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Antonio Margheriti a.k.a. Anthony M. Dawson - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

June 2006

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Within the Italian film industry, and no matter in which genre, Antonio Magheriti a.k.a. Anthony M.Dawson was always considered being more than anything else a craftsman. Essentially, this label is correct, since he was never a horror visionary like Riccardo Freda or Mario Bava [Mario Bava bio - click here] in the 1960's or Dario Argento in the 1970's, and neither did his horror flicks pack the same punch as Lucio Fulci's shockers in the early 1980's [Lucio Fulci bio - click here]. Also his Westerns were never on par with Sergio Leone's output (with one possible exception), his action films would not feature the same elegant setpieces as Enzo G.Castellari's best films [Enzo G.Castellari bio - click here], and his sex films (he made very few of these) never received the same cult following as Joe D'Amato's [Joe D'Amato bio - click here].

 

However, Antonio Margheriti was quite probably the best craftsman Italian cinema ever had, no matter what genre he worked in, he always put a good amount of care into his films, and thus, even his worst movies were never quite as embarassing as comparable ones by other directors out for a quick buck.

Also, thanks to his versatility, Margheriti would work during his almost 40 years-long career, work in almost every genre, and his filmography does (in retrospect) perfectly mirror the history of Italian cinema from 1960 onwards.

 

Antonio Margheriti entered the film world in the 1950's, when the Italian film industry hit a new highwith all sorts of productions - and consequently, Margheriti could be seen in all sorts of functions in the following years, among them editor, scriptwriter and - perhaps most important for his later career - special effects wizard.

(In later days, when he was already sitting firmly in the director's seat, he would a few times go back to doing just special effects, for Stanley Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey [1968] - though he claimed in an interview that his involvement was minimal -, for Sergio Leone's Giù la Testa/A Fistful of Dynamite [1970] and for Aldo Lado's L'Umanoide/The Humanoid [1978].)

 


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Antonio Margheriti's debut as a director came in 1960, with the film Space Men/Assignment: Outer Space, a space opera. Now science fiction in general was a genre new to the Italian film industry in 1960, so the film's production companies Ultra Film and Titanus did not trust the film completely, especially since it was done by a first-time-director, and thus granted Margheriti a miniscule budget of around $ 30,000 and less than 20 days for shooting. It was thanks to Margheriti's previous experiences in the film industry, especially concerning special and miniature effects (which he always loved) that the film turned out quite ok (always keeping in mind budgetary and temporal restrictions).

Actually, the film even sold to British and American producers ... which forced Margheriti to assume a new, anglizised name - to make the film seem like an American production (by the way a quite common practice in Italian cinema). His first choice was Anthony Daisies, a direct translation of his name, but the distributors didn't like it (probably because it sounded a bit gay), so he became Anthony Dawson (and later Anthony M.Dawson), a name that would stick with him throughout his career.

 


Space Men proved to be successful enough for the Italians to believe into the sci-fi-genre, and to entrust Margheriti with another film, Il Pianeta degli Uomini Spenti/Battle of the Worlds/Guerre Planetari in 1961. This time, Margheriti had a higher budget at his disposal, and with Claude Rains in the lead, he even had an American name actor to star in the film.

 

With his 3rd film, La Freccia d'Oro/The Golden Arrow (1962), Margheriti's career saw an early high, as it was co-produced by Italian Titanus and American MGM. The resulting film however is not nearly as exciting as this collaboration may sound, a mediocre Arabian fantasy starring Tab Hunter, featuring a run-of-the-mill plot and special effects ranging from great to so-so.

 



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On a pure quality level, Margheriti's next film, Danza Macabre/Castle of Blood (1963) is of much more interest, a dark and atmospheric horror tale about a man (Georges Rivière) spending a night in a haunted castle to win a bet, not believing in ghosts - only to in the very end fall victim to them. Barbara Steele [Barbara Steele bio - click here], (relatively) fresh from Mario Bava's [Mario Bava bio - click here] groundbreaking La Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday (1960) and Roger Corman's [Roger Corman bio - click here] Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) - which explains the Poe-angle of Castle of Blood -, stars in this one.


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Actually, the film was to be directed by Sergio Corbucci, who had to abandon the project in the last minute to do another film, so on extremely short notice, Margheriti was hired ... and despite the fact that he had virtually no time to prepare the film and the shooting schedule was particularly hurried (about two weeks), the film turned out to be his first minor masterpiece, a diligently directed, creepy Gothic that looked much better than its humble origins.

 

That same year, Margheriti would return to the world of Gothics with La Vergine di Norimberga/The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963) starring Christopher Lee. Actually, the film was supposed to be set in modern times (and has a post-World War II subplot), but on an aesthetic level, Margheriti decided to have it look like a genuine Gothic, which works quite alright within the horror genre, naturally.

   

 

In 1964, Margheriti would make yet another horror film, I Lunghi Capelli della Morte/The Long Hair of Death, again starring Barbara Steele, but soon enough, he was all over the place, genre-wise, trying to do his best in whatever genre thrown at him and doing his films in a rapid succession:

He did peplums (Il Crollo di Roma/The Fault of Rome [1963], Anthar L'Invincibile/The Slave Merchants [1964], Ursus il Terrore del Kirghisi/Hercules, Prisoner of Evil [1964, this one was actually co-directed by an uncredited Ruggero Deodato - Ruggero Deodato bio - click here], I Giganti di Roma/The Giants of Rome [1964]), science fiction (I Criminali della Galassia/Wild Wild Planet [1965], I Diafanoidi vengono da Marte/War of the Planets [1965], Il Pianeta Errante/War Between the Planets/Planet on the Prowl [1965], La Morte viene dal Pianeta Aytin/Snow Devils [1965]), espionage flicks (A077 sfida ai Killer/Killers are Challenged [1965], Operazione Goldman/Lightning Bolt [1966]), Westerns (Joe l'Implacabile/Dynamite Joe [1967], Joko, invoca Dio... e Muori/Vengeance [1968]), a giallo (Nude... si Muore/Naked You Die/Schoolgirl Killer [1968]) and whatever else there was.

 

And as if that wasn't enough, towards the end of the 1960's, Margheriti also launched his own (short-lived) production company, Edo Cinematografica, named after his son Edoardo.

The company only produced two films though: The first, Contranatura/The Unaturals (1969) was a weird horror film co-produced with Super International Productions and German CCC Filmkunst. Those who have seen this rather obscure film rank it among Margheriti's best (horror-)films.

The second film by Edo Cinematografica was L'inafferrabile, invincibile Mr Invisibile/Mister Superinvisible (1970), a film very much in the style of Disney-family comedies like The Absent-Minded Professor or The Shaggy Dog. The film did alright on the international film market, but since Margheriti wasn't nearly as good a businessman as he was a filmmaker, he still lost money on it ... and that was the end of Edo Cinematografica.

 


Around the time he did these two films, Antonio Margheriti also made the film that is possibly his masterpiece (even though it is to that day gravely underappreciated by critics and filmfans alike): E Dio Disse a Caino/And God Said to Cain (1969), a very unusual Spaghetti Western that takes the run-of-the-mill vengeance plot and turns it into something more closely resembling Gothic horror than anything else, with Klaus Kinski, the perennial Spaghetti Western bad guy, playing the hero for a change, and chillingly so. This film, though by far not as recognized, ranks right up there with the best of them, like Once Upon a Time in the West, Django or Keoma, and if in your life you only want to see one Antonio Magheriti-film, this one definitely should be it.

 


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In 1971, Antonio Margheriti got another chance to work with Klaus Kinski, on Nella Stretta Morsa del Ragno/Web of the Spider, which was basically a remake of Margheriti's earlier Danza Macabre/Castle of Blood, showing Kinksi only in a supporting role as Edgar Allan Poe. The film was merely a good, old-fashioned (and of course well-made) horror show, no more, but certainly no less.

 


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The same can be said of La Morte negli Occhi del Gatto/Seven Dead in the Cat's Eye (1973), a nice old-fashioned shocker starring Jane Birkin.

 

In between, Margheriti was forced to do a string of unremarkable films, like his two excursions into erotica, Novelle Galeotte d'Amore del Decamerone/Erotic Novels of Decameron and Finalmente ... Le Mille e una Notte/1001 Nights of Pleasure (both 1972, both rip-offs of rrespective Pier Paolo Passolini-films) or the pointless martial arts comedy Ming, Ragazzi/Hercules vs Karate (1973), which, if anything, proved that neither erotica nor comedy were Margheriti's forte.

 



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Of more interest (at least on paper) might be two Westerns he made around the same time: One was La Dove non Batte Il Sole/Blood Money/The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974) was an Italian co-production with legendary Hong Kong producers the Shaw Brothers and was an attempt to blend the Western and the Eastern genre, starring Lo Lieh as a fighter from the East visiting the old West and Lee Van Cleef as a born Westerner.

The other film was Take a Hard Ride (1975), an American production by 20th Century Fox which was an attempt to blend the Western and the blaxploitation flick, to breathe new life in the then waning blaxploitation genre (and still make a few bucks out of it). Consequently, the film stars blaxploitation icons Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly (besides Lee Van Cleef as an evil white man).

Both this films were well enough made as far as craftsmanship goes (and one wouldn't expect any less from Antonio Margheriti), and both films have attained a certain cult status over the years ... but at the same time, neither film was great in the true sense of the word, and neither could be called a classic.

 





Margheriti's contribution for two films in 1974, the Andy Warhol/Carlo Ponti-co-productions Carne per Frankenstein/Il Mostro e in Tavola ... Barone Frankenstein/Flesh for Frankenstein and Dracula cerca Sangue di Vergine e ... Mori di Sete/Blood for Dracula, will perhaps remain forever uncertain. Officially, Andy Warhol house-director Paul Morrissey is credited as the sole director, but due to the fact that Margheriti was involved (whatever that means) in making the film and the film looks much more polished than Morrissey's earlier work (e.g. Trash, Flesh, Heat) has made many people (none of whom, mind you, were actually involved with the shoot) that it was actually Margheriti who directed the films - womething Marheriti never claimed he did bjut in interviews even he was a bit cryptic about it.

 




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If you want to hear my 2 cents about the whole affair (and I freely admit that's only my opinion, based on mainly guesswork): The two films do totally have the feel of Morrissey's earlier work (withthe one difference that they are horror films) for Andy Warhol while having very little in common with Margheriti's earlier horror flicks, so I see very little doubt about who these films should be attributed to. However, the films also show an attention to detail not found in Morrissey's earlier work as well as some goodlooking special effects - which would suggest that Antonio Margheriti was a very dilligent assistant or second unit director on both films ... but as I said, this is only guesswork ...

 

The rest of the 1970's, Margheriti made a few more action films, the crime thrillers Con la Rabbia agli Occhi/Death Rage (1976) - starring Yul Brynner and Barbara Bouchet - and Controrapino/The Rip-Off/The Squeeze (1977) - starring Lee Van Cleef, Karen Black and Lionel Stander -, and the adventure thriller Killer Fish - Agguato sul Fondo/Killer Fish (1977), which was marketed as a sequel to Joe Dante's Piranha (1978) in several regions of the world - even if it was filmed a year earlier ! This one by the way starred Lee Majors, fresh from his success with the TV-series The Six Million Dollar Man. All these films were as well-made as one would come to expect from Antonio Margheriti ... however, none of them was anything great or memorable.

 

Then, in 1980, Margheriti made one of his most notorious films, though not necessarily one of his best, Apocalisse Domani/Cannibal Apocalypse, a film of a bunch of Vietnam veterans led by John Saxon [John Saxon bio - click here], who back at home turn into cannibals.

Made in the wake of anti-war films like Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now - both also dealing with the Vietnam war - Cannibal Apocalypse could have been a bold anti-war statement, and it even shows some thought-provoking elements, but the producers (not Margheriti, by the way) wanted to focus on gore effects rather than big concepts to be able to sell the movie - and from a businessman-point-of-view the producers were possibly right, because selling the film did, and even nowadays, it is re-issued on DVD every few years and is raved about in some fan publications.

 


In 1980, Antonio Margheriti also made his first bona fide war film, L'Ultimo Cacciatore/The Last Hunter, another film in which some thought-provoking concepts are overshadowed by action and gore effects. However, even if this film falls short of its possibilities on an intellectual level, it proves Margheriti's excellent craftsmnanship concerning action and model work, and his trademark attention to detail does give the film a certain polished look not betraying the rather meager budget it was made on.

 

Based on his brilliant work on The Last Hunter, Margheriti soon got offers for doing more and more war and mercenary films, which were the rave in the early- to mid-1980's, thanks to the success of above-mentioned Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and of course the successful Rambo-series.

 



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Margheriti's war films, usually shot in the Phillipines - where Margheriti during that time filmed a lot -, included Fuga dall'Arcipelago Maledetto/Tiger Joe (1981), Tornado/The Last Blood (1983), and the Mercenary Trilogy starring Lewis Collins he made for producer Erwin C.Dietrich's Ascot Film, Arcobaleno Selvaggio - Wild Geese/Codename Wild Geese (1984), Commando Leopard (1985) and Der Commander/The Commander (1987). Codename Wild Geese and Commando Leopard also starred Klaus Kinski in a supporting role.

 


Also in 1980 came Car Crash, one of Margheriti's most pointless films, a car crash-comedy (hence the title) starring Joey Travolta (John Travolta's little brother) made to cash in on the success of films like the Smokie and the Bandit-movies.

 

By and large, in the 1980's the Italian film industry saw its downfall: Due to a predominance of Hollywood movies at the box office, no one was willing anymore to spend money on original but risky films, instead the industry found itself ripping off every succesful Hollywood (formula-)movie and squeeze a few bucks out of every film trend before it could die down. Formula films like the Star Wars-series, the Conan-series, the Indiana Jones-series and the Alien-series were all popular blueprints for Italian moviemakers during that time - but of course, generally the budgets of the Italian rip-offs didn't even come close to those of the American originals, and it often shows.

Margheriti did make his fair share of rip-offs during the 1980's, and when his films were a cut above the rest, that's only thanks to his excellent craftmanship, and his experience with (cheap) special effects.

 



Based on the Indiana Jones-series, Margheriti made a series of rather forgettable adventure movies, including I Cacciatori del Cobra d'Oro/Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1983), I Sopravvissuti della Città Morta/The Ark of the Sun God (1984), and La Leggenda del Rubino Malese/Jungle Raiders (1985), while the Alien-series inspired the rather trashy and unintentionally funny Alien degli Abissi/Alien from the Deep (1989).

 


Antonio Margheriti's funniest rip-off-film though was the Italian-Turkish co-production Il Mondo di Yor/Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1982), a film where he manages to include elements from both the Star Wars-series and the Conan-series and cook it up to a wonderfully trashy potpourri tht has to be seen to be believed - but be warned, watch it with beer !

 


For Italian tv-station RAI, Antonio Margheriti made a miniseries that was once again somehow based on the Star Wars series (at least inasmuch as it was a space opera) in 1986: L'Isola del Tesoro/Treasure Island/Space Pirates. This series took the basic plot of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island and transposed into a sci-fi setting. The film featured an interesting mix of Italian and international actors - like David Warbeck, Anthony Quinn, Ernest Borgnine, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Al Yamanouchi and Sal Borgese - and special effects ranging from the apparently dirt-cheap to the quite impressive.

Interestingly, in 2002, Walt Disney Productions picked up the idea of a sci-fi retelling of Treasure Island, this time as an animated movie called Treasure Planet (directed by Ron Clements, John Musker) ... on that note though, it also has to be mentioned that Treasure Island has to be turned into a space opera even sooner than Margheriti's series, with the 1982 Bulgarian animated film Planetata na sakrovishtata/Treasure Planet, directed by Rumen Petkov ...

 


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By the end of the 1980's, the Italian film industry was in its death throws, and films like Indio, which he made in 1989, show it. Indio was actually a thinly disguised rip-off of the Rambo series with an ecological message tagged on, starring Francesco Quinn (Anthony Quinn's son), boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler, alongside Rambo-veteran Brian Dennehy (from First Blood).

In 1990, Indio even got a sequel, Indio 2 - La Rivolta/Indio 2 - The Revolt, with this time Marvelous Marvin Hagler taking the leave and Jack Napier from Rambo - First Blood Part 2 as his nemesis.

Both these films were once again competently made, with decent action scenes and special/miniature effects, and looked better than most comparable films from that time populating the shelves of your local video rental ... but at the same time, they just were nothing special, either, just run-of-the-mill action.

 

The 1990's, with the Italian film industry having died down, offered little opportunities for even an accomplished director like Antonio Margheriti: In 1992, he co-directed the miniseries Genghis Khan with Ken Annakin, but Annakin received sole directing credit - and then the whole thing wasn't released until 2004.

 

The only other film Margheriti made in the 1990's was Potenza Virtuale/Virtual Weapon, a cop comedy starring Terence Hill and once again Marvelous Marvin Hagler scripted by Bruno Corbucci. The film looked like a desperate attempt to recapture Terence Hill's comedy-successes from the 1970's - and sadly enough, Terence Hill's comedy didn't work any more in 1996. The film was below the standard of both Antonio Margheriti and Terence Hill.

 

Virtual Weapon would remain Antonio Margheriti's last film ever, he died from a heart attack in 2002. His legacy however will live on, a bunch of well-crafted films in every genre the Italian film industry touched from the 1960's to the 1980's, some of them (let's face it) simply bad, some hokey but fun, but many of them very decent genre pics ... and some of them even masterpieces.

 

 

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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