Victor Mature, I think of a lot of different things. I think of his far from accurate but highly enjoyable performance of Doc Holliday in John Ford's My Darling Clementine. I think of an accurate who was most at home in big pictures, historical and biblical epics where his on-screen presence was given a chance to shine. His biggest successes though came in the late 1940s and early 1950s so by the second half of the decade he was taking movies that just aren't that good, including 1956's Zarak.
There I go again contradicting myself, saying Mature was most comfortable in historical epics -- The Robe, Samson and Delilah, Demetrius and the Gladiators -- which he usually was. This qualifies then as a quasi-epic...I guess. It certainly has some impressive scale with a considerable budget spent filling out a cast of thousands (okay, maybe a couple hundred), but Zarak is such an obviously over the top attempt at an epic that it doesn't quite work. The scale is there, but at the sacrifice of story and character if that means anything to you. The best epics, the ones that stand the test of time are those that blend all three. Maybe it isn't fair to judge Zarak on that level because it doesn't aspire to be a classic, but some effort would have been appreciated.
The eldest son of an Afghan chieftain in the 1860s, Zarak (Mature) is caught kissing Salma (Anita Ekberg), his father's favorite and most beautiful wife. Instead of killing him for the betrayal, his father banishes him, forcing him to leave the tribe where he quickly becomes a notorious outlaw who becomes a huge thorn in the side of the country's British rulers. His gang of bandits continues to grow until finally a high-ranking, highly respected British officer, Major Ingram (Michael Wilding), is called in to deal with the issue. Zarak thinks little of the new challenge, joining forces with a powerful chief, Ahmad (Peter Illing), to take the attack to the British. All the infamous bandit's plans may go for naught though as betrayal lies around every corner as the bounty on his head increases with his growing notoriety.
Because I'm a fan of Mature, let's start there. A role is a role, especially when your star isn't as bright as it once was. A few years later in 1961, he would play a Viking, but this is one of the oddest choices I've seen. A very Italian looking Mature playing a young Afghan warrior/prince? It just doesn't work. That's the least of the problems here. The script never really decides what it wants to do with this character. Is he a wrongfully punished and banished son looking for redemption and forgiveness? Is he the notorious, murdering bandit he's made out to be? Is he both? Whoo, lots of questions, none of which are answered when they really need to be. As a viewer, I don't mind figuring things out for myself, but some help is appreciated. The movie needed to make a stance on this character and to whether we should side with him or against him. You can only chalk up so much of the blame to Mr. Mature.
Physical differences aside, Mature's acting is the least of the movie's problems. Swedish beauty Ekberg, God bless her little heart, was one beautiful woman, but she just could not act. Her character also does a two or three minute stripper's routine, even grinding on a pole and two lucky court attendants and is usually in various stages of undress. Check out part of her dance routine HERE. Like Mature, she doesn't exactly look like a woman who lived in 1860s Afghanistan with her immaculate hair and make-up. Her scenes that require acting and not sexy dancing fall far short too. The rest of the cast is okay if underused or underutilized. Wilding is dull as Major Ingram, Eunice Gayson unnecessary as Ingram's wife, Bonar Colleano and Eddie Byrne not used enough as Zarak's treacherous brothers, and Bernard Miles making the most of a smaller part as the loyal Hassu, Zarak's right hand man. Look for a young Patrick McGoohan as a British officer in Ingram's command, making an early appearance in one of his first speaking film roles.
Director Terence Young -- later of the early James Bond films -- does not skimp on the scale of this attempted epic filmed in Morocco. The battle sequences are just that; epic, with hundreds of riders and soldiers doing battle on the Moroccan/Afghan landscape. For an otherwise moderately budgeted movie, the battles are well choreographed and don't disappoint. But in his zest for scale, Young goes overboard. His movie is just 99 minutes long, and I watched it in a little over an hour. Thank you fast forward button. Repeated scenes of a long column of riders making their way across the land is impressive the first two or three times before it quickly gets tedious. The actual story is so disjointed and all over the place that I wondered what had happened to put characters in these spots (I'm sure the fast forwarding had something to do with it). Young wants to 'Wow!' you with the scale of Zarak, but it comes at an expense.
For all the big, sweeping shots accompanied by composer William Alwyn's obnoxious, blaring and overbearing score, there are quick shots to clear examples of indoor studio shots. One second a stand-in is attacking a rider in a big wide open, and then the next, Mature is in a studio pulling someone off a horse. Painfully obvious, and one of my biggest pet peeves. Nowhere is it more evident than the ending, Mature's mysterious and still undecided folk hero/mythical bandit deciding whether to go through with a difficult decision. The ending doesn't come as much of a surprise -- it's been telegraphed half the movie -- but not much does surprise here. Any entertaining if not particularly well made historical epic. Decent, worth a watch, but that's it.
Zarak (1956): **/****