Hercules Unchained (1959)

“Either I am successful in overcoming the madness of these men, or I’ll believe that I, Hercules, am deserted by the gods!”


[Original title: (Hercules And The Queen Of Lidia)]

Director:  Pietro Francisci

Starring:  Steve Reeves, Sylvia Lopez, Sylva Koscina, Gabriele Antonini, Sergio Fantoni, Mimmo Palmara, Andrea Fantasia, Primo Canera, Cesare Fantoni, Carlo D’Angelo

Screenplay:  Ennio de Concini and Pietro Francisci


Synopsis:  A man on a stretcher is carried into the presence of Queen Omphale of Lidia (Sylvia Lopez) and her young lover. As she caresses the unconscious man, Omphale gestures to her guards, who draw their swords and kill her lover… After many adventures, Hercules (Steve Reeves), his bride, Iole (Sylva Koscina), and the young Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini) land in Attica and set out for Thebes in a covered wagon. Even as Hercules brags about the wonders of the city, the wagon is overtaken by a band of mercenary soldiers who, disturbingly, are commanded by a Theban. As the travellers enter a valley, they are stopped by Antaeus (Primo Canera), a giant of a man, who announces that no-one passes through without paying a price—and that he wants Iole. When Ulysses realises that Antaeus draws his strength from contact with the ground, Hercules lifts Antaeus into the air and throws him over a low cliff into the sea. The three companions travel on, entering a forest and taking shelter from the rain in a cave. Inside, they hear voices: it is Oedipus (Cesare Fantoni), who is accusing his son, Polinices (Mimmo Palmara), of driving him out of his kingdom, along with his brother, Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni). Hercules approaches. Recognising his voice, Oedipus tells him that Thebes is in danger; that his sons convinced him to renounce his throne, agreeing to rule in alternate years; but that at the end of his year, Eteocles refused to step down. Hercules offers to go to Eteocles, to negotiate, to which Polinices agrees. A violent storm erupts inside the cave, and the gates to the Underworld open in the cave. Oedipus enters willingly… Hercules and his companions travel to Thebes, where Hercules forces his way into Eteocles’ presence despite the objections of Creon (Carlo D’Angelo), the High Priest. Hercules tells Eteocles why he is there, and evetually he agrees to adhere to the pact: he asks Hercules to deliver a formal treaty to Polinices. Hercules accepts the mission, even though this means leaving Iole behind; Creon promises to look after her. Having ridden some way, Hercules and Ulysses stop beside a spring. Hercules sends Ulysses to hunt for game for their dinner, then drinks from the spring, not knowing that these are the Waters Of Forgetfulness. The horses, too, drink the water, then bolt in a panic, passing Ulysses. Hurrying back to the camp, Ulysses discovers Hercules trying to find the singer of a strange song, which Ulysses cannot hear. Then he collapses, unconscious. Suddenly, the two are surrounded by soldiers. To protect himself, Ulysses pretends to be a deaf-mute. Some of the soldiers put Hercules on a stretcher. Others fill water-bags at the spring, which then vanishes. Hercules and Ulysses are then taken across the sea, to the island of Lidia…

Comments:  Although I seem to be in disagreement with many commentators, I find Hercules Unchained to be an improvement on its predecessor, the hugely successful Hercules. The cinematography and visual effects of Mario Bava are again very much in evidence; while an increased budget allowed for more lavishly designed and beautiful sets. The story is stronger and more interesting, and more full of incident; and it’s nice to see Hercules being rescued by his friends for once, rather than the other way around.


This sequel also gives Hercules a worthy antagonist in the shape – the very shapely shape – of Queen Omphale. This is where Hercules Unchained really has it all over the original film. Visitors may remember that I complained about the lack of the traditional “evil” woman in Hercules, with the legendary Amazons being depicted as nothing more than vacuous bimbos. Well, here that misstep is more than compensated for. Although Sylva Koscina scored second billing on the credits of this film, she is offscreen for a large portion of the story (which is, frankly, a relief: her Iole is no less irritating here than she was previously); and it is Sylvia Lopez’s Omphale who steals both the limelight and the show. She is, in fact, a thoroughly nasty piece of work – with a most remarkable “hobby” – and it is her contribution that guarantees this film its slice of cinematic immortality. All in all, Hercules Unchained is a more complete experience than its forerunner.

Of course, there are some problems with this film, too, although the main one is artificial: as was true of the original, in the English-language release the dubbing is very bad; while there is also some evidence of memory slippage on the part of the voice artists. For instance, King Pelias becomes “Pelly-as”, rather than “Pel-i-as”; although I guess that’s a small point compared to the fact that in neither this film nor the preceding one could anyone agree on how to pronounce “Iole”.

Hercules Unchained is a sequel in the true sense of the word, reuniting most of the original cast and directed by Pietro Francisci, who again co-wrote the screenplay with Ennio de Concini. (That said, both Sophocles and Aeschylus get name-checked here, as did Appollonius of Rhodes before them.) The story picks up exactly where the first film left off, with the Argonauts depositing Hercules, his new bride Iole and the young Ulysses on the shores of Attica, from whence they plan to travel to Hercules’ home in Thebes.

Ulysses has a slightly tearful parting from his father, Laertes, the king of Ithaca, who gives him a gift of two pigeons which, he promises, will fly home when released, and can thus carry a message in the case of any danger. These poor birds are eventually pressed into service, of course, but not before suffering through some absolutely horrendous situations, including being confined in a round wicker cage strapped to the saddle of a galloping horse. No “No pigeons were harmed.” credit here. In the course of this scene, Hercules calls Iole, “The one who put me in chains”. “I’d love to see anyone try to put you in chains,” she scoffs—and if you think this might be a piece of Subtle Foreshadowing, go to the head of the class.

On the way to Thebes, Hercules brags about his hometown – the city, the people, their manners – although he fails to mention the fact that it’s ruled by a man who killed his father, married his mother, then put out his own eyes. Funny, that. At that very moment, mounted soldiers gallop by, leaving the travelers literally to eat their dust. Observing that the soldiers were led by a Theban – although how he knows this is a bit of a mystery – Ulysses remarks that he doesn’t care much for what he’s seen so far of the manners of Thebes.

Iole and Ulysses continue teasing Hercules about Thebes until he hands the reins to Ulysses and climbs into the back of the wagon to take a nap (and sulk). To pass the time, Iole takes out her lyre and sings a song—and never were the horrors of dubbing more comprehensively illustrated, as what emerges from her lips (well…not exactly from) is an icky little torch song called “Evening Star”, which would be much more at home in a smoky fifties nightclub.

This painful interlude lasts several minutes, until the travelers are (thankfully) waylaid by the gigantic Antaeus—played by Primo Canera, a professional wrestler, who is big enough to make Steve Reeves look small. Antaeus starts out demanding the horses and any gold they might be carrying.

Let’s see: good quality and uncut but pan-and-scan; uncut but 1.66 and crappy quality; widescreen but cut and overlit and a bit blueish…

“You’re taking advantage of the fact that you’re Antaeus!” complains Ulysses. Well, duh, says Antaeus, deciding he’ll have Iole, as well. When Ulysses intervenes (“I’ll show you what a ‘boy’ can do!”), he is thrown a considerable distance through the air (not a hell of a lot).

“Hercules, he’ll kill him!” hisses Iole to her husband who, for reasons best known to himself, is still pretending to be too sleepy to do anything. (“Heh! I’ll let this big guy murderise them! That’ll teach ’em to jeer at Thebes!”)

Hearing that Iole has a husband who is dozing, as the embarrassed bride confesses, Antaeus goes to the back of the wagon and tells Hercules that he’s, “Adopting the lady”. “And what does the lady say to that?” inquires Hercules. “Oh, she’d like a new husband, like any women,” opines Antaeus. This settled, Hercules shrugs and goes back to “sleep”. But Antaeus now has other ideas. “C’mon, let’s fight!” he urges. “Gladly!” says Hercules, and finally springs into action.

The ensuing fight is interesting, since Our Hero actually takes a fair pounding, and because every time Antaeus is knocked down, he returns to the fight with increased strength (and an appropriately giant-like, “Ho, ho, ho!”). Suddenly, Ulysses has a flash of deductive brilliance worthy of Sherlock Holmes: “This must be Antaeus!” Gee, no kidding! What gave it away? Rather more helpfully, Ulysses adds that Antaeus draws his strength from contact with the ground (he was the son of Gaea, the Earth goddess). Hercules then lifts his opponent into the air and tosses him off a ledge into the ocean. Antaeus shakes his fist as defeated bad guys are wont to do, and the travelers move on.

Some time later, the weary Iole asks if they can stop for the night. Hercules says that they will camp in the forest just ahead of them, a place he knows well. “It’s quiet there,” he tells the others, then adds encouragingly, “They say that the Gates of the Inferno are hidden amongst its trees!” Three stars in the Michelin guidebook, I’m sure.


To Hercules’ surprise, they find the soldiers who passed them on the road camped up ahead. It then begins to rain. As Iole runs for cover, she is grabbed by the Theban leader of the soldiers. (In a subtle piece of characterisation, he: (i) wears black all the time; and (ii) says “Mwoo-ha-ha!” a lot.) Hercules angrily intervenes, leaving the soldier sprawling on the ground. He and Iole hurry away, and Ulysses scuttles after them, giving the glowering Man In Black a “What he said!” look.

The three travelers enter a cave, laughing merrily over Hercules’ latest act of violence. Suddenly, they hear voices. It is Oedipus, the king. In one of those helpful expository scenes, Oedipus reminds his son, Polinices, that he and his brother, Eteocles, forced him to renounce his throne, and that they agreed to share it, ruling for alternate years; and further, that Eteocles has refused to step down, and that the conflict between the two is likely to destroy Thebes. At this, Hercules intervenes. Oedipus immediately recognises his voice, saying that it reminds him of happier times. (Er—and when would that have been, Oedipus, old chap?) Hercules offers to go as an emissary to Thebes, to try and convince Eteocles to keep his side of the bargain.

Polinices is sulky but finally agrees, giving Hercules six days to complete the mission. He then leaves with his men – it is he who has hired the mercenaries, since Eteocles has command of the Theban army – pausing only to deliver a parting shot at his father: “You wanted sons like Hercules, but you deserved us.”

(In the original myth, Polinices’ men were not mercenaries but an Argive army under the command of the “Seven Against Thebes”, and were considered heroic in their attempts to restore him to the throne.)

A violent storm then breaks within the cave. The rocks behind Oedipus open up, and the blind ex-king voluntarily enters the Inferno…


Polinices is played by Mimmo Palmara, who completely embarrassed himself with his performance as Iphitus in Hercules. Here, he protects himself from audience members with long memories by disguising himself in an orange wig, mustache and beard, and – wonder of wonders! – by toning down his performance. While it is still fairly ripe, it is overshadowed by Sergio Fantoni’s maniacal ranting and giggling as Eteocles.

Indeed, Eteocles turns out to be a Right Nutter. When Hercules, Ulysses and Iole force their way into his company, he is surrounded by his minions and busy watching one more in a long line of suckers attempting to train his captive tigers. As you might anticipate, it ends in tears.

As the corpse is carried away, Eteocles finally lends an ear to what Hercules has to say. After much raving, punctuated by loud, “Ahhh-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”-s, Eteocles agrees to step down from the throne, saying he needs to go and find more potential tiger trainers anyway. Ulysses, never one to miss the Bleeding Obvious, remarks, “Did you ever see anyone so close to madness?”

Later, Iole bemoans the fact that she and Hercules must part again. He feels the same way, but answers that since Thebes is in danger, he has no choice. Eteocles brings a formal treaty to be carried to Polinices, and Hercules and Ulysses set out. After much galloping (with those poor damn pigeons being slammed back and forth in their wicker cage), the two discover a Mysterious Spring. We know it’s Mysterious, as a chorus of “Ooh-ooh-ooh” is heard on the soundtrack. Ulysses is suspicious, but Hercules is (as usual) thinking only of his stomach.

Sending Ulysses to hunt down some dinner, Hercules waters the horses and himself. As he drinks, the god-like voiceover that has been plaguing us filling viewers in on the significance of various events chimes in again, telling us that, “These are the Waters Of Forgetfulness! Those who drink of them shall forget all!”


Because, you know, we couldn’t possibly figure that out ourselves from what happens next—like Hercules announcing, “I can’t remember anything!”

Ulysses is on his way back from a successful hunt when the horses bolt past him, shedding those unfortunate pigeons, which Ulysses notices, and the treaty, which he doesn’t. Hurrying back to camp, Ulysses finds Hercules trying to locate the singer of a song – Iole’s song, although Hercules does not remember that – that Ulysses himself cannot hear. He then collapses.

While trying to revive Hercules, Ulysses looks up to discover that they have been surrounded by an absurdly excessive number of soldiers. He then tries even harder to revive Hercules. When this fails, Ulysses calculates the odds against him and decides to pose as a deaf-mute—something that involves much gesturing, eye-rolling, and, “Uh-uh-uh”-ing. The soldiers carry Ulysses and the unconscious Hercules onto a ship, and they sail for the island of Lidia.

Now, pre-credits we saw a perplexing series of events involving Queen Omphale of Lidia and an unidentified young man. As a second man, unconscious on a stretcher, was carried into Omphale’s presence, she was seen to gesture to her soldiers, five of whom drew their swords and hacked the first young man to death. This scenario is now repeated, as another young man – the one from the stretcher? – nervously announces that Omphale’s soldiers are returning, adding desperately, “You won’t desert me, will you? You said you loved me!”

Omphale – a gorgeous redhead who must spend an incredible amount of time applying her eye makeup – does not deign to reply, but merely approaches the unconscious Hercules as he is carried into the room. Kneeling, Omphale runs appreciative hands over his physique—and then gestures. The second young man goes the way of the first…


(Clearly, Omphale is a firm believer in being off with the old love before being on with the new.)

An unspecified time later, Hercules regains consciousness, suffering a splitting headache and having no idea who he is, or where. Staggering to a window, he sees a sunlit lake with a waterfall tumbling into it, where a beautiful redhead swims under the gaze of a gaggle of handmaidens. He makes his way outside, but by the time he gets there the women have vanished.

Guessing correctly, Hercules passes under the cascade and so enters Omphale’s throne-room. As he approaches Omphale, the handmaidens run off in that way that the women in all these films, who are invariably clad in micro-miniskirts, tend to – i.e. carefully.

Hercules confesses to Omphale that he can’t remember anything, not even who he is. Omphale tells him that he is her husband, and the king of Lidia. He seems to accept this but, to test him, Omphale has Ulysses brought into his presence. To his friend’s dismay, Hercules denies ever having seen him before. Her eyes gleaming, Omphale serves Hercules wine, and has some girls perform a suggestive dance.

(This is pretty painful: the dancing is okay but, as with Iole’s song, the altered music bears very little resemblance to the action.)

“What is my name?” Hercules asks Omphale. “Does it matter?” she shrugs. Won over by her arguments, Hercules takes Omphale into his arms and—well, perhaps we’d better draw a veil around the next bit.

(However, do look out for the way that the flowers in the background change colour, when the two start getting hot ‘n’ heavy.)


Meanwhile, back in Thebes, Iole is doing pointless embroidery, while her handmaidens, obviously even more at a loss for something productive to do, are pawing through their mistress’s possessions. One of them, finding a heavy piece of chain at the bottom of a trunk, holds it up with a quizzical expression. “Does this mean something to you and Hercules?”

Iole does not answer, but dissolves into tears, probably leaving the handmaidens with a pretty kinky idea of what she and Hercules get up to in their spare time. Creon, the High Priest of Thebes, tries to comfort Iole by reminding her that Hercules is negotiating a treaty, and that these things take time.

(“Negotiating a treaty”!? HA! Never heard it called that before!)

In Lidia, Ulysses manages to release one of his long-suffering pigeons before being hauled off and put to “work”. This turns out to be giving Hercules a full body massage. Sleepily, Hercules imparts a piece of wisdom to his young companion: that you should sleep by day and stay awake at night: otherwise, you lose the best part of your life! (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more! Please say no more…) The Giggle Brigade brings food to Hercules, while a soldier fills a goblet with water.

Having seen this, Ulysses manages to knock the goblet over. He then tries to convince Hercules that he is, in fact, Hercules. Having no success, he then pronounces, “Iole!” “Oh, go away! I don’t understand a thing!” responds Hercules grouchily. Not one to give up without a fight, Ulysses declaims rapidly, “Iole! Your marriage!! Eteocles!!! Polinices!!!! The message!!!!! The perilous war against Thebes!!!!!!” When this wins him nothing but a blank stare, Ulysses tries a new tactic: he brings Hercules the iron torch-holder that stands by the door and asks him to bend it. Humouring him, Hercules tries—but he can’t do it.


Ulysses hears footsteps, and returns the torch-holder to its place just as Omphale – and really, there’s no other word for it – sashays into the room. She and Hercules kiss, and she asks him whether he slept well? “Wonderfully,” purrs Hercules. Hey, hang on! Didn’t we just learn that Hercules favours staying awake at night?

Oh. Right.

Then again, maybe not, as Hercules’ next line is: “I dreamt of ya.” (No, really, that’s how he says it.) However, he adds, in the dream she looked different. She was blonde, with a sweet smile. Omphale accepts this with surprising good humour, considering, and the two canoodle a bit more.

Ulysses’ pigeon arrives in Ithaca, and Laertes immediately gathers the Argonauts and sets out for Lidia. Back in Thebes, Eteocles is busy accusing Hercules of selling him out to Polinices, whose army is gathering outside the city. When Creon protests, Eteocles has Iole, who was caught while trying to run away, brought into the room. She denies knowing Hercules’ whereabouts. Eteocles announces that she will be held as a hostage, and that all Thebans who support Polinices will be arrested—starting with Creon!

Meanwhile, in Lidia, Hercules is lying around stuffing his face with what looks awfully like pan pizza when Ulysses sees him about to drink The Water, and literally dives across the room to knock it from his grasp. (No slow motion “NOOOOO!!!!”, though, strangely.) Telling Hercules that it is The Water that has caused his memory loss, Ulysses takes one more crack at convincing him of the truth, and for one brief instant the name “Hercules” seems to mean something…


Encouraged, Ulysses tells Hercules how the two of them came to be in Lidia, and that they have to escape immediately, as he has managed to discover Queen Omphale’s Terrible Secret—which, amazingly enough, isn’t just her serial slaughter of her serial lovers…

So… In a flashback, it transpires that while Ulysses was hunting around for a way to escape, he found a cave behind some bushes, leading away from the throne-room. And in this cave is the evidence of The Terrible Secret: that Omphale does not merely have her discarded lovers killed—

She has them embalmed and mounted!! 

The cave is a museum of sorts, filled with the previous imbibers of the Waters Of Forgetfulness, all posed to represent the way they were in life (leaving us to see Omphale as a distant ancestress of Madame Tussaud). As Ulysses wanders through the cave, gawping in horror at Hercules’ predecessors, he discovers an opening that leads to a chamber below. It is here that Omphale’s handymen – all imported from Egypt – toil; and as Ulysses watches, the young man who died crying, “You said you loved me!” (heh!) is lifted out of a large tank of smoking, bubbling liquid.

It occurs to me that if this is your end-game, a cup of something and a quiet death might be more practical than half-a-dozen sword-thrusts.

It also occurs to me that, as far as we know, the entire duty of the Lidian Royal Guard is capturing and disposing of Omphale’s boy-toys; while if there are any other Lidians in existence other than those attached to the throne-room, we never see them. How exactly does one become this sort of queen? (I mean, I’m not thinking of applying or anything, but…)


Anyway— As Omphale, who is nearby (along with her equally unperturbed handmaidens), praises her team for their skill in, “Fixing for eternity a man’s character”, the head man – who clearly loves his work – asks enthusiastically, “When can we expect to get to work on Hercules?” Omphale, however, leaves without answering, raising a Nasty Suspicion in the viewer’s mind…

Hercules, of course, does not believe what Ulysses tells him, but he is at least made uneasy. He tries once more to bend the torch-holder, and this time he succeeds. He then storms off. Ulysses follows hopefully, but rolls his eyes in disgust as he sees Hercules and Omphale lip-wrestling once again.

When Laertes and his companions arrive, Hercules demands grumpily that they be sent away, but Omphale says that as queen, she must receive them. Her meeting with the new arrivals is the only hint of actual queenly duties in the entire film; conversely, Laertes’ speech of thanks for Lidian hospitality includes fulsome praise of Omphale for ruling with “wisdom” and “graciousness” (!!!!).

As Omphale is offering / ordering, “The best wing in the palace” for her guests, Hercules wanders in. An astonished Laertes hails him by name and asks after Ulysses, only for Hercules to brush him aside and wander out again. The Argonauts are forced to accept Omphale’s lame insistence that this is not “Hercules” at all, and allow themselves to be escorted away. At the last moment, Omphale runs her eyes over Castor and asks him suggestively, “Haven’t we met somewhere before…?”

Hercules struggles desperately to regain his memory, hearing his friends’ voices in his head; while elsewhere, Omphale breaks off a snogging session with Castor, asking him to leave her.


“Why did you ask me here? You don’t really want me,” he observes, with an acuteness uncommon amongst the characters of these sorts of films. His first guess is that she wants to coax information out of him as to the reason for the Argonauts’ presence. His second hits the mark: she has fallen in love with Hercules who, he tells her, she can never hold. Omphale collapses in tearful rage, announcing, “I curse the day he entered this palace!”

At this unfortunate moment, Hercules enters, having regained his memory. Omphale faces his fury, confident that he will not hurt her, as he must know that she truly loves him. She throws herself at his feet, clutching his calf and pressing her face against his thigh. “If only my sincerity could make you stay!” she warbles, looking straight up his loin-cloth.

But when Hercules rejects her, she observes snidely that even Iole can’t take away from her what they’ve shared. To Hercules’ surprise, Omphale then gathers the Argonauts, announces that this is, in fact, Hercules, and that they are all free to leave. But at the last moment – surprise! – an ambush is sprung. Omphale urges her soldiers on—but begging rather than ordering that they, “Spare me Hercules!”

This is of course the film’s traditional Hercules Wrecks The Palace scene, with the Lidian guards being squished in numbers first beneath a huge marble table, then under statues flung from the top of the staircase. (I love the way these enemy soldiers always choose to hang out in clusters, making Hercules’ job all that much easier.) Hercules and his friends then escape through the cave that contains Omphale’s Terrible Secret, and finally make it to their ship.

And then Omphale, unable to live without Hercules, commits suicide by putting her Terrible Secret to gruesome and ironic use.


On the Argo, Hercules learns that he was in Lidia for twenty days, and that the time for negotiating the treaty is well past. “I’ve been tricked, by the gods!” he bellows. Or possibly: “I’ve been tricked by the gods!” Which in either case seems an odd reaction, since frankly, it was ol’ Herc’s tendency to listen to his stomach rather than his friends that got him into trouble in the first place.

Back in Thebes, Polinices and his army have gathered at the city gates. Eteocles shows his brother how his supporters will be dealt with by tossing Iole’s handmaidens off the wall (a surprisingly brutal scene). As Polinices and his men withdraw, carrying the bodies, Eteocles lets rip with a burst of maniacal “Ahhh-ha-ha-ha-ha!”-s.

Hercules and the others encounter Polinices on the shores of Attica. As Hercules broods over the bodies, Laertes and the others assure him that they will do whatever he wishes, but Laertes also warns him that Eteocles surely waits only for his presence: he will then kill Iole as he watches, as his revenge.

Later, at his camp, Polinices plans his strategy over the objections of his men, with the Captain of the Guard accusing him of caring for nothing but facing Eteocles in battle, even if it gets everyone else killed. A message then arrives from Eteocles, suggesting that the two of them settle their problems mano-a-mano—something Polinices’ mercenaries think is a splendid idea.

Hercules and his companions enter Thebes surreptitiously, and Hercules heads for the dungeon where Iole and the other prisoners are held. To reach it, he must pass through the arena. Immediately, Eteocles’ minions (all of whom seem to be exactly where they were three weeks earlier) reveal themselves, and point and laugh from above as the tigers are released. But the cats are no match for Hercules, of course, though Ulysses does dispatch one with an arrow.

(“Savage” tigers, yeah: one of them just really wants to get back into its cage…)


Approaching the huge wooden doors of the dungeon, Hercules sends them crashing off their hinges with one mighty blow. (Just as well none of the prisoners were directly behind them!) But Iole isn’t there. Creon tells Hercules that they thought it would be best if she ran away—although if it’s that easy, why are the rest of them just sitting there on their duffs? However, Iole’s bid for freedom is short-lived, as she falls into the hands of the Captain of the Guard, who has harboured a grudge against her and Hercules since their first encounter. He is about to do unspeakable things to her when a horn sounds to announce the duel between Polinices and Eteocles. “You just wait here!” the Captain, obviously a trusting soul, tells Iole, and hurries away to see the fight.

The brothers confront each other using four-horse chariots—and of all the incidents in the film, this was what the distributors chose to go with in the advertising! – “See the mammoth war of the chariots!” Just possibly the fact that the film was released during the Ben-Hur bally-hoo had something to do with their decision.

Anyway, “mammoth” isn’t exactly the first word that springs to mind when describing this conflict. Polinices and Eteocles ride past each other a couple of times, knock each other off their chariots, and finish their fight on foot. Eteocles slays Polinices, but is mortally wounded himself. Staggering towards his cheering supporters, Eteocles claims victory, gives one more hearty burst of “AHHH-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!!” and dies. The Captain of the Guard then delivers the eulogy:

“As evil and stupid as his brother!”

Hercules and his friends appear on the ramparts of Thebes. The Captain taunts Hercules by waving Iole’s scarf at him. “She’s in my house now! And I’m going there!” he announces.


However, the gates of Thebes then swing open, and the Theban army pours out. A full-scale battle takes place between the Thebans and the mercenaries, during which Hercules revenges himself on the Captain by pulling a tower over on top of him. Squish!

After the battle, in which the Thebans are, of course, victorious, Creon presides over the cremation of the dead (a regular cookout!), and Hercules is reunited with Iole. “How you’ve suffered!” he says to her. (HA! She doesn’t know the half of it!) “The gods have placed many obstacles against us,” he continues, and we wait for him to explain all about how those cruel gods forced him to spend three weeks having non-stop sex with a gorgeous redhead—forced him, I tells ya! But for once in his life, Hercules seems to feel that discretion might be the better part of valour.

Hercules Unchained suffers from the usual shortcomings of the peplum genre, including a distinct preference for action over logic, and an overabundance of alleged comic relief, in this case Ulysses’ painful deaf-mute routine, and the various wailings of Aesculapius, the oldest of the Argonauts. The tiger scene is depressing, and there’s an unpleasant amount of horse-tripping during the final battle; though this is also par for the course. You could also criticise the fact that Hercules has weirdly little to do with the story’s climactic events, but between the duel between the brothers and the clash of their armies, there’s enough going on that you don’t really mind.

Despite this, the story overall is better structured than is usually the case, with only the fight with Antaeus really feeling tacked on. And as I mentioned earlier, this is a lovely film to look at (at least if you can find a decent print!), with marvelously designed sets and – particularly during the revelation of Omphale’s Terrible Secret – some beautiful lighting effects.


The most memorable aspect of Hercules Unchained, however, is certainly the Queen herself. Omphale, with her casual use and abuse of any man unfortunate enough to wander across her path, is an unforgettable character. What a pity that she should finally be – if you’ll pardon the expression – emasculated by falling in love with Hercules; although I guess that was inevitable.

Still, while it lasts this aspect of the story lends some interesting shadings to the film as a whole, through its manipulation of the character of Hercules, who under the influence of the Waters of Forgetfulness shows an entirely different and unappealing side to his character: selfish, short-tempered, humourless.

This is actually much more in keeping with the “real” Hercules than most of these films ever admit. Given what we’ve seen of “the gods” along the way, we might also be inclined to suspect that this is Hercules’ divinity showing—but the reverse is actually the case, as demonstrated by his inability to bend the iron torch-holder. Hercules’ strength being linked to his memory, his sense of self, is one of this film’s most interesting touches. But of course, while the loss of Hercules’ strength is supposed to indicate the loss of his godlike powers, given that this incident occurs after his first night with the sexually insatiable Omphale, it is likely that the audience will put another interpretation on it entirely…

While this film’s original title rightly gives Omphale co-billing with Hercules, its English-language title is surprisingly thoughtful, making reference to several plot points—with Hercules’ chains being both literal and metaphoric; though by that reading, it is when he starts fooling around with Omphale that he is unchained. (His love scenes with Omphale certainly have a lot more zing than those with Iole; that whole “good girls don’t like it” crapola, I suppose.) The title “Hercules Unchained” therefore has the double merit of sounding as if something heroic is going on, while in fact the dead opposite is true. Personally, I can think of yet another alternative title for this film, one that would have been even more to the point; but I guess Hercules Whipped was really out of the question…


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7 Responses to Hercules Unchained (1959)

  1. Commander Benson says:

    “Personally, I can think of yet another alternative title for this film, one that would have been even more to the point; but I guess ‘Hercules Whipped’ was really out of the question…”

    It was fun and well worth my time to experience this review, Lyz, but I believe I’ve read it before. I distinctly recall e-mailing you with an observation about the alternate title you propose—and your reply still makes me chuckle. I knew then that a lady as eloquent as you was well worth knowing.

    It’s a pity we never got the chance to say “hi” in person when I was in Sydney twenty-two years ago.


    • Alaric says:

      This is one of the “ported over from the old site” reviews, rather than a completely new review, I believe.


    • lyzmadness says:

      That is so weird: I was thinking about that just the other day when I was sorting out a bunch of old work papers I found. That’s when they had me doing the interstate / NZ liaison stuff, right? My timing always was lousy. 😦

      Was that really twenty years ago? That is horrifying.

      ETA: I rediscovered your Green Slime comment when I was poking around here and will get around to responding, I promise!


  2. RogerBW says:

    Good to see Ms Lopez getting second billing on that French-Dutch (therefore Belgian?) poster.

    You’d think they might put up a sign: “waters of forgetfulness, do not drink”. Sooner or later someone is going to notice that everyone who passes this way loses their memories…

    Hercules’ backup excuse: “Babes! I’d lost my memory! No, really…”


    • lyzmadness says:

      Not sure of the source of those posters (Revenge Of Hercules has one too): it may be regional or may indicate multiple country distribution.

      But yes, absolutely Sylvia > Sylva.

      What *I* want to know is, what happened to the horses? Did they forget they were horses? (Kind of Donkey in reverse: “I’m a stallion!?”)

      Next up on the feeble-excuse list, The Loves Of Hercules


  3. Killer Meteor says:

    And 25 years later, we got She-Ra Unchained…


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