Wednesday, June 20, 2012


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

It’s been theorized that ancient Greece’s legend of the Amazons may have been modeled upon the Greeks’ encounters with the horse-riding women of the nomadic Scythian tribes.  From this minor episode of gender role-reversal, the Greeks then imagined a society that inverted their own male-chauvinist ethos, the better to glorify the superiority of said ethos.

Cinematic Amazon societies approach the legend in a variety of ways, but in the 1960s and 1970s, films about Amazons tended to use them in much the same way as the archaic Greeks had: as deviant societies unable to survive the coming wave of patriarchal cultures.  The 1975 AMAZONS AND SUPERMEN is one of the more egregious in this respect, taking positive pleasure in the inability of legions of cute but incompetent women to take any meaningful action against the film’s musclemen heroes.

Going purely by its script, THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN—which also pits double-deltoid warriors against an entire Amazon society—seems to take the same marginalizing sociological position, in which the defeat of the film's Amazons (though they're never called that) foregrounds the supremacy of patriarchal culture.  Yet, though the Amazons are defeated in the end, the women at least prove themselves formidable antagonists.  Most of Italy's peplum-epics of this period don't show women as anything but helpless maidens or evil, sometimes sorcerous queens. 

Before getting into the story as such, I should note that THOR was filmed back-to-back with another peplum with the same star and director, TAUR THE MIGHTY.  Both "Thor" and "Taur" were toss-off names applied to a hero who, the story goes, was originally going to be called "Tarzan" until the Edgar Rice Burroughs organization took exception.  This goes a long way toward explaining why the protagonist has no resemblance to the Scandinavian thunder-god of mythic and comic-book fame.

Most of Italy’s peplum epics turn on the idea of an unjust ruler and his followers usurping the rightful rule of an outcast monarch.  Thus, instead of portraying an Amazon society that’s existed for years, this one has come into existence within less than a generation, not unlike the one I examined in the much later MARS NEEDS MOMS.  The usurper here is a nameless ruler billed as "the Black Queen," possibly because she may well be the only one in the history of peplum who happens to be of Black African descent.  Her Amazons kill the old king of their region and exile the hot blonde princess Tamara (Suzy Andersen) and her kid brother (who thankfully plays a very small role in the story).  In exile Tamara makes friends with local muscleman Thor (Joe Robertson).  Thor doesn’t seem like a man of means, but he has an equally muscular Black African companion, Ubaratutu (Harry Baird of TRINITY AND SARTANA), who may be Thor’s slave in that he habitually calls him “master,” at least in the English translation. 

Despite the exile of Tamara and her bro, no one in their community is planning to take back the Amazon territory.  An oracular prophecy warns the Black Queen that Thor is destined to bring her down. In the tradition of evil queens everywhere, she sends a squadron of warriors to bring the hero in.  Confronted by the squadron, Thor refuses to fight women.  The squad-leader attacks Thor with a bolas-like weapon studded with poison thorns, and the wounded Thor falls off a cliff.  He falls on top of Ubaratutu, actually (presumably for a laugh), and the slave hides his master from the Amazons in a cave.  Ubaratutu proceeds to suck out the poison from Thor’s leg and give him lots of massage.  This setup, in addition to bolstering the arguments of those looking for loads of homoeroticism in peplum-cinema, removes the titular hero and his sidekick from the main action for almost half the picture.  The dramatic attention shifts to Princess Tamara, who is taken back to Amazon territory.  Since she opposes the Amazon way, the Amazons do with her what they do with any woman who defies their law: put her in the gladiatorial arena.  Presumably men, who are seen only as slaves, don't have enough social status to be gladiators.

Tamara becomes a gladiator and seeks to make allies.  Meanwhile the Amazon soldiers happen across Ubaratutu while Thor is still recovering.  The soldiers take the muscular sidekick to their queen.  Though the more usual practice in peplum is for the queen to vamp the main hero, the fact that the Queen is black probably inspired the writers to allocate that honor to the sidekick of the same race.  Such seduction-scenes were a tacit admission as to how much the musclemen-heroes functioned as eye-candy for female moviegoers, and THOR makes the motif even more explicit by playing it for comedy, as the Queen forces Ubaratutu to pose and flex for her.  She offers to make him her king, but doesn’t tell him that she always knocks off her monarchs when she grows tired of them.

Thor finally gets well enough to show up, but, keeping to his vow not to fight women, he ends up having a fistfight with Ubaratutu when the latter won’t believe that his queen plans to kill him.  Then the queen comes up with a way to pit her whole society against Thor, by having the hero engage in a giant tug-o’-war with one hundred Amazons.  If Thor loses, he gets pulled into a flaming pit.

No one will be surprised that Thor’s biceps carry the day, but his triumph is bookended by Tamara’s swordfight against a female gladiator.  She wins and then kills the Queen, but seems to perish of her wounds.  The temptation is to believe that even though Tamara was a fierce opponent of deviant Amazonianism, she’s a bit too much of an “Amazon” on her own right for the film to allow her to live—

Except that in the end scene—which shows Thor and Ubaratutu congratulating the kid brother on ascending to the throne and restoring normalcy—Tamara is suddenly alive again. The film’s final scene is of Tamara performing an Artemis-like action as she shoots down the flags of the Amazons with flaming arrows.  At the very least, even though the film ends on a “normal” note, the survival of one warrior-female sends a message that the film’s not entirely on the side of unadulterated male chauvinism.

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