Hercules: "Why don't the two of us join forces?"
Samson: "I was thinking the same thing!"
A routine but entertaining and even sporadically exciting sword-and-sandal epic, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses (Ercole sfida Sansone, or "Hercules Challenges Samson," 1964) is regarded as the last major effort of the peplum genre in the same way Touch of Evil (1958) is usually considered the last true film noir. Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, or "The Labors of Hercules," 1958), famously starring Steve Reeves, had been an international hit, spurring dozens if not hundreds of imitators. At least 19 Hercules movies followed, as well as myriad Maciste, Samson, Ursus, and Goliath films (among others), many of which became faux Hercules movies when they were dubbed and retitled for U.S. release.
But the market for such films quickly became absurdly oversaturated, and when in 1964-65 Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars proved a big moneymaker across Europe and Japan, the same casts and crews cranking out peplum switched virtually overnight to Spaghetti Westerns. Within a year or so of Hercules, Samson & Ulysses which, like the original Hercules was directed by Pietro Francisci, the genre soon collapsed.
An Archive Collection release from Warner Bros., Hercules, Samson & Ulysses features a strong 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer, includes a trailer, and is region-free.
With a sea monster loose off the coast of Ithaca, King Laertes (Andrea Fantasia) dispatches muscleman Hercules (Kirk Morris) and his sharp-witted friend Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico) to slay it. After encountering the beast, disappointingly portrayed by footage of a snarling Steller sea lion, the crew of Hercules' ship encounters a storm and soon is shipwrecked near Judea.
Hercules kills an ox with his bare hands for the men to eat, and later they reach a village of Danites. There, in the shadows, the mighty Samson (Richard Lloyd) has gone into hiding from the Philistines. He suspects the Greeks are actually Philistine spies. Nevertheless, several Danites helpfully accompany Hercules, Ulysses, and the surviving crew to Gaza, ruled with an iron fist by Philistine King Seren (Aldo Giuffrè) and his conniving mistress, Delilah (Liana Orfei).
However, when Hercules is seen wrestling and ultimately overpowering a lion, everyone incorrectly assumes he's the fugitive Samson. Suspecting Hercules's denials may be true, and recognizing Hercules as the only man strong enough to challenge Samson, Seren strikes a deal with the great Greek, offering to release his crew in exchange for Samson's capture.
As I told pal Sergei Hasenecz, who has fond memories of the film when he saw it as a child, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses has in its favor lots of boulder-throwing. A promised battle between Hercules and Samson doesn't disappoint. Amid what looks like Babylonian ruins the two go at it, knocking over and crashing into great stone (i.e., Styrofoam) pillars, which come tumbling down all around them.
(Mild Spoilers) Ulysses, who gets co-star billing in the English but not in the Italian title, gets shortchanged a bit, but he does come up with the plan to defeat the Philistine army and its World War II-issue German helmets. Obviously inspired by Samson's destruction of the Temple of Dagon, Ulysses points to vulnerable spots at a mountaintop temple, which together Hercules and Samson send collapsing down on top of the soldiers. Although one of the stone blocks briefly takes flight like a Frisbee on its way down, I'll still take this sort of audacious spectacle over CGI any day.
Kirk Morris was in fact Italian (and born Adriano Bellini), one of the few homegrown Hercules in a genre that usually cast American or British musclemen. (Morris, supposedly, was discovered while working as a gondolier in Venice.) A fair-to-middling Hercules, Morris resembled Elvis Presley's kissin' cousin (played by Elvis in a blonde wig in the 1964 film Kissin' Cousins) but otherwise was pretty undistinguished, though not bad. (I prefer Reg Park's genial Hercules myself.) Richard Lloyd, as Samson, was actually Iloosh Khoshabe (who died this past April), ironically an Iranian bodybuilder playing the iconic Hebrew hero. Regrettably Iloosh Khoshabe never formed a partnership with Ish Kabibble.
Video & Audio
Hercules, Samson & Ulysses is presented in 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen. Probably the film was meant for 1.85:1 projection in Italy (that being the standard for non-'scope films there) but shown 1.75:1, MGM's non-'scope standard, in the United States. Either way this ratio looks just about perfect and the film, while it has its share of minor scratches and other imperfections, is bright, sharp, and colorful. The region free-disc, running 86 minutes, is in English only, with a fine Dolby Digital mono track. The slightly longer, 93-minute Italian version is not included.
The only extra is an amusing trailer for the U.S. release, in 4:3 matted widescreen.
Slightly above average for the genre, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses is a great popcorn movie, fun for what it is. With lots of boulder-tossing. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.