Written, produced and directed by Curt Siodmak, Love Slaves of the Amazons (1957) is an unashamedly campy B film made for Universal-International on location in Brazil, and now digitally remastered in 2K for Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The story’s arguably feminist theme, ahem, is that traditional sexist roles are reversed in a lost gynocratic tribe run by statuesque bombshells who only need the odd disposable male now and then to polish the weaponry (!) and perform certain other services to be designated. Applicants are drafted one at a time to replace the worn-out retainer who, according to the by-laws, must be retired in a manner resembling the fate of St. Sebastian.
In this case, “campy” means certain elements are absurd and exaggerated, essentially a put-on of themselves, although it’s done with a straight tone, not a wink. Such films are made for the viewer’s amusement, but it’s a mistake to assume we’re smarter than the film or that we’re “getting” something that wasn’t put there deliberately.
Love Slaves of the Amazons begins by hitting us between the eyes with its four big production values: Eastmancolor, Brazil, exotic music and green women. Over aerial shots of the Amazon during the credits, a gorgeous female voice runs through octaves. We see a superimposed image of the green woman who’s supposedly warbling this amazing number. The piece is identified as “Song of the Amazons”, composed by Radamés Gnattali and sung by Jara Lex. I haven’t a clue who Jara Lex is but she sure sounds a lot like Yma Sumac, the 1950s queen of vocal exotica. Since Sumac was under contract to Capitol Records, I speculate openly that perhaps “Jara Lex” is a cover name. If I’m wrong, let someone prove it.
The film’s hero is played by Don Taylor, who made the transition from a second-tier movie star to a very busy film and TV director. Here he plays bluff Yankee archaeologist Peter Masters, greeted at the airport by a museum director, Silva (Harvey Chalk). Hanging around suspiciously is disgraced old faker Dr. Crespi (Eduardo Ciannelli), who spins a yarn about a lost tribe of women surrounded by gold and diamonds. He claims to have lived there for years but escaped, apparently without any gold or diamonds, and now he wants to go back and help himself.
Finally he shows off the one treasure he did manage to keep, a solid gold statuette of a queen. One expository transition later, and his expedition is being financed with Masters in command. The boat is instantly hijacked by two piratical brothers who trigger a lengthy fight while the craft is stranded in a mudbank. It all looks very messy.
After fleeing this magilla, the feverish Masters gets to the point of Love Slaves of the Amazons and finds himself among the Amazons. He meets two survivors of a previous expedition. Gina (Gianna Segale) moves about freely because she’s a woman and meets the tribe’s drop-dead gorgeous standards. They apparently have stunning makeup facilities. Mario (Tom Payne), who walks around drugged into semi-amnesiac disorientation, performs the aforementioned polishing services.
Pointing out his many little daughters bathing at the river, Mario says the boys are killed at birth by their mothers while the girls are raised to be savage murderers. For an anthropologist, he seems judgmental about their alternative lifestyle and cultural traditions. Gina’s more forgiving and doesn’t think this ancient civilization should be destroyed by the modern world, although she does want to get the hell out of there. Whether she’s availed herself of Mario’s polishing is left unmentioned.
Now that the tribe has found in Masters a younger substitute for Mario (they seem about the same age, but never mind), Mario’s polishing days are over. Drugged into a hallucinatory state, Masters is initiated into his duties during a long dance sequence choreographed by David and Fernanda Condi. If anyone thinks of this scene as padding, please understand it’s really the film’s raison d’etre, like another film’s car crash.
Played by Brazilians, including Ana Maria Nabuco as the sultry queen, the so-called Amazons are somewhat mixed ethnically but certainly don’t resemble indigenous tribes. They look like cover girls. Older and dumpier generations arrive to tear off Masters’ shirt and dump him in a bubble bath amid great squeals while he offers slapstick struggles as though he’s being tickled. This is the most titillating and “sexy” scene. The rest is suggested offscreen or via discreet transitions, such as when he wakes alone (fully clothed) in the ruins of his big debutante ball.
When he first sees the women, they’re covered with green makeup as jungle camouflage, which is one of the things they do. Still feverish, he slurs a remark that he’s seen girls who are white, red, and blue (chosen as the colors of the American flag?) but never green.
In a curious late scene that may be symbolic or emblematic, Masters sees a huge snake and goes to brain it with a stick. He pauses to think about it and wisely concludes to leave it alone since it’s doing nothing against him. Not to make too much of a minor scene, but this seems like a very unusual example of desistance and common sense from a red-blooded hero, and perhaps it signals his live-and-let-live decision about the Amazons.
There’s a vast literature in print and film of “lost tribes” and “warrior women”, Amazonian and otherwise. Many lost tribes are somehow more Caucasian because such fantasies wish to tease with exotic Otherness without being too Other, the better to appeal to their mainstream audience or avoid controversy from censors. Such projects cater to sexual fantasies of white male consumers without going too far, for the situation must still be seen as aberrant and somehow wrong. “They’re just a bunch of women!” exclaims Masters.
Iconic influences include the title character of H. Rider Haggard’s novel She (1896), filmed more than once; gentle Rima the Bird-Girl in W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904), played by Audrey Hepburn in the 1959 film version; Irish McCalla as TV’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1955-56), a character from comics; and the most famous comic’s heroine, Wonder Woman, whose backstory derives from Greek mythology and who’s still going great guns because you can’t keep a good Amazon down. In other words, this protean concept can be modeled to fit any year’s fashions.
Siodmak, whose career as a prolific writer and filmmaker was lived somewhat in the shadow of his older brother Robert Siodmak, created or channeled many important pulp ideas. He created wolfman Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. in several films. Curt’s seminal brain-in-a-tank novel Donovan’s Brain (1942) has been filmed thrice officially, ripped off unofficially countless times.
He directed a handful of B pictures in the 1950s. Two were filmed in Brazil, both shot in beautiful color by Mario Pages to show off local vistas. Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) was shot in late 1955, while Love Slaves of the Amazons was made in the summer of 1957. In his memoir, Wolf Man’s Maker (2000), Curt Siodmak claimed his health never fully recovered from the strain and diseases to which he subjected himself. It would have been great if both films had been on the same disc but the earlier film has been missing in action on home video.
Two less-heralded contributors to Love Slaves of the Amazons must be mentioned. Associate producer Terry Morse was largely responsible for editing and 2nd Unit directing. An uncredited powerhouse is ubiquitous voice artist Paul Frees. Due to recording issues, the dialogue had to be relooped in Hollywood, where Tayler and Ciannelli could provide their own voices. The other male Brazilians had to be dubbed by Frees, whose voice is highly recognizable. He performs the same multi-dubbing service, for example, in George Pal’s Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961). Hmm, one person servicing multiple characters – it certainly fits a theme.
Entertainment journalists Bryan Reesman and Max Evry provide a commentary with background information and quotes from reviews, interviews, PR squibs and memoirs. Most useful are Siodmak’s claims about his original script idea, which Universal asked him to revise, and his own comparison of the material to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954), which Siodmak seemed to think came along later. The 1963 film did, but not the novel.
Reesman and Evry are perfectly aware of which elements in Love Slaves of the Amazons are worthwhile, including color and set design, and which not so much, and they make no outsized claims for this modest entertainment. Instead, they quote Edgar Wright’s opinion that watching many cult films is like hunting for truffles. You sift through them for the good stuff. In Love Slaves of the Amazons, those are moments where characters are hallucinating with delirium or the audience feels the same way.