Despite the success of the sword n' sandal explosion begun by Pietro Francisi's 1958 Le fatiche di Ercole -- Hercules -- the genre never attracted the reverence afforded the Italian Spaghetti Western. Sergio Leone's Dollar movies have remained top titles in every market, but his epic The Colossus of Rhodes has never been officially released on an American video format. Retromedia's Widescreen Edition presents the spectacularly muscled Steve Reeves in the film that started it all, along with a "bonus feature" The Mole Men against the Son of Hercules.
Hercules is one of the more important trend-setting Italian pictures of the sound era. It became a top box office draw in literally every foreign territory. American promoter Joseph E. Levine dabbled in foreign film production and with his Embassy Pictures distribution outfit had profited from the reworked version of the Japanese Godzilla. He secured the rights for Le fatiche di Ercole, had it recut and re-dubbed, and spent a fortune on marketing. His "saturation" campaign clogged the airwaves with radio and TV spots, all shouting "Hercules! Hercules!" The audience turned out in record numbers.
Long before superheroes became a fixture in mainstream features, American kids cheered and worshipped muscleman Steve Reeves. Warner Bros. quickly snapped up Pietro Francisi's exciting sequel Ercole e la regina di Lidia (Hercules Unchained) and by 1961 the world was flooded with movies about musclemen in Roman skirts. Major distributors competed with independents to import dubbed export versions; investment money flowed into Italy. Bodybuilding talent from Venice, California's Muscle Beach followed Steve Reeves to Rome in search of instant stardom.
"Mr. Universe" winner Steve Reeves' pre-Hercules career consisted only of Ed Wood's Jail Bait and the MGM musical Athena with fellow muscleman Ed Fury and Joe Gold of Gold's Gym fame. Reeves' acting may not be sophisticated but his beefy body language is well suited to the noble and righteous Hercules. This strongman wrestles lions and asks questions later. He expresses his rocky relationship with his kin in Olympus by raising his arms into a spectacular muscle pose, throwing his head back and exclaiming, "By the Gods!" or something to that effect. One of the first things Hercules says is that he's sincere and always tells the truth, just like Christopher Reeve in Superman - The Motion Picture.
Reeves also displays a fine form when wrestling drugged animals and bashing monkey-men with a wooden club. For a dynamic entrance he tears a tree up by its roots and flings it down before Iole's panicked horses. Reeves folds an iron bar, the luscious Sylva Koscina flashes an admiring smile in his direction and it's love at first sight. Yugoslavian beauty Koscina graced a number of classy productions, appearing in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Georges Franju's Judex. Although she exhibits ladylike poise throughout both films, the posters for Hercules picture her hanging from Steve Reeves' belt, cringing in delight at his prowess.
Hercules is a colorful and imaginative production given epic scope by Francisci's able direction. But the film's strongest asset is the remarkable camera work of Mario Bava, a lighting and effects specialist who was already directing parts of films signed by Riccardo Freda, and who would three years later launch his own career in horror with La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday). Bava's dramatic color lighting is immediately recognizable, whether getting the most from a sunset exterior or bathing an interior set with jolting blasts of colored light. Although Hercules meets no fantastic monsters, Bava engineers an excellent in-the-camera battle between Jason and a dinosaur-like beast guarding the Golden Fleece.
The big American distributors may have passed on Hercules after hearing its corny dialogue. Enzo Masetti's beautiful score certainly helps sell the film as a quality production. His rowing song for the voyage of the Argo is a winner, and its Italian lyrics make us wish that the film could be made available in its original Italian dub. Experts versed in the Greek classics won't be impressed by the script's 'anything goes' attitude to mythology, combining characters and stories with little regard. Jason, for instance, has been reduced to a minor player in his own myth.
"Mature" beauty Gianna Maria Canale (I vampiri) is a statuesque Amazon queen who tries but fails to steer Herc's thoughts away from Iole. Future Bond bad girl Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball) is Iole's principal handmaiden.
Retromedia's welcome release of Hercules comes in an enhanced widescreen transfer of acceptable quality. The opening title sequence is not the Embassy re-cut's animated star field but a regal set of cards against a crimson artwork background, apparently the original export version of the film before Joseph Levine's changes. Retromedia's encoding has variable contrast and isn't sharp enough for the film to hold up on a large projection monitor, but it will certainly pass until someone some company springs for a major restoration. A scene change during an underwater swim with the Amazons interrupts the music track in a way that suggests that material may have been cut.
The audio is a puzzle. Nobody who saw the original American release can forget Reeves' boomy, deep basso voice: "I've been tricked by the Gods!" The dubbing artist heard here doesn't have the steroid-pumped testosterone oomph we remember. The mix does contain a number of electronic sound effects that, if not lifted directly from the "electronic tonalities" of Forbidden Planet, sound exactly like them. The dragon roars with the distinctive voice of Godzilla, indicating that the soundtrack effects, at least, are from the Levine re-mix. Was Reeves' replacement voice changed for legal reasons, or is this an Italian export dub with the effects track borrowed from Levine's version?
The 'bonus feature' on the flip side is 1961's Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules, originally produced as Maciste, l'uomo pił forte del mondo: "Maciste, the World's Strongest Man." The "Mole Men" title is from television, as is Retromedia's flat print. Artlessly directed by Antonio Leonviola and produced by the better-known Elio Scardimaglia, the film stars Mark Forest, one of the more popular musclemen. The story is a generic strongman tale: Maciste and his sidekick Bango (Paul Wynter) infiltrate the underground lair of white-robed kidnappers who, like the Sumerians of Universal's The Mole People, cannot live in the sunlight. The cave dwellers use slave labor to mine precious minerals. Our hero is tempted by an evil queen (Moira Orfei) and rescues a purloined princess (Raffaella Carrą) but falls into an intrigue with the villain Katar (Gianni Garko), who plans to marry the queen and produce children who don't need to use heavy sunscreen.
The scratched and faded, Pan-Scanned flat 16mm print explains why Mole Men is considered an extra. Only diehard biceps fans will want to sit through the whole thing. Actually, the dippy folk-inflected "Sons of Hercules" song that opens the movie is always good for a laugh.
In a perfect world Hercules and its sweaty sequel Hercules Unchained would be restored in glorious original versions. Until then, Retromedia's version of the original will do nicely.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hercules rates: