Ulysses is a fairly well-regarded 1954 film adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, starring Kirk Douglas as the title character. Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and Carlo Ponti, shot in Technicolor, it was a handsome standard on late night TV for many years, and then – like many such movies – remained oddly missing in the digital realm, until Lionsgate released this DVD.
Ulysses hits most of the high points that any schoolchild should recognize from the epic poem (note I say should, not would), as the ill-starred crew tries to make their way back home from the Trojan War: the cannibalistic Cyclops (still an impressive piece of effects work, a half-century after the fact), the haunting sirens, and the seductive sorceress Circe. Giving urgency to the story is the plight of Ulysses’ wife Penelope, who is beset by opportunistic suitors who want little more than access to the peripatetic kings’ holdings (Anthony Quinn plays a particularly bluff example).
The production is nicely lavish – DeLaurentiis knew how to throw money at the screen and make it stick – serving as a sturdy precursor to the sword-and-sandal movies that would come into vogue a few years later. The movie is going to move a bit slowly in the beginning for the modern viewer, but springs forward to a good clip once Ulysses, suffering from amnesia, begins to remember his epic journey. It’s also noteworthy that the picture doesn’t whitewash Ulysses’ character – the Great Heroes of legend were also capable of being the Great Jerks of legend, and he’s no exception.
This is a very welcome disc… except…
We are greeted with a slightly grainy picture with fairly washed-out Technicolor; this is apparently a TV print, as it is presented full-screen at 4:3. The movie was shot in what was then the European widescreen standard, 1.66:1 – we’re not missing much at the sides, and the compositions do not seem compromised... but still. One gets the impression that Lionsgate wanted this to be a prestige offering, but wasn’t willing to go to any extra trouble for it.
The inclusion of only the English dubbed version, with the original Italian nowhere in sight, only bears this out. The picture quality is fairly strong, with film damage at a minimum, but occasional flutter in the colors. The audio is clear but unexciting, bizarrely tickling my rear speakers to life only once.
A drive toward the highbrow is evidenced by the only extra on the disc, an ad for Lionsgate’s fledgling Meridian Collection, and its two inaugural offerings, the French films Diva and The Red Violin. These are the distributor’s attempts to break into the market pioneered by the Criterion Collection, but with their ballyhooing on such a disappointing disc as Ulysses, there’s a fair bit of guilt-by-association happening in my mind.
Dr. Freex, 9/9/2009