Legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone was obsessed with genre pictures but was ignorant of the constraints traditional Hollywood studios forced on directors. He made some incredible films and his reputation has only grown since his early death in 1989. But even while he was alive, people still admired him, if only from a distance. Leone’s reviews were sort of like how people treat The Fast and Furious films today – his films were perfectly fine, fun even, but the genre he was working with is so bad that the final result can’t possibly be talked about in the same breath as Moonlight. Nothing showcased this attitude more than Akira Kurosawa saying that Leone, in a Fistful of Dollars, “had made a fine movie, but it was MY movie.” Unquestionably, Leone had taken the plot of Kurosawa’s equally classic Yojimbo and repurposed it for Fistful. But Kurosawa conveniently forgot that he was emulating western filmmakers as well and Yojimbo had taken its plot from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest. Leone, a foreigner who longed to show he could do what Hollywood could do, was only following Kurosawa’s path.

Still, people ignore Leone’s first proper directorial debut. Most start with a discussion of the Dollars trilogy and go from there. Trivia hounds will point out that Leone was an assistant to Vittorio di Sica while he was making Bicycle Thieves and that he worked as an assistant director on William Wyler’s version of Ben-Hur. But Leone directed something before Fistful of Dollars that perfectly encapsulates his later obsessions.

It was an epic called The Colossus of Rhodes, and unfortunately, it’s not a very good film. In the interest of full disclosure, historical epics may be my least favorite film genre, especially Greek and Roman epics. They’ve aged very poorly and what was meant to be a showcase of the money studios had on hand to spend now looks cheap and ridiculous. I never get the sense that I’m witnessing ancient life, but rather witnessing a bunch of middle aged people in togas overacting. Stanley Kubrick couldn’t even overcome these shortcomings and was incredibly frustrated by Spartacus, and he already had a few hits under his belt. What hope did a first timer like Leone have about overcoming the genre’s shortcomings?

The film features the creation of the titular wonder of the world, but that’s not the main plot. It’s actually about a Greek soldier named Dario (Rory Calhoun, who is most famous for standing and walking on his hind legs like a greyhound puppy) getting caught up in a fight between rebels who want to overthrow Serse, the king of Rhodes and Thar, the leader of Serse’s army who also wishes to overthrow Serse and rule Rhodes. The statue serves as a means of protection against foreign invaders, but Thar also uses it as a hiding place for the army he’s building.

Leone was emulating the epics that had been hugely popular in America in 1950s and was already ignoring American standards. The film is very violent compared to the more conservative studio pictures. There are two deaths in the first two minutes, scenes of people being burned by molten lead, scenes of Dario forced to watch people being tortured with acid, and multiple arrows shown going into people. Leone adds the same sort of class commentary that Kubrick used in Spartacus – one scene shows a man being forced to drink poison wine during an imperial banquet. And Leone didn’t want to make a cheap knock off. He built a realistic looking Colossus and hired hundreds of extras to give the film an appropriate epic scale. It’s possible to see that Leone was doing what he would later do with his westerns. The statue itself is also not given reverence. Most of the characters comment on how tacky it looks and how it was built for Serse’s ego.  He wanted to create a more realistic version of history, with all the gore and unpleasantness that Hollywood tended to ignore.

But he was not able to avoid some of the genre’s trappings. For one, the film is far too long and convoluted to follow. I had to go back and try to figure out who the rebels were fighting and why, exactly, the rebels were trying to stop someone from overthrowing the same king they wanted to overthrow. I also, at times, had trouble figuring out how a character fit into the overall plot.

The acting is also not particularly good. Calhoun is basically playing the same character Eli Wallach played (to much greater effect) in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. He believes he’s ahead but is far too stupid to understand what’s going on. Yet Calhoun is never convincing at it. He’s still playing the role perfectly straight, even though it a more knowing performance. Dario’s flirtations with Diala, the daughter of the man who created the statue, is also very unconvincing. Yes, films back then were not allowed to be explicit but that did not stop Hitchcock from creating convincing sex scenes using only dialogue. Dario’s treatment of Diala comes across as frankly misogynistic. Everyone else is just stuck in first gear. You could switch the entire cast around and they’d still probably end up giving the same performances.

The film is also too focused on shoehorning references to the titular statue at every moment. Sword fights take place on its shoulders (with laughable special effects), an impossibly large room is in the head and serves as the antagonists’ James Bondesque HQ.  Leone paid for the statue and was determined to use it. As stated before, the film tries to lampshade it by having characters talking about how bad the Colossus looks. But it doesn’t really address the issue. The film could have taken place in any ancient city and it would have made no difference in its plot. Leone is too obsessed with convincing his audience that the Colossus somehow makes his film unique.

Finally, the ending is thematically nonsensical. It ends with the complete destruction of Rhoades in a massive earthquake while Thar dies. Dario decides to go back and help rebuild Rhodes.

Yes, I’m aware that’s what happened at Rhodes and destroyed the statue. But that’s not an emotional pay off for what we’ve seen in the film. We never really learned anything about the denizens of the city, an oversight that would be corrected in later Leone movies. (Remember Shorty from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly?) Watching them being punished for the sins of their king doesn’t work with the rest of the movie. It was done so Leone could showcase everything he’d learned about film-making. The skill behind it is certainly admirable – here was a little-known Italian director doing what studios had spent millions of dollars and man hours doing. But Leone quickly learned his spectacles had to have a point.

Leone’s mastery is no longer under any doubt and I still feel the loss over his tiny (credited) filmography. I didn’t expect Colossus of Rhodes to be great, but I was hoping to see more of Leone’s genius. Colossus of Rhodes is a very sloppy epic with a confused plot and bad acting. Yet I could see the artistic drive that would inform his classic westerns. Leone ultimately wanted to show he could do and how he could do it better than anyone in America. Unfortunately, it would take him a little while before his skill would match his ambition. Fortunately, Sergio Leone was a very fast learner.