Inspirations from the Schlock Fringe (Mark Phillips)

Today I have a tale of art, synchronicity, enthusiasm, nostalgia and the internet. I’ve just had a good couple of days pursuing connections between personal obsessions. This particular tale might not resonate with you because my own interests are idiosyncratic, but perhaps the example will inspire you to explore paths of synchronicity uniquely suited to your own interests and cherished memories.

It started with me recording a sword and sandal epic called The Colossus of Rhodes on TCM. Sword and sandal pictures or peplums were usually rather cheap Italian action films popular in the days before spaghetti westerns (late 50s to mid 60s). They featured heroes such as Hercules, Maciste, or Atlas fighting evil and oppression. Shot in Spain or Greece mostly with badly-dubbed Italian casts with a few washed up or D-list American actors, they were an attempt to piggy back on the popularity of Hollywood successes such as Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus.

Now there was only one reason why I wanted to see The Colossus of Rhodes: it was the first film directed by the great film director Sergio Leone. His later spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West is arguably one of the best films ever made. Well, suffice it to say  The Colossus of Rhodes is not one of the best films ever made. It is a rather routine would-be epic helped along by a serviceable and professional acting job by American actor Rory Calhoun. Calhoun was adept at rugged tough guy roles such as cowboys and gangsters. He had actually served three years in jail in his youth for robberies and car theft. In 1955, his agent leaked the scandal of Calhoun’s prison record to a gossip rag as a substitute for a story he convinced them to suppress, an exposé on his other client Rock Hudson’s secret homosexual life. So, in a sense, Rory Calhoun’s greatest contribution to film was that his sacrifice made possible the post-1955 career of Rock Hudson. No Rory Calhoun, no Giant or Ice Station Zebra.

Anyway, I had never seen The Colossus of Rhodes, and now I had. Yay. Of course, TCM was showing several other typical examples of peplums that week, which leads me to my experience of Atlas. Naturally if there was money to be made by Italians ripping-off Hollywood period epics, could schlock-meister Roger Corman be far behind? Shot in Greece on a budget that would make the Italians cringe, Atlas was movie-making on the cheap: Spartacus cost $12 million; Atlas cost $108,000, and it shows. The warriors’ shields look to be made of tin foil and cardboard. Also, it’s hard to make epic battles convincing when only fifty inexperienced extras show up.

So, Atlas ought to be a simply awful film. But here’s the thing: it’s not. First of all, it’s got a reasonably literate, intelligent script by Charles B. Griffith. Griffith is a sort of underground Hollywood legend, penning lurid scripts for Corman, usually cranked out in a few weeks for a few hundred dollars. Griffith is responsible for the acerbically satirical masterpieces A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors (a musical version of which, my wife’s nephew Stefan starred in locally a few years ago). Griffith not only wrote Atlas, he also managed the production, was the assistant director, and acted as an extra. The dialogue is often subtle, witty, and even legitimately philosophical.

The intelligence of the screenplay was aided in no small part by the acting of a quartet of D-list actors who at that time were a sort of Corman stock troupe. The villain of the piece was played with an infectious charismatic integrity by Frank Wolff. An underrated actor who committed suicide at 43, Wolff played most of his roles in low-budget Italian productions. His most prestigious role was as Vartan Damadian in Elia Kazan’s America, America. But let’s not forget a small role he played in the previously mentioned Leone masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. He is the farmer, Brett McBain, murdered by Henry Fonda early in the picture. (Do you feel the tendrils of synchronicity lurking beneath the disparate details?)

The star of Atlas was Michael Forest. Although his face, voice, and physique were instantly familiar, I couldn’t originally place him. Fans of anime might recognize Forest’s voice as he is in a good number of dubbed versions. But his most famous role, for me, was as the Greek god Apollo in the original Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais,” in 1967.

The theme of my wandering story so far has been hard working D-listers producing as much excellence as they can manage in the outer slums of the artistic world, sometimes rising above their origins to realize their potentials as with Leone, sometimes coming tantalizingly close to greatness only to die young and forgotten as with Wolff, but most often just tooling along producing the occasional memorable diamonds in the rough as with Griffith and Forest. As with all synchronicity-based stories this one could be spun out forever in fascinating ways, but I’ll end with an uplifting little coda showing that the work of scratching out tiny moments of brilliance despite the restrictions of poverty row production is ongoing and inspiring.

While researching all the above interconnections I discovered that the star of Atlas, Michael Forest, had played the role of Apollo in Star Trek more than once. Paramount Pictures has allowed the production of fan-fiction based on its Star Trek franchise so long as it is not made for commercial ends. So, crowdfunded and largely cast with amateur fan-actors, we get the web-based “fourth season” of the original Star Trek series Star Trek Continues. With meticulously recreated sets and costumes, talented pastiches of the original casts’ performances, canny use of the possibilities of modern special effects, and some writing that would make Roddenberry proud, Star Trek Continues is as close as I’ve seen to watching the original series.

And I only discovered this remarkable series because I was researching Michael Forest, an obscure actor from an ultra-cheap sword and sandal picture from the 1960s. 46 years after playing Apollo in that original Star Trek episode, Forest reprised the role in the first episode of Star Trek Continues, “Pilgrim of Eternity.” His acting in the original episode was brilliant and it was again in the new one. It made my day. And in this day and age of over-produced Hollywood mega-blockbusters (the recent Star Trek Beyond had a budget of $185 million), you can still find thriving let’s-put-on-the-best-show-we-can-with-what-we-can-scrounge gems. Vic Mignogna (actor, writer, director, producer, etc. of that first episode of Star Trek Continues) funded it out of his own pocket. He funded the next 3 episodes with a Kickstarter budget of $126,000. That is about $16,000 in the currency of Roger Corman’s 1961 Atlas era. (And as a personal note to my mother, yes, Vic, who plays Kirk in the new series, does have a scene where he appears without his shirt—I think you will be pleased!)

I hope you have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of synchronicity and I hope you get as much pleasure while undertaking your own rambles in search of synchronicity and inspiration.

Mark Phillips (2017)

Note: All of the data assembled above comes exclusively from Wikipedia.



Filed under Writing Craft

2 responses to “Inspirations from the Schlock Fringe (Mark Phillips)

  1. Selmin

    Mark, as usual it’s a pleasure to read your blog post. For the first time when I read your August 13 and August 31, 2015 posts on “Postmodern Writing Techniques” and ‘Postmodernist Film Techniques”, I said ‘wow!!!’ Since then I go back to refresh my memory as well as to gain a deeper understanding. You talked about writing a blog post on “the postmodernist subgenres of cyberpunk and steampunk.” I was not even familiar with the terms. I am looking forward to read your posts on them in the future.
    Thank you also for reading my writings, correcting them, and commenting on them. Please know that I feel that I am only an apprentice. Selmin

  2. Syl

    I love the way your brain works. Thoroughly enjoyable ramble!

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