Newsletters - 2000 - Volume 6 Issue 2

Classic Physique - July through December 2000


Following the 1958 European release of Hercules Unchained, Steve abandoned his famous loincloths and signed on to star in his first non-Herculean adventure, The White Warrior. For Steve, this film was not only a big change in screen character but a big payday as well. Having received only $10,000 for each Hercules film, Steve was increasing his bank account by $25,000 thanks to this third film in Europe.

Never wanting to be typecast, Steve welcomed the opportunity for acting in something totally different. Considering this film came directly on the heels of the success and notoriety of his two prior Hercules' roles, totally different is an understatement. In this film, Steve plays the real-life Caucasian leader Hadji Murad who led a small band of mountain warriors to victory over the superior Russian army of Czar Nicholas I. The film is very loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1912 short story Hadji Murad.

Location filming for White Warrior began in Yugoslavia in November 1958 and would last till early 1959. A few months later, European and Asian audiences were treated to the film's premiere. However, the rest of the world would have to wait a full two years to see Steve as this new character. Joining Steve in this all international cast were two young leading ladies, Italian actresses Georgia Moll and Scilla Gabel. (Georgia would later team with Steve a few years later in The Thief of Baghdad.) The male actor contingent was lead by Italian actor Renato Baldini and German actor Gerard Herter. (Renato could later be seen with Steve in 1963's The Slave.) Compared to the budget, costumes, and speaking roles of the Hercules films, White Warrior far exceeded the two prior Greek adventures.

Marking his directorial debut with Steve was renowned (and sometimes temperamental) Italian director Riccardo Freda. Returning for the third time to capture lighting and cinematography for a Reeves' film was Italian lighting, cinematographer, and special effects master Mario Bava. (Bava would later go on to be a renowned director in his own right, specializing in the Italian horror genre.) Despite Freda's reputation for blowing up on several movie sets, Steve enjoyed working with him and respected his exceptional talent. It is rumored, though unconfirmed, that Freda never finished directing White Warrior and left the chores to cinematographer Mario Bava. This was not the first and last time Bava bailed out Freda. A few times during his career Mario Bava rescued other Freda films.

White Warrior opened in many European and Asian countries during the Spring of 1959 to average reviews, accolades for its star, and better than average box office receipts. Though the turnout fell short of the earlier Hercules films, the anticipation of the third Steve Reeves' film alone helped draw respectable lines to the movie houses. With its emphasis more on the political state of Czarist Russia rather than physical action and Steve's classic physique, the 100 minute film release was unlike earlier Reeves' films. But in general, the international audiences accepted the Reeves' casting change.

While White Warrior sat on the shelves for a full 2 years, North American moviegoers were treated to Steve in Goliath and the Barbarians, Last Days of Pompeii, and the Giant of Marathon (all films being made after White Warrior). But why the delay? We surmise that Hercules and Hercules Unchained American presenter Joseph E. Levine passed on the immediate distribution of White Warrior because American audiences, riding high on the popularity of Levine's two prior Hercules presentations, might not readily accept Steve's new screen character. Levine probably decided not to gamble. Also, White Warrior was also not a vehicle that displayed the Reeves' muscular stature, except for a few brief moments, but more a brief moments, but more a film where 19th century Russian politics were front and center. The slow pace of the film, scene after scene of dialogue, and many dimly lit scenes also contributed to the drastic departure in the Reeves' genre. In short, too much talk not enough action, and not enough muscle. The timing was not right for American audiences.

For North American audiences, Steve appeared on the silver screen as the Caucasian rebel leader Adji Murad in February 1961. Warner Bros., sans Joe Levine, bought the film and exercised its distribution. The numerous television, radio, and promotional ads soon followed. However, it wasn't the same film originally released in 1959. The American release was a truncated, chopped up, poorly English dubbed, 85-minute version. For the most part, the critics panned the film. Although having Steve's name on the marquee initially pumped the long lines to the theaters, the film soon took a steep dive at the box office. Perhaps the U.S. audiences had a difficult time accepting their action hero as a 19th century rebel leader rather than an ancient god who could destroy Greek temples.

As Joe Levine "Americanized" his two Hercules films mainly through soundtrack dubbing and advertising, Warner Bros. did the same with Warrior but sometimes to the extreme. For starters, in the opening credits the distributors unfortunately changed famed Italian director Riccardo Freda's name to Richard Freda. To change the actual director's name would have been unheard of in Steve's earlier films. Warner Bros. also credited the musical composer as Robert Nicolosi (not Roberto Nicolosi), and costume designer- Filippo Sanjust was now Phillip Sanjust. They also went to the trouble of employing a popular 1960's TV announcer to narrate the film. Finally, the American presenters also inserted two English-language letters (one read by Gerard Herter, another later read by Steve). Both letters mistakenly used the same handwriting despite originating from two different characters in the film. (Neither letter can be completely read in the pan and scan video versions.) Despite these efforts by Warner Bros., the fact remained they were distributing a European-made film starring American body builder and actor Steve Reeves. This is something that Levine never tried to hide.

Questionable, if not distracting, the editing also did nothing to help this film. The flaws begin with the opening credits. As the title The White Warrior first appears in the credits over mountain terrain, an abrupt jump occurs in the background scenery, indicating something was intentionally deleted. And, unlike the ample time given to a typical director's film credit, Freda's name appears only momentarily before being engulfed by the presentation of the cast. Another awkward edit comes during Steve's opening scene. While Steve is on horseback approaching a captured coach, the scene suddenly cuts to Steve right next to the coach. Other scenes throughout the film are typical of this abrupt time compression. But beyond these flaws, the poorly English-dubbed soundtrack severely distracts this film from beginning to end. Even Steve's English synchronization is way off. His voice tends to follow his lip movement.

Other obvious post synchronization problems occur with Scilla Gabel and Renato Baldini. Both actors have separate scenes where they move their lips and total silence follows. And one may easily mistake the voice for Steve's son as the same voice used for Rocky the Squirrel from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. This isn't for certain, but the voices are very similar. Considering language barriers and translation problems, White Warrior was the most difficult film Steve ever made. A multitude of languages were spoken on the set. Steve recalled this problem in an interview he gave to the July 1994 Perfect Vision magazine.

"I remember one scene in The White Warrior in Yugoslavia, where I believe there were seven of us sitting around a campfire. I was speaking English, the person next to me was speaking Spanish, the person on the other side of me was speaking Italian, another person was speaking Yugoslav, another was speaking Serb, and another was speaking some other language. And you know a lot of acting is reacting to the other person, being attentive to what they're saying. Well, I was the most attentive actor you've ever seen. I knew that when the guy would grunt or stomp his foot on the ground, it was my cue to come in. I knew what they were saying, but I didn't know when they were going to end."

If you find this film in a letterbox format, buy it by all means. The video pan and scan transfer does not do justice to Mario Bava's exceptional cinematography. For example, in addition to the two letters that are partially visible in this film, many scenes have several actors, including Steve, out of frame even though their voices are heard. In particular, a scene where Steve is questioned in bed while recuperating from his capture at Prince Sergei's palace. Here we see the Reeves physique in severed sections and feel cheated. Yes, the problems of widescreen video transfer to pan and scan will forever annoy us.

The actors have separate scenes where they move their lips and total silence follows. Unfortunately this film was not your typical Steve Reeves vehicle where action abounds, muscles are flexed, chatter is secondary, and the hero delivers. In White Warrior, the former Hercules hero did more talking and negotiating than fighting. Steve remained in full dress for the most part, got shot, captured, tortured, tied to bed posts, and rode a horse a few times. That's not the typical Steve Reeves movie. Even the battle and cavalry scenes that so dominated Steve's prior films are not there as well as any substantial action.

Considering Bava's exquisite photography, the exceptional interior and exterior sets, colorful costumes, and an acceptable story line, the film failed to deliver the way one would expect it. During its 1961 American release, the film used the promotional tag line, "Make Way for the White Warrior". And many Reeves' film fans did just that by standing on line and buying their tickets. But after seeing the film and comparing it to its predecessors, fans were anxious to make way for another Reeves flick. And thankfully the legions of Reeves' fans were not disappointed. Just 4 months later in the summer of 1961 Joe Levine's presentation of Morgan the Pirate made its way to movie houses across North America. The action hero was now back in his full screen glory.

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