. The rebels have snuck into the lightly-defended city while he was gone and have taken it over. Meanwhile, Proximates has figured out the ruse and force-marches his troops back to the city. But it's too late, the returning troops are ambushed and routed by the rebels, who now have the defended walls and the element of surprise on their side.

It's Atlas, of course, who leads the rebels into battle, rallies them when their lines falter, and drives the final wedge into the enemy phalanx to seal the battle. In the midst of the general attack, Atlas kills Praximates in one-on-one combat. Actually, he goes down pretty easy. Punk.

Nicely framed shot, though Proximates handles a knife like a white teenager from the suburbs.

With the battle over, Atlas rides off into the sunset with Candia, heading to Egypt to buy souvenirs and make cute babies. The end.

By the way, this is the single worst fake beard I've ever seen. Just look at the gap between sideburn and beard! That's Corman-licious!

Written in March 2008 by Nathan Decker.

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