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In Praise of Italian Sci-Fi

Yes, There Really is Such a Thing

By Don Stradley

Anna May Wong

Strapped by low budgets and quick shooting schedules, Antonio Margheriti

made movies that reeked of old comic books and what you might find in the daydreams of a small boy – not much plot, lots of spaceships.

With such marquee ready titles as Assignment: Outer Space, War Between The Planets, and Wild, Wild Planet, Margheriti, an Italian contemporary of such filmmakers as Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, wacked together some of the most colorful and outré films of the early 1960s, with such scant funding that he often had to buy his own props. He was the unsung pioneer of Italian science fiction, the godfather of Neapolitan space opera.

Battle of the Worlds (1961), restored by The Film Detective and featured as part of our summer drive-in series, is one of his earliest and most revered works, a high point in a career that spanned more than 40 years and 57 features. With his young crew, many of whom would later work with Federico Fellini and other the greats of Italian cinema, Margheriti delivered a mini-masterpiece of the pre-psychedelic period, best watched at 2:00 AM when you’re a bit drowsy.

Though its title sounds like a dumb copy of H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds, Battle of the Worlds is a much quieter, though no less ominous story. The most unique aspect of Margheriti’s movie is in how it moves towards it climax with utter stealth. Scientists sit around and talk about the impending danger of a giant meteorite circling the Earth, until finally we are swimming in a whirl of color and sound, as if the effect of some strange drug has at last kicked in.

Margheriti was a fan of American sci-fi and all things fantastic, but if Battle of the Worlds appears to be a basic space movie, it is really a meditation on the aging male. On one level, it’s a psychotronic hoot, with its heavy organ score, dubbed voices, and elegant rockets. Yet it is patently bathed in cynicism. Claude Rains, 70 at the time, stars as a wily old professor, harmlessly flirting with his young female assistant, frustrated by those who don’t realize the meteorite is actually a dead planet. Near the movie’s climax he laughs maniacally, the sound of his wasted wisdom echoing across the heavens.

Some felt it was strange to see Rains in such a cut-rate production. “It’s a new experience to watch him at work in a space helmet,” wrote a Rochester New York columnist, “hurling contemptuous remarks at an electronic brain…” Worse, the helmet didn’t even have a visor. Rains biographer David J. Skal described the part as an “embarrassing assignment,” and claims Rains’ wife pressured him to take the role for financial reasons. At the very least, they’d have an excuse for a vacation in Italy. But Rains, many years removed from his work in Casablanca, turns in his usual grand performance. Is the milieu really so awful? After all, this was the same Claude Rains who once killed a werewolf with a stick.

When Science Fiction: The Complete Film Sourcebook was published in 1984, Battle of The Worlds was praised as, “an astonishing piece of cinema…uncannily beautiful and garish…” The book applauded Margheriti for his ability to triumph over poor production values, and ranked him alongside Mario Bava as “undoubtedly Italy’s best director of science fiction.”

Until recently, however, Battle of the Worlds was available only in faded, bleached out versions, the magnificent cinematography of Marcello Masciocchi replaced by a rotted sepia. Contemporary viewers also failed to appreciate the leisurely pace of old Italian movies, making Margheriti’s little masterwork a tough sell. Still, there’s something prescient in a movie where a dead planet’s unmanned computer system sends flying saucers to attack Earth.

Margheriti worked under a variety of American sounding names, most often “Anthony M. Dawson.” Aside from making six sci-fi movies between 1960 and 1965, he explored everything from gladiators to gangsters, from cowboys to cannibals, while directing such big leaguers as Christopher Lee, Yul Brynner, Barbara Steele, and Lee Van Cleef. Stanley Kubrick allegedly sought him out as a consultant while making 2001: A Space Odyssey, and when Andy Warhol needed an Italian director for Flesh For Frankenstein in order to keep an Italian government film grant, it was Margheriti’s name that went on the credits. Our modern purveyor of all things low scale and trashy, Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly an admirer of Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse. In that one, a Viet Nam vet named Charles Bukowski spreads a virus by biting people and passing on his craving for human flesh. (If only Margheriti had pulled in the real Charles Bukowski to play the role!)

Margheriti chased trends, contributing to the Italian horror and western fads before his trek into bloody action movies. When the Italian market wanted to cash in on the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Margheriti obliged with such titles as Hunters of the Golden Cobra and The Ark of the Sun God. He also developed a penchant for mixing genres, creating patchwork hybrids of Mad Max, Rambo and The Terminator. There was no bandwagon Margheriti wouldn’t jump on, no movie he wouldn’t pillage for ideas.

Now and then Margheriti returned to science fiction. In 1987 he directed Treasure Island in Outer Space, a series for Italian television that was a success in Europe. The series showed what Margheriti could do when properly financed. Yet a 1989 clunker called Alien from the Deep was, despite an impressive monster, just a cheapo knockoff of Aliens. The irony was that Margheriti’s early sci-fi work had been an obvious if unacknowledged influence on the Alien series.

The budgets shrank, but Margheriti kept making movies. At the time of his death in 2002, he was working on a film about Genghis Khan.

The Italian film industry that spawned Margheriti and his contemporaries was about exploiting well-worn American styles – the western, the horror movie, the rocket adventure – and presenting them with modish music, blazing color, and the stylish camera movement and composition that was already de rigueur in Europe. The directors knew they were making schlock, but were bold enough to add their artistic flourishes, which is what continues to fascinate lovers of Italian genre films. At some point Margheriti stopped being an artist and instead became a journeyman for hire. Maybe he thought his experiments with blending genres would pay off. Perhaps Margheriti’s later career is just the labor of a failed alchemist, matching this with that and not creating gold.

Regardless, a handful of Margheriti’s films are certainly worth revisiting, and the perplexing and mesmerizing Battle of the Worlds is a fine place to start.


Battle of the Worlds will be featured on The Film Detective's Sci-Fi Fridays in July, this Friday, 7/30 at 8PM ET or stream on The Film Detective app.


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