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I COLTELLI DEL VENDICATORE (1966)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava (under the name "John Hold")
Story and Screenplay: Mario Bava, Alberto Liberati, and Giorgio Simonelli
Camera Operator: Antonio Rinaldi
Editing: Otello Colangelli
Music: Marcello Giombini
Main Players: Cameron Mitchell (Rurik); Elissa Pichelli (Karin); Fausto Tozzi (Argon); Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (King Arold); Luciano Polletini (Moki)
Alternate titles: Knives of the Avenger; Viking Massacre
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
SYNOPSIS:

A witch reads the future of Karin and her son Moki in the sands. Karin is the wife of King arold, who is thought to have been killed at sea. It is Karin's hope that her husband will return to rescue them from the clutches of the evil Argon, who wishes to marry her. The witch assures her that arold will return, but she also warns Karin that Argon is near and that he has every intention of marrying her to assume the King-ship before killing her and Moki. Their only hope is to live in seclusion until the King returns.

As the witch predicted, Argon returns. Though he was exiled by the old king, Karin's father, he is now determined to take Arold's place as ruler. Together with his thugs, Argon spreads fear throughout the village and kills anybody who opposes him. He is infuriated that Karin has fled, and goes to the witch to find out where she is hiding. The old woman refuses to assist him, and warns him that a man is approaching who will put an end to his reign of terror. Argon laughs this off and sends some of his men to find Karin.

At this point, Helmut enters the story. While riding through the forest, he stops at a cabin and asks for some food. The cabin is actually Karin's hiding place. She sends him away, as she fears that he might be one of Argon's men, but Moki recognizes his benevolent nature. Helmut then catches some fish from a nearby stream and as he sits down to eat, he hears screams coming from the cottage. Two of Argon's men have arrived to take Karin and her son away, but Helmut comes to their rescue. Using his signature knives, he kills the intruders and offers to help clean up the mess they have made. Karin and Moki both feel drawn to him, and so Helmut is allowed to stay.

Helmut acts as a substitute father for Moki, and he teaches the boy how to fish and throw knives. Karin also grows to be very fond of Helmut, but worries that, if her husband should return, he might take offense at the interest the stranger has taken in their lives. Helmut confesses that he is very interested in Karin and encourages her to explain why she is living in exile. She reveals her true identity, and Helmut is visibly stricken. Karin then explains how, on her wedding day, Argon incited the wrath of Rurik, an opposing monarch, by killing his wife and child. The King, who had hoped to make an alliance with Rurik, was enraged by this and ordered Argon to leave the village for good. Nevertheless, Rurik struck back that same night by slaughtering many of the villagers, including the King, and raping Karin. With the death of the King, Arold took his place and swore vengeance on Rurik. At the end of her story, Karin is overcome with emotion and flees the room. Left alone, Helmut thinks to himself. He now realizes why Karin seems so familiar to him. Helmut is actually Rurik, who is travelling incognito. Following his onslaught of the village, he lost the respect of his people and gave up his title for a life of wandering. The only reason Karin does not recognize him is that she had only met him that fateful night, and he was then wearing a mask. His identity is safe, but Rurik is wracked with guilt and wonders if he could actually be Moki's father. He decides to put the past behind him, but knows that he will never be able to find peace until he kills Argon, the man responsible for all of his misfortunes.

The following day, Rurik discovers that Argon has returned. He eventualy manages to confront Argon, swearing that he will tear his heart out, but Argon manages to escape unscathed.

King Arold and his men then return from their long voyage. It has taken them five years to get home, leading everybody to think them dead, but now that they have returned, Arold is anxious to have revenge on Rurik. When Arold catches sight of Rurik at an inn, he challenges him to a fight. Rurik backs down, and even when Arold starts pummelling him, he refuses to fight back. The scene is interrupted by Karin, who tells them that Moki has been kidnapped by Argon. Rurik breaks away and runs to the boy's aid, with Arold following close behind.

Rurik and Arold track Argon to a cave by the beach. When Arold clumsily attempts to get Moki away, Argon grabs hold of the boy and threatens to cut his throat. Just when all seems hopeless, Rurik's voice rings out. Taking advantage of the distraction, Moki escapes from his clutches. Rurik then appears out of the shadows and throws a knife right into Argon's heart, killing him instantly. With Arold reunited with his family, and his vendetta against Argon settled, Rurik quietly leaves and rides off into the sunset.


CRITIQUE:

I COLTELLI is in many ways a curious film for Bava. It is an action film, but the emphasis is on human relationships rather than elaborately choreographed fights. The tone is up-beat and optimistic, and Bava employs a naturalistic style that sets it apart from much of his other work. Whereas GLI INVASORI, the director's other Viking adventure, uses a thin plot as a pretext for creating a baroque, colorful, and hard-edged action epic, I COLTELLI is much more intimate.

The irony of the central situation -- that of a man who rapes a woman, who fails to recognize her attacker, and does best to make restitution for his actions by protecting her -- is not developed in a cruel or jocular way by Bava. Rather, he is willing to see the multi-faceted aspects of the human condition. Rurik not only regrets his past actions; he is tortured by the memories they evoke. That is not to say that the pain he suffers excuses him altogether, but Bava is able to see his finer points. He does not try to force himself on Karin again, and when Arold returns, he does not try to disrupt their family unit. The villainous Argon is dominated by greed and malice, but these factors do not taint the other characters. Unlike most of Bava's other films, I COLTELLI presents a rather warm and positive view of human nature. It is elegaic instead of cruelly ironic, and this aspect gives the film a "human" quality that is very endearing.

Running throughout the narrative are the themes of devotion and revenge. Certainly these ideas a re most evident in Rurik, who devotes himself totally to his "adopted family," while lusting for revenge against Argon. Rurik does go out of his way to dispose of Argon, but this action is motivated as much by desire to protect Karin and Moki as it is by his lingering bitterness over the death of his wife and son. With Karin and Moki, Rurik finds a replacement for his lost loved ones. The question of whether Rurik is the boy's real father is left deliberately unanswered, but it seems more than likely that he is. In the brief span of time that he spends with his surrogate family, Rurik devotes himself totally to them. When they are, in a sense, robbed from him by Arold's return, Bava suggests that, despite his basic goodness, Rurik cannot be allowed to go unpunished for his crimes.

Despite its medieval setting, I COLTELLI could quite easily be redone as a western. Marcello Giombini's background music is very typical of the scoring in an Italian western, and the numerous scenes of Rurick travelling about on horseback through pictureesque natural locations would not be out of place in films of that genre. The character of Rurik actually bears much in common with the mysterious "man with no name" character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's westerns. Both men are drifters who frequently express theselves with actions instead of words, and both operate under their own inflexible codes of honor. The strength of the central honor, however, insures its superiority over Bava's first "straight" western, LA STRADA PER FORT ALAMO (1964).

I COLTELLI is, perhaps, a minor film for Bava. Yet, in its loving depiction of father/son interplay, the film shows a warm aspect of Bava's character which is not apparent in any of the director's other films. For this reason alone, it is essential viewing for Bava's fans.


Review © Troy Howarth


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