According to English film critic Roger Manvell in his 1974 work Films and the Second World War, "A film set back in classical times, Scipio Africanus (Carmine Gallone, 1937) reinforced Italy's primal right to a place in the African sun, with an equally grandiose pictorial conception."
States the film's box liner notes, "Fascist Italy's most spectacular costume epic celebrates ancient Rome's conquests in Africa during the Second Punic War. Produced during Italy's war against Abyssinnia (Ethiopia)---and heavily backed by Mussolini's government---this was at the time the most expensive Italian film ever made "Utilizing over 30,000 human extras, 1000 horses, it also had a cast of 50 elephants.
"Drawing upon Rome's Imperial past to justify Italy's expansionist present, Scipio Africanus piles cinematic spectacle---including graphic battle scenes in which Hannibal's charging elephants are hacked and gored by terrified infantry---atop its ideological agenda.
"The result is a film of soaring historical pageantry (and occasionally arch melodrama), reverberating with the aesthetics and ideals of Fascist Italy. When Mussolini visited the film set during production, he was greeted by thousands of extras dressed as Roman legionnaires who shouted 'Duce, Duce!'
"Weeks later, life followed art as many of these extras were drafted to fight in Abyssinia. Shown at the Venice Film Festival upon its release in 1937, Scipio Africanus was awarded the Mussolini Cup."
Adds the IHF catalog, "Not since Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy the elephant before the cameras in 1903 had the movies so enraged animal rights advocates...The butchering of many of these elephants---one is speared in the eye by Scipio himself---was central to the film's climactic battle scenes."
Just how much Mussolini's Fascist State backed the Italian film industry is revealed in the 2005 work Mussolini's Rome by author Borden Painter: "Those years (1934-39) saw new buildings appear in Rome that had important roles in the drive to control popular ideas and attitudes. The most spectacular new complex was the Cinecitta---the Cinema City---on the Via Tuscolana, six miles southeast of the historic center.
"It opened on Apr. 28, 1937 and covered 600,000 square meters in an undeveloped area. It contained all the facilities to produce movies for the public, with room for expansion. A new law in 1938 restricted the importation of foreign films, which led to a significant reduction of American films in Italy.
"Known as the (Dino) Alfieri law, it opened the way for increased production of Italian movies. Indeed, the number of films produced each year rose from an average of 30 to over 100 by 1941. Luigi Freddi, director of the film division of Minculpop" (the Ministry of Popular Culture), "boasted that 'the new national film production is acquiring an international reputation and meaning because it expresses our time in history, which is truly Italian and Fascist.'
"The L'Unione Cinematografica Educativa began in 1923, and by 1925 had become the State-controlled Instituto Luce. It took most of the official photographs of the regime and produced the newsreels---the cinegiornali---that were required viewing in all movie theaters in the country. Its new building opened on Nov. 10, 1937 adjacent to Cinecitta and across from the Centro Specimentale di Cinematografico.
"The latter---founded in 1935---had the express purpose of producing films for the popular market that conveyed Fascist political messages As its director Luigi Chiarini put it, the films produced by the young Italians attracted to the center 'were to contribute to the great work of human reclamation' that the regime had undertaken....
"Mussolini's Rome remains evident throughout today's city," including Cinecitta.
Scipio Africanus was both one of these new films and the most prominent made to date. Its director was Carmine Gallone, with music composed by Ildebrando Pizetti, and photography by Ubaldo Arata and Anchise Brizzi. The cast included Annibale Ninchi in the title role of Publius Cornelius Scipio, Camillo Pilotto as the African Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal, and Memo Benassi as the Roman Senator and orator Cato, who first opposes Scipio's punitive expedition to Carthage, but then joins it.
The film opens with the following introduction---ala Cecil B. DeMille---by a narrator: "By the end of the 3rd Century, Rome and Carthage had fought each other for decades. Hannibal invaded Roman Italy in 218 BC from the Alps with elephants, and several Roman armies were defeated at the Battles of Ticinius, Trebbia, and Lake Trasimene.
"Hannibal settled in Italy, and the road to Rome was open. Rome raised a final army of 50,000 legionnaires that was massacred on the plain at the Battle of Cannae on Aug. 2, 216 BC." Thus, the stage is set for the film, as the last battle standard of those lost legions is raised to the shouted cry of "Avenge the dead of Cannae!"
The scene then shifts to the governmental quarter of downtown Rome, which reminded this reviewer of a very similar vista from the 1952 Marlon Brando American version of Julius Caesar. Following the latest loss at Cannae, the Roman Senate debates what next to do to stop the seemingly invincible Hannibal's drive on Rome herself. Sen. Cato wants to keep Scipio down, despite the luster of the latter's Spanish victories, where he had prevented Hannibal from uniting with the army of Hadrubal, another Carthaginian general and also his brother.
As Scipio approaches the Senate himself from outside, he is preceded by cheers of "Hail, Scipio!", Roman (Fascist) salutes with upraised arms, and the symbols of Roman power, lictors (axes wrapped with rods and bound together.)
Scipio addresses the Senate, noting that Hannibal has been resident in Italy for some 15 years past. (At this point, I noted that the English dubbing is very well done, and---try as I might---I could not tell the Italian words from the dubbed in English.) Scipio tells the Senate that the only way to defeat Hannibal is for a Roman expeditionary army to invade Africa and destroy the city state of Carthage itself, as a way of inducing Hannibal to finally leave Italy and return home with his army. Despite Cato's misgivings, the Senate approves Scipio's bold plan, with faint overtones of Mussolini's own then current military campaigns in far off Ethiopia. The Fascists referred to Ethiopia as Abyssinia. Cannae was perceived by modern Italians as an earlier Battle of Adowa, the stunning 1896 defeat of the Royal Savoyard Italian Army at the hands of the Ethiopians.
As he speaks to the Senate, a close up of Scipio makes him look a little bit like the bald Mussolini, but with a full head of hair!
Scipio's call to "carry the war to the enemy homeland and to secure the Mediterannean" echoes Mussolini's own then current campaign to build a world class Italian fleet---the Regia Marin/Royal Navy. Lots are then drawn, and Scipio's plan wins approval from the Senate. As he departs to organize both his fleet and his army, Scipio is greeted with acclaim by veterans of his Spanish battles on the Senate steps, all accompanied by a rousing musical score overall that rises to a crescendo of singing by the frenzied crowd, so reminiscent of the Fascist Duce's/Leader's own Roman rallies.
Scene 2 opens with a woman putting her jewels into a small case held by a Roman soldier, as her husband prepares to march off to join Scipio's volunteers on the way to their ships to embark for Africa, singing with sticks on their shoulders, their wives left crying behind.
Then come mounted Carthaginian cavalry storming the very same villa, as the servants are overcome, the property pillaged, and the women raped in a drunken orgy as the soldiers break open the wine casks. The departed husband's wife is prevented from committing suicide at the last moment by an alert soldier, who then takes her to Hannibal himself.
Scene 3 shows Scipio and his officers preparing for the upcoming campaign overseas as forges weld weapons into shape, and marching legions are cheered by farmers and shepherds with their flocks of sheep as the troops march past. Scipio leads his columns with the Cannae standard at the head of a column of cavalry and infantry. Massed standards of all the legions are presented to their commander, following which his Spanish volunteers insist on carrying the Cannae standard as their own.
Scene 4 shifts to Hannibal's camp, where he appears with a black patch over his right eye, a full beard and a rather robust---if somewhat rotund---barrel chest. Told that Scipio is on Sicily recruiting more men for his expedition, Hannibal tells an aide how at nine years old his father made him swear to destroy Rome, an aim to which "I have given the best years of my life," the past 15.
Going outside, he has a Roman lashed for speaking out against Carthaginian rations, then has the man's wife brought to him, the same one who earlier attempted suicide. She boldly confronts Hannibal with a verbal outburst, but recoils from his amorous advances in his tent. He then rapes her.
Next, we see Roman galleys being built in Sicily, and Cato coming aboard the commander's own flagship, from a tower atop which Scipio addresses his men before they set sail. Soldiers raise their spears and standards in salute and sing lustily as the fleet is rowed out to sea from port by slaves whose oars are seen, but never them.
Scene 5 takes the viewer to a Carthaginian marketplace and news of the Roman seaborne invasion that has just arrived in Africa. Now it is also the Carthaginian Senate that is worried about an enemy army approaching it, just as Scipio predicted. Even as defense plans are enacted, the option of asking for an armistice or for a full peace pact is debated.
Suddenly, the scene shifts to the tent of the Queen of Numibia, where she receives her husband the King, and persuades him to disavow his longtime alliance with the Roman Republic in favor of a pact with nearby Carthage, to which he agrees. Thus the two African sides have agreed to join forces, the alliance of which is already known to Scipio, who sends envoys to try to dissuade the King from so radical a step. Backed by his Queen, he refuses.
Scipio, in turn, launches a dawn surprise attack the next day with fire and sword, thus forestalling the completion of the alliance. The King is captured, and the Queen throws herself at the feet of Rome's African ally who has led the troops against the Numibian camp, begging him, "Don't hand me over to the Romans!" He marries her, bewitched by the Queen's beauty: a sultry temptress ala the Egyptian Cleopatra with first Caesar, and then Antony, later in Roman history.
Meanwhile, the vanquished King is brought before Scipio, who orders his chains to be removed, leading the King to claim that, "You know how to be kind, even to your enemies." Back at Carthage, the city Senate now wants peace and not just an armistice, but ruler Hasdrubal overrules that in favor of its request to recall Hannibal from Italy. The Queen is brought to Scipio's camp in a royal carriage, and Scipio confronts her new husband thus: "I know that you've fallen into the same trap with the same woman" (as the King before him.) "She hates Rome. Renounce her, and it will be your greatest victory!" Scipio requests, and he does. Abandoned, the Queen takes poison, with the black veil of death hiding her form as she fades from view as she says, "I die as a queen in the camp of the enemy," her luminous eyes having dominated the screen for several remarkable frames. Scipio returns her body to Carthage, "with all the honors due her," he intones, solemnly.
After his brother and fellow commander is captured by the Roman enemy, Hannibal sees no choice but to obey his government's command of recall and return to Africa, where he lands, received by a Senate delegation which he treats with contempt for its lack of support of its army while it was fighting in Italy. Prior to his departure, however, the raped wife---planning to assassinate him with a dagger---changes her mind and drops it after hearing his personal tales of woe, told to an aide. She is brought with the army to Africa as well.
The Carthaginian Army from Italy disembarks, and very soon Roman spies are found in their camp. Hannibal orders that they be given all the military information they seek and sent back to Scipio, as a means of informing the Roman commander that Hannibal fears him not.
Meanwhile, the raped wife's husband escapes from his captors and rejoins Scipio's cavalry. She remains at the main Carthaginian camp, as the climactic battle of the African campaign begins to shape up. First, however, Hannibal requests a personal meeting with Scipio: "Having battled your father, I have to ask peace from his son. It is I, Hannibal, who asks for peace," with Sardinia, Spain, and Sicily all to be given to Rome.
The Roman commander says it's too late for that: "What you are offering, we already have! Our fleets have been destroyed, and our ambassadors insulted. Prepare yourself for war!"
Mounted on a white stallion like the later Duce's famed Atlantico, Scipio addresses his men: "Make Rome once more the ruler of the world! You have a sacred mission to accomplish. Our cry will be, 'Victory or death!'" as the legions go forth to avenge the dead of Cannae on a plain ringed by mountains.
Hannibal, too, speaks to his army: "Your women and children will be taken if you are defeated, but if you win, there will be booty for all! Veterans, remember your victories!" The fearsome war elephants lead the way, complete with a cute little baby elephant accompanying its mother.
The battle joined, at first the Romans are routed, until Scipio leaps down from his horse and shows how to defeat the elephants. The set-piece battle is truly a magnificent spectacle of warfare in the ancient world, complete with archers and spear throwers, plus short broadswords for close in, hand-to-hand combat. As "sword and sandal" epics go, this one is a real stunner, with great attention to detail, and gory combat scenes--- complete with arrows and spears in necks, and the like.
Aside from infantry fighting, there are also sweeping vistas of charging cavalry en masse: Roman, Numidian, and Carthaginian alike.
The raped wife is rescued by her gallant husband, who also plays a major role in winning the battle for Rome. Like Wellington at Waterloo later, the lesser known (and younger) Scipio outfoxes the more acclaimed Hannibal on the battlefield. With his army reformed for the final fight, Scipio bellows out, "Avenge the dead of Cannae!" and his legionnaires respond, "Victory or death!" with the beloved Cannae standard in the van of the fighting, fought over for possession time and again by both sides. At last, only the eagle top itself is left, held aloft: "The dead of Cannae are avenged!"
Defeated, Hannibal---seen in silhouette only---rides off alone, to die a suicide, while Roman galleys arrive at a Roman port in Italy at night: "Hannibal is defeated! Carthage is destroyed! Rome is saved!"
As for Scipio, the conqueror---now Scipio the African by Roman decree---he is seen with his wife and child on his farm back in Italy: "The grain is good, and tomorrow we'll begin to plant again." A rising chorus of singing concludes this epic and epochal film.
Scipio Africanus/Scipio The African: The Defeat Of Hannibal