Detail from an original poster for The Iron Crown. (Photo: IMDB)

In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.

No movie made in the 1940s is quite like The Iron Crown, Alessandro Blasetti’s sumptuous fantasy epic of one-eyed barbarians, glittering suits of spiky armor, and pseudo-medieval exotica. It’s sort of a blockbuster avant la lettre, very violent and lovably cheesy, closer in aesthetics and spirit to the likes of Krull and Conan The Barbarian than to the costume and fairy-tale movies of its era. In the context of film history, one might call it the midpoint between the spectacular epics of the golden age of Italian silent film and the wondrously corny Italian sword-and-sandal cheapies of the early 1960s—or perhaps an attempt by Blasetti, a student of Soviet film, to outdo Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Alexander Nevsky. But it’s much stranger than that. The plot, which concerns the throne of the imaginary kingdom of Kindaor, is a hodgepodge of romantic and mythological motifs: a prophecy, a fratricide, an unjust king, a soothsaying crone, an Amazonian swordswoman, mistaken identity, a relic hidden in a wasteland, a magical stag, and so on. It is in fact so convoluted that something like a half a dozen expository crawls are employed in the first 15 minutes alone to keep the movie going. The performances are awful. The notorious Luisa Ferida, who plays the aforementioned Amazon, is clearly coked out of her mind. But Blasetti’s sense of style is jaw-dropping. From the operatic camera movements to the fantastical set and costume design, The Iron Crown is a cornucopia of Wagnerian kitsch.

Screengrabs: The Iron Crown

The period of Italian film under fascism is often reduced to escapist melodramas (commonly called “white telephone films”) and bloated disasters in the vein of Scipio Africanus, the mid-1930s Mussolini pet project that inaugurated Italian cinema’s decades-long love affair with the zoom lens. But the truth is more complicated and contradictory. With the rise of the Nazis, the German-language film industry lost almost all of its behind-the-scenes talent to Hollywood, leaving Leni Riefenstahl, the Captain Obvious of cinema, as the closest thing it had to an officially sanctioned film artist. But Italy was a different case. Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini—the fact is that most of the figures who shaped the global artistic reputation of Italian cinema in the decades after World War II first got a foothold by kissing Fascist ass, or in some cases doing worse.

Antonioni, observer of the modern condition that he was, raved in the pages of Corriere Padano in praise of the anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß, trying to get in the good graces of the powers that be. Rossellini, Fellini, and Visconti all palled around and worked on projects with Vittorio Mussolini, Il Duce’s movie-mad son, while De Sica was one of the most successful stars of white telephone films before he became the director of such enduring neorealist classics as Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (At least Visconti had an excuse, as he was secretly part of the Communist resistance.) The proto-neorealist movies, like Visconti’s The Postman Always Rings Twice adaptation Ossessione, were made under the aegis of Fascism. The Italian neorealist film—with its deglamorized proletarian characters, its non-professional cast, and its close ties to leftist politics—was not a post-war rejection of Fascist style, but an outgrowth of the Mussolini days. Blasetti, the greatest Fascist-era Italian director, was a key influence, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from The Iron Crown.

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Screengrabs: The Iron Crown

Blasetti started his career as a film critic in the mid-1920s, just as the once-mighty Italian cinema was on the verge of collapse, and became one of the country’s most prominent directors during the Mussolini-led revival of the national film industry. In the early years, he was a frothing Fascist—the man behind Old Guard, a 1934 film about the blackshirts that was so propagandistic that even the party higher-ups were turned off by it. And yet, just the year before, he had released 1860, an unusual and very accomplished nationalist historical drama that made extensive and influential use of location filming and non-professional actors. It also demonstrated his highly developed and dramatic style of blocking and camera movement, which is on full display in The Iron Crown. By the early 1940s, he had by most accounts become disillusioned with fascism, and some later critics have gone so far as to interpret The Iron Crown’s tyrannical and paranoid villain as a veiled attack on the status quo. But I think that may be a case of reading too deep.

Blasetti had a lifelong interest in the fantastic; his last notable project as a director would be Tales Of Science Fiction, a late 1970s TV anthology series featuring adaptations of short stories by some of his favorite American sci-fi writers, including Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, and The Twilight Zone’s Charles Beaumont. The Iron Crown, which came at a time when he was mostly directing adventure films, draws on an array of popular European myths, but what it comes up with is almost closer to Frank Frazetta than to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. It’s at once naïve and titillating. (There are a lot of bare-breasted maidens in the film, which is surprising for a movie from the 1940s, but somewhat typical of Blasetti’s output at the time.) One technique that he uses over and over to great effect recalls what the German romantic painters of the 19th century used to call a rückenfigur: a man with his back turned to the moving camera, drawing us into the scene in the foreground. He uses this extensively in The Iron Crown’s delirious battle sequences, stalking some unnamed male extra into the smoky, Vesuvian fray of swinging, clinking, clanking swords.

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Screengrabs: The Iron Crown

The continuity between shots is a wreck, nearly nonsensical, made all the more jarring by the sort of patchy soundtrack that marred Italian films before the whole industry decided to just give up and embrace completely post-synchronized sound. But the imagery! It’s a touch of Ben-Hur, a little Tarzan, more than a little Ring Cycle, with mist-shrouded ruins, twinkling knightly figures, blaring horns and trumpets, bodies pierced by arrows (a repeated motif), charred battlefields, tournaments, bladed war chariots, and live lions. And that’s without mentioning Ferida’s drawn-on vampire eyebrows or the fact that the hero played by Massimo Girotti spends most of the film shirtless. (He dons a cowl at one point, but for whatever reason refuses to cover up his glistening pecs.) It is the kind of film where capes are always being thrown over shoulders, where villains scowl at everything, and where characters are introduced only to be killed or banished a minute later. The goofiest thing is that Blasetti pulls it off: the battle sequences, the foggy mythic landscapes, the aggressive camera movements, the pageantry of opulent throne rooms and excessively complicated castles. In its excess, the movie accomplishes something many more coherent films rarely do: It feels like it comes directly from an unfiltered imagination.