Despite being popular in back in the day, peplum films don't seem to be as popular with the Italian cult film crowd today when compared to other subgenre's like spaghetti westerns and gialli. Why is that? Is it due to the lack of gritty violence and other over-the-top tendencies or even for the homosexual undertones of seeing well built, greased up body builders? Well for my money it's because there truly isn't a great film in the genre. "Hercules" is considered the cr√®me-de-le cr√®me that the genre had to offer. It was the "Good the Bad and the Ugly" and "Deep Red" of the peplum genre. And to be honest it isn't that good.
Sure "Hercules" is entertaining enough as a B-fantasy film but it's far from great. Steve Reeves looks part of Hercules with his "Mr. Universe" physique but his acting, along with the rest of the cast is below par. The acting of course isn't the only problem with this "epic."
The narrative of the film is sloppy and it's hard to follow the disjointed plot as Hercules falls for a young princess and basically hired by her father to find the golden fleece that Jason and his Argonauts stole and along the way fights numerous foes and finds out the killers of the kings brother.
The plot of this film depends on the audience knowing the story of Jason and the Argonauts. If I never saw the popular American film, which actually came out after this, I would not know what the fuck was going on here as Hercules bounces around from situation to situation looking for the damn thing. Even though this came out four years before "Jason and the Argonauts" I recommend viewing that film before delving into "Hercules."
The special effects are also extremely laughable as Hercules and his soldiers fight bulls, lions an even a fucking dinosaur. I can't judge a film too harshly for below par special effects but boy oh boy does this wish for the day of Ray Harryhausen.
I enjoyed "Hercules" enough for what it was but let's be honest, it's a brainless fantasy film with a muscle bound hero sleepwalking through a poor flowing script making it just an "epic" B movie. This is why I believe the genre has never truly been embraced as no director was able to craft a great film out of the genre, despite future talented directors like Sergio Leone getting their start there. At the time though "Hercules" was an enormous success and much like popular names in the spaghetti western genre like Django and Sartana, Hercules would be followed by what seems like an infinite number of unofficial sequels starring other muscle bound men cashing in on the Herc name. Out of all those cash-in's, only one official sequel would be made with Steve Reeves returning to the role in "Hercules Unchained." The Italians would later reinvent the story of Hercules in the laugh educing 1983 remake starring Lou Ferrigno.
Although ‚??Hercules‚?? was the first of some 300 sword and sandal sagas to follow until the Spaghetti western eclipsed the genre around 1964, the Italians had been producing sword and sandal movies long before ‚??Hercules.‚?? One of the first major silent films, director Giovanni Pastrone‚??s ‚??Cabiria‚?? appeared in 1914 and concerned the abduction of the eponymous little girl that pirates kidnapped during an eruption of Mount Etna during the third century B.C. A Roman spy and his mesomorphic muscle-bound slave Maciste rescued Cabiria. Aside from revitalizing a moribund genre, Francisci‚??s ‚??Hercules‚?? is notable not only for its star, bodybuilder Steve Reeves of ‚??Mr. Universe‚?? fame, but also for lenser Mario Bava whose widescreen pictorial compositions as well as his atmospheric lightning. Reeves went on to star in several more pepla, and Bava later helmed ‚??Hercules in the Haunted World.‚?? ‚??Hercules Unchained‚?? with Reeves and co-star Sylva Koscina followed ‚??Hercules.‚??
Aesthetically, ‚??Hercules‚?? qualifies as an uneven effort. Francisci and his scenarists derived their screenplay from Apollonius of Rhodes‚?? Greek epic poem "Argonautica" that dealt with Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. In this film, Hercules literally usurps Jason as the hero when in reality the son of Jupiter played a peripheral role in the exploit. British director Don Chaffey helmed the best cinematic version of the Golden Fleece myth in 1963 with his exciting ‚??Jason and the Argonauts‚?? that boasted the superb stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. One of the problems with ‚??Hercules‚?? is that Jason recovers the fleece rather too easily from a giant reptile that sleeps near the tree where the fleece hangs. Reeves has a few uncomfortable moments when he goes on the rampage, literally blowing his cool, and sounds a mite unbelievable. Mind you, this was the bodybuilder‚??s first starring role so he can be forgiven. Francisci plays everything straight down the line so that nothing appears deliberately campy. Of course, some of the hand-to-hand combat scenes where Hercules tangles with livestock such as a lion and a bison looks staged. Typically, the animal trainer would substitute for the star or the director would orchestrate the fights so that fake animal heads and paws could be used. Consequently, while it is an entertaining bit of hokum, ‚??Hercules‚?? isn‚??t as much fun as later strong man sagas.
"Hercules" became a blockbuster during its North American release and the success of the film in the United States can be attributed to Joseph E Levine. According to A.T. McKenna in his thesis ‚??Joseph E. Levine: Showmanship, Reputation and IndustrialPractice 1945 - 1977,‚?? ‚??Hercules‚?? made Levine an ‚??industry big shot.‚?? After every Hollywood studio passed on Francisci's film, Levine bought the film for a modest $120,000, dubbed in English dialogue, and changed the title from "The Labors of Hercules" to simply "Hercules." Levine's folly wound up raking in a fortune from its U.S. release and sequels that followed. Levine pioneered 'saturation' booking and opened "Hercules" in 600 theaters. According to the Turner Classic Movies website, this method of opening a movie was "unheard of" in the 1950s. Levine relied on radio and television advertising to arouse the public's curiosity and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. ‚??I had no misgivings about Hercules,‚?? Levine explained to the media. ‚??It had something for everybody. It had a dragon for kids, musclemen for growing boys, a shipwreck scene for waiters and clerks. Who doesn‚??t dream of getting stuck on an island with some broads? And the picture had Steve Reeves. He appealed to women.‚?? Gordon Scott, Gordon Mitchell, Ed Fury, Dan Vadis, Mark Forest, Reg Park and other American bodybuilders went to Europe to star in these films. Inevitably, continental bodybuilders took umbrage because of the reliance by their own producers and directors on Americans when just as many suitable muscle-bound specimens resided in Italy, the foremost being Alan Steel.
‚??Hercules‚?? unfolds with a venerable scene straight out of an old western. A beautiful woman, Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina of "Michael Strogoff"), shatters the afternoon calm when we loses control of a pair of horses hauling her chariot. She scatters a herd of goats. Francisci cuts to a close-up of tree roots being torn out of the ground and shows Hercules (Steve Reeves of ‚??Jailbait‚??) hurl the tree it into the path of the runaway horses. ‚??I thank the gods for providing me such a strong man when I needed him,‚?? Iole says. Hercules carries her from the chariot and sets her on a rock. ‚??I‚??ll admit that the sight of those runaway horses had me worried about you.‚?? Hercules suspects Iole is royalty from the standard on her chariot. As it turns out, Iola is the daughter of King Pelias of Iolcus (Ivo Garrani of "Roland the Mighty"), and our hero is in route to train Pelias‚?? son Prince Iphitus (Mimmo Palmara of ‚??Attila‚??) in the art of warfare. Iole furnishes Hercules with a brief history of her father‚??s suspicious rise to power, the death of his brother the king, and the thief of the Golden Fleece. Afterward, Hercules accompanies Iola back to the palace. An impulsive, arrogant young man, Iphitus hates Hercules. When a lion terrorizes the land, Hercules slays the beast. Iphitus interferes with Hercules, and the lion kills Iphitus before Hercules can kill it. A grief-stricken Pelias tells Hercules that the only way he can redeem himself is to kill the Cretan bull. Later, Pelias gives Hercules three months to bring back the Golden Fleece to prove that Jason is the rightful heir to the throne. A sea voyage follows and Jason reclaims the Golden Fleece after an encounter with a dragon.