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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hercules (1958) review


Steve Reeves (Hercules), Sylvia Koscina (Iole), Fabrizio Mioni (Jason), Ivo Garrani (Pelias), Gianna Maria Canale (Antea), Arturo Dominici (Eurysteus), Mimmo Palmara (Iphitus), Lidia Alfonsi (The Sybil), Gabriele Antonini (Ulysses), Aldo Fiorelli (Argos), Andrea Fantasia (Laertes), Luciana Paluzzi (Iole's maid)

Directed by Pietro Francisci

The Short Version: The original superman, as played by the original he-man, brings together a multitude of Greek mythologies for an adventurous, if flawed sword and sandal epic. A worldwide success, the feats of Hercules and other fantastical superheroes flexed their big screen muscles till the mid 60s when the genre got sand kicked in its face by gun-toting anti-heroes in hundreds of Euro westerns. For motion picture Tough Guys, Steve Reeves remains a god among men.

On his way to train the militia of King Pelias, Hercules rescues his daughter after her horse-drawn chariot nearly goes off a cliff. Hercules is introduced to the King and instantly riles his arrogant son, Iphitus. The Demi-God eventually becomes embroiled in a murder plot of the previous King Aeson, a prophecy that foretells doom for Pelias, and the search for the Golden Fleece, stolen from the kingdom of Jalco and said to contain the name of the King's killer and usurper. Hercules and Aeson's son, Jason set sail aboard the Argo to find it, and to learn who killed King Aeson.

Pietro Francisci's monumental muscleman movie benched, curled and crunched an entire genre upon its shoulders for a healthy seven year period. Much of that weight revolved around American bodybuilder, Steve Reeves. The American born bodybuilding champion was, and has remained a massive influential force on the lasting physique of the sword and sandal genre, long after it lost its chiseled features. 

As gigantically popular as the picture and its star was, Reeves flexed little acting muscle in this movie. While a sight to behold, and looking every bit the Demi-God, a sizable chunk of the film is given to Fabrizio Mioni as Jason. For a good stretch of footage, you might temporarily forget the film is titled HERCULES. The Olympian strongman does battle it out with the Nemean Lion, the Cretian Bull, but the much more lithe Jason takes centerstage in the middle of the movie, and slays a giant dinosaur that roars like Godzilla. Sometimes it feels like the film stops and one character is swapped out for the other for a while. It makes for an awkward experience. Francisci would make a much better movie for the sequel.

The Italian title translates to 'The Labors of Hercules', yet we only see two of the twelve. At times, it's labor getting through Francisci's movie. It's occasionally plodding, clumsily photographed, and lacking excitement. In its defense, all the genre concepts are present and accounted for. The muscular hero; the quest; beautiful women; dancing girls in diaphanous gowns; convoluted court intrigue; monsters; feats of strength. Other films (including the sequel to this one) improved on what began here; so while HERCULES doesn't hold up as well as other entries, it was a trendsetter that paved the way for many other bodybuilders turned actors both American and Italian; and it also made its star, Steve Reeves the highest paid actor in Europe at that time. 

Born in Montana, Reeves became interested in bodybuilding as a teenager. By age 21 in 1947, he was a Mr. America contest winner; Mr. World in 1948; a Mr. Universe title soon followed in 1950. Key to his unique form was working all the muscle groups per workout, and only training three days a week. After his Mr. America win, he aroused interest of acting coaches; later finding his way into vaudevillian stage acts, and then, a meeting with Cecil B. De Mille for the title role in SAMSON & DELILAH (1949). When that didn't pan out because of Reeves' not desiring to lose 15 pounds, he ended up making his motion picture debut in Ed Wood's JAIL BAIT (1954). Reportedly, a lot of Hollywood's big names at the time -- guys like Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, and Gary Cooper -- refused to work with him matters of physicality. Another film Reeves did work on, ATHENA (1954), was seen in Italy by the daughter of Pietro Francisci. The director was scouting for the right man to play his HERCULES and upon his daughters notification, Reeves was contacted to be the lead in the soon to be box office smash. Francisci's five year long mythological mission to locate his Demi-God had come to an end.

Reportedly costing $500,000 to make, Reeves was paid $10,000 for HERCULES and its superior sequel HERCULES UNCHAINED (1959). As his motion picture resume increased, so did his salary. Reeves headlined some fantastic historical-fantasy-adventure epics -- some of which went on to become defining examples of sword and sandal cinema.

When picked up for North American distribution by Joseph E. Levine, the film, dubbed into English, was a surprise hit. It made millions, and turned Steve Reeves into a major worldwide star whose onscreen stature was as big as his musculature.

According to Reeves in interviews, he was offered the lead role in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), but turned it down due to not believing in the project. He'd worked with that films director, Sergio Leone, on the grand-scale production, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1959); a film which Reeves stated Leone directed 90% of. A progressively worsening shoulder injury suffered during the last days of shooting POMPEII led to the actor ending his acting career in 1969. He also stated to have been offered the role of James Bond in CASINO ROYALE (1967), and asked to headline ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) alongside Raquel Welch, but turned both down over money. He made more money in Italy, and that's where his career stayed till his last film, and his favorite of his works, A LONG RIDE FROM HELL (1968). He moved back to the US and raised horses on his California ranch, and remained associated with the bodybuilding industry till his death in 2000.

Italian actor Mimmo Palmara (Domenico Palmara) had already been in a few peplum adventures prior to HERCULES, but it was the Reeves film that shot him to stardom in his home country. Palmara proceeded to quickly fill up his resume with one Torch & Toga movie after the other; working with virtually every American bodybuilding import Italian producers could get their hands on after all the dollari that were ringing up in box office cash registers. Palmara was, at the time, one of the few European film actors with an imposing build for these kinds of pictures. Not long after, Italian bred He-man stars came in the form of Adriano Bellini (Kirk Morris), Sergio Ciani (Alan Steel), and Pietro Torrisi. Palmara later founded his own voice dubbing company in 1967 that handled a wide array of genre features, television shows, and cartoons.

Peplums and their Fusto/Muscleman companion features aren't just half dressed beefcake parading around onscreen; there's also a good deal of lovely examples of cheesecake, too. If you love cheesecake as much as this reviewer, than you frequently get quite a selection in this genre. Sylvia Koscina got a career bump from HERCULES; and the gorgeous Luciana Paluzzi (seen above at left of Koscina) had a small role here. Gianna Maria Canale (see insert) was already established actress, but her role as the Queen of the Amazons led to many more similar roles as heroines and villainesses. 

Mario Bava, a favorite filmmaker among European movie fans, handled the lighting, and special effects on this movie. His handiwork and penchant for vivid colors is apparent in more than a few sequences. His would become more increasingly apparent in other other movies of this genre till he was given the chance to direct one exclusively on his own; the result being the astonishing HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961).

Enzo Masetti's score for HERCULES is occasionally pleasing to the ear, but other times, it feels like you're watching a science fiction movie. The distinguishable epic style of S&S score would be much better represented in later films like ROMULUS & REMUS (1961), THE FURY OF ACHILLES (1962), GOLIATH AND THE SINS OF BABYLON (1963), THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS (1964) and the rollickingly upbeat SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS (1965).

HERCULES has been released countless times on various budget labels (VHS and DVD), but has yet to conquer America in a superior digital presentation. Likely France has represented this classic the best. The German Concorde version (paired with the sequel, and the source of this review) is unfortunately cut by ten minutes and not full 2.35 widescreen anamorphic.

Despite its significance, HERCULES is one of Reeves' lesser efforts. HERCULES UNCHAINED, GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS (1959), and especially THE TROJAN HORSE (1961) are better mounted features. However, it will always be HERCULES that is the defining film that immortalized Steve Reeves' stunning displays of masculinity that amazed legions of fans, and influenced scores of filmmakers. Furthermore, credit is due for Francisci building the body of the peplum/fusto film genre; refining and sculpting the movie muscles that flexed the pecs of some 200 films in Italy, and gave fans overseas escapist entertainment value for years.

This review is representative of the German Concorde DVD.

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