Which is literally translated as The Army of Brancaleone, though this Italian film, directed by Mario Monicelli, was marketed to the English-speaking world as For Love and Gold.
Can one list, as a favourite, somebody whose work you’ve only encountered a few times? Is it necessary to view all (or most) of an actor’s films in order to be able to label them a ‘favourite’?
I think not. I hope not, because Vittorio Gassman is one I count among my favourites, even though I’ve watched probably not even ten of his films. And, given that today is Gassman’s birth centenary (he was born in Genoa on September 1, 1922), I decided it was a good day to show some Gassman love.
Debuting on stage, Gassman soon moved to cinema, where his first major hit role was in the film Riso Amaro. He would go on to act in, as well as direct, many films over the years, including occasional, but fairly unsuccessful, forays into Hollywood (the only English-language film in which I’ve seen him is War and Peace). Gassman acted in a fair number of comedies, of which I’ve seen I Soliti Ignoti (which remains one of my favourite comedies, irrespective of language) and La Grande Guerra.
L’armata Brancaleone is a comedy too: a madcap, sometimes bawdy, sometimes lurid tale set in the Middle Ages.
It all begins with a castle being attacked by invaders. The castle’s inhabitants are killed, raped, hacked: there’s blood and gore and much mayhem. Just when it seems as if all is lost, an unknown warrior clad in purple turns up out of the blue and comes to the rescue. He lays about him, wiping out the opposition, and—just when he’s finally victorious, not one enemy left standing—one of the castle’s inmates, emboldened, knocks him out and proceeds to loot him. So much for gratitude.
Three of them, including a boy named Taccone (Gianluigi Crescenzi) quickly ransack the fallen warrior’s belongings. In between, when it seems he’s regaining consciousness, they knock him out and throw him into the river. Then, gathering up all the spoils, they accost a passerby, a Jew named Abacuc (Carlo Pisacane), who seems to be a travelling salesman of sorts.
Abacuc goes through the odds and ends they’re trying to sell him, but what really catches his eye is a scroll. He reads it out to the trio, and it turns out that this scroll has been written by some important man, a lord of Saxony. The gist of it is that the scroll bestows on its bearer the castle of Aurocastro in Apulia, with all its lands and properties.
Which means, says Abacuc, that all they need to do is go to Aurocastro with this scroll, and it’s theirs for the taking. But of course: who’s going to hand over anything to a bunch of obvious country bumpkins like them? What they need is a knight, and Abacuc knows just the man. He’s currently in the vicinity, to participate in a tournament, where he hopes to win the hand of the fair lady whose father is sponsoring the event.
This knight is Brancaleone of Norcia (Vittorio Gassman), whose tent (in shreds), whose horse (a bright turmeric yellow) and whose countenance (bedraggled) inspire little confidence. Or would, in most people; the four who’ve come to meet him seem easy to please. Abacuc is spokesman, and tells Brancaleone their idea: they will all go to Aurocastro, Brancaleone will use the scroll to claim Aurocastro, and then they’ll divide the spoils equally. Ta-da!
But first, of course, Brancaleone has to get the tournament out of the way. Flatten the opposition, win the lady, be feted.
Unfortunately, Brancaleone hasn’t reckoned with his horse, which has a mind of its own. No matter what Brancaleone does, Aquilante (yes, this horse has a name) will not listen. Aquilante starts to run, round and round and round, pursued hotly by the other knight, and there’s nothing Brancaleone can do to put an end to this embarrassing scene.
His dignity in tatters (not that that seems to be anything new for Brancaleone), he sets off, leading his ragtag band in the direction of faraway Aurocastro. They’ve barely started off, when they cross paths with a passing knight named Teofilatto (Gian Maria Volontè), of Byzantium. Teofilatto refuses to make way for Brancaleone, so they go hammer and tongs at each other—with lance; with axe; with sword…
… and every time, they end up doing something unexpected. Brancaleone gets his lance embedded in a tree stump, while Teofilatto stumbles about here and there. When they fight with axes, they wind up around a small tree, their wild hacking at the opponent only serving to go on making cuts on the tree, until they succeed in toppling it. By the time they enter a wheat field and start a sword fight there, Brancaleone’s lot have made themselves comfortable, sitting down, making a fire, getting a meal ready, and watching the fun.
Once their sword fight has resulted in the standing crop of wheat being all cut down, Brancaleone and Teofilatto have reached a truce, and Teofilatto now makes a proposition. Brancaleone and his gang should come along with Teofilatto to his domain. His father’s extremely wealthy, and if he is told that his beloved son has been taken prisoner, he will pay handsomely to have Teofilatto freed. Then they can split the ransom, Teofilatto will take half and Brancaleone & Co will take the rest.
They are torn: follow Teofilatto, or go on straight to Aurocastro? While they’re still moving along, and pondering over this dilemma, they come upon a mountain-top town. Evening’s coming, and this will be a good place to shelter for the night. So they go in, happily—and find not a soul around. Everybody’s vanished. What could have happened?
Brancaleone, wandering off, suddenly finds himself being serenaded by a beautiful woman (?), who invites him into her home, to have some fun. Brancaleone is more than happy to accept the invitation, and once inside her room, is getting ready to spring into bed, when the woman stops him. Not the bed; her husband died there. Oh, really? When?
Yesterday, says the woman, and when an astonished Brancaleone asks how he died, she gleefully admits that it was of plague, plague which has killed off everybody in this town.
Brancaleone, of course, races off, raising the alarm for his travelling companions. In a panic, they leave the town, cursing the moment they entered and bemoaning the fact that now, surely, they are all infected.
But there is hope, just round the corner. A monk named Zenone (Enrico Maria Salerno) comes by just then, followed by a small band of people. Zenone invites Brancaleone and his gang to join them, as they journey eastward to the Holy Land, to free it of the Saracens. Zenone promises them that if they go on this crusade, they will be cleansed. This, Brancaleone and his men take to mean that if they’ve been touched by the plague, they will not get it after all.
So, for the very practical reason of avoiding death by plague, Brancaleone & Co join Zenone…
And this, all these adventures, all these mad escapades, is only the beginning.
What I liked about this film:
The sheer nuttiness of it all. True, a lot of it is slapstick (the way Teofilatto and Brancaleone hack at the tree or mow down the wheat field), but it’s still funny, in its way. Sometimes, the humour is more subtle: say, in the frequent (and absolutely silent) long shots of the group making its way through the countryside, the horse Aquilante shining bright and yellow, Abacuc trundling his chest of treasures along (a very convenient chest; it becomes a palanquin for Abacuc when he’s too tired, and takes on other uses as well).
Then, there are the actors, of whom three I must point out in particular. Carlo Pisacane as Abacuc, who is every bit as hilarious here as he was in I Soliti Ignoti. Tito Garcia (I think?) as the blacksmith: his role isn’t huge, and he doesn’t appear on the scene until fairly well on in the film, but his expression when he is first confronted with Brancaleone had me cracking up. So deadpan.
And, Vittorio Gassman, who is a clown here. He’s very physical, leaping about, jousting madly, behaving like a demented (yes, even more than the original) Don Quixote. And never flippantly; Brancaleone takes himself very seriously indeed and imagines himself a worthy knight, a brave and impressive figure.
What I didn’t like:
The occasional but unsettling violence. And by that I mean bloody violence: people being killed, outright. That’s not something I associate with a comedy, and I didn’t like it. I prefer my comedies a little sanitized.
The pointless and (to me) unfunny sequence involving the she-bear that adopts one of the gang. This didn’t fit; it wasn’t funny, and because most of the long shots of the bear were obviously picturized on someone wearing a bear suit, it wasn’t even convincing.
But, all said and done, an entertaining enough film. I will still stand by my assertion that my favourite Italian film is I Soliti Ignoti, but this one was fun too.
And Vittorio Gassman: pure gold, no matter in what.