Wednesday 2 March 2011

Hercules in the Center of the Earth (1961)

It's about time I reviewed a Mario Bava film, as opposed to just referring to them.  This is atypical of his work in one sense because it's not a horror or giallo - the genres on which his reputation principally rests.  However, in another sense it is very much typical of his style: clean, crisp photography, dazzling and inventive use of color; and interesting mise-en-scene.

For the non-film student, and excuse me if I'm teaching granny to suck eggs here, mise-en-scene is generally taken to refer to those elements which the director (and sometimes cinematographer and production or set designer) has chosen to place in front of the camera.  So, for any given scene, it refers to the use of and placement of actors, sets, props and lighting.  Martin Scorsese once said "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out."  Now that's a truism but what he's getting at is that the director creates meaning by virtue of what he chooses to photograph as well as what he chooses not to photograph.  A good director won't have extraneous stuff in shot and a great director, like Hitchcock, can add layers of meaning by including the things he meticulously chooses to include and where he chooses to place them.

Without wanting to overdose on technical terms, it's also important to note that HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio - that is to say the image is 2.35 times wider than it is high (as you can see by the still above).  This is conventionally known as widescreen.  It was introduced to bring the spectacle and the epic back to cinema, to try to fight off the emerging competition from television, and essentially it gives the director the ability to use impressive wide panoramic shots, if used correctly.  I remember a quote from one director when 2.35:1 was in its infancy (it may have been George Stevens) who said that all it was good for was shooting snakes and funerals.  In the hands of someone like Bava, who liked to tell his stories through pictures rather than words and who always thought in visual terms, it was a godsend because he could go to town on the mise-en-scene and get it all in shot.  This still is a good example:

Here, Hercules goes to see King Lico (Christopher Lee), whose eminence and power is underlined by the vast throne room in which he alone may sit.  Similarly, this is a shot of the oracle whom Hercules consults in order to find out how to restore his love, Dianara, to her senses.

The widescreen allows Bava to use a beautiful symmetry, which the Ancient Greeks would no doubt have appreciated.  It could also be argued that the symmetry, and particularly the reflection of the oracle in the water, hints at the equivocal nature of the Gods and that their favour can quickly turn to wrath.

As I said earlier, widescreen was all about the vast and the epic, which is why it was perfectly suited to tales of Hercules and gods and monsters.  This genre, which was hugely popular in Italy, is usually referred to - somewhat disparagingly, as a sword-and-sandals movie, or sometimes as a peplum.  They really took off in 1957 with the release of HERCULES starring Steve Reeves, who we all know from our Rocky Horror lyrics.  As is the way with Italian cinema, the success of that film led to dozens of official or semi-official sequels and spin-offs (or rip-offs if we're being uncharitable).  Once Reeves had had enough, any number of muscle-bound guys played the part, including Gordon Scott, Mickey Hargitay (Mr Jayne Mansfield) and, in this particular case, Reg Park, a professional bodybuilder from Leeds who after quitting acting became Arnie's mentor.

Reg Park
Although you might argue that the 2.35:1 aspect ratio allows Reg to display his pecs to impressive effect, it does illustrate one of the drawbacks of widescreen: close-ups.  They weren't that easy to do with such a wide screen to fill and, consequently, you don't get many of them.  That has the effect of making the films seem less personal, and heightens the feeling of distance between the viewer and subject.  Again, this is why the format was more suited to the epic rather than the intimate.  It's difficult to imagine, for example, BRIEF ENCOUNTER played out in widescreen.

This is about as intimate as you could get in 2.35:1
Not that any of that bothered Mario Bava who, at the best of times, was less interested in his characters than his sets.  Using the widescreen to its full potential we get shots of boats in storms, sacrificial altars, ropes strung across seas of fire, coffins opening, rockfaces splitting - you name it, it's all in here.  As if to underline his delight at having such a canvas to play with there are not one but two sequences of men being stretched!

Sometimes in genre cinema you come across a film which delivers so successfully that it transcends its limitations and achieves real stature.  I hesitate to say this is one such case because there are some problems with it but what I really like about it is the sheer flair and inventiveness with which it was made.  Unlike some of his peers, Bava never seemed to me to treat his films as hack jobs - he really worked hard to make them the best they could be.  And for that reason I would rather watch HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, with all of its wooden acting, laboured comedy and dreadful dubbing, than any film by the likes of James Cameron or Michael Bay.  There is nothing in their films which even come close to the art of Mario Bava.  And there is no better way to illustrate that point than with some stills from this beautiful film.

And perhaps the image which sums up the timelessness and majesty of Bava's vision:

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