Considering the small number of copies made available and the swift rate at which they sell out, I have decided to devote some equally swift reviews for some of the more recent soundtrack releases there have been for lesser known films, films whose music have a lean, but devoted following of fans who may, otherwise, not be aware of their arrival on disc in such spruced-up editions. With titles like Robert O. Ragland's 10 To Midnight, Terry Plumeri's Scarecrows and J Peter Robinson's The Believers finally appearing, it seems like so many unexpected and often unappreciated scores are getting their due, finally.
So, without further ado, let's take a look at what Israeli composer Dov Seltzer (The Assisi Underground, Hanna's War) came up with for cult Italian director Bruno (Night Of The Zombies) Mattei's colourfully fun sword and sandal epic, The 7 Magnificent Gladiators (1983), a muscle-bound offering in the then-popular “peplum” genre that was made immortal in 50's and 60's by the likes of Steve Reeves, starring the impossibly huge Lou Ferrigno, the positively Amazonian Sybil Danning, a ripped Brad Harris and the villainously camp Dan Vadis, complete with what looks like just the top half of Darth Vader's costume. The film is a totally self-conscious adaptation of John Sturges' classic Western, The Magnificent Seven and Akira Kurosawa's hugely influential progenitor, The Seven Samurai.
With Ferrigno's mighty hewn gladiator, Han, gathering together six other noble warriors, all sort of modelled on the more well-known seven gunslingers, in order to protect an innocent rural hamlet from a vicious band of marauders led by the S & M suited Vadis, as the witch-mother-slaying Nicerote, the scene is set for rippling physiques, heaving cleavages and brutally swung broadswords. It is all very cut-price Conan The Barbarian which, of course, starred none other than Ferrigno's Pumping Iron rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, the John Milius/Dino De Laurentiis epic that paved the way for sword and sorcery fantasies from Hawk The Slayer and Excalibur to The Beastmaster and, well, the most enjoyable of the lot, Albert Pyuns' spirited romp, The Sword And The Sorcerer. The early 80's were rife with the silver sparks from infeasibly shiny swords and the chiselled bodies of off-the-peg heroes. Mattei, though, managed to combine both the hip, assembly-line production values of the 80's with the themes and aspirations of the earlier decades when this sort of thing was all the rage. Not a great film by anybody's standards - I can barely remember any of it, actually - the score is, undoubtedly, one of its strongest elements.
The main theme (Track 1) is revisited often throughout the score and in a variety of forms, from inspiring to pastoral. But, in its purest statement, it epitomises the grand old standard of rousing fanfare, playful mock pomp and ceremony from many a 50's and 60's toga-clad pot-boiler, Seltzer lays his cards on the table immediately. There is a deliberate refusal to have any “edges” to the theme, no tangible menace or threat. The film is violent, though considering its director's pedigree and the Italian thirst for filmic blood, never gratuitously so and the score captures this basically harmless zest for sweat-drenched physical admiration over graphic cruelty and mutilation every time. Swirling with good natured bravado, we listen as strings, woodwinds and trumpets evoke a time of machismo and testosterone, yet there is a definite Saturday Matinee feel to the strong lines of martial melody.
More fun is to be had with the theme for the bad guys led by ruthless bandit chieftain Nicerote (Vadis). This would be employed, in various shifts and tempos, for the attacks that he leads on the poor villagers and the seven warriors. Driving with a terrific central rhythm for brass and kettle-drums, we first hear this gleefully evil cue after a pensive, uneasy and suspenseful introduction at the start of Track 2, Marauders. Over a rapid pounding of percussion and sawing strings, we get the memorable core figure of five commanding notes. Together with stabbing expressions from brass and a galloping nature of attack and more attack, this is fine, if still somewhat restrained stuff. Seltzer only used a small(ish) orchestra and this shows in pieces such as this. There is a Brian May (that's the Australian composer of Mad Max, Turkey Shoot and Missing In Action, not the guy from Queen with the big, big hair) sound of small-scale symphonics to his composition that lessens the grandeur, perhaps, but allows for some more emphatic and intimate statements to be heard.
Track 3, The Sword, allows Seltzer to bring in some mystical elements to the mix, as the cue signifies the mighty magical blade that only Ferrigno's Han can actually wield without be incinerated by its power. Tinkling electronics, an ethereal choir and some glorious cloud-caressing sweeps, via harp and triangle, bring this brief cue to a point of blissful harmony and majesty. The next track, Girls Riding, is initially melodic, sprightly and vaguely mischievous, flute and clarinet fluctuate amiably together until, after a shivering middle section, accompanied by distant thumping bass, that seems to convey both awe and dread, we reach a climax of stately ascension. Brass fanfares round-out the cue, glistening timpani and a challenging final sting and sizzle of royal mistrust - you can't rely on someone in a toga, it seems. Arena, the next track, begins with more imposing brass in ripe old Roman Epic style - slow, deliberate and totally self-conscious. This is Seltzer doing Miklos Rosza and Alex North in fine, resplendent fashion. Drums commence in the second phase of the track, providing a newer phrase for trombone and horn with a broadly militaristic rhythm. There is even a very slight transitionary motif in here that is reminiscent of Morricone's Spaghetti voice - just a bridge composed of metronomic big bass thumps that very pleasantly recalls The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
An eerie passage comes next in Track 6, The Lepers. Seltzer creates an atmosphere of total unease with the ominous squalling of wind wrought about by rolling bass, a Herrmann-esque repeating four-note phrase for woodwind (actually reminding me of his opening main theme for Cape Fear, which Elmer Bernstein, incidentally, expertly re-arranged and orchestrated for the Scorsese remake from Herrmann's wonderful original score), glistening high strings and an offbeat “masculine” section that seems suggestive of villainous or even heroic revulsion at the presence of those afflicted with the accursed disease. It is a great track that provides some essential darkness to a score that, in the main, opts for charity and optimism.
And then we get a real treat. Seltzer completely overturns any preconceptions we may have had about the imagery of this genre and the possible musical voices it may inspire with the beautiful Track 7, The Tavern. Very subdued and melodic, and only sparingly written, this tambourine and harp dominated piece is so lyrical and captivating that you simply don't want it to end. It hardly conjures up visions of mostly naked beefcakes imbibing in a convivial atmosphere of cordiality, but once the shimmering notes from a triangle and a gentle backing from guitar joins in with this small ensemble underscore, you can just shut your eyes and imagine something, ahem, far more provocative and arousing. A brilliant and totally unexpected shift in convention from the more typically bawdy and raucous composing that would normally score such a sequence.
And if Seltzer defied expectation with his atypically composed cue for The Tavern, then wait until you hear what he comes up with for the scene of two delectable warrior women wrestling with one another for the appreciation of some jaded regals in the palace (Track 7, Girls Wrestling). Whereas someone like Alan Silvestri, when scoring for a similar scene in The Mummy Returns, brought in the pulse-pounding, big gun rhythms of full-throttle percussion and tribal drumming, Seltzer goes in completely the other direction and crafts a lilting, beautifully harmonic cue more evocative of a medieval lawn, or a delicate liaison upon a tranquil meadow. Regardless of how well it works with the onscreen action, the piece is a lilting delight. The balance of this supposedly heroic score is now in favour of an inner grace and spiritual peace - not quite what you expect from a film featuring Lou Ferrigno's biceps and the most muscular hair in the world!
A familiar phrase of trembling suspense comes next, building to a fiery brass crescendo in Magic Sword. But once we have climbed over this aggressive peak, the cue then takes on a powerfully mystical influence with revelation and rapture created through chorus, sustained cymbal-shivers and high brass. King's Defeat, Track 10, lasts for only half a minute of mournful brass lamenting and slow, vanquished bass. Selzer then returns us to the bliss of earlier with More Tavern and Seven Gladiators, Track 11. Essentially the same melody as before, this time out the cue is slightly accelerated and gains an altered timbre with the inclusion of flute and recorder, thus reinforcing the theme in your mind all the more. The second portion of the track reminds us that we are in the company of seven heroic warriors as Seltzer canters back the Main Theme for a gloriously rousing return. And he maintains the theme in a much more peaceful and slower variation featuring woodwinds instead of brass for the next track, Pastorale and Anakora. A mid-way shift establishes a more forceful version, the seven suddenly realising the importance and gravity of their task, and Seltzer then drops into menacing mode for a closing stretch of mysterious underscore that adds grim tension and a chord of fatality.
Training The Villagers, Track 13, is a whimsical and light variation of the Main Theme, set over what we can just imagine to be a montage of comical weapons handling from a group of liberal-minded peaceniks as our battle-hungry gang try to give them some understanding of the “fight back” mentality. The following track, Celebration, is fast and more ancient Rome-Greco sounding, more appropriate to the setting and the era than a lot of Seltzer's more lushly medieval romanticism elsewhere. It is buoyant, and entertaining, tambourines and flute splendidly evocative and what sounds like a mandolin plucked just beneath the effervescent surface. Another great and unexpectedly addictive track, folks, that ends far too suddenly and could have done with another breathless waltz around the ruin.
Seltzer has something else in mind, though. Track 15, Han and Pandora, is simply exquisite. A sweetly romantic cue that also plays up the antiquity of the era with lush, yet spare lines and a melody culled from some musical limbo that exists between the ancients temples and villas of Rome and Greece and the meadows of an English medieval summer. Exceptionally light and gently upbeat, this is a showcase for the main theme played by flute, tambourine, piano and harp. The first moment is a slow rendition of the heroic theme for violin, triangle and harp. Once the flute comes into the frame, the sense of time standing still is perfect and you can easily imagine leaves filtering down upon two carefree - though muscle-bound(!) - lovers, or a sensual dance taking place before those same two lovers lying on cushions in some fine hall. Both of these scenes could well be true, but since I can barely remember any of the action of the film, my mind's eye is the only option I have. All danger is removed from the cue, the music allowing Seltzer to simply kick back and float through some hypnotic fugue. I love the main theme and that written for the villains, but this track may well be my favourite, simply because I did not expect such a delightful and repeated lightness of touch in a score such as this, and Han And Pandora totally encapsulates this lyrical beauty.
The Return Of The Seven commences briskly with Nicerote's evil theme, those five-notes of despicable intent finally informing us that our gang has still got to have to some serious work to eradicate the threat of this brute and his henchmen from their new-found chums. In his accompanying liner notes, Steven Y. Mori thinks that Seltzer is paying some sort of homage to Elmer Bernstein's fast-tempo theme for Eli Wallach's villainous Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, and this may well be the case. Nicerote's theme, aside from that broad five-note motif, is boundlessly energetic and rhythmically exciting, with that suggestive flavour of stampeding horses and endlessly driving intensity. Tipping the hat to Bernstein, especially in view of the wholesale adaptive approach of the film, itself, is therefore both warranted and, indeed, welcome. Seltzer combines the heroic main theme into this headlong rush of evil and the track becomes a swirling narrative of bravado. Marauders Attack, Track 17, commences with a choral clarion-call and brass impetus, but the final battle will ultimately claim several lives of the 7 Magnificent Gladiators in that time-honoured fashion of heroic self-sacrifice. The music is now in earnest, with brass and percussion cutting and brawling as much as the combatants in the film. The next track, Good And Evil, pitches Han and Nicerote together in a deadly duel. Seltzer brings in sustained cymbals, a battle-theme of anguished brass and scything strings. This is rewardingly old school bombastics, never as far-reaching or as clangorously dense as the really big orchestras can attain, but still pulverising and thick-hewn with symphonic ferocity from several relentless drums, vibrant brass and woodwinds. I detected a hint of Bernstein again, in here, perhaps a little phrase reminiscent of his enormously violent Zulu Dawn score - but this is equally as welcome as his homage to Calvera.
The dreadful consequence of the battle's outcome bleeds through the final phase of Good and Evil and then suffuses the opening of the final track, Sorrow and End Title. Guilt and conscience form an introductory coda for the loss of good friends. Gentle harp-playing and fragile woodwinds, flute and recorder trilling softly in melancholy, then gives way to the main theme, lighter and more reflective this time out. But you just know that, victorious and still in one piece, Han and his lover, Pandora, actually played by Mrs. Ferrigno, are going to be allowed a fond and enthusiastic bow-out into the sunset with a full rendition of it. This appealing theme then brings the score to a very satisfying close.
To many score fans with a penchant for the heroic/fantastical vein, this will probably all sound like a light, airy and sort of romanticised variation on Poledouris' esteemed Conan material. Yet, despite this cash-on-delivery style of pretty much bloodless writing, there is something about Seltzer's score that sticks in the mind and has you humming it for some time afterwards, and this something also has you reaching for the repeat button quite readily, too. Pleasant as well as aggressive, this isn't exactly the most gutsy of adventure scores, but this is also a facet that makes The 7 Magnificent Gladiators so endlessly charming.
Limited to only 1000 copies worldwide, this release has been fast selling-out and I would advise those intrigued by its sweetly engaging romanticism and briskly smart competing two themes to act quickly and get themselves a copy. The genre of “peplum” has garnered some tremendous music over the decades of the 50's and 60's, and this unusual harking-back from Dov Seltzer just adds a great new frisson of its own. It may not be what you expect from an action/adventure score, but this is fine stuff indeed and well worth picking up.
Full track listing -
1. Main Theme 1.40
2. Marauders 3.28
3. The Sword 1.00
4. Girls Riding 1.14
5. The Arena 2.19
6. Lepers 1.51
7. The Tavern 1.44
8. Girls Wrestling 1.28
9. Magic Sword 2.09
10. King's Defeat 0.29
11. More Tavern and Seven Gladiators 3.43
12. Pastorale and Anakora 2.05
13. Training the Villagers 1.57
14. Celebration 1.45
15. Han and Pandora 2.55
16. Return of the Seven 2.20
17. Marauders Attack 1.34
18. Good and Evil 3.25
19. Sorrow and End Title 4.21
Peplum scores may not be at the forefront of many soundtrack collectors' wish-lists, but to ignore such lavish, rousing music would be doing themselves something of a disservice. Intrada's track record for sourcing, licensing, restoring and releasing so many neglected and overlooked gems as this terrific score from Dov Seltzer is a point of pride and admiration for people who love to look - and listen - beyond the conventional and the mainstream.
The 7 Magnificent Gladiators represents some pantomime bang 'n' clash, a notable villain's theme as well as a rousing and eminently hummable heroic theme, and, most rewardingly of all, some left-field lyricism that often takes the breath away. It both respects and deviates from the classic peplum scores from the likes of Carlo Rustichelli, Carlo Savina, Roberto Nicolosi and Piero Piccioni, casting its own unique little spell. Intrada presents the complete score from the original ¼ inch two-track stereo masters from the recording in Rome. Dov Seltzer also conducts.
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