Monday 24 June 2013

Hercules [1958]

HERCULES is an Italian historical epic that was directed by Pietro Francisci and originally released in February 1958 under the title Le fatiche di Ercole.  It stars the greatest cinema strongman of all time in Steve Reeves, as well as Sylva Koscina, Ivo Garroni, Gabriele Antonini, Fabrizio Mioni and Gianna Maria Canale.  The film is the direct starting point for the wave of similarly-themed Italian pictures that dominated Italian cinema for nearly ten years.  I've written before about the sword-and-sandal, or peplum, genre before (here) so I won't go over it again; suffice it to say that HERCULES is the daddy who spawned them all.

The model for the peplum was 'big strong hero is given a quest and, after overcoming many obstacles, completes it'.  Nothing wrong with that of course: when you get down to brass tacks, hundreds of thousands of films the world over utilise the same model.  Indeed, 'the quest' is properly identified as one of the seven basic plots to which all narratives allegedly conform.  Moreover, it's also the model which the original legends follow - Jason, Ulysses, Perseus, Theseus, they were all questers.

Steve Reeves as Hercules
Not that the Italians rigidly followed the legends of course; they stitched together the best bits from all sorts of legends in creating their fantasies.  HERCULES is a case in point: we get a couple of the twelve labours, the retrieval of the golden fleece alongside Jason and the rest of the Argonauts, and an encounter with the Amazons (although Hercules doesn't obtain the queen's girdle and she isn't called Hippolyte).

Hercules saves Iole from her runaway chariot horses
In some ways, these Italian peplums are my favourite genre.  What I like about them is that they are pure fantasy, drawing as they do on some of the most powerful mythical archetypes.  There is a reason these tales have endured for so long, much longer in fact than Biblical stories: they speak to us of pure heroes, of gods and immortals, of fabulous beasts and monsters, of great love and great evil, of great deeds and wretched villainy.  They are what story-telling is all about, in essence, and therefore at the root of what good cinema should also be.

Hercules rejoices having implored the gods to grant him mortality
Unfortunately, HERCULES is a bit rubbish, albeit in a completely endearing way.  There are a load of things that are obviously wrong with it: Reeves can't act, the script is banal and some of the effects are pitiful. If I was being uncharitable I'd describe it as being like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS [1963] with all the Ray Harryhausen bits taken out.  It's one of those films which, if you watched it with a group of mates, you'd be sniggering all the way through. But watch it on your own and it wins you over, almost despite itself.

Hercules defeats the Cretan bull, sort of.

Jason (R) gingerly approaches his prize - the golden fleece
Yes, Reeves can't act but watching him perform is like watching the myth made flesh - was there anyone better suited to play Hercules than Reeves?  I very much doubt it, and I say that as a huge admirer of Nigel Green in the aforementioned JASON movie.  You can see why the film was a massive success, regardless of its many flaws, and that's because the one thing it absolutely had to get right was its depiction of the hero and the producers scored a bullseye in Reeves.

Iole's beautifully designed bed chamber
The one other thing the film has in its favour is on the technical side.  Although director Pietro Francisci was somewhat anonymous, he lucked out in having the great Mario Bava as his lighting cameraman and effects guy.

My admiration for Bava is well documented on this blog and in HERCULES, despite not having total control, his personal stamp is all over it, and in particular the scenes that stand out.  There's a sequence early on when Iole, recounting a childhood memory, awakes from a nightmare; the set design and, especially, the lighting are beautiful, strange and sinister, all at the same time, and a huge contrast to the rather bland visuals that Francisci routinely offers us.

The young Iole wakes in fright
I can't prove it of course but I imagine this sequence was largely Bava's work; compare it to some of the stills I used to illustrate my review of HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (linked above) to see the similarity.  Better still, get hold of a copy of Bava's anthology horror BLACK SABBATH / I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA [1963] - which has just been released on blu-ray - and marvel at his use of colour, light and darkness to create an atmosphere of dreamlike fear.

Steve Reeves (L) aboard the Argo
Of the supporting cast, there's not much to be said.  Love interest Sylva Koscina became a middling European star but crammed well over a hundred appearances, some of them big budget American productions, into her sadly prematurely ended career.  The striking Gianna Maria Canale, who plays Antea, Queen of the Amazons, was already well into her movie career by the time of HERCULES, having previously appeared in Riccardo Freda's landmark horror film I VAMPIRI [1956], reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Sylva Koscina as Iole

Gianna Maria Canale as Antea
Steve Reeves was of course primarily a bodybuilder although he did actively seek acting roles and was apparently determined to break into movies.  That said, despite his huge international success it seems he didn't enjoy acting and is quoted as saying he found it very stressful.  Which is probably why he only made twenty-odd pictures and retired from the screen in 1964 (although he did return for one last role in a western in 1968).  After that he retired to his ranch to raise horses, his other great passion.  A passion in fact that you can see in HERCULES as he was a talented horseman who did all his own riding stunts.  He died in May 2000, at the age of 74, film immortality ensured.

Hercules brings the house down

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