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Friday, November 16, 2018

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965) review


Gordon Scott (Hercules), Paul Stevens (Diogenes), Mart Hulswit (Ulysses), Diana Hyland (Princess Diana), Steve Garrett (Petra), Roger Browne (Ortag), Gordon Mitchell (Pirate Captain), Giorgio Ardisson (Leander), Jacques Stanislavski (Argus), Mario Novelli (Botus)

Directed by Albert Band

The Short Version: Joseph Levine struck theatrical gold after importing HERCULES (1958) and its sequel from Italy. Regrettably, his lavish, ill-fated pilot for the ABC Network based on the Greek Demi-God was never picked up for production. This is unfortunate since Albert Band's 47 minutes of flex n' pecs is as strong as the best theatrical offerings; only by 1965, Hercules had lost his lucrative strength. Three of the genres biggest names and best actors--Gordon Scott, Gordon Mitchell and Roger Browne--give it all they've got; and Carlo Rambaldi builds a massive opponent for Hercules to duel in the form of a multi-limbed denizen of the deep brought to life via computer and engines, and operated by remote control. With a number of new, and subsequently popular TV shows debuting that week; and a handful of other children's programming airing in the same time-slot, the TV Gods decided the fate of HERCULES was to never set sail again.

An enormous sea monster terrorizes the people of Troy. To satiate the monster's appetite for human flesh and prevent the destruction of their city, the Trojans must sacrifice a young girl every month. Hercules, Ulysses and Diogenes, sailing aboard the Olympia on a long journey to Thebes, land on Troy's shores. Once there, they uncover an assassination plot to kill Hercules; a sinister scheme to seize the Trojan throne that puts the female heir in grave danger; and finally, they must devise a plan to defeat the maiden-devouring monster.

Without Joseph E. Levine, it's questionable if Sword and Sandal movies would've been as popular as they were in America in the late 50s and early 1960s. Outside of cult circles and nostalgia lovers, the genre is virtually forgotten these days. Back then, Levine managed to keep the genre in the public eye in America for the duration of its popularity in its home country of Italy. 

A former shoeshine boy turned multimillionaire movie mogul, Levine's penchant for showbiz savvy and extravagance was evidenced in the movies he handled. Founding Embassy Pictures in 1956, Levine brought Godzilla to America that same year with GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS; re-cut and with added footage of Raymond Burr. 

Not long after, the enterprising producer showed a lot of muscle with another import, Pietro Francisci's HERCULES (1958); the classic Italian mythological movie starring Mr. Universe Steve Reeves. Utilizing approximately $1.5 million to purchase rights, add dubbed dialog and promotion, his gamble paid off with some $15 million in grosses. The sequel, HERCULES UNCHAINED (1959), likewise proved profitable for the producer.

With the Sword and Sandal genre still popular in the early 1960s, Levine made his way into the proverbial gladiatorial arena again. From 1963 through 1964, Levine fostered over a dozen more Italian he-man movies and gladiator films for viewing on the small screen--repackaging them as THE SONS OF HERCULES series. Releasing them to television via his Embassy Pictures, this weekly series heralded a heroic adventure prefaced by a catchy theme song, 'The Mighty Sons of Hercules'.

He would return to the mythological well for the last time in 1965. Having worked with the genres first major player in Steve Reeves, Levine would now associate himself with the second biggest name of strongman cinema in Gordon Scott.

A weekly series about the adventures of Hercules wielded fantastic potential.... five years earlier. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS had been a hit in 1963; but by 1965, loincloth cinema had been usurped by westerns and spy pictures. The television medium is an entirely different battleground; but even there, the market was already flooded with westerns and a smattering of spy shows. You'd think a fantasy series would've been ideal for an entertainment pool with little variance. The public just wasn't interested.

Still, that's not to say the script by TV writer Larry Forrester and Italian adventure specialist Ugo Liberatore isn't appealing. Nearly all the genres cliches are accounted for. There's epic action sequences, feats of strength, and cliffhangers putting the protagonists in sufficient jeopardy between commercial breaks (the writers could've come up with a more believable manner for Hercules to be captured, though). For kids, anyway, it seemed like a great recipe.

Scott's musclebound hero is joined by Ulysses (played by newcomer Mart Hulswit) and Diogenes (played by veteran actor Paul Stevens). Had the show been picked up, Ulysses could've been the Robin to Hercules' Batman. In the pilot, the character isn't given much to do in an already crowded cast of characters. Diogenes is the more interesting of the two--as a scientist devising weapons to help Hercules in defeating the sea monster.

Shot in Rome and Yugoslavia, Levine's small-screen HERCULES was stunningly polished, benefiting from high production values and seasoned professionals both behind and in front of the camera. At just over 47 minutes, the HERCULES pilot looks bigger and better than many of the genre's full-length features. One of the programs greatest assets is its monster; an oversized crustacean created by a young Carlo Rambaldi--the future Oscar-winning FX artist of KING KONG (1976), ALIEN (1979) and E.T. (1982) to name a few.

In 1962, Rambaldi had built an impressive dragon for Antonio Margheriti's PERSEUS THE INVINCIBLE (itself one of the SONS OF HERCULES pictures re-christened as MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES) that looked more realistic than your average European-made fantasy picture. The sea beast seen in HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY is a slightly more impressive creation.

Measuring some 25 feet in length and costing $25,000 to build, the Herculean monstrosity was built with metal, plastic, and ten miles of wires--encasing six engines powered by a computer. Two operators maneuver the creepy crustacean (named Max by the cast and crew) via remote control transistor radios. 

HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY was heavily ballyhooed in all your finer monster periodicals of the time like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein, and Mad Monsters magazines. Gordon Scott may have been the star, but Mighty Max virtually overshadowed him from all the coverage he received back in the Fall of 1965 (and into the early months of 1966). With no advertising other than the TV Guide listing, the end result debuted on the ABC Network on Sunday, September 12th, 1965 from 7-8pm.

There were a lot of new shows debuting that week like GREEN ACRES (1965-1971), LOST IN SPACE (1965-1968) and THE WILD, WILD, WEST (1965-1969). HERCULES didn't have to contend with any of those, but was unable to strong-arm a multitude of kid-friendly competition. On CBS, it was the 12th season premiere of LASSIE (1954-1973) and the third season opener of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN (1963-1966) in the 7pm and 7:30pm time-slot.

Other children's shows provided stiff competition for the Son of Zeus over on NBC. For an hour block between 6:30pm and 7:30pm, the network aired a special preview of two soon-to-debut Saturday morning cartoons--Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel. The former was an insect with super strength; while the latter was the animal kingdom's James Bond. Following that was the conclusion of KILROY, a repeat of the 4-part tele-film on the WALT DISNEY'S WORLD program that originally premiered earlier that year in March.

Additionally, on another network, HERCULES was preceded at 6:30 by the US debut of the children's show, STINGRAY (1964-1965), a British Supermarionation television series.

There may not of been enough interest for ABC to order a season's worth of HERCULES, but examples of the genre were getting airplay that same week. The Saturday before HERCULES debuted saw an airing of Gianfranco Parolini's SAMSON from 1961 at 7pm; on Thursday, September 16th, Sergio Grieco's SWORD OF THE EMPIRE (1964) aired at 5pm. Not entirely unrelated, TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI (1956), another Gordon Scott outing, swung into action on CBS on Friday, September 17th at 5pm.

While kids were the primary audience for HERCULES' monster action, an international cast perform admirably in measuring up to their show-stealing, armor-plated co-star.

After making his mark as the best Tarzan next to Johnny Weissmuller, the late Gordon Scott went to Italy in 1960 where he found further fame as a host of heroes in a dozen costume epics and swashbucklers ranging from Maciste to Zorro. Strangely enough, Scott's last such picture was the first time he was playing Hercules. Dubbed in his previous peplums, we get to here Gordon's real voice this time.

As in his other pictures, Gordon Scott's performance possesses the energy of ten. Stoic as always, he would've made a fantastic Hercules had the series found life on network television. Gordon Scott was always a commanding presence, and he gets several opportunities to show off here; particularly during the finale while battling the monster. Another memorable sequence is at the beginning during an unusually impressive sea battle with pirates led by genre favorite Gordon Mitchell.

Mitchell fans will be disappointed in the actor's brief screen time considering he was a major player in Sword and Sandal cinema. Starting off playing the heroic Maciste in ATLAS IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS (1961), Mitchell's face was better suited to anti-heroes and villains--types of characters he excelled in such as the lead role in THE FURY OF ACHILLES (1962). 

Aside from Mitchell, there's a handful of other familiar faces of American and Italian heritage.

Faring better than Mitchell in screen time is fellow American actor Roger Browne as Ortag, the brave centurion who is presumed dead after facing the sea monster at the outset. Returning with a mask covering his mutilated face, he saves Hercules just in time for the big battle on the beach that concludes the movie. Browne had worked with Gordon Mitchell before in VULCAN, SON OF JUPITER (1962) and in two of Michele Lupo's grand gladiator trilogy--THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS (1964), SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD (1964) and minus Mitchell in his last genre offering, SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS (1965).

Browne, along with his colleagues Gordon Scott and Gordon Mitchell, were the best actors this genre had ever seen. This was the only film to feature all three of them together. You can read our extensive interview with Roger Browne HERE.

Diana Hyland is the title Princess placed in peril by the usual throne usurper essential to vintage mythological movies. The typical plot device is that the hero saves the female protagonist, with both living happily ever after at the end. This being a pilot for a television series, you can't have your hero settling down so soon; so Hercules doesn't get the girl.

The late Ms. Hyland featured in numerous television programs--one of which being the spooky TWILIGHT ZONE episode, 'Spur of the Moment' from season five. Sadly, she died in 1977 from breast cancer at a very young 41 years of age.

Blonde-haired Georgio Ardisson (George Ardisson) was a fixture of Italian adventure, westerns and horror pictures, but barely gets anything to do or even say in HERCULES other than stand in as the love interest for Princess Diana. One of his most memorable roles was as the villain in the Barbara Steele Italian horror feature, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964).

Another member of the Italian cast fans will recognize is stuntman and actor Mario Novelli (he does both here; doubling Scott in a scene where he stops a galloping horse). An unremarkable actor, he rarely got many lines (if any at all); and the trend continues in HERCULES. Novelli has a duel with Hercules in what amounts to a failed assassination attempt. Novelli appeared in some of Italian muscleman cinema's best later examples--as well as a number of Italian and barbarian movies--he just never stood out as more than a familiar face.

Albert Band directs the action with flair, giving a glimpse at what a full-length Fusto feature would've looked like under his guidance. Band did work with Gordon Scott again in the same year's THE TRAMPLERS; an intriguing Italian western co-starring Joseph Cotten, James Mitchum, and Franco Nero. Band previously directed the quirky horror film, I BURY THE LIVING in 1958; returning to horror in 1977 with the thoroughly bizarre and campy DRACULA'S DOG. The father of Charles Band, he made movies under his son's Empire Pictures; and again in numerous Full Moon productions.

Fred Steiner's opulent musical arrangements are as big as Hercules' muscles. His impressive cues greatly enhance an already stout production. Steiner composed music for some of the greatest television shows of all time; these include GUNSMOKE, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, STAR TREK, THE WILD, WILD WEST and HAWAII FIVE-O to name a few.

Well known as a cinematographer, Enzo Barboni photographed films as diverse as ROMULUS AND REMUS (1961), NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965) and DJANGO (1966). In 1970, Barboni moved up to directing, helming the wildly popular THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970) and its even more profitable sequel, TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME (1971).

Billed as a one-hour special narrated by the esteemed Hollywood actor Everett Sloane, you'll know his face from dozens of television shows; including THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (as Jubal Foster), THE TWILIGHT ZONE (the main character in 'The Fever'), and a few GUNSMOKE episodes to name some of his credits. Sadly, Sloane would take his own life on August 6th, 1965. HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY would be one of, if not his last credit.

HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY looked its best when TNT aired their yearly New Years Eve Sword & Sandal all-nighter where it played as HERCULES VS. THE SEA MONSTER. It looked its worst on German DVD as HERKULES UND DIE PRINZESSIN VON TROJA. The packaging makes the release look high quality, but the contents are little more than a dupe from a horrible looking VHS tape.

Possibly had Levine pushed this endeavor when the genre was a heavyweight, HERCULES may have been picked up as a weekly series. Then we could've seen Gordon Scott battling various monsters and duplicitous villains once a week for at least a full season, if not two. With but a single pilot episode, HERCULES AND THE PRINCESS OF TROY is an historical curio of what might of been.

This review is representative of the Retromedia DVD. Specs and Extras: Full Screen presentation; paired with ATLAS IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS and GIANTS OF ROME; Running time: 00:47:09


manonfire007 said...

Outstanding review and behind the scenes overview of an overlooked classic! I have always been a big Gordon Scott fan and thought he should have been a much bigger star than he was. What might have been if this pilot had found its audience!

venoms5 said...

Thanks. I have the TV Guide from that week so it helped in putting things into perspective. I'm a big Gordon Scott fan as well and agree with you. I've got a lot of pieces on him coming in the near future.

Larry Anderson said...

Man did you ever capture the "spirit" of this title. Well done. I went to a friends house to see this in 1965 (They had color TV), and loved it. All the other Sword & Sandal pics were shown on TV as well during that time period. Larry Anderson.

venoms5 said...

Thanks! First one I ever saw was HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS on a Saturday morning. It's always fun reading other people's memories on these films.

Larry Anderson said...

Thanks for the comment. I have seen ALL of these type of movies over the years. I enjoyed them all. Keep collecting. Larry Anderson

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