HERCULES is the Italian made spectacle, dubbed into English that starred the extremely buff American born muscle guy Steve Reeves. Promoter Joseph E. Levine uncharacteristically unleashed a barrage of publicity and struck hundreds of prints so that when the 1957 lensed film opened in July of 1959 it played in several hundreds theaters across the United States at the same time.
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This is common practice today, but it was rarely done and never to this extent as Levine did it with Hercules. The practice became common after Jaws This movie which most critics called mediocre at best was a huge hit and it launched an entire sword and sandal sub genre of film spawning over a hundred muscle man budget epics within the next 6 years. Steve Reeves became a huge international star, and he would star in a sequel and several other he-man movies as well.
Italy produced approximately 150 Sword and Sandal or Pepla (Peplum) movies between 1958 and 1964 that were distributed to American Movie theaters or directly to television (where most of them ended up). It all happened because of the surprise success Joseph Levine had when he re-edited, re-dubbed and re-scored Hercules starring American muscle-man Steve Reeves in 1958 (followed quickly by Hercules Unchained in 1959).
The onslaught of movies that wound up flooding the market followed a formula that was actually established by the 1914 silent film epic Cabrira and developed in a series of Maciste films made between 1915 to 1926 starring strongman actor Bartolomeo Pagano.
Hercules originated as a Greek mythological figure and later was adopted by the Romans with some additional details. The legend has Hercules founding his important shrine in Rome, the Great Altar of Hercules (Ara Maxima Herculis), which became part of the cattle market of Rome. The altar was dated back to the 5th Century BC and Hercules was popular with the merchants of the day who paid him a small percentage of their profits so that he would continue to bless them with good fortune. Mark Antony identified himself with Hercules and invented a son of Hercules called Anton. His enemy Octavian responded by identifying with Apollo. Early Roman emperors like Commodus and Maximian compared themselves and further promoted a cult of Hercules.
The historic Hercules was not ready for prime time however. He was a playful figure with great appetites for both women and very young men. He was known for his great courage and great strength and he used games to relax. The legend had him never attacking an opponent first, but conquering all of his adversaries by defending himself or protecting very young children or women. It was this self sacrifice that allowed him to go to Olympus and be accepted by the Gods. He was the mightiest, strongest and bravest of the warriors. Sometimes he would cheat, use tricks and deceive his opponents, but always as a defense, always as a response to being attacked first.
So in the Italian sword and sandal movies, Maciste and Hercules and other warrior figures were often used without regard to their actual historic legends. They were cleaned up and made more politically correct for their times as well. Among the body-builder actors who played Hercules were: Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris, Mickey Hargitay, Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Rock Stevens and Michael Lane.
Steve Reeves was considered the best with Gordon Scott a close second. Televisions Hulk Lou Ferigno played Hercules in two 1983 Italian produced films shot back to back that failed to make much of an impression and Kevin Sorbo played Hercules in the popular 1995 to 1999 syndicated television series. Roger Corman produced and directed Atlas in 1960, there was an animated cartoon The Mighty Hercules syndicated in 1963, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1963) and Nigel Green played Hercules in the classic Jason and the Argonauts featuring stunning stop motion styled effects by Ray Harryhausen, and remember Arnolds first movie was titled Hercules in New York (1969).
There were more than 20 official Hercules movies made between 1957 and 1965. It gets confusing since many of the Maciste movies were retitled as Hercules movies and quite frankly in many cases the name of the hero didnt matter, except to purists who note some Hercules movies loosely followed the Hercules mythology, while others that might have had Hercules in the title (but were actually originally titled in Italian as Maciste movies) did not follow the Hercules mythology at all. For most of us none of this matters at all. Is the movie any good? Or if it isnt does it offer a lot of campy entertainment value?
Today most of these movies look absolutely ridiculous. The special effects are laughable, the acting mostly wooden, the stories either overly simplistic, or convoluted to the point of confusion and needless to say most of them were not historically accurate nor faithful to the legends.
Sometimes the color cinematography was gorgeous with many picaresque settings and compositions employed. Some of the better genre entries including HERCULES Le Fatiche di Ercole which translated directly from the Italian is The Labors of Hercule s were lensed by Mario Bava ( Black Sunday aka Mask of Satan, Kill Baby Kill, Black Sabbath). This one was directed by Pietry Francisci, and written by Francisci with Ennio De Concini and Gaio Frattini, based on the poem "The Argonautica" by Apollonious Rhodios.
Yes you read right. About half of the original Hercules could be titled Jason and the Golden Fleece. A truly great film was made of this story a few years later in 1963s Jason and the Argonauts (with astonishing stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen and a rousing score by Bernard Herrman).
Hercules saves Iole (the beautiful but still annoying Sylva Koscina) by uprooting a tree and laying it across a path so that the spooked horses carrying he chariot too close to the cliff must stop. He also catches the princess of Jolco as she faints. She realizes that he must be Hercules who has been summoned by her father King Pelias. He is King because his older brother was mysteriously murdered but there have always been questions about this which involve Hercules old friend Chironi who vanished the night of the murder along with the old Kings son Jason and that Golden Fleece as well.
Pelias is under the influence of a dark spell and is dying. Iphitus his chosen heir is strong but immature and not ready to become King. His sister Iole (the beautiful but annoying Sylva Koscina) cannot stop her fathers decline. The king has been warned by the Delphic oracle that an invader wearing only one sandal will take over, so he must move Iphitus into the role of the King before this happens. To get Iphitus ready the King hires the famous hero from Thebe, Hercules (Steve Reeves) to make Ephetus into a strong warrior. But things go from bad to worse.
Hercules first labor is in defeating a lion that has been menacing some of the locals of Jolco. Iphitus acts foolishly and gets himself killed. WHAT? Everyone is very upset with Hercules. The big guy blames it on the fact he is immortal and prays that he can be turned into a mortal man. WHAT? This is a pretty important part of the legend of Hercules but it is given very short shrift here. Iole is also upset with Hercules. After a few more feats, killing a nasty bull for instance, Hercules meets up with Jason, who has arrived in Jolco wearing just one sandal. AHA !!!
Hercules agrees to help Jason on his quest for the golden fleece which will be proof he should rule the land. Ulysses is part of this crew and he is basically the clown of the movie. They meet up with the Amazonian women and for 20 minutes or so the movie is completely about Jason and his adventures with the rather air-headed Amazons who seduce the woman with their kindness, beauty and dancing. But before they can do the whole kill the men routine, Ulysses who hasnt been fooled by their routine, works with Hercules ah there he is again, and they get the crew away from the women and back on their journey for the golden fleece. They do get to the fleece and they awaken a very un-scary dragon (who roars like Godzilla) and is killed very quickly and easily with one thrust of a spear. WHAT?
A bit later Jason and his Argonauts are being defeated by the evil king and Hercules enraged pulls chains from the wall and uses them to take out several men one by one and then wraps them around the two pillars of the temples and pulls the temple down to kill most of the Kings Army. When they say Steve Reeves as Hercules brings the house down, they mean it !!!
The biggest problem with the film is not the bad dubbing, silly script, mediocre to bad acting or cheap effectsthose things are entertaining, the problem is how episodic it is in its structure. Its one sequence after another with sub-plots dropped and not followed through. This doesnt build much suspense and also makes the film drag at times and seem much longer than 108 minutes (if you watch the uncut original U.S. version or 98 minutes or less if you watch a different version).
I know its the one that started it out and it has the one and only Steve Reeves, but if you do not see a restored widescreen copy of the movie, youre probably better off watching other more interesting he-man movies than this one.
The movie is in public domain so there are several DVD versions of this one out there all but one of which are to be avoided. The colors are faded on many version and you either get a pan and scan version or worse a static version where you lose 40 percent of the picture and sometimes do not see part of most of what you want to be watching in the frame (The VCI double feature disc gives you a terrible version of this movie and should be avoided. You may be tempted to buy it.. looks good, cheap.. DONT.)
Far from perfect but of acceptable visual quality is Retromedias DVD release which comes in an enhanced widescreen transfer that will not pass muster if you plan to watch it on a large projection or HD type television. The print or prints used have problems and there seems to be cuts and missing footage (not much though).
The audio is another story. The dubbed voice of Reeves we remember is a very deep booming basso voice. When he shouts out things like IVE BEEN TRICKED BY THE GODS it used to sound like very serious business. On this disc however the voice is weaker and not as many of you will remember it. So what gives with this alternate dubbed voice? We do get the sound effects added by LEVINE when he re-edited the movie. These include electronic noises that sound like they are stolen from Forbidden Planet and the Dragon sounds like GODZILLA (making its appearance all the more ludicrous).
You do have one other option, find the French DVD HERCULES/LES TRAVAUX D'HERCULE offering the film in a sharp but slightly grainy 2.35 Anamorphic Letterbox. You will get three languages French, Italian and English. You get non-removeable French subtitles when you listen in Italian or English but they are not that distracting. And you get to hear the movie in Italian which is something a lot of film buffs have been dying to do for years. The English dub track is noisy with some buzzing and clicking and other age related problems. The Italian soundtrack is in better shape.
The best reason to see the movie is for its visual qualities. You get an okay version with the Retromedia version, but the way to really see it at its best is to track down the French DVD (which is available in both PAL and region 0 versions.).
MORE ABOUT STEVE REEVES
Steve Reeves who put the sport of body building on the map, would become internationally famous as HERCULES and for several years be the highest paid actor in Europe, was born in Glasgow, Montana on January 21th 1926.
Reeves moved with his mother to California at the age of 10 after his father Lester died in a tragic farming accident. He began bodybuilding while in High school, immediately joining the service when he graduated at the end of World War 2. Next entered and won several bodybuilding contests and was encouraged to try his hand at acting. He was seriously considered by Cecile B. DeMille for the part of Samson in 1949s Samson and Delilah, but DeMille wanted him to lose weight and muscle and the part went to Victor Mature.
He appeared on various television shows in the early 1950s including George Burns and Gracie Allens popular sit-com. In his first movie he played a cop. It is one of the few times you can hear his actual voice (usually it was dubbed as a deeper stronger voice) in a movie.
What movie is this?
1954s JAIL BAIT directed by Ed Wood Jr.
Wait a minute. Steve Reeves first speaking role in a movie was in an Ed Wood movie? The Plan Nine From Outer Space, angora sweater loving Ed Wood?
And Steve said in brief interview for Rudolph Greys Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Times of Ed Wood Jr. (1993) It was a pleasure to work with a director like Ed Wood. He was patient and understood how to make new an inexperienced actors feel at ease and get the best performance out of them.
He then starred in the musical Athena as Debbie Reynolds boyfriend also in 1954. The musical was a box office failure but supposedly Italian director Pietro Franciscis daughter saw Reeve in Athena and suggested that her father cast him in his production of Hercules. In 1957, Reeves traveled to Italy to become Hercules. It was released in the U.S. in 1959 and became a huge international hit, sparking the sword and sandal revival.
Although Reeves is the favorite Hercules and forever identified with the role, he actually only played the character Hercules in two films, The original Hercules and in Hercules Unchained. He played a number of other characters in several movies including Glaucus of Pompeii, Goliath (Emiliano)( Goliath and the Barbarians), Haji Murad (Tartar hero), Romulus (in the The Giant of Marathon), famed pirate and self proclaimed Jamaican governor, Henry Morgan ( Morgan the Pirat e), Karim the Thief of Bagdad, Aeneas of Troy (at least twice) and Sandokan the Malaysian hero. Reeves was one of the highest paid actors in Europe at the time. Reeves was asked but turned down the roles of James Bond in 1962s Dr. No,WHAT? and he almost took the role of the Man with No Name for 1964s A Fistful of Dollars.
Reeves retired from professional body-building and acting in the late 1960s partially due to an injury. Originally he severely dislocated his shoulder when during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii his chariot crashed into a tree. He popped his shoulder back into joint and actually continued filming. Later while filming a swimming he re-injured his shoulder. He continued to do his own stunts in movies and would re-injure his shoulder many times. His pain and discomfort increased.
He had always wanted to make a western and his final film which he co-wrote was the spaghetti western A Long Ride From Hell in 1968. In retirement he bred horses, promoted non-steroid ingesting body building and had a working ranch in Escondido California. He died in May of 2000 of complications from lymphoma.
Reeves was an inspiration for millions around the world and although he was never considered a good actor, his movies remain collectible and popular..
NOTE: No Hercules film was made in 1939 it should read Hercules (1959).
The sequel Hercules Unchained:
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