Made in 1914, this is the great Italian silent film spectacular
that provided inspiration for so many later epic
s, such as Fritz Lang
and D.W. Griffith
, and several of Cecil B. De Mille
s. It is a historical epic
set in the time of The Punic Wars
, in the third century B.C. when Rome
, and Scipio Africanus
. It was written and directed by Giovanni Pastrone
The story of the film centers on a young girl, Cabiria who is separated from her wealthy Roman family during an erruption of Mt. Etna, and presumed dead, when in fact she has been taken captive by pirates and delivered to Carthage to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. Two traveling Romans, Fulvius Axilla and Maciste, who are spying on the Carthaginians, discover that the girl Cabiria is about to be sacrificed, and they are coaxed by the girl's maid, Croessa, to risk their lives and rescue her, which they do, but as a result they are forced to live as fugitives in a foreign land. They are separated from one another, and from Cabiria, who is left in the care of a Carthaginian princess (later to become a queen), Sophonisba, daughter of Hasdrubal. Maciste is captured, tortured, and chained for life to a millstone, which he must turn throughout his captivity.
Fulvius, as a general in the Roman army must fight to defeat Carthage, and at the same time he strives to find and rescue his friend Maciste and the girl Cabiria, who is raised as a slave named Elsa and does not know her own story. This quest turns into a ten year odyssey.
Queen Sophonisba is a complex character of shifting alliances, involved in many intrigues and reversals of fortune. She has a romantic attachment to the Numidian King Massinissa, but she is separated from him when the Numidians are driven out of Carthage. Massinissa fights in the war on the side of the Romans, but when he captures Sophonisba, she seduces him back to her side, and it seems that she may turn the tide of the war and save Carthage until Scipio insists on taking her as part of the spoils of war. This prompts a suicide by poison reminiscent of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (though the poison is delivered in the form of a pill, rather than the bite of an asp, the dramatic suicide by poison just as the lovers are to be separated by a Roman victory over an African empire simply begs the comparison).
Sophonisba alternately protects Cabiria, and betrays her. She raises Cabiria under her protection for ten years, until a prophetic dream tells her that she must give up Cabiria to be sacrificed, or suffer the wrath of Moloch. But when she ultimately despairs of her own life, she makes it her final act to spare Cabiria and return her to the care of Fulvius and Maciste.
The film is awe-inspiring. There are enormous battle scenes set atop the walls of fortified cities, involving enormous siege engines. There's Hannibal and his army crossing the alps. There are orgiastic pagan rites involving human sacrifice, in the grotesque temple of Moloch. The film also has some fun and imaginative scenes, such as the scene in which Archimedes develops a solar powered weapon made of mirrors to destroy the Roman fleet. There's the scene in which Fulvius' army forms an enormous human pyramid to help him scale the wall of a fortress. There's also the amusing notion that Maciste, who has been chained to a millstone for ten years, is so overjoyed by the sight of his friend Fulvius that he gains the strength to break the iron chain with his bare hands.
Maciste, the muscular strong man, both noble and brave, turned out to be the most popular character of the film. As a result of his popularity, Bartolomeo Pagano went on to play the character again and again, in twenty three more Maciste films, three of which were also directed by Giovanni Pastrone. The character of Maciste was then revived in the sixties, and played by various actors. Strangely enough, in the English versions of the later Maciste films, Maciste's name was alternately translated as Atlas, Samson, Goliath, Colossus, Ursus, Hercules, The Son of Hercules, and The Strongest Man In The World.