Richard Harrison in MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1963)
SWORD & SANDAL: EVEN MORE MUSCLES & MONSTERS, THE END OF OLYMPUS & THE NEW BREED OF FANTASY HERO
American performer Richard Harrison, one of the most wooden actors to ever grace the screen, had probably the busiest career of all the peplum stars. He did everything-- torch-and-toga adventures, westerns, action and war pictures, martial arts movies and even his own series of laughably bad ninja movies where he portrayed Gordon the Ninja. In those films he dressed up like a Ninja from outer space and battled bad guys in equally spacy outfits. It's blatantly obvious Harrison is not the one performing the actions but some of these are laugh riots and others are just painful to watch.
Harrison's peplums were actually pretty decent and the one series of pictures where he seemed more at ease (and awake). One of his most notable, but also quite silly is MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES (1963) which was called PERSEUS, THE INVINCIBLE in Italy. Here, the hero deals with another evil queen who can turn men into trees that bleed when limbs are broken off. The monster, Medusa, looks a bit like a tree with rubber snakes atop its head and a large glowing orb for an eye. Harrison also did various gladiator flicks like TWO GLADIATORS (1964), THE INVINCIBLE GLADIATORS (1962) and GLADIATORS SEVEN (1962).
In 1963 American producers tried their hand at a sword & sandal adventure with emphasis on fantasy. And what better technician than the master of fantasy filmmaking himself, Ray Harryhausen to undertake the task. Generously laced with monsters and fantastical elements, JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963) became one of the most enduring fantasy films of all time. Portions of this film had been the source for a number of Italian entries but here, instead of hydraulically controlled creations, Harryhausen relied on the then popular method of stop motion animation to bring his monsters to life.
All but the giant, Poseidon, were created using this process. One of the most famous characters from the Italian made features, Hercules, also has a role here. Nigel Green portrayed the Greek demi-God. However, Green was not a bodybuilder and although stout, he in no way resembled the standard muscleman inherent in the European mythological movies. Furthermore, this was the intention on the part of producer Charles H. Schneer and Harryhausen to avoid a musclebound performer in the role of Hercules for fear it may steer attention away from the main character of the film, Jason.
Green's performance as Hercules is an older and irresponsible interpretation. His penchant to cause havoc is the one conceit borrowed from the Hercules of mythology. The "real" Hercules was quite violent and displayed murderous tendencies. A fair number of the Italian epics featuring Hercules subtly touched upon the darker side of the mythical man often tweaking the details to keep his persona firmly in the realm of hero. However, in THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES (1964), Dan Vadis details a story from his past in which he murdered a man in his rage resulting in Jove taking away his super strength.
In the same film, Hercules goes into a rage and destroys a village in addition to killing one of his good friends having been fooled into believing his betrothed was being held captive there. The earlier discussion was foreshadowing for this later scene in which Hercules again finds his strength taken away. The first two Hercules films starring Steve Reeves also rely heavily on the actual myth of the Greek strong man.
When these movies died out around 1965, they got a brief resurgence in the 80's after the release of CONAN THE BARBARIAN in 1982. The year prior, though, saw a wonderful film that returned to the magic and myth of the fantasy films of old. In 1981, Harryhausen would collaborate on a fantasy film that was a throwback to the peplum fantasy pictures of the 1960's. This mythological masterpiece was CLASH OF THE TITANS.
Using a wealth of Greek myth as its backstory, there was also the inevitable tinkering with the legends as well as some additions that do not belong to Greek lore. The character of Calibos and the metal owl, Bubo, the "gift of the Gods", were both created for the film as was the Kraken monster.
Arguably the most memorable aspect of CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) is the Medusa sequence. An incredibly suspenseful scene especially impressionable if you were seeing the movie as a young child. According to myth, the beautiful Medusa was punished by Athena after being raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple. So incensed, she changed Medusa's appearance to that of a scaly monstrosity with swirling snakes in her head. There are also variations on this myth such as Medusa being transformed by Athena because she compared her beauty to the goddess.
Also, some sources describe Medusa as a horrible creature while others say her face retained her beauty but her hair was alive with venomous serpents. In all cases, a glance at her visage would transform the onlooker into stone. Seeing the Medusa sequence today, it's still quite gruesome in its violence. By comparison, the Italian peplum fantasy, PERSEUS, THE INVINCIBLE (1963; aka THE MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES) featured this story but showcased Medusa as an out and out monster discarding any resemblance to a human being. The creature itself, looked like an octopus and a big tree mixed together with dozens of snakes atop its head and a huge, glowing orb for an eye.
Compared to the lesser 1960's fusto films, these new imitations (modeled after CONAN) were far worse. Relatively few had anything at all to do with Greek Myth opting instead for a more savage time with primitive man subbing for Roman gladiators. Both styles work on much the same level. There was swords, sorcery and sometimes monsters in the barbarian style films as there were in the muscleman epics which also used the primitive man conceit in some entries.
Probably the beginning of this new Italian cycle was ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE (1983) starring one time Tarzan, Miles O'Keefe. This was a cookie cutter CONAN movie with twice as much action and a giant spider. The story is similar only more funny (unintentionally so). At least you have the gorgeous Sabrina Siani to ogle at. A sequel followed entitled ATOR, THE BLADE MASTER (1984). This film was even worse. It featured numerous and glaring continuity errors to amp up the laugh factor and was an MST3K favorite. Only their version was called CAVE DWELLERS and sported different opening and closing credits that had scenes from another movie. A third ATOR movie called IRON WARRIOR (1985) was a little better, but not by much.
Then, in 1983, the return of the most famous mythological hero was taking place...HERCULES, starring Lou Ferrigno. Directed by passionate fantasy filmmaker Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH), the film was a dismal misfire and a laugh riot made all the more hilarious in that it got wide release from MGM. A sequel was shot back to back but a spotty release resulted in it being sent quickly to video. In all fairness, the effects utilized had never been done before in Italy. However, it's so in your face and the makers take it all so seriously and the films take blatant liberties from SUPERMAN, you can't help but laugh.
Another 80's peplum starring Ferrigno was called THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS (1983) directed by Bruno Mattei and also starred Brad Harris, Sybil Danning and a villainous turn from Dan Vadis in his last film. The template was, of course, THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) which itself, begat the US western, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). This one was bad as well but nothing could prepare you for the badness that was Enzo Castellari's SINBAD OF THE 7 SEAS (1987) also starring Ferrigno.
Other examples include the intresting Avi Nesher futuristic actioner SHE (1985) starring Sandahl Bergman, Gordon Mitchell and David Brandon. THRONE OF FIRE (1983) stars Sabrina Siani, the gory and violent CONQUEST (1983) from Lucio Fulci was headlined by Jorge Rivero and Sabrina Siani again. IRON MASTER (1983) stars George Eastman from director Umberto Lenzi and the execrable, mind numbingly awful THE INVINCIBLE BARBARIAN (1982) with Siani yet again in one of the most painful cinematic experiences ever. One of my favorites, THE BARBARIANS (1987), starring twins David and Peter Paul is a lively and very violent sword & sorcery comedy adventure directed by Ruggero Deodato. Richard Lynch and Michael Berryman also star.
For there time, the muscleman epics packed movie houses around the world. They offered ample amounts of escapist entertainment and an alternative to the typically overblown and massively budgeted Hollywood peplum films that retain respectable recognition today; something denied there Italian counterparts. Generally, the most famous and most acknowledged in America (although some circles will snicker at the mention of these as well) are the first two Steve Reeves films. To a lesser extent, Mario Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1962) has received a much needed reappraisal as a triumph of style over substance. A film I would go so far as to compare to Sergio Leone's work in that Bava's movie is like a nightmarish painting come to life; dialog wouldn't be necessary to follow the film. You could sit back and watch and be enamored at the sights transpiring onscreen.
The bulk of these movies have little to offer outside of cheap thrills and 90 minutes of entertainment value; larger than life heroes, gorgeous women, monsters and sometimes lavish sets. Enjoyment is really all that's required as cinema is an entertainment medium and as long as a movie entertains, then that's all that really matters in the end.
CONTINUED IN PART 4...