Monday, December 29, 2008

Hercules Against the Barbarians (1964) review


Mark Forest (Maciste), Ken Clark (Kubulai), Jose Greci (Armina/Kiara), Renato Rossini (Gazan), Gloria Milland (Arias), Tullio Altamura (Priest)

Directed by Domenico Paolella; Music by Giuseppe Piccillo

In the 12th century, Genghis Khan and his armies march on Poland and attempt to topple the powerful polish forces at Krakao. Defeated, the Mongols retreat. The leader of the military garrison, Kubulai, is angered that the Mongols have tasted defeat for the first time. An injured fighter speaks of a man who fought with the strength of a hurricane. Desiring revenge on the Polish as well as this mysterious man, Kubulai is called to the court of Genghis Khan, his father. For punishment for the loss at Krakao, he is to be executed. A number of followers stand up for him resulting in the great Khan ordering Kubulai that he must either kill or sell his servants by the next full moon if he cannot redress the shame he has brought to the great Khan.

Meanwhile, a young woman, Arias, is being chased through the woods in a Polish village. Finding shelter in the home of the beautiful Armina and her father, Arias notices a strange scar on Armina's neck and questions her background. Later that night, Gazan attempts to kill Maciste in a deep pit containing a giant snake.

Firing arrows into the blackened hole, Gazan assumes Maciste is dead. The villagers are alerted that Armina has been kidnapped and her father murdered. Escaping the pit, Maciste shows up and saves Arias from being burned at the stake by the mad villagers. Discovering that the Mongols were responsible, Maciste wonders why they would want to kidnap Armina. Arias then divulges that she was sent by King Vladimir to learn of a secret regarding Armina. Maciste and Arias set off to meet with the King. Bringing Armina back to Genghis Khan, Kubulai is convinced that Armina is of far more greater value to the Mongols success in conquering Poland.

During the battle of Goverad, a captured nobleman had spoke of a furtive princess bearing the "sign of the star". Knowing she would become a coveted target of the savage Mongol hordes, she was hidden away in the hopes the oppressors wouldn't find her. Bringing out the emaciated and blind nobleman, Kubulai and Genghis discover that Armina is in fact the heiress to the throne of Krakao and half of Poland; a Queen. Not knowing of her powerful heritage, the babbling nobleman then dies. Before he expires, it is then revealed he was actually the King of Poland and that Armina is his daughter, her real name being Kiara.

Meeting with King Vladimir, Maciste learns, much to his displeasure, that the King was promised to marry Armina/Kiara in an effort to form a much stronger Poland to combat the Mongol threat. Deciding to renounce his love for her, Maciste sets off for the Mongol seized territory of Tornapol. Arias, who secretly harbors feelings for Maciste accompanies him on his journey. Stopping off in a small hamlet to rest, Maciste leaves Arias behind and heads for Tornapol alone.

Genghis Khan has plans for his stunning captive. She is to marry his son, Ogutai, the strongest Mongolian warrior. During a celebration, Maciste arrives much to the shock of Gazan who thought he had sent the strongman to his death. Maciste engages the Khan's warrior, Kraygar in a fight to the death surrounded by an array of spears. Maciste spares the fighter and gains the respect of the great Khan.

After the duel, Arias goes to Kubulai and asks if he is interested in knowing the identity of the strongman. He says, "You have been away from us for too long." It becomes known that Arias' father was a Mongol and she is apparently playing both sides. Fetching Maciste, he is trapped inside a spiked fence when Kubulai enters prepared to kill him. Arias tries to stop Kubulai and is fatally stabbed for doing so. Before dying she pledges her love for Maciste, but then Gazan attacks Kubulai for not honoring his pact.

As they duel, Maciste bends the bars and escapes. Kubulai enters Armina's room and states that she may have refused to marry his brother, Ogutai, but she will not refuse to marry him. Kubulai plans to have his father assassinated on his way to visit Ogutai. Along the way, Genghis' fighter, Kraygar, whom was spared by the hand of Maciste, murders the Khan after having been secretly drugged by Kubulai.

Joining up with the Christian forces, Maciste and King Vladimir's soldiers march on Tornapol. At the walls surrounding the city, Kubulai announces his sovereignty and uses Armina as a means of holding back the Polish militia. In a vicious attempt to kill her, Maciste saves Arimina's life while Vladimir's army enters the city. Maciste chases the retreating Kubulai, and with the help of Kraygar, puts an end to the treachery of Kubulai. Taking the throne as Queen of Poland, Kiara (Armina) doesn't rule long entrusting the country in more capable hands so as to live by Maciste's side as Armina and not a Queen.

Domenico Paolella returns to direct this follow up that details events that occur before the previous film, HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1963). Much of the same cast and crew also return for this far more convoluted and detailed movie. Sadly, this dubbed version appears to have been severely cut as a lot of the dubbed dialog (mostly near the end) mention incidents and conversations that are not shown. A real shame as the plot is very elaborate although there are a couple of story devices that appear to have been last minute additions, but then this could just be down to the cutting.

This film is, in some ways, more enjoyable than the previous outing. Whereas HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS was shot using actual locations with little interior shots, the follow up appears to be predominantly studio bound. There also appears to have been more money lavished on this second picture.

Mark Forest returns as Hercules for this dubbed version even though it's really a Maciste movie. Forest was one of the most popular actors in these movies and his pictures range from excellent to terrible. This movie has the potential to be one of the best, but the missing footage compromises many sequences with most of these during the last half. It's still a lot of fun just the same and even manages to squeeze in a duel with a giant snake and a scene where Maciste takes on an incredibly fake looking crocodile.

Forest played Italian fantasy hero, Maciste in at least seven movies and the fabled Hercules on two occasions. The rest of his filmography saw Forest as various other fictional strongman characters. Curiously, Maciste does not kill the main villain at the end but instead the Mongolian bad guy is taken out (in a rather quick and violent fashion) by Kraygar whom Kubulai had drugged into killing his father (this bit is one of the trimmed scenes). Maciste prepares to fight with Kubulai who holds Armina captive when suddenly, a spiked fence hurtles down into Kubulai's neck sending him to the ground.

Ken Clark as Kubulai and the other Mongol characters all resemble a cross between A Klingon and one of the gorillas from the PLANET OF THE APES series of movies. This is especially evident in the testosterone fueled HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1963). In this film, there is a bit more court intrigue married to the action scenes. Clark again plays an intimidating and nasty villain much as he did in the previous picture. Clark was seen in a lot of television shows and small movie roles before appearing in some Roger Corman quickies. He later found himself enjoying the remainder of his career in Italian genre cinema appearing in some European spy adventures as well as some spaghetti westerns including the starring role in Mario Bava's THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO (1964). Clark also co-starred as a Mongolian villain in HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1963).

The women are gorgeous as always and Jose Greci (Susan Paget) encores from the previous movie this time playing a young woman who is ignorant of the importance of her survival. Greci plays the farm girl, Armina who is actually Kiara, the heir to the throne of Poland. The alluring Greci has co-starred in a handful of some of the better peplum adventure movies.

Gloria Milland, who plays Arias, a secret emissary that eventually falls in love with Hercules/Maciste. A typical plot point often found in these movies is an ill-fated female character that ends up losing her life for the love of the musclebound hero. Milland fills that role here but she is the main object of the hero's attraction in the lively and fun, GOLIATH AGAINST THE GIANTS (1961) where Milland was absolutely stunning and sporting blond hair.

There is a very nice sequence during the celebration in Genghis Khan's court showcasing Chinese acrobats dueling with spears followed by an impressive display of plate spinning. Filmed at Incir de Paolis studios in Rome, the famed Cinecitta studios had since begun shooting westerns, but the sword and sandal films held on till 1965 and those last few entries were seriously low rent affairs. By 1964, the genre had run its course, but there were still a few very enjoyable films to be seen from the genre.

The films title is a slight bit misleading as the character of Genghis Khan isn't shown as all that villainous. He's a conqueror of lands, but yet, he retains a sense of honor to duty and isn't nearly as vicious as his son, Kubulai. The ambitious, but evil son of the Khan plots the death of his father and anyone else that would threaten his ascension as ruler of Poland. I would imagine the character would be even more insidious had many scenes not been trimmed for the US release. I guess the American producers figured moviegoers didn't care about the story as much as they did the action sequences regardless of how much tampering with the narrative upsets the balance of the movie.

HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (1964) was one of the last to feature a sizable budget and exceptional production values. It is also one of the best of the hybrid peplum pictures. A widescreen, restored and complete version would only enhance this already enjoyable fantasy adventure.

This review is representative of the public domain release from Mill Creek Entertainment. It comes in a box set housing a total of 50 sword & sandal adventures under the title Warriors DVD Collection 50 Movie Pack. The quality on HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS is average. The colors are far more stable than on HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS, but the print used is worn, but very watchable.

Hercules Against the Mongols (1963) review


Mark Forest (Maciste/Hercules), Ken Clark (Sayan), Jose Greci (Bianca), Renato Rossini (Susdal), Nadir Baltimore (Keehan), Maria Grazia Spina (Lijuan), Tullio Altamura (Adolphus)

Directed by Domenico Paolella; Music by Carlo Savina

After the death of Genghis Khan in 1227 AD, his three brutal sons defy their fathers wish for peace with his neighboring countrymen by inciting war with foreigners after assassinating Genghis' trusted aid, Getti Nai. Blaming the murder on the 'White man', the three sons embark on a crusade of bloodshed to sieze control of Judeyla and slaughter the legitimate heirs to the throne. One heir remains; the young boy, Alexander. Fleeing to Bratislava, he is pursued by the mongol killers and it is up to Maciste to protect the boy and fight off the mongol hordes.

Popular peplum actor, Mark Forest (real name: Lou Degni) plays Maciste in the original Italian version of this movie. The US edition bears the 'Hercules' moniker. During the opening moments Maciste is something of a nature boy, playing with the animals of the forest and doing good deeds for the Mongolian people. It isn't specified just what Maciste is doing in Mongolia nor exactly where the story takes place. Considering that the Khan's successors continued to conquer neighboring territories (including Eastern Europe), I assume the story takes place there since the 'White man' is framed for the murder of Genghis' minister, Getti Nai.

The plot is a bit convoluted with its double story arc. Even still, it's an enjoyable, if average muscleman adventure. The actors and bit players as the Mongols all look like animals and perform menacingly enough. There look is very similar to the barbarians seen in GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS (1959). Of the three main antagonists-- Ken Clark, Renato Rossini and Nadir Baltimore, Ken is the most imposing and intense. He and much of the same cast returned for the following years HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (1964) which no doubt, was made back to back with this movie. The women are gorgeous as always and Jose Greci (Susan Paget) is a striking beauty. She also returns for the follow up.

In the other aforementioned plotline that seemingly takes over the initial story, Sayan, the strongest of Khan's sons, searches for the treasure of the unnamed European king. The traitor, Adolphus, working with Sayan, manages to convince Bianca (the executed king's daughter) to divulge to him the location of the riches hidden within a mill stone. But Sayan isn't the only one with ulterior motives. His brother, Susdal, also conspires against the others. Susdal attempts to persuade Maciste to challenge his two brothers in a tournament to decide who gets the hand of Bianca of Judeyla.

However, Susdal wants Maciste to refuse to duel with him. If he agrees, he will gain riches and his freedom. During the tournament, the three sons kill a number of slaves; Sayan with his bow & arrow, Keehan with his bare hands and Susdal with his whip. In a sequence overflowing with beefcake, Maciste is brought out to fight, but goes against the agreement he made with Susdal and fights them all, easily defeating the three sons of the dead conqueror.

All the captive slaves are Christians and curiously, Maciste (an Italian created character) calls himself a Christian as well. Since he wins the tournament, he has the option of either his freedom, or that of Bianca's taking her place as a captive subordinate. Bianca is released and Maciste is taken away in chains. Adolphus continues to coerce Bianca into believing that Maciste is after the hidden treasure for himself. As she leaves the fortress, she calls Maciste a traitor.

He is then put through some rigorous and torturous tests such as moving a stone pillar to a designated location within ten beats of a drum. If he fails, then ten slaves will be killed. He also has to fight a lion in a small cell. This scene is particularly harrowing as the animal doesn't appear to enjoy having sticks jabbed into his mouth. Maciste is then taken to a grotto and chained yet again, only this time to die of starvation.

Going back on their word, Bianca is taken prisoner again as Sayan desires her for himself. His woman, the beautiful Lijuan pleads with him to leave her be and receives a knife in the back for her trouble. She manages to reach the grotto and tells Maciste what has happened, his pledge now being in vain. Meanwhile, christian forces march on the Mongolian encampment. In the battle, Maciste kills Keehan by crushing him with a large beam.

After the fight, the leader of the Christian militia asks Maciste to help them combat the Mongols by setting fire to the forest and busting open a dam successfully trapping the approaching Mongol cavalry and preventing the Christians from being attacked on two fronts. During the flood, Susdal is drowned in what the dubbing calls quicksand.

While this is going on, the traitor, Adolphus, goes to retrieve the young heir, Alexander. He takes the boy to Sayan while he recovers the treasure beneath the mill stone. Maciste arrives and battles the formidable Sayan. Once the treasure is found, Adolphus takes Bianca and places her into a room activating a trap that will crush her body. Maciste manages to kill Sayan and saves both Bianca and the young king. Adolphus is cut down by Christian archers as he attempts to leave the Mongol stronghold.

The scene where Maciste is put to work turning a mill stone by himself recalls a similar sequence shot for John Milius' CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). Forest plays Maciste much differently here than in some of his other movies in which he essays the role of the Italian made fantasy hero. Even when it's obvious that he could break free his bonds at any time, he resigns himself to become a slave so that Bianca will be set free. He even apparently was willing to give up his life for the beauty when the Mongols chain him inside a grotto. But when he learns that she has been recaptured, Maciste says to hell with this, opting to get some retribution.

I saw this film for the first time years ago on a Saturday afternoon and seeing it again now, it still retains a lot of entertainment value. It's not one of the best of the genre, but it delivers lots of action and some of the set pieces are rather huge especially the finale. There are some laughable moments, though, such as at the end when the Mongols ride out to duel with the Christian army. They throw their spears at them but some of these fellows rather lazily toss the bladed weapons which hit the ground instead. The next shot shows some of the men impaled despite the previous shot of the spears hitting the ground instead. Even still, some of the stunt work looks quite dangerous and the fights are good for the most part.

HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS is a slightly above average sword & sandal picture. It has no monsters or fantastical elements outside of the Herculean Maciste character. The villains are all extremely brutish and look menacing enough especially Ken Clark (who looks more or less the same in the prequel/follow up). Definitely a popcorn peplum, you could do lots worse.

This review is representative of the public domain release from Mill Creek Entertainment. It comes in a box set housing a total of 50 sword & sandal adventures under the title Warriors DVD Collection 50 Movie Pack. The quality on this film is passable the most noticeable negative being the washed out colors.
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