Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Thor isn't just the latest in a long (so long...) line of comic book adaptations, it's also one of many films to adopt and distort a figure from mythology into a matinee idol. But while Kenneth Branagh's film is merely riding on the coattails of Marvel's self-willed cottage industry, its DNA includes a far more historic project that managed to establish a brand new genre of B-movies.
It's perhaps not surprising that there would come a point, when a little bit more money could be thrown at productions, that some Italian producers and directors would abandon the achingly ambitious work that had given their country such an enviable international profile for something even remotely fun, and this happened in 1958, with a certain Le fatiche di Ercole, or The Labors of Hercules. The film was a monumental hit at home and abroad, and begat the first wave of the Italian Rip-Off Machine that would dominate the commercial, as opposed to the aesthetic, wing of the national cinema for most of the next three decades. For though the film did not, strictly speaking, invent its genre, it is nonetheless the indisputable trend-setter of the hugely prolific and popular style of pepla, or sword-and-sandal movies
The roots of the peplum run deep; the spectacular historical epic focused on the exploits of a strongman hero against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery dates back as least as far as 1914's Cabiria, one of the most groundbreaking of all early feature films; more proximately, the successful and prestigious run of American biblical epics in the late '40s and early '50s, the costly and impressive productions helmed by Cecil B. DeMille and his ilk, were the trigger for the pepla much as Psycho kicked off Italy's legendary run of thrillers about sexually neurotic murderers, or The Road Warrior begat an almost incalculable number of cheap films about men dressed like New Wave scenesters chasing each other through the desert on motorbikes. But there is something special and iconic about the pepla that marks them as their own thing, taking cues from earlier forms but staking their own claim in the B-movie firmament.
Le fatiche di Ercole, being the model for dozens and dozens of movies that followed over somewhat less than a decade (it's hard to fathom, these days, just how prolific and formulaic the Italian industry was in the 1960s), is a typical peplum in just about every way, good and bad: on the good side, we have the rather impressive design and scale of the production, particularly considering the cost; the presence of American bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves, in the role that made him an icon; while on the bad side of things, we have the story, slopped together from mythological dog-ends with no particular grace or wit, and a flotilla of wooden actors, each one more visibly uncomfortable than the next. And in this I do not except Reeves, who might have been an indispensable element of the best pepla, owing in no small part to his ridiculously well-developed musculature and a sort of cheater's charisma that comes from playing a well-intentioned lunk, but acts roughly as well as you'd expect a bodybuilder to act, and is helped out not at all by some atrocious dubbing.
How atrocious, though, depends on the version you're watching: Le fatiche di Ercole comes in a lot of flavors. It was acquired by American distributor Joseph E. Levine, head of Embassy Pictures, the man responsible for the heavily redone localisation Godzilla, King of the Monsters; for this Italian picture, he sliced off some of the more risqué footage to mollify the censors, cut the title down to Hercules, and dropped it into the laps of every man, woman, and child with a yen for matinees, on the back of a hyper-saturation release pattern - Hercules premiered on something north of 600 screens, a metric shitload of theaters back in '58 - and subsequently became as crazy successful in the U.S. as in its native Italy. Since then, it has lapsed into the public domain, and can be found in at least three different cuts ranging from 98 to 104 minutes, with God knows how many distinct dubs ranging from "fine" to "godawful". The original dub Levine released happens to have been one of the "awful" dubs, and it's the version I saw; it's not sporting to criticise a movie for the quality of its international versions, so I won't do it, but Christ, is the dubbing bad here. Japanese monster movie bad, and that is rarely true of even the worst Italian pictures.
So that caveat done, here's what happens: Hercules (Reeves) is blowing on his pan pipes when he spots an out-of-control chariot driven by Princess Iole (Sylvia Koscina) of Iolcus. From her, he gets the exposition: the former king was murdered, his son, Iole's cousin Jason (Fabrizio Mioni) fled, after having apparently stolen the Golden Fleece that keeps Iolcus's monarchy stable, and Iole's father Pelias (Ivo Garrani) now reigns, under the suspicion that he killed his brother and sent his nephew into exile. Hercules, we find, was traveling to Iolcus expressly to tutor Prince Iphitus (Mimmo Palmara), and Iole's story does not deter him - in hardly any time at all, in fact, we find that a proper Hercules cult has sprung up in the city, with a tiny army of young men wearing barely anything at all wrestling with each other and otherwise trying to prove dominance and thereby impress the man with staggering pectoral muscles that always seem to be covered in a thin sheen of oil.
Iole rather naïvely tries to flirt with Hercules anyway, though her crazily arbitrary courtship behavior is cut short when a lion begins terrorising the local countryside; Hercules and the petulant, resentful Iphitus head out to slay the beast, though the prince does not survive. Dejected and desperate to win Iole back after accidentally letting her brother die, Hercules begs a sibyl (Lidia Alfonsi) to grant him mortality. Bad move: he's shortly thrown out of Iolcus by Pelia, terrified that the hero will learn that, in fact, he came to the throne through murder. Hercules's very first fight as a mortal, with the Cretan Bull leaves him bloody but victorious, and in a convenient coincidence, the old man the bull was menacing is none other than his old teacher Chiron (Afro Poli), who currently has the same Jason, rightful king of Iolcus, hiding in his cave. Hercules and the youth travel back to confront Pelias, who in a panic demands that this obvious faker prove his identity by journeying to find the Golden Fleece.
At this point, barely under halfway, Hercules has been a mostly entertaining movie, with some undeniable stiff parts. The opening, for example: a single shot of Hercules on his pipes, followed by Iole's madcap chariot, throwing us right into the action without any sense of what the hell is going on; not to mention the lazy manner in which we get the backstory, as Iole spontaneously recites the darkest secrets of her family tree to a man she knows to be a political adversary. On the other hand, there's a distinct matinee movie breeziness that suits the film: director Pietro Francisci knows, if nothing else, how to keep the plot simmering, and he had the massive good fortune to land cinematographer Mario Bava, known to later generations as the director of some of the most beautiful and atmospheric horror movies ever created. Bava's work in Hercules isn't up to his later masterpieces, but he shows off the lovingly-crafted sets as best he can, and uses the anamorphic widescreen process that had never been tried in Italy like he was born to it.
The story is distinctly episodic, but so is the Hercules myth, and at this point we can still pretend that the title indicates that the lion and bull are just a teaser for the labors yet to come. And while not a soul among the whole cast can act (and Palmara in particular is atrocious in the most inexplicable ways), it's hard to imagine two more beautiful physical specimens than Reeves and Koscina, so watching their pastorale romps is certainly as easy on the eyes as it is undemanding. No masterpiece, but a fun enough adventure movie - and then, through no particular fault of its own, Hercules starts to falter. See, once Jason is charged with his mission, it ceases to be about Hercules - which means, crucially, Reeve almost vanishes for minutes at a stretch - and the film turns into an adaptation of the Argonautica; it becomes next to impossible not to spend the back half of the film comparing it to the five-years-younger Jason and the Argonauts, and find it wanting - as though any film could be compared to the career peak of legendary effects artist Ray Harryhausen and not seem a bit wan in comparison. At any rate, once it takes to sea, Hercules slows down considerably, ceases to even pretend that we care about the characters as such, and the episodic nature of the beast ceases to be a lamentable feature of the genre and turns into a definite liability.
Things bottom out in the last third of the movie, when the Argonauts land on the island of the Amazons; as Jason strikes up a romance with Queen Antea (Gianna Maria Canale), Hercules grouses, and I died of old age, because this sequence is fucking endless. Stunningly, it's not quite 20 minutes start to finish, but it stops the movie short and kicks it to the curb. Eventually, Jason proves so virile, despite having about one-quarter of Hercules's muscle mass, that he manages to make Antea break the "kill all men" rule governing the island, though the Argo still has to sneak out under cover of an unnecessarily complex trick. Eventually, Jason returns to Iolcus and confronts Pelias, an entire third act missing from Jason and the Argonauts, making this one of the only examples ever of an Italian film having a more coherent, balanced plot than its English-language counterpart. The film never comes close to regaining it's footing, though, not even as Hercules does a rather unmotivated Samson impression with chains and the pillars of a palace.
It's really damn hard to understand why this movie turned out to be such a massive, world-changing success: it tells a shoddy story with non-existent characters. Presumably, it's the spectacle thing: in 1958, there had been plenty of specifically biblical epics, but comparatively few mythological epics, and novelty, coupled with its undeniable visual splashiness, probably made Hercules seem fresher than nowawdays, when the 10 years of films it inspired have done so very much to make the original seem a bit bland and ordinary. And the Steve Reeves thing: we need look no further than the at times inexplicable early career of Arnold Schwarzenegger to reflect that audiences get a kick out of dudes with perfect muscles; even a half-century later, it's hard to comprehend just how flawless Reeves's build was. Still, there would be later pepla that would improve on this one - including its own sequel - that it's hard to say that it has much fascination beyond historical importance and pride of place. That, and demonstrating just how relatively faithful to the myths the much-maligned Disney picture really is.