Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SANDOK - review

The second I saw that this film was in scope presentation and that the colors were fine, I smiled my considerable satisfaction. I'd been expecting the aspect ratio of Mya's newest DVD release to be strangled to a 1.85:1, but not so, thankfully. SANDOK--original title LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE (THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT), which I'll use in this review--is not the first NTSC DVD release of a film based on the work of Emilio Salgari (the silent film CABIRIA has that honor), but it's a very welcome introduction to the niche genre of family-friendly jungle adventures in the euro cinema of the 1960s.

Emilio Salgari (1862-1911). For a while, I've been fascinated by the Italian films based on the works of Salgari, an Italian author who is unknown in the United States, but an institution in Italy and many other parts of the world. Salgari's most famous romances take place in the Far East, particularly Malaysia. Euro-film fans would recognize a few of the movies based on his novels, in particular the two SANDOKAN films starring Steve Reeves and both directed by Umberto Lenzi, who also helmed the 1965 LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE. Lenzi, along with director Luigi Capuano, represented the Salgari film during the 60s, with Capuano employing Ray Danton and Guy Madison in major roles, while Lenzi, or his producers, chose former peplum actors Reeves and Richard Harrison.

Last year I read Salgari's MYSTERY OF THE BLACK JUNGLE in the commendable though slightly abridged/censored English translation by Nico Lorenzutti. What struck me most about that Salgari novel is that the hero had a wavering moral compass and did not hold back expressing his fears.

LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE also has a hero whose moral compass is dictated by circumstances and self-interest, though his fear factor is almost zero. Richard Harrison plays Alan Foster, a care-free gambler/traveler/thief/scoundrel who loses all his money in a game with the powerful Rajah Sindar. Owing the Rajah more money than he can ever hope to acquire, he must pay back the debt or face certain death. The Rajah informs him of one possibility of payment: acquiring the heavily protected "Mountain of Light," a fabulous diamond that holds significant religious value, as well as unheard of monetary worth. The debt will be dismissed if Foster gets the diamond for the Rajah. Foster escapes from the Rajah's palace, where he was imprisoned and, seduced by the wealth the jewel represents, proceeds on a journey to try to steal the diamond for himself. Along the way he meets up with Sitama, a faking fakir, played by dance choreographer and actor Wilbert Bradley. (Bradley is splendid in this film.) The two team up to acquire this coveted jewel that can bring incredible riches to its owner and guarantee a life of pleasure and indolence.

The witty interplay between Foster and Sitama, the balancing roles of Western anti-hero and a colorful member of the indigenous lower-class, reminded me much of "Blondie" and Tuco from THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. And this would make sense as Sergio Leone and his writing crew would have been Salgari fans in their youth. Any in-depth analysis of the spaghetti western will certainly have to address the influence that Salgari's works had on Italian filmmakers like Leone.

There is a love interest that evolves later in the film, and this is the film's weakest element, as it's one of those affairs that only is real in cinema: enduring love based on a few moments of meeting.

The film proceeds at a relaxed, even pace, not encumbered by the need to rush things (a sin of much filmmaking these days), until the near end, when it winds up too quickly, so much so that the viewer may want to rewatch the last ten minutes or so. An amusing send-off alerts us to a commentary on colonialism that comes from left field, leaving one thinking for a moment if Salgari's novel may had more substance that just being a simple adventure tale.

LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE is a splendid adventure tale, the kind young audiences in the 1960s would have loved on Saturday matinees or TV showings, and that older audiences would have sat through with appreciation, whether they were viewing the film in New York or Bombay. Exotic family entertainment, much distanced from the giallo, cannibal and horror films that Lenzi would be involved with later in his career, and a sumptuous set-design and on-location presentation wonderfully showcased by the cinematography of Angelo Lotti and Lenzi's crisp direction.

With Sandokan being Saligari's most famous chartcer, Mya decided to retitle LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE as SANDOK. But there is no "Sandok" in the film and the film has no relation to the character Sandokan. Unfortunately, there is no English audio track present (there must be one in existence, as the film was released in an English version under the titles JUNGLE ADVENTURER and TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND LIGHTS). The English subtitles are generally fine, with some occasional grammatical pitfalls. Colors are quite good, and, as noted, the aspect ratio is correct.

LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE opens up American viewers to an important phase of Italian B film history and Salgari's romances. Hopefully Mya will follow up this Salgari adventure with more Salgaris, perhaps the original Sandokan films from Lenzi--SANDOKAN, LA TIGRE DI MOMPRACEM (SANDOKAN THE GREAT) and I PIRATI DELLA MALESIA (SANDOKAN: PIRATE OF MALAYSIA). If not, then other adventure romances from the Italian cinema of the 1960s will certainly be appreciated by euro-cult enthusiasts.


  1. Thanks for a great review. I will undoubtedly buy this after seen those great screen grabs. You should also mention the film version of my personal favorite among Saligari based films, the wonderful CARTHAGE IN FLAMES. This film is available on a widescreen German DVD with an English language option.

  2. Thanks, Gary. The two Reeves Sandokan films are also available on DVD from Spain, in proper aspect ratio. Only the first one is English friendly, however.

    Hopefully we'll see more Salgari films in the States, including the one you mention.

  3. Oh man! This looks phenomenal! My mouth is literally watering at the thought of another awesome 60's euro genre to start exploring! And this one sounds perfect for my fiance, too, who is nice enough to sit through Spaghetti Westerns and Giallo's with me, but isn't ever to excited about them. She'll flip for this, though!

    Also, let me throw in, if you're into Spaghetti Westerns, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Morricone. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at sunsetparkriders.com

  4. Fascinating, Dave, and highly original!


  5. Thanks! And actually, now that I've been spending more time in your archives, I realize how hasty my mouth watering comment was. Yep, it's a feast!

  6. I met Wilbert Bradley in 1986. I saw him on the the street one day. Now realize I never knew who he was or anything. He said he was a choreographer at Kennedy-King College at that time. He then later told me and another friend of mine he was in some movies including Sandoken to which he showed us a black and white photo of him in the movie. It was great to have known and met him.