Tuesday, February 21, 2012

#56 - Scipio Africanus

Sorry about this being out of order, but it was hard to find and I ended up having to buy the DVD.

BACK-STORY: “Scipione L’Africano” (“Scipio Africanus”) was a propaganda extravaganza commissioned by Benito Mussolini to fire up Italians for the upcoming conquest of the new Roman Empire. It was produced by his twenty-one year old son Vittorio, but we can assume daddy was very hands-on. It was the most expensive Italian movie up to then as Benito spared no expense. It paid off as the movie won the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival. That must have been a shocker! Mussolini “convinced” the army to provide a division of extras. But more infamously, numerous elephants were used and some did not survive (the ones with poor agents). The soldiers were soon sent to Ethiopia after production ended. Hopefully the ones who wore wristwatches in their scenes were put in the front lines.

OPENING: A crawl explains that Rome is at war with Carthage and specifically mentions Hannibal’s crushing win at Cannae. Cut to Rome where Senators led by Cato are plotting to stop Scipio (Annibale Ninchi) from going to Africa. Scipio speaks to the Senate and a debate ensues. Lots are drawn and Scipio is assigned Sicily as his area of command. Lucky for him as that is the province he wanted. Suck on it, Senator Cato! He leaves the Senate proceeded by fasces. Get the connection? No, well perhaps you will recognize the Nuremberg rally-like atmosphere of the well-recreated Roman Forum. Or the fascist salutes from the crowd.

SUMMARY: The Carthaginians raid a Roman villa. They are brutes! The captives include a noble woman Velia (Isa Miranda) and her husband. (Note: I read a couple of places that this woman is supposed to be Scipio’s wife – I did not get that impression and hope it’s not true because that would be quite ridiculous.) Their poor treatment by the Carthaginians will be a recurring theme. The Carthaginians are depicted as barbarians. Prepare to hiss. Meanwhile in Sicily, the losing survivors from Cannae are given the chance to redeem themselves and get some payback by joining Scipio’s expedition to North Africa.

      At Hannibal’s (Camillo Pilotto) camp, the portly, eye-patched Hannibal argues with his cavalry chief Maharbal. Hannibal does not want to abandon Italy to return home to save his capital. Velia is fetched to his tent. She is feisty, but he is Hannibal. He grabs her, fade. Hiss.

      Scipio’s army arrives in some nice replicas of quinqueremes (complete with corvi). The Carthaginian Senate debates whether to accept Rome’s terms. Queen Sophonisba of Numidia (Francesca Braggiotti) convinces King Syphax to stay allied with Rome. She is a classic silent movie vamp.

      Before Hannibal arrives back in his homeland, Scipio attacks Syphax’s camp at night and sets it afire. Lots of fire, lots of chaos. Scipio’s Numidian cavalry, led by Syphax’s rival Massinissa, captures Syphax. Sophonisba seduces Massinissa with her vampish eyes. Scipio is not about to have his boy wrapped around a Carthaginian’s little finger so she has to drink poison.

       Hannibal has returned (with his Roman prisoners, i.e. Velia and her husband) and scolds the Carthaginian Senate for being ingrates. Scipio, feeling confident (back then Italian generals could have that feeling), allows Carthaginian spies to tour his camp. Scipio and Hannibal get some face time and Scipio turns down Hannibal’s offer to give up some territory to avoid a beat-down.

      The battle of Zama is epic. The elephant charge is amazing. The camera focuses on a baby elephant. They are pelted with arrows and spears (pila) and it looks like some of the elephants are being hit because they are! (Not the baby – that would be wrong.) Animal rights activists were upset with this movie. Mussolini did not care. His conquest of Africa would provide plenty of replacement pachiderms. Oops!

       Next comes the cavalry charge. Lots of clanging and thundering hooves. We are placed in the midst of the chaos. The Carthaginian cavalry is chased off. Round two also goes to the Romans.

      The main event – the infantry clash. The velites (Roman skirmishers) initiate contact with their gladii (short swords). Hannibal’s first line retreats, but his veterans close ranks and do not let them find refuge. In fact they bloodily force them to go around. Scipio reorganizes his force during this interlude and sends word for Massinissa and his cavalry to return. Dust. Stabbings. Death. We’re in the middle of it. Cavalry returns to take Hannibal in the rear. Literally and figuratively.

CLOSING: One of the generals returns home to great acclaim and patriotic music swelling. Guess which one.


Acting - 7

Action - 8

Accuracy – 8

Realism – 7

Plot – 6

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It is fairly well balanced in action to melodrama. There are two strong female characters. The Velia sub-plot goes nowhere, however. The male leads are not much to look at so there is not much appeal there. If your significant other is an elephant lover, be forewarned. On the other hand, if she has a grudge against elephants …

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate. Many of the Hollywood-type moments are based on actual facts. Here is an analysis, in chronological order.

1. Scipio did give the veterans of Cannae a chance to redeem themselves.

2. Hannibal did wear an eye-patch. He had lost sight in his eye from opthamalia early in his Italian campaign. There is no reason to believe he was chubby, however.

3. Hannibal was reluctant to return to Carthage and did give the Senate some grief over their lack of support.

4. Sophonisba did keep Syphax on the Carthaginian side with her feminine wiles.

5. Scipio did use fire during a night attack to destroy Syphax’s camp. The movie makes no reference to also defeating the Carthaginian army that came to the rescue from their nearby camp. Also, Massinissa did not capture Syphax that same night.

6. Sophonisba did seduce Massinissa and Scipio did convince him that she had to go poison-wise.

7. Scipio did allow two spies to tour his camp in an act of confidence and intimidation.

8. Scipio and Hannibal did meet before the battle although we are not sure what they discussed. The best estimate is that Hannibal reminded Scipio of the fickleness of fate and Scipio responded that he would take his chances.

9. The battle is basically the same as depicted. Scipio did open lanes in the Roman formation and the elephants were discouraged by missile fire. Some elephants were hit. The Roman cavalry was victorious and chased the Carthaginian horsemen away. The Carthaginian front line was repelled by the veterans. The movie skips the fact that this same thing happened with a second line. The Roman cavalry returns to finish the battle although Massinissa and Laelius did so on their own, not because they received orders from Scipio.

10. In a typical movie flub, the Roman soldiers are depicted as using their pila only against the elephants. The rest of their fighting is done with swords. You certainly cannot learn Roman tactics from movies.

CRITIQUE: If you did not know about Mussolini’s involvement and/or the propagandistic nature of the film, you might be more impressed with it. It is an impressive effort. Surprisingly, although the fascist imagery is a bit heavy-handed, the film is not overly patriotic. It could have easily been laughable, but isn’t.

      The battle is magnificently epic.  I plan to show the Battle of Zama scene to my Military History class.  Dictators are usually good for spectacles. Dictators can also slaughter elephants for authenticity. I must add that the paper mache elephants rolling along in the background do take away from the realism. The multitude of extras adds to the grandeur. Speaking of which, I would not be surprised if some of the soldiers weren’t killed in the filming. That would be authentic! If you are going to die for Il Duce, why not at Zama instead of Ethiopia?
       Other than the fake elephants, the recreations are great. The Senate and the Forum look real. The quinquereme is just like the real thing. Unfortunately, the corvus (boarding bridge) would have been out of style in the Second Punic War. Execute that technical advisor, Mussolini! The uniforms and equipment appear authentic.

       The acting is silent movieish. Lots of grand gestures and facial contortions. The actors who play Scipio and Hannibal are satisfactory. The cinematography is okay and is boosted by the remarkable shots from within the melees.

SUMMARY: “Scipio Africanus” is not well known and is hard to find. It’s worth the trouble if you can find it. It is definitely a spectacle. For a silent movie, it holds up well. It is probably seeded properly at #56. Having seen some of the silent movies ranked higher, like “Hell’s Angels” and “The General”, I can assure you it is better than some movies ahead of it. The key strength is the historical accuracy. As a huge Scipio fan, I can attest to the movie getting the highlights of the Battle of Zama correct. I did not expect it to be worthy of the man, but I was wrong. Plus I love seeing elephants get what they deserve – grey, wrinkly bastards! One of them killed my mother.


  1. The idea that it was commissioned by Mussolini does put me off. An the fact that they did harm animals in the making, no matter how old the movie... I'm not going to watch this ever.
    I'm not sure I get your last two sentences...

  2. I agree that you should not watch it. However, if you had not read the review and then watched the movie you would probably think the elephants were not being hurt. It's a movie, right?

    Do you avoid movies made in Stalinist Russia? Of course, he was not as hands on as Mussolini was for this.

    The last two sentances were just me being silly. I do not hate elephants and one of them did not kill my mother. (She was killed by a rhinocerous.)

  3. Isn't this the movie where the Romans are wearing wristwatches and wing-tips under their togas and you can see power lines in the background of some battle scenes?

  4. Yes. You know Mussolini - the trains had to run on time and so did the extras.

  5. Your article is quite accurate as was the movie in a historic sense, i have watched it over many times and cant find much fault in it, it was hard to find and had to purchase it from Belle & Blade who i believe has the rights to it, unfortunate because their service is deplorable

    1. I also had to buy it. Can't remember, but probably Amazon.


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