When it was first released, Damon and Pythias (1962) was no doubt lost among the dozens of Italian sword-and-sandal films produced in the 1960s. Except for its setting–Greece and Sicily in 400 B.C.–it has little in common with those pictures. There are no muscular heroes, no mythical creatures, and surprisingly little action. Instead, Damon and Pythias is a film about the power of friendship and its effect on others.
When their ruler dies, the Athenians determine that he will be replaced by the wise missionary Arcanos. Unfortunately, Arcanos resides in Syracuse, where he has been teaching Greek philosophy as part of an underground movement. Pythias (Don Burnett) volunteers to bring back Arcanos, although the journey into enemy territory will be perilous. He struggles with how to break the news to his high-strung pregnant wife Nerissa (Ilaria Occhini). He finally opts for the easy way out…and leaves that task to his brother and sister.
In Syracuse, Pythias runs afoul of petty thieves led by a rogue named Damon (Guy Williams). Despite their initial conflict, the two men grow to like one another. As Damon explains to his girlfriend Adriana (Liana Orfei), it’s nice to have to a friend “that’s really worth something.” Still, Damon betrays his new-found friend before having second thoughts and warning Pythias. His efforts come too late, though, when Dionysius the Tyrant (that’s how he’s labeled at the start of the film) captures Pythias.
In an act of unparalleled friendship, Damon offers to be executed in place of Pythias. At first, Pythias rejects the idea–but he has second thoughts after learning that Nerissa may die in childbirth. Dionysius, thinking that he can crush this dangerous idea of brotherhood, tells Pythias that he will be released for two months. If he does not return by that time, Damon will be killed in his place. Will Pythias return? Will Dionysius ensure that he doesn’t? How will the always dramatic Nerissa react to this news?
Loosely based on a Greek legend, Damon and Pythias could have been a first-rate picture with a stronger script and bigger stars. Perhaps, MGM’s original intent was to mount a rival production to the big-budget epics of the same period (e.g., Spartacus, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). However, with its modest budget and low wattage cast, it’s clear that the studio ultimately set its goals much lower.
Still, that’s not to say that Damon and Pythias isn’t an entertaining excursion. Guy Williams, fresh off a popular two-year run in Disney’s Zorro, has the requisite charisma to make Damon a likable rascal. Don Burnett, on the other hand, turns the serious Pythias into a glum, boring protagonist–albeit one with good intentions. Liana Orfei holds her own as Damon’s realistic girlfriend, but this is a film about male bonding and that leaves her with little to do.
Williams and Burnett, friends in real life, both had Italian connections. The American-born Williams was of Italian descent and his real name was Armand Catalano. After playing Dr. John Robinson in TV’s Lost in Space, he retired to Argentina in the 1970s and died of a brain aneurysm in 1989. Don Burnett spoke at his memorial service.
Burnett retired from acting after Damon and Pythias and eventually became a successful stockbroker. Burnett’s first wife was Italian star Gia Scala (The Guns of Navarone, The Angry Hills). They divorced in 1970; she committed suicide two years later after struggling with depression and alcoholism. Burnett eventually married Barbara Anderson, one of Raymond Burr’s co-stars on the TV series Ironside.
So what’s the final score on this test of friendship? We’ll give Damon and Pythias a solid “B” for stretching the bounds of the sword-and-sandal genre and for conveying a worthy message with a minimum of pretensions.