Ancient Rome, in the days before empire, suffers a total absence of women leaving its all-male populace lovelorn, irritable and frankly horny as hell. Handsome King Romulus (Roger Moore) has a secret squeeze in Dusia (Scilla Gabel), a shapely intruder he saved from certain rape at the hands of his sex-starved subjects, but knows all too well it takes women to build a civilisation. Romulus despatches three wacky emissaries to the neighbouring kingdom of Sabine, hoping to entreat King Titus (Folco Lulli) to export some of their nubile young lovelies. Nice guy Lino (Marino Mase) wins the heart of a local lass named Lavinia (Giorgia Moll) whom he saves from drowning, but the Sabines have no intention of sharing their womenfolk. Whereupon Romulus hatches a daring plan in which he stages a lavish party where the Romans get all the Sabine men drunk before riding away with their women, including Titus’ virginal daughter Rea (Myléne Demongeot) who soon catches his eye, arousing much anger in Rea.
And the award for most misogynistic premise in a sword and sandal movie goes to Romulus and the Sabines. Based on the infamous, albeit semi-mythical historical incident in 750 B.C. that inspired celebrated artworks from Rubens to Picasso and, remarkably, the MGM musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), this Italian-French co-production originally bore the less salubrious moniker: The Rape of the Sabine Women. It is worth noting however that the English word ‘rape’ serves as an awkward translation of the Latin ‘raptio’ which in this instance means ‘abduction’ rather than sexual violation.
Happily there are no scenes of sexual violence featured in this generally light-hearted production although the central mass abduction sequence remains disconcerting, even harrowing to modern eyes. Brawny, lust-crazed men haul away cart loads of shrieking, terrified young women. In some cases dragging them by their hair. A Sabine man happily hands away his fat, ugly spouse while, in the midst of the chaos, one unlucky girl falls to her death. It is less than hilarious. But once the captives actually reach Rome, the film’s seemingly Neanderthal sexual politics give way to a disarmingly feminist agenda. Rea, Lavinia and the rest of the Sabine women outwit the guards and barricade themselves inside a fort where they demand the right to choose their own husbands from among the Roman men. When one hot-tempered Roman suggests beating them into submission, Romulus sagely remarks that a loving marriage cannot be built on domestic violence. Thereafter the film extols a make love not war message as Rea and, surprisingly, King Titus urge the Sabine menfolk to set aside thoughts of revenge and reconcile with the Romans, although they then have to contend with the perhaps justifiably vexed Dusia stirring trouble.
Screenwriter Edoardo Anton delivers a curious, contradictory presentation of ancient Rome as both the cradle of civilised values and a proto-fascist state. This is especially evident in the depiction of the film’s intriguingly flawed hero, Romulus, a man of noble intentions but whose objectionable treatment of those around him is repeatedly called into question till he learns the error of his ways. Those who grew up with Roger Moore as James Bond often forget he had a substantial career twenty years prior. Back in 1961, he was one of many familiar English actors appearing in Italian sword and sandal films. Here sporting an impressive rockabilly pompadour haircut, Moore is actually second-billed to the alluring Myléne Demongeot, but savours some camp dialogue, retaining his familiar silky-smooth tones amidst the dubbed international cast. Meanwhile, Demongeot makes for an engaging heroine. One of the biggest French sex symbols of the era, at the height of her fame between the Fifties and Seventies, Demongeot headlined three or four films a year. She graced several Italian sword and sandal films including The Giant of Marathon (1959) opposite Steve Reeves and proved her worth in more demanding roles in films such as Bonjour Tristesse (1958). After an absence from the screen in the Eighties and Nineties, she made a comeback in the gritty police thriller 36 (2004) and remains active in French films.
Also featured in the cast, Italian bombshell Giorgia Moll played the Vietnamese heroine of The Quiet American (1958) and appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal Contempt (1963) before switching careers to become an acclaimed photographer, while French superstar Jean Marais, was Demongeot’s leading man in Fantomas (1964) and its two sequels. He makes a fantastical cameo in the role of the Roman god Mars as a statue that comes to life along with the goddess Venus (Rossano Schiaffino) giving Romulus some conflicting advice on matters of the heart. As a historical adventure film, Romulus and the Sabines is a bit of a curio but the climactic pacifist message proves disarming and likeable, even if it comes at the expense of one wronged character’s life.