Movie Review: The Sicilian (1987)
“Only one man ever dared to stand alone.”
The Sicilian (1987)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Christopher Lambert, Terence Stamp, Joss Ackland
Synopsis: The story of Salvatore Giuliano, Sicily’s 20th-Century Robin Hood.
David Begelman paid Mario Puzo $1 million for the film rights to his novel The Sicilian following the unprecedented praise heaped upon Francis Ford Coppola’s hugely successful adaptation of The Godfather. It must have seemed like good business to the then head of Gladden Entertainment, and securing the services of The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino could only have deepened his sense of satisfaction. Ok, so Cimino’s follow up movie, the folly known as Heaven’s Gate proved to be the biggest disaster in Hollywood history and brought United Artists to it’s knees but, hey, we learn from our mistakes, right?
Well, not quite, it seems. Before even a foot of film had been shot, problems arose over the casting of the male lead for the part of real-life bandit Salvatore Giuliano, and, despite grave misgivings over a Frenchman playing a Sicilian folk hero, Begelman felt compelled to acquiesce to Cimino’s demand that the role be awarded to journeyman French actor Christopher Lambert. Once shooting in Sicily began it quickly ran over budget and behind schedule, although not because of the Prima Donna antics for which Cimino had become notorious during the shooting of Heaven’s Gate, but due to members of the local Mafia preventing anything from being filmed until they were awarded small walk-on parts in the movie. Such difficulties proved insignificant, however, once the picture went into post-production. After disappearing into an editing suite for months, Cimino finally emerged with a 150-minute version which Begelman immediately insisted was too long. The studio wanted thirty minutes of cuts, which Cimino provided by indiscriminately removing every action scene. Things turned nasty, and the lawyers were called in. Much to Cimino’s disgust, the court ruled that the studio was entitled to edit The Sicilian any way they saw fit, and it was their butchered, incoherent hatchet job on Cimino’s vision which hit the theatres with a resounding thud in October 1987. Cimino’s uncut version did eventually see the light of day, and while it was an improvement over the studio version, it’s still an ungainly, lumbering behemoth of a movie which lacks the depth and import for which it is obviously striving. Every now and then, though, we catch a tantalising glimpse of just how very good it might have been.
Puzo’s The Sicilian, a spin-off from The Godfather novel, details Michael Corleone’s life during his two-year exile to Sicily, but all mention of the Corleones were omitted from Cimino’s movie due to copyright issues. Instead, it focuses on Giuliano, a Sicilian Robin Hood figure (although just as analogous to Christ in Steve Shagan’s screenplay) who sees himself as his people’s saviour after surviving a gunshot wound to the gut that really should have killed him. He recovers to become an influential force in a country that is enmeshed in political and social upheaval following the end of WWII. In fact, he becomes so influential that the Government, the church and even the Mafia consider him to be a major threat to their respective power bases.
Begelman should have dug his heels in when it came to casting the part of Salvatore Giuliano. Although, with his heavy brow, brooding gaze and thick lips, Christopher Lambert looks every inch the untamed rebel, he lacks the personal charisma necessary to charm a nation, let alone a beautiful red-haired peasant girl (the striking Giulia Boschi) and a haughty Duchess, played with a disarming lack of subtlety or charm by German actress Barbara Sukowa who, it has to be said, is given most of the movie’s worst scenes. Her first encounter with Giuliano is a truly nauseating piece of romanticism which sees their eyes locking as, having emerged naked from her bath, she regards the wounded rebel astride a rearing black stallion from a balcony while covering her nudity with a fluffy white towel. Later, the Duchess strips naked before virtually forcing Giuliano to ravish her while his men are holding up the guests at her dinner party downstairs.
Lambert and Sukowa’s lack of acting ability is cruelly exposed by a strong supporting cast which features an under-used John Turturro (The Big Lebowski, The Ridiculous 6) as Giuliano’s fiercely loyal cousin and sidekick, and Joss Ackland (White Mischief, Miracle on 34th Street) as a wise Mafia don who looks upon Giuliano as the son he never had and is responsible for protecting the outlaw from the wrath of his associates. Terence Stamp (Big Eyes) also pops in from time to time in the largely insignificant role of a dandyish Prince who engages in philosophical conversations regarding land and wealth with Giuliano and his men when they briefly hold him for ransom. There are some other modest positives: the flawless production design is beautifully captured by Alex Thomson’s camera, and a couple of scenes also shine. The public execution of a barber for his betrayal of Giuliano has dramatic impact, and holds a brief promise that Cimino will explore the pressures on an outlaw folk hero to sustain a myth of invulnerability. The interrogation of a priest by Giuliano in the back of a car is also well-written but, as it takes place well into the final act, merely provides an unwelcome reminder of how good The Sicilian might have been had Begelman employed better screenwriters than Shagan and an uncredited Gore Vidal.
Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate has undergone quite a forgiving reappraisal over the past few years, and it’s entirely possible that The Sicilian might do the same. Whether time will be so kind to The Sicilian is doubtful, however. It has all the makings of a great movie, but its flaws go far deeper than those in Heaven’s Gate, and its lack of narrative coherence fatally compromises the few positives that can be found.
(Reviewed 28th May 2016)