“From this day on you shall have to face all the ordeals reserved by your destiny with only your mortal strength. You may win your battles, or go down in defeat; kill others—or be killed…”
[Original title: Le Fatiche di Ercole (The Labours Of Hercules)]
Director: Pietro Francisci
Starring: Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mioni, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Mimmo Palmara, Lidia Alfonsi, Afro Poli, Gianna Maria Canale, Gabriele Antonini, Luciana Paluzzi
Screenplay: Ennio de Concini, Pietro Francisci and Gaio Frattini, based upon the works of Appollonius of Rhodes
Synopsis: After losing control of her chariot, Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) is rescued by a man whom she rightly guesses to be Hercules of Thebes (Steve Reeves), who is travelling to Iolcus to tutor the heir to the throne in the arts of war. Telling Hercules that he would be better staying away, Iole reveals her family’s dark history. As a child, she woke one night to the sound of screaming, and upon rushing to the throne room of the palace, found her father, Pelias (Ivo Garrani), standing over the body of his brother, the King of Iolcus. The Captain of the King’s Escort, Chironi (Afro Poli), and Jason, the king’s son, had vanished, as had the Golden Fleece, the royal symbol kept by the throne. As Chironi had quarrelled with the king only the day before, it was assumed by many that he had killed him for revenge; however, it was also whispered that Pelias had his brother assassinated, so that he might seize the throne. Hercules insists that Chironi, his former tutor, could have had nothing to do with the king’s death. Hercules and Iole ride into Iolcus, where Pelias is consulting his soothsayer, the Sybil (Lidia Alfonsi), who tells him that a one-sandaled man will cause his downfall. Iole introduces Hercules to her father and her brother, Iphitis (Mimmo Palmara), who makes Hercules prove his identity by bending a metal spear. As Iole takes Hercules to his room, Pelias tells the resentful Iphitus that Hercules will train him to be a fit king. That night, Pelias finds in his rooms Eurysteus (Arturo Dominici), a man supposedly condemned to death for murder many years before. Eurysteus warns Pelias that Hercules might find out the truth about them. Before long, Hercules is the hero of every young man in Iolcus, with the elders complaining that lessons are being neglected for sport. The jealous Iphitus challenges Hercules, who first coaches his young protégé, Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini), to beat Iphitus at archery, then defeats him personally at the discus. Humiliated, Iphitus runs off. Iole tries to convince Hercules to leave the city, but he refuses, telling her he loves her. Arriving back in Iolcus, the two are horrified by the sight of the victims of a lion that has been terrorising the surrounding countryside. Hercules immediately goes hunting the animal, and Iphitus follows him. As Hercules orders the young man back to Iolcus, the lion attacks, and Iphitus is killed; Hercules then kills the lion. When news of Iphitus’ death reaches Iolcus, Eurysteus suggests to the grieving Pelias that there is now a way for him to be rid of Hercules. Accordingly, Pelias denounces Hercules publicly, blaming him for Iphitus’ death, and telling him that the only way he can redeem himself is by killing the Cretan Bull. Stung by Pelias’ injustice, Hercules turns to Iole, but she, too, spurns him, accusing him of not understanding mortal grief. Hercules consults the Sybil, telling her he wants to be mortal. She warns him to be careful, but he persists—and the gods grant his wish…
Comments: We are accustomed at this distance to the thought of Italian film-makers ripping off Hollywood productions, but in the 1950s this habit took a distinctly regional turn. As part of the battle for audiences against the threat of television, during these years the American studios produced a series of epics: widescreen, Technicolor productions that drew upon religious and/or historical sources and which allowed for everything on the largest scale, including the traditional “cast of thousands”. Many of them were filmed in Europe, not infrequently in Italy, and made use of local facilities and technicians.
The Italians, naturally, followed suit, but with a twist—turning back to a style of film-making that had been successful in the earliest days of local cinema, and adapting their own history and mythology into a form of entertainment that became known locally as “pepla”, or to the world at large as “sword-and-sandal” films. Though the critics were largely unimpressed, these films were hugely popular with the public, with nearly two hundred produced over the following decade; until they were superseded by the next distinctly Italian version of a popular genre, the Spaghetti Western.
The immediate impetus for this new wave of films was 1954’s Ulysses, an Italian-American co-production filmed in Italy and directed by Mario Camerini (and an uncredited Mario Bava), but funded by Paramount and starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. The local success of the film inspired Pietro Francisci – who the same year directed Anthony Quinn in Attila – with the thought of a film based upon the story of Hercules. However, for several years he was baulked by being unable to find an actor who could simultaneously convince as the mythically strong, demi-god son of Zeus.
It was Francisci’s daughter who spotted the American bodybuilder-turned-actor, Steve Reeves, in a supporting role in the musical comedy, Athena, and brought him to her father’s attention. Reeves initially thought that Francisci’s offer was only a joke, until a $10,000 salary and a plane ticket to Italy finally saw him embark upon a brief career that, at its peak, made him an international star saw him the highest-paid actor in Europe.
Though it was the first of its kind, and would go on to become a hit all over the world, Hercules is nowhere near the best film of its type; in fact, it functions as a compendium of the questionable choices that would come to be a hallmark of the peplum in general.
This film is a textbook example of the one-darn-thing-after-another school of storytelling, with the plot consisting of a string of almost unrelated incidents thrown haphazardly together until the desired running-time was reached. This everything-is-equal approach has some very strange side-effects, including reducing what we feel ought to be critical moments in the narrative to just another tick off the list—most notably, Hercules’ prayer to become a mortal, which is supposedly granted, then scarcely referred to again!
And in general, Hercules plays fast and loose with its own mythology, not merely in expunging from the record all the nastier parts of the Hercules story – we might expect that – but in basically ignoring the story altogether. In spite of its original title, Le Fatiche di Ercole, this film dismisses Hercules’ actual labours, other than his killing of the Cretan Bull, and instead makes use of his tangential involvement in the search for the Golden Fleece: reworking that myth so as to place Hercules at the centre of the narrative and reducing Jason to a supporting role—and, these days, inviting invidious comparisons with Jason And The Argonauts.
(Despite this, we note with amusement that Appollonius of Rhodes scores a screen credit here, as did Julius Caesar for Caesar The Conqueror.)
There is an upside to this, though, in that for a good stretch of Hercules we follow the story of the Golden Fleece from the opposite point of view, that is, from the perspective of the usurpers. The first half of the film concerns Pelias, who murdered his brother to seize the throne, but was unable afterwards to live with himself; Iphitus, the worthless son for whose benefit Pelias committed his heinous crime; and Iole, fiercely protective of her father, yet herself not entirely convinced of his innocence. The unfamiliarity of this section of the venerable tale lends it a degree of freshness and interest which is, however, lost once Pelias challenges Jason to prove his identity by recapturing the Golden Fleece.
But first things first. Hercules opens exactly as we expect it to, with a cute-meet between hero and love interest, as Hercules rescues Iole from her runaway chariot by uprooting a tree and blocking her horses’ path with it. Of course she faints: Hercules carries her down to the seaside, places her on a bed of seaweed, and gently flicks water in her face until she revives.
The two recognise each other: Hercules has seen the royal insignia on Iole’s chariot, and she knows that Hercules of Thebes is to tutor her brother, Iphitus, in the arts of war. Impulsively, Iole warns Hercules away from Iolus, and then launches into a lengthy account of the terrible day in her childhood, when her uncle, the king, was assassinated, and Chironi, her cousin Jason, and the Golden Fleece all disappeared. She speaks bitterly of the suspicion that lies upon her father, Pelias; yet it is evident that she cannot help having some suspicion of her own, in spite of her emphatic denunciation of Chironi.
Belatedly, Iole recalls that Hercules was a pupil and friend of Chironi. She is inclined to hold him at arm’s length, but his loyal defence of his friend and his simple admiration of her piece the shell of her wary loneliness.
The scene then moves to Iolus, and one of the most memorable aspects of Hercules makes itself felt. While the film’s location shooting is generally undistinguished, those scenes filmed on sets are full of saturated colour and striking compositions in a manner that just screams “Mario Bava” – who was indeed the cinematographer.
Bava’s touch is first felt when Pelias consults the Sybil, who has no good news for either him or Iphitus, who is lounging nearby and sulking as usual.
Hercules by and large is serious in tone, and there are only a few inadvertent laughs along the way—except with respect to the performance of Mimmo Palmara as Iphitus, whose constant mugging and eye-rolling is in bizarre contrast to the restraint shown by the rest of the cast.
The Sybil warns both Pelias and Iphitus that Destiny has her eye on them; she explicitly warns Pelias against a man wearing only one sandal.
Iole and Hercules arrive just in time to hear Pelias issuing a blanket execution order for the improperly shod. Hercules introduces himself, and Pelias – after an involuntary glance at his feet – welcomes him. He then rushes into an impassioned speech, in which his own weariness of soul and his hopes and fears – mostly the latter – for Iphitus and Iolcus are tangled. The resentful Iphitus then embarrasses himself for the first but by no means the last time, sneering at Hercules and insisting that he prove his identity by bending a spear—which of course he does without turning a hair.
While Iole shows Hercules to his rooms – cheery quarters, regicide-and-abduction-and-fleece-stealing adjacent – Pelias retires to his own suite where he finds waiting for him Eurysteus, a man supposedly executed for murder many years before but in fact on Pelias’ payroll ever since. Eurysteus tells Pelias that he has made a serious mistake in bringing Hercules to Iolcus. Pelias rejects this, insisting that Hercules can make a man out of Iphitus, and turn him into the king that he, Pelias, failed to be; but Eurysteus insists that he is more likely to uncover the truth about the late king’s death… When Pelias insists that Hercules might be blinded by love, Eurysteus reacts violently, in a way that tells us he has his own designs upon Iole.
Despite the warnings of Iole, Hercules takes up his position as tutor to Iphitus, and soon finds himself the idol of all the other young men of Iolcus. The elders are not impressed with this sudden obsession with sport – or the, “Disease of fanaticism!” as one of them calls it. “They become careless about their studies for the glory of the arena!” grumps another; while, in a particularly gigglesome moment, one of the would-be athletes, while being carted away on a stretcher, wails, “But I’ve been training for months!”
The elders are also inclined to worry in general about Hercules’ ascendency over their young men; though Orpheus the poet insists that, just by looking at him, you can tell that Hercules is, “Pure as sunlight; and that his strength is a challenge to all evil.”
And look they do, to a high ledge where Hercules oversees the athletic training in company with Castor and Pollux, and where a young Ulysses gazes at him worshipfully. “I know that you put your strength in the service of intelligence!” announces Ulysses, giving us a poor idea of his own.
As you might imagine, Hercules’ popularity goes over like a lead balloon with the perpetually sulky Iphitus. Having already had his nose put out of joint by his father hiring Hercules to, “Make a fit king out of you”, Iphitus is made even angrier by his tutor’s superiority at sport. Foolishly challenging Hercules to a contest, Iphitus gets his butt soundly kicked both by Hercules personally and by the boy Ulysses under the latter’s guidance, all in front of a suitably amused audience that includes his sister, then throws a massive tantrum and flounces away.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view – we do not have Iphitus inflicted upon us for much longer. Iole and Hercules ride back into town from the arena, where they find a frightened mob and a line-up of dead bodies—oddly, all women and children.
This turns out to be the work of a lion that has been lurking in the vicinity of the city, and which, we’re told, returns every summer “like clockwork”. (And as with so many movie killer animals, it’s not killing to eat, it’s just killing…) Naturally, Hercules no sooner hears this than he goes after the beast, and Iphitus goes after Hercules, hoping to see him become lion-bait. While Hercules is trying to convince Iphitus to go back to the city, the lion attacks and Iphitus is mortally wounded. Hercules springs into action, wrestling with the “savage” beast – which has its mouth closed despite the roaring on the soundtrack, and literally doesn’t lift a paw, let alone unsheathe a claw – and strangling it with his bare hands. During this conflict, we cut several times to Iphitus, who finally dies as he lived—hammily.
(I guess this interlude is supposed to be an allusion to the Nemean Lion, but it bears little resemblance to the story of that “labour”.)
Hercules is kneeling over Iphitus’ bloodied body when some of Pelias’ soldiers ride up:
Captain: “Your empty chariot arrived in Iolcus as a messenger of death!”
Hercules: “Yes, but I’m not the victim, as you can see.”
Captain: “You may still become one.”
He and his men then gallop off to the city, to break the bad (?) news.
Realising that all his evil deeds have been for nothing, Pelias is thrown into a double agony. However, Eurysteus takes advantage of the situation, and suggests that Iphitus’ death be made an excuse for banishing Hercules before he has the chance to find out the truth about the king’s death.
This is a plot contrivance of the most blatant and annoying kind: there is no evidence that Hercules has so much as lifted a finger in the matter. Be that as it may, Pelias acts on this advice. When Hercules brings Iphitus’ body back to the city, Pelias denounces him, blaming him for the tragedy and placing a curse upon him. Hercules is then told that only by killing the Cretan Bull can he redeem himself, and is banished from Iolcus.
Rightly ticked off by this rank injustice, Hercules turns to Iole, but for some reason she too chooses to blame him for the death of her foul-tempered and moronic brother, and runs away in tears.
Good gods, what a family! As far as I’m concerned, Hercules would be entirely justified if he just washed his hands of the whole silly bunch. Instead, he consults the Sybil, telling her that Iole is right (!), that he cannot live, love, feel as mortals do. When the Sybil explains that – duh! – this is because of his immortality, Hercules calls upon the gods to make him mortal. “I want to love as other men do!” he announces. “I want to have a family and see my children grow up.”
Probably thinking that there could be no greater punishment for Hercules’ stupidity than giving him what he wants, the gods grant his wish. All this takes place in the midst of an impressively staged and lit thunderstorm, and it comes as a considerable surprise when, after all this hoo-ha, Hercules’ mortality proves to have absolutely no bearing on the rest of the story.
Anyway— The newly use-by-dated Hercules travels to (presumably) Crete, where he finds his assigned adversary—which, disappointingly, is just an ordinary bull, albeit a lot more scary than the lion. Engaging with it, Hercules is cut up by the bull’s horns (how’s that mortality working out for you, Herc?) but manages to dispatch the deadly beast with a fist between the eyes. Just before his arrival, an elderly man was mortally wounded by her beast; he follows the victim and his companion into a cave, where he discovers that they are none other than Jason, rightful king of Iolcus, and Chironi, supposed murderer of Jason’s father.
Chironi recognises his old student, but when Hercules begs him to reveal the truth about the king’s death, instead of just answering, Chironi gasps, “You’ll find the answer with the Golden Fleece!” and dies. It is subsequently explained to us that Chironi hid the assassin’s identity to prevent Jason from taking revenge on him, which seems rather out of step with the usual philosophy of these sorts of things.
Hercules and Jason travel back to Iolcus, and along the way, Jason manages to lose a sandal in a stream.
Maestro, a dramatic chord, if you please…
Not surprisingly, Pelias is none too pleased at seeing either of his visitors—particularly when he gets an eyeful of Jason’s footwear. Jason insists upon his true identity as rightful ruler of Iolcus, and reveals that on the night of his father’s death, Chironi took him and the Golden Fleece and fled the land. Their ship was driven ashore in the Colchides, where they hid the Fleece for safe-keeping.
In response to this, Pelias jeers, “Pull the other one, mate, it plays ‘Jingle Bells’!” Or something like that. Challenging Jason to prove his identity, Pelias gives him three months to recover the Fleece, or relinquish all claim to the throne.
Jason accepts the challenge, and of course Hercules signs up too. Then the elders and scholars we encountered earlier, either because they’re unemployed thanks to Hercules’ efforts, or because it’s no fun in Iolcus any more without Iphitus to laugh at, decide to go along on the journey too. “Perhaps this is what Argos’ boat was made for!” suggests one.
Hercules makes one last effort to patch things up with Iole, but she gives him the cold shoulder again, this time because he’s helping Jason against her father.
The adventurers set out on their quest, not realising that there’s a traitor in their midst: Eurysteus, who wastes no time in spreading dissension among the crew.
The second half of Hercules is a major disappointment. What should be a series of exciting scenes turns out to be one anti-climax after another. The biggest letdown – well, one of two, anyway – is the Argonauts’ encounter with the Amazons. Now, women usually do get short shrift in films like these. The heroine is always hopeless, there to scream and be rescued, and to give the men something to fight over. Usually, however, this dismal portrayal of “goodness” is balanced by a much more entertaining depiction of “evil” in the shape of a queen, or a sorceress, or a warrior-princess, who is consumed by “unwomanly” ambition, and who will either (a) fall for the hero and redeem herself by dying a noble death; or (b) stay rotten to the end and die a gruesomely ignoble death.
One of the main problems with this film is that no truly evil woman ever appears to liven up the proceedings; while at the same time, we get way too big a helping of the film’s “good” woman. Sylva Koscina is certainly very pretty, and looks fetching in her minimal costumes; but her Iole has the personality of a sea slug. When she isn’t spurning Hercules, then crying her eyes out afterwards in case he took her seriously – will you make up your mind, woman? – she spends most of her time running away from the big lug, either flirtatiously or angrily, in a most aggravating manner: a cutesy little trot compounded by her tucking her right elbow into her hip and waving her arm back and forth. (I guess that’s the danger in putting your actresses in micro-micro-mini-skirts.) Frankly, it’s a relief when Hercules joins Jason on his quest and leaves her behind.
Things seem to be picking up even more when the Argonauts go ashore on what they think is a deserted island, only to be ambushed by a tribe of warrior women who turn out to be the legendary Amazons themselves.
(Like every all-female lost civilisation, the Amazons are perfectly coiffed, made-up and depilated, and wear the skimpiest clothing imaginable…but since in this film all the men are equally briefly dressed, I suppose I can’t really complain about the latter, at least.)
The advertising for Hercules promised audiences that they would see, “The seductive Amazons lure men to voluptuous revels and violent death”, and for a while it looks like we might indeed get our money’s worth. There is an ominous reference to drone bees (“The females kill them after mating!”), a visit to an all-male graveyard (“He landed, loved and died here,” reads one tombstone), and an impressive display of archery from the ladies, in which they fire arrows into the spears the men are carrying, in order to “persuade” them to disarm.
But all this leads nowhere, sadly. Belying their reputation, these “warriors” turn out to be a bunch of giggly airheads (and really bad dancers). The Argonauts score an Amazon each, and pass their time running through fields of flowers, swimming, lying around and being fed grapes. Yup: these women have spent their entire lives dreaming of having the chance to feed grapes to elderly lechers.
Worst of all, Antea, Queen of the Amazons, falls for Jason. This leads to some truly excruciating dialogue, including – wow, betcha didn’t see this coming! – a scene in which Jason tries to convince Antea that no “real woman” can live without a man. “You’re an intelligent woman!” Jason interrupts when Antea tries to tell him that there is no such thing as “love”. “You cannot believe what you’re saying!”
Fortunately, this, ah, “idyll” is cut short by the Amazon’s High Priestess, who orders Antea to “obey the law” – that is, use ’em and dispose of ’em. This is overheard by Ulysses, who manages to drug the paired-off couples, and with the help of Hercules (who has been offscreen for an annoying space of time) carries the men back onto the ship. They wake the next morning with hellish hangovers, and discover that they are sailing away from their Amazons, who line the shore of the island calling their lovers’ names in mournful voices. The men are none too pleased about this development either. In fact, it’s probably just as well that ol’ Herc kept quiet about that whole “mortality” thing…
The Argonauts reach the Colchides, and Jason rushes ashore. His men follow, and are attacked by a band of ape-men wearing shaggy fur robes—and some most unconvincing make-up: when they flee after their inevitable defeat, we see that, oddly, their skin is much darker on the front of their bodies than on their backs.
Meanwhile, Jason has found the Fleece, which is hanging over a bare branch right out in the open. Must be a very well-behaved people, the Colchidans. But wait! What’s that moving under Jason’s feet? Why…it’s a terrifying monster!!…or at least a guy in a very dodgy dinosaur suit, which the film-makers are not at all eager to give us a good look at: this sequence is shot day-for-night, and with a lot of monster POV shots.
Fittingly, though also disappointingly, Jason defeats this unimpressive creature with a minimum of effort and reclaims the Fleece. On the back of it, written in blood, is the king’s dying statement, wherein he reveals that Pelias was responsible for his murder. He also exhorts Jason to take no revenge, and for a few ghastly minutes we fear that we are to be robbed of the (we thought) obligatory climactic biffo.
The Argonauts sail again for Iolcus, but shortly after their arrival they find that both Eurysteus and the Fleece are missing. Hercules, finally taking centre stage again, and about time too, rushes off to the palace and breaks in upon Pelias and Eurysteus as they are examining the incriminating object.
Hercules summons the Argonauts, but before he can regain the Fleece he is dropped through a trapdoor and into a dungeon. Word of this reaches Iole, and she and her handmaiden try to bust him out, but only succeed in getting themselves locked in with him.
(Iole’s maid is played by a young Luciana Paluzzi.)
Jason and his men confront Pelias, who demands that they show him the Fleece. Sheepishly (geddit? geddit?), Jason explains how they did have it, but… Pelias then asks Jason if he’d like to sell him the Brooklyn Bridge…or at least, orders his soldiers to attack the Argonauts. Yes, biffo at last!
Down in the dungeon, Hercules succeeds in tearing himself free from the pillars to which he has been chained and breaks out of his cell, carrying along with him the chains that are attached to his shackles. He then forces his way into the throne room and disposes of Eurysteus and most of the soldiers using the very chains they tried to bind him with. How’s that for poetic justice? Pelias, seeing which way the wind is blowing, ducks off to his room and chooses the cup of poison rather than the dagger. Iole finds him there, dying, and he confesses everything to her, giving his blessing (for whatever that’s worth) to her relationship with Hercules.
We are then offered perhaps the defining image of the entire peplum genre, as Hercules wraps his chains around the main pillars at the front of the palace and brings the whole thing crashing down.
Possibly recognising that it couldn’t top that moment, Hercules ends rather abruptly, with Jason assuming the throne of Iolcus, and Hercules and Iole literally sailing off into the sunset.
It’s hard to get away from a sense of something lacking in Hercules. I appreciate that it was treated seriously by all concerned; but this tends to result in a slightly plodding quality, a lack of oomph. Really, the film needed more monsters and fight scenes, and a lot less palace intrigue. It also needed more Hercules.
Though he appeared as Hercules only once more, it is easy to understand why Steve Reeves was forever associated with the role. There is a clean-cut-ness about him that makes the fulsome praise of Hercules by the Iolcusans not too ridiculous, and his physique makes the various feats of strength believable. It is harder to judge Reeves’ actual performance, but this is chiefly because of the inevitable dubbing, which gives him something like a British accent, and too often fails to match the dialogue to his lip movements.
The best performance here comes from Ivo Garrani as Pelias, helplessly caught between ambition and guilt, and forced to realise that his crimes have all been for nothing. The scenes between him and his evil genius, Eurysteus, are some of the film’s best; and Arturo Dominici makes a fine villain. Mimmo Palmara, meanwhile, is memorable for all the wrong reasons; though, that said, his inadequacy as Iphitus actually underscores the futility of Pelias’ scheming.
Whatever its shortcomings, Hercules was a huge hit all over the world—becoming yet another imported money-spinner for Joseph E. Levine in the US, on the back of his success with Godzilla, King Of The Monsters (which might explain why the sound effects used for the monster in the Colchides sound a little…familiar). Even before that happened, however, the Italian producers did the sensible thing: they rushed a sequel into production…