Thursday, May 27, 2010


Anybody who enjoyed this larger-than-life mythological adventure should know that “Attila” director Pietro Francisci’s “Hercules” (***1/2 out of ****) spawned the sword and sandal genre. These films constituted a sub-genre of the Hollywood historical epic, and the stories occurred either during classical antiquity in Greece and Rome or Biblical times in other Mediterranean locales. Basically, these European produced films featured a brawny, footloose warrior as the protagonist who performs incredible feats of strength that enabled him to destroy supernatural monsters, topple evil tyrants and free enslaved peoples. Sometimes, the hero was a gladiator like the Kirk Douglas hero in “Spartacus.” Often, the hero’s name varied when these films arrived in America. The muscular champion was called Hercules, Samson, Goliath or he was a son of Hercules with an entirely different name. In Italy, however, the strongman hero was always known as Maciste.

Although “Hercules” was the first of some 300 sword and sandal sagas to follow until the Spaghetti western eclipsed the genre around 1964, the Italians had been producing sword and sandal movies long before “Hercules.” One of the first major silent films, director Giovanni Pastrone’s “Cabiria” appeared in 1914 and concerned the abduction of the eponymous little girl that pirates kidnapped during an eruption of Mount Etna during the third century B.C. A Roman spy and his mesomorphic muscle-bound slave Maciste rescued Cabiria. Aside from revitalizing a moribund genre, Francisci’s “Hercules” is notable not only for its star, bodybuilder Steve Reeves of “Mr. Universe” fame, but also for lenser Mario Bava and his splendid widescreen pictorial compositions as well as his atmospheric lightning. Bava’s photography is nothing short of brilliant. His cameras are always in the best place to capture the action. Reeves went on to star in several more pepla, and Bava later helmed “Hercules in the Haunted World.” “Hercules Unchained” with Reeves and co-star Sylva Koscina followed “Hercules.”

Aesthetically, “Hercules” qualifies as an above-average effort for the genre. Francisci and his scenarists derived their screenplay from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Greek epic poem "Argonautica" that dealt with Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. In this film, Hercules literally usurps Jason as the hero when in reality the son of Jupiter played a peripheral role in the exploit. British director Don Chaffey helmed the best cinematic version of the Golden Fleece myth in 1963 with his exciting “Jason and the Argonauts” that boasted the superb stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. One of the problems with “Hercules” is that Jason recovers the fleece rather too easily from a giant reptile that sleeps near the tree where the fleece hangs. Reeves has a few uncomfortable moments when he goes on the rampage, literally blowing his cool, and sounds a mite unbelievable. Mind you, this was the bodybuilder’s first starring role so he can be forgiven. Francisci plays everything straight down the line, except for the campy monster guarding the Golden Fleece that Jason tries to retrieve. Of course, some of the hand-to-hand combat scenes where Hercules tangles with livestock such as a lion and a bison looks staged. Typically, the animal trainer would substitute for the star or the director would orchestrate the fights so ersatz animal heads and paws could be used. Consequently, while it is an entertaining escapism, “Hercules” isn’t as much hokum as later strong man sagas. Indeed, "Hercules" concerns murder in the palace; a princess who fears the truth about her father

"Hercules" became a blockbuster during its North American release and the success of the film in the United States can be attributed to Joseph E Levine. According to A.T. McKenna in his thesis “Joseph E. Levine: Showmanship, Reputation and Industrial Practice 1945 - 1977,” “Hercules” made Levine an “industry big shot.” After every Hollywood studio passed on Francisci's film, Levine bought the film for a modest $120,000, dubbed in English dialogue, and changed the title from "The Labors of Hercules" to simply "Hercules." Levine's folly wound up raking in a fortune from its U.S. release and sequels that followed. Levine pioneered 'saturation' booking and opened "Hercules" in 600 theaters. According to the Turner Classic Movies website, this method of opening a movie was "unheard of" in the 1950s. Levine relied on radio and television advertising to arouse the public's curiosity and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. “I had no misgivings about Hercules,” Levine explained to the media. “It had something for everybody. It had a dragon for kids, musclemen for growing boys, a shipwreck scene for waiters and clerks. Who doesn’t dream of getting stuck on an island with some broads? And the picture had Steve Reeves. He appealed to women.” Gordon Scott, Gordon Mitchell, Ed Fury, Dan Vadis, Mark Forest, Reg Park and other American bodybuilders went to Europe to star in these films. Inevitably, continental bodybuilders took umbrage because of the reliance by their own producers and directors on Americans when just as many suitable muscle-bound specimens resided in Italy, the foremost being Alan Steel.

“Hercules” unfolds with a venerable scene straight out of an old western. A beautiful woman, Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina of "Michael Strogoff"), shatters the afternoon calm when we loses control of a pair of horses hauling her chariot. She scatters a herd of goats. Francisci cuts to a close-up of tree roots being torn out of the ground and shows Hercules (Steve Reeves of “Jailbait”) hurl the tree it into the path of the runaway horses. “I thank the gods for providing me such a strong man when I needed him,” Iole says. Hercules carries her from the chariot and sets her on a rock. “I’ll admit that the sight of those runaway horses had me worried about you.” Hercules suspects Iole is royalty from the standard on her chariot. As it turns out, Iola is the daughter of King Pelias of Iolcus (Ivo Garrani of "Roland the Mighty"), and our hero is in route to train Pelias’ son Prince Iphitus (Mimmo Palmara of “Attila”) in the art of warfare. Iole furnishes Hercules with a brief history of her father’s suspicious rise to power, the death of his brother the king, and the thief of the Golden Fleece. Afterward, Hercules accompanies Iola back to the palace. An impulsive, arrogant young man, Iphitus hates Hercules. When a lion terrorizes the land, Hercules slays the beast. Iphitus interferes with Hercules, and the lion kills Iphitus before Hercules can kill it. A grief-stricken Pelias tells Hercules the only way that he can redeem himself is to kill the Cretan bull.

Hercules believes that Pelias has treated him unfairly and he goes to the temple of The Sybil (Lidia Alfonsi of “"Hercules vs. the Hydra") to demand an explanation. During the conversation, Hercules reveals that he wants to shed his immortality and be like mortal men so that he can love Iola and have a family. The gods release Hercules from his immortality and he praises them. Before he can kill the bull, Hercules spots a young man crouched over the body of a dying man. Hercules kills the bull after a brief struggle; essentially, he slams two lethal blows with his fist into the bull’s head. Later, he follows the young man to a cave and discovers his old friend Chironi (Afro Poli of “Tosca”) has been gored by the bull and lies dying. Chironi brings Hercules up to date about the disappearance of the Golden Fleece and how Jason and he left the country with it but lost it. Chironi hid the Golden Fleece in an oak tree before they sailed back home. Before Chironi dies, he explains that the mystery of the king’s death can be solved by reading an inscription written in the Golden Fleece. The dying Chironi entrusts Jason (Fabrizio Mioni of “"Roland the Mighty") to Hercules’ care. During their journey back to the palace, Hercules and Jason encounter a woman trying to cross a river with her three daughters. She doesn’t want them to get wet and she entreats our heroes to help her. While Jason is helping two daughters across the river, he loses a sandal. Hercules remembers that a man with one sandal will take Pelias’ kingdom away from him. Jason treats the loss of the sandal as no big deal.

Pelias gives Hercules three months to bring back the Golden Fleece to prove that Jason is the rightful heir to the throne. Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini of “"Head of a Tyrant") and his father Laertes (Andrea Fantasia of “War and Peace”), the shipbuilder Argos (Aldo Fiorelli of "The Barbarians"), the twins Castor (Fulvio Carrara of “"Hercules Unchained") and Pollux (Willi Colombini of "Odessa in Flames"), the lyre-strumming Orpheus (Gino Mattera of "Faust and the Devil"), the physician Aesculapius (Gian Paolo Rosmino of “Il fanciullo del West”) and others accompany Jason and Hercules on a long, rough sea voyage on the ship Argos. One of those others is the treacherous Eurysteus who is King Pelias’ spy and troublemaker. After a storm that frightens the men enough to prompt Eurysteus to lead a mutiny, our heroes land on an island of gorgeous Amazon women. Initially, the women are helpful to the starving sailors and allow them to replenish their store of supplies. Later, however, the women try to kill them with poisoned wine, but the men outsmart them. Eventually, our heroes make it to the island of Colchis and fight with a tribe of hairy ape-men. Meantime, Jason reclaims the Golden Fleece after an encounter with a dragon. Just as Chironi had told them, the answer to the mystery of the king’s death is revealed. When the Argos docks in Pelias killed his brother. Jason becomes the rightful ruler of Iolcus, Pelias’s henchman Eurysteus (Arturo Dominici of "Yvonne of the Night") snatches the Golden Fleece so that Jason has no evidence to present to the King. Pelias imprisons Hercules, but the strong man escapes after ripping the chains out of the wall meant to restrain him. Hercules wraps the chains around Eurysteus’ neck and kills him. Afterward, he stops Pelias' cavalry by looping the chains around the palace portico and bringing it down upon them like Samson did to the Philistines. The vanquished Pelias swallows poison and Jason wins the throne back. “Hercules” ends with Iole and he walking away arm in arm.

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