“O, God of Vengeance! For you I descended to Hades and fought Cerberus! I even deserted my ill-fated land. But if peace is still denied me, I must seek revenge!”
[Original title: La Vendetta di Ercole]
Director: Vittorio Cottafavi
Starring: Mark Forest, Broderick Crawford, Eleonora Ruffo, Gaby André, Sandro Moretti, Philippe Hersent, Federica Ranchi, Giancarlo Sbragia, Wandisa Guida, Carla Calò
Screenplay: Duccio Tessari, Mario Ferrari, Marco Piccoli (aka Marcello Baldi) and Archibald Zounds Jr (aka Nicolò Ferrari)
Synopsis: To complete his labours, Hercules (Mark Forest) descends into Hades where, after fighting and slaying Cerberus, the fire-breathing three-headed hound, and a strange flying cat-like creature, he captures the blood diamond, which he intends as an offering to the God of Vengeance. Meanwhile, in Oechalia, the usurper Eurytus (Broderick Crawford) tries to convince his nervous allies that Hercules will never return from Hades, and that this is the time to attack Thebes. Outside the palace, a young man, Illus (Sandro Moretti), bribes a guard to admit him and makes his way to the chamber of Thea (Federica Ranchi), daughter of the previous rulers of Oechalia and Eurytus’ ward. Illus and Thea declare their love for one another, but Thea frets over the danger in which Illus places himself with these visits to her rooms. Illus insists that this is the only way they can meet, as his father, Hercules, has forbidden him to see Thea, although he will not say why. The meeting of the two is interrupted by Ismene (Wandisa Guida), the sister of Eurytus’ main advisor, Tyndaros (Giancarlo Sbragia), who pretends to be their friend but secretly plots against them. No sooner has Illus left at Ismene’s insistence than he is captured by soldiers and thrown into the dungeon. When news of this reaches Eurytus, he announces to his allies that he will prove to them his belief in Hercules’ death and their own safety by having Hercules’ son publicly executed. But even as Eurytus succeeds in swaying his allies to his cause, news of Hercules’ return from Hades reaches the city. His allies instantly renege, prompting Eurytus to announce furiously that he will execute Illus anyway. Tyndaros, however, persuades him that a better plan is to let Illus escape… Shortly afterwards, a beautiful slave-girl, Alcinoe (Gaby André), who is the daughter of one of Eurytus’ conquered foes, slips into the dungeon and, posing as Thea’s friend, “arranges” Illus’ escape. She also poisons his mind against his father, telling him that the real reason Hercules is against Illus’ marriage is that he wants Thea for himself. As Hercules makes his offering of the blood diamond to a statue of the God of Vengeance, the Sibyl (Carla Calò) appears, confirming that with the completion of his labours, the gods have set him free. Hercules then asks about Illus and Thea, but the Sibyl silently vanishes…
Comments: Despite the worldwide popularity of Hercules and Hercules Unchained, the four people most responsible for these films’ success – writer-director Pietro Francisci; co-writer Ennio de Concini; cinematographer Mario Bava; and most of all, star Steve Reeves – then chose to depart the new genre and try their luck in other areas of film-making (though all of them would be back, sooner or later, more or less). The demand for more pepla was growing, however, and another such film was rushed into production late in 1959.
The Revenge Of Hercules was directed by the prolific Vittorio Cottafavi, who had by this time made several pseudo-historical dramas and fantasies that were likely thought to qualify him for the job. It was (predominantly) an Italian-French co-production which, if not quite so lavishly budgeted as its predecessors, still offered the spectacular sets and costume design that viewers were learning to expect.
However—at some point the money ran out, forcing the film’s Italian producers to do a deal with an American production company in order to get it finished: they gave up the US distribution rights in exchange for more funding. Possibly it still wasn’t quite enough, however—and perhaps this explains the film’s disconcerting lurch from genuinely impressive sets to ratty animal costumes.
Meanwhile, Steve Reeves’ abandonment of the character of Hercules – to which he would not return – led to something of an open season, with new Hercules-es popping up everywhere—not to mention Macistes, Goliaths, Samsons, Ursuses and other assorted mythological heroes and muscle-men.
The first to don Reeves’ discarded loin-cloth was another former body-builder named Lou Degni…or at least, he was then. Much as it always forced its horror films to pretend to be British, the eternally perverse Italian film industry preferred its Greco-Roman demi-gods to be as American as possible; and so the Brooklynite Degni was re-born as “Mark Forest”—or, occasionally, as “Mark Forrest”.
Impressively built without the somewhat alarming physical development of most of his confrères, Forest gave the cinematic world a Hercules who was more demi than god; a family man who just wanted to relax at home with the wife and kids, if only those pesky fates would stop bothering him about labours and quests. And if you think that’s an unlikely picture of Hercules—oh my friends, we’ve only just begun to look at the way the motion picture industry screwed with mythology!
Dreams of domesticity aside for the moment, The Revenge Of Hercules opens with Our Hero descending into Hades. There’s no bullying of Charon in this version: Hercules just climbs down a rock wall; and we get a charming intimation of the overall standard of the special effects in this film, as the safety harness on which Mark Forest is suspended is clearly visible in most shots.
(The original cut of the film runs its credits and an explanatory crawl giving the background story of Hercules’ labours over scenes of him travelling across rocky terrain and snowfields to reach the entrance to Hades; the English-language version replaces this with translated credits on a solid red background and opens with the descent. The English credits also remove the rather improbable name, or rather pseudonym, of one of the film’s co-writers—for obvious reasons. Apparently two of the four screenwriters didn’t want their names on this, though one of them was a little more sensible about it.)
Once down, Hercules finds himself confronted by Cerberus. Now, according to most accounts of the story, Hercules’ last labour was the capture of Cerberus, which he delivered to King Eurystheus of Tiryns.
However, if this particular Hercules has one distinguishing peculiarity, it is his hatred of the entire animal creation: barely a beast wanders by him on foot or wing that doesn’t end up a bloody corpse. As character traits go, it isn’t precisely an endearing one. There’s nothing remotely convincing about any of this, but the very inadequacy of the effects work and the costuming manages to make these scenes even more distressing. So strap yourselves in.
The best that can be said for Hercules is that he does make a token effort to distract Cerberus, throwing it a loaf of bread topped with some of his own blood. But not all of the heads fall for this ploy, and as Hercules tries to slip by it, one of the heads emits a blast of fire that causes him to leap back in consternation.
(And I’ve a notion that it wasn’t Hercules leaping back, if you follow: there’s a jump cut here, suggesting that an over-enthusiastic pyrotechnics man may have gone a little close to serving up flambé de Forest.)
Well, after that it’s no more Mr Nice Guy, as Hercules draws knife and disposes of Cerberus, who becomes bloody corpse #1. (Complete with eye violence, you Italian bastards…)
With the death of Cerberus, the ground suddenly heaves under Hercules’ feet and a rock wall collapses. The heart of Hades is then exposed, a multi-coloured world of gaseous swamps and dead trees. And if we’re not quite in Mario Bava territory, this film’s cinematographer, Mario Montuori, and production designer, Franco Lolli, do some really nice work here, with everything bathed in suphurous yellows.
…but I guess Hercules doesn’t like dogs.
We then make an abrupt transition to Oechalia, ruled by an evil, scar-faced usurper called Eurytus, who murdered the real ruler of Oechalia and plans to hold the throne by forcing his daughter, Thea, to marry him.
The opening sequence of The Revenge Of Hercules is, alas, somewhat misleading: this is very much a palace-intrigue peplum, with its plot centred on Eurytus’ plans to establish himself on the throne of Oechalia and to conquer Thebes, and many long scenes of him arguing and scheming; while rather too much of the rest is given over to the romantic agonies of the film’s star-crossed secondary leads, and to the angsty fallout from this amongst Hercules and his family. All this tests the viewer’s patience, though I guess if the alternative is Hercules’ killing-spree…
Whether he was acting it or not (and it does feel like we’ve wandered into Embarrassed Actor territory), Broderick Crawford’s surliness actually adds to his depiction of the brutish Eurytus, who now tries to convince his wavering allies that Hercules must be dead: “No-one has ever descended to Hades and come back!” he declares. Well, no. I mean, isn’t that the point of Hades…?
Anyway, as Eurytus rallies his reluctant troops, Hercules’ son, Illus, bribes a guard to admit him to the palace grounds—or at least, he thinks he does, but it’s a set-up from the start. His arrival is signalled to Tyndaros, Eurytus’ main advisor and the brain to his brawn, who in turn informs Eurytus. Eurytus then declares that he will demonstrate his belief in Hercules’ death by executing Illus.
Huh. We wish. Or we do after a few moments in the company of Illus and Thea, who are everything you’d expect of the “romantic leads” in a film like this. She (as one of her rivals puts it) is “young and vapid”; he is an utter dweeb.
Early days, and Vittorio Cottafavi doesn’t want to try our patience with too much Illus and Thea just yet; so we cut back to Hades where Hercules is doing what he does best: chucking boulders around, and committing acts of animal cruelty.
Hercules uses one boulder to smash another: inside is the blood diamond, the object of this particular labour, his last. He is trying to pry it free when he is attacked, if that’s the right word, by a man-sized cat with bat-wings that swoops at him through the air (and if you thought Mark Forest’s harness was visible— Lordy, lordy, the wires!).
This pathetic object is only too obviously incapable of hurting anyone, unless we rupture ourselves laughing at it; yet Hercules feels compelled to stab the poor helpless thing repeatedly and then strangle it to death.
This film is seven minutes old, and I hate Our Hero with a passion.
Anyway, this [*cough*] heroic feat accomplished, Hercules pulls the blood diamond free, while blood spills from the crevice in the rock in which it was lodged.
And then it’s back to Oechalia, where Illus is now languishing in a dungeon (yay!) and we meet a couple more of our conspirators: Ismene, Tyndaros’ sister and Eurytus’ former mistress, who still loves the usurper enough (who knows why?) to try and assist his pursuit of Thea; and Alcinoe, the daughter of one of Eurytus’ conquered foes, now his slave (and, uh, body servant, if you follow me) and the object of Tyndaros’ desire.
Not a cat person either, hey, Herc?
When news of Hercules’ safe return from Hades reaches the palace, Eurytus’ allies scatter like cockroaches when the lights go on. The disgusted Eurytus threatens to execute Illus anyway (promises, promises), but Tyndaros comes up with a plan for using him as a weapon against Hercules, with Alcinoe’s help.
Though she spurns Tyndaros personally, when she is promised her freedom Alcinoe goes to Illus posing as Thea’s friend and sets him free…also informing him that the reason Hercules is against his marriage to Thea is that he wants the girl for himself; a tale that thick-as-a-brick Illus swallows without a blink.
Meanwhile, Hercules is at the temple of the God of Vengeance, offering up the blood diamond and asking that the gods free him and allow him to return home. The jewel literally flies from Hercules’ hands and settles itself in a cavity in the statue’s forehead. The Sibyl then appears to confirm the gods’ acceptance of Hercules’ offering and his release from his labours. Hercules is ecstatic, but can’t help pushing his luck by asking the Sibyl about Illus and Thea. She, however, fades away without answering…
Outside the temple, Hercules is met by his friend, Androcles.
(One of the most charming things about these films is their matter-of-fact handling of supernatural events and encounters. Thus, when Hercules is done sacrificing to the God of Vengeance and chatting with the Sibyl, he finds his pal outside with a chariot waiting to drive him home!)
As they head for Hercules’ house near Thebes, the populace is thrilled to see him again, and we soon learn why. He’s no sooner shown his face than it’s, “Hercules, Hercules, fix my roof! Hercules, Hercules, uproot my tree!” Yay! Hercules is back! Now we can sit on our lazy Theban butts and let him do all the work!
Bears, then? Bears are all rough and tough. I mean, not this particular bear, obviously, but—
Hercules takes all this in surprisingly good part. I guess even demi-gods like being sucked up to (or, perhaps, particularly demi-gods). At any rate, he chuckles mightily and gets down to business. One of the people demanding his assistance has two newly-purchased oxen that, by a miraculous exertion of willpower, Hercules refrains from punching to death just for the hell of it.
This passage of The Revenge Of Hercules introduces something conspicuous by its absence in the two preceding films, but which would rapidly become a staple of the genre: an Odious Comic Relief Little Person. On this first outing, this soon-to-be-stock character appears in only a couple of brief scenes, something that adds markedly to the enjoyment factor of the film.
At Hercules’ house, a celebratory feast is being prepared by his long-suffering wife, Deianeira.
Wait a minute! I hear those of you who have been paying attention cry at this point. (Oh, come on: someone out there must have been paying attention, right? Right? [Is this thing on?]) Deianeira? The last time we saw Hercules, wasn’t he married to Iole of Iolcus?
Well, yes, he was. Like I said, these films play fast and loose with the accepted versions of the Hercules mythology. Hercules’ wife at the time of his labours was Megara of Thebes…only when he came home again, far from wanting to settle down with the missus, Hercules palmed Megara off onto his own nephew, on the grounds that the gods disapproved of their marriage. Which I guess is demi-god-speak for, “I think we should see other people”.
So that would be a ‘no’?
Iole was actually the daughter of Eurytus of Oechalia (yes, that Eurytus of Oechalia…which is to say, not this Eurytus of Oechalia), and became Hercules’ unwilling concubine while he was married to Deianeira. Deianeira then [*cough, cough*] accidentally killed Hercules with a “love potion” that was really poison…an incident I don’t think any film has ever dealt with.
Be all that as it may, in this version of events it is Deianeira to whom Hercules is married throughout his labours, and has been long enough to produce an adult Illus; and it is she with whom he plans a life of peaceful domesticity. Ha, ha.
Deianeira flits around preparing a celebratory feast for Hercules’ return, the only fly in her ointment being the behaviour of Illus, who is moping around the house in what might charitably be called a king-sized fit of the sulks. Illus starts off by telling his mother he can’t reveal to her what the trouble is, that he would, “Never want you to suffer because of me”; and then about five seconds later blurts out the whole Hercules-wants-Thea story. Deianeira is shocked but steadfast, refusing to believe that Hercules could even think of doing such a thing.
So I guess she never heard about the time that Hercules slept with and knocked up forty-nine virgins on forty-nine consecutive nights, in the belief that he was with the same woman each time.
(Hey, no-one ever said that Hercules was bright! Oh, and just in case you were wondering, yes, there were fifty of them, but one of them wouldn’t put out.)
When Hercules arrives home he is hurt and angered by Illus’ cold reception of him, but Deianeira excuses her son on the grounds that he is, “Young, and in love” (and an idiot). However, even a passing reference to Thea sends Hercules into a tizzy, and Deianeira starts to wonder if Illus wasn’t right.
In addition to their willingness to step on Illus, another good thing about elephants is…
Back in Oechalia, Tyndaros gives Alcinoe a “love philtre”, which she is to persuade Illus to administer to his father. Alcinoe doesn’t swallow that story, of course, but agrees to help destroy Hercules if Eurytus will give up on Thea and make her queen of Oechalia instead. This sits well with neither Eurytus nor Tyndaros, but for the time being they play along.
Alcinoe sets out for Thebes, but while riding through the forest, she is attacked by a guy in one of the sorriest-looking bear costumes you ever did see (it’s one of those with an extended neck, so the person inside can see out through the base of the throat: its head wobbles about accordingly). Alcinoe faints, but just as the bear approaches her, Hercules rides up and—well, you know the drill…
Hercules then revives Alcinoe, who looks up into his eyes and— Zing, zing, zing go her heart-strings…and clang, clang, clang goes her conscience when Hercules introduces himself.
The arrival of Hercules’ friends creates a diversion and Alcinoe slips away, hiding the deadly philtre in a tree. Unfortunately for her, that exact same tree has an Oechalian spy lurking near it. What were the odds, hey? Her failure to carry out her side of the bargain results in Alcinoe being cast into a dungeon by Eurytus.
Meanwhile, Hercules is having a post-hunt party, but becomes furious upon hearing that Illus is setting out for Oechalia again. He drags Illus off his horse and ties him to a tree (!!). This is witnessed by Ismene’s slave, Ilide. Posing as Thea’s slave, she gives Illus the philtre and tells him that it will restore his father’s sanity.
When Ilide is safely out of the way, Illus calls to Hercules for release, apologising and promising to behave himself. A delighted Hercules frees him and takes him home.
…they cost a lot more to rent than a bear suit.
At the palace in Oechalia, Thea bribes her way into the dungeon, where a repentant Alcinoe confesses the whole plot—and tells Thea that Eurytus poisoned her father, the true king, too. Eurytus himself arrives in time to overhear this exchange and has Thea imprisoned with Alcinoe. The two mourn their fate—and Hercules’.
“Only a merciful god could help us!” exclaims Thea, and wouldn’t you know it? – no sooner has she spoken than a wind blows through the cell. This is, “Aeolus! He gathers human words and carries them on the wind!” The young women break into a desperate chorus of, “Illus! It’s poison! It’s poison, you doofus!”
(Okay, not really…)
Illus has already emptied the philtre into his father’s wine – Hercules is being toasted, so he isn’t drinking – and as the wind carries the girls’ cries to him, our mental giant sits there for a time with a puzzled expression on his face – “‘Stop, Illus, they deceived me, it’s poison…?’ Huh? I don’t get it!” – but the penny – eventually – drops, just in time for Illus to dash the wine away from Hercules’ lips.
As Illus apologises to his father – without saying what for, exactly – and embraces him, a dog licks up the spilled wine and dies foaming at the mouth. I guess this one I can’t blame on Hercules but man, the body count…
But the family peace is short-lived as, the next morning, Hercules learns that Illus has gone to Oechalia anyway. There, he too is captured and thrown into the dungeon (it’s getting mighty crowded down there). Eurytus taunts Tyndaros with Alcinoe’s betrayal of their bargain, then announces that he will execute Illus as he planned in the first place.
(Dammit, Eurytus, will you stop getting our hopes up!?)
Hey, nice décor! I really like those p—
Eurytus has, indeed, planned a demonstration of a most peculiar and gruesome sort: he has his condemned prisoners carried out on crosses (diagonal ones, let’s just be clear about that), and then gets an elephant to step on their heads!
As Illus’ turn comes, Hercules is of course burning his way to Oechalia along with Androcles and another friend, all three “disguised” in cloaks stolen from some Oechalian soldiers. They are thus admitted, and Hercules throws himself into the arena just in time to save Illus and to fight a mighty battle with the elephant: a spectacle hardly diminished by the fact that the elephant’s movements are all controlled by a handler who is in plain sight throughout. (And Hercules doesn’t kill it! – at least not on camera. In fact for some reason he handles it rather carefully…)
As Hercules frees Illus, the gathered populace, apparently roused at last by the peculiar cruelty of the elephant executions, stages a convenient rebellion, allowing the four intruders to escape. Hercules then takes Illus to the Sibyl, and we finally get to the root of the whole Thea mystery…kind of.
I have to confess, the first time I saw this film I got mightily confused here, because it pulls a Fawlty Towers-esque, “I was looking at you but talking to him” stunt; so that when the Sibyl says, “Your progeny will rule Oechalia, but it will cost the life of the woman who loves you”, I thought she was talking to Illus, whereas she was really addressing Hercules.
So just to clarify—Hercules believes that if Illus marries Thea, then Deianeira will die.
Anyway, Illus takes the dashing of his romantic hopes as you’d expect, by sinking into a suicidal depression, so that he has to go around with his hands bound to keep him from killing himself.
Never mind. Forget I said anything.
Hercules, too, responds to the situation with all of his usual rational clear-thinking: he curses and abandons Thebes, and destroys his own house with his bare hands. Which, if not particularly sensible behaviour, at least allows him to whip out the chains and indulge in a little patented pillar-pulling.
Hercules and his entourage then ride off past some depressed Thebans (just realising, no doubt, that they’ll now have to do some work themselves occasionally), and Deianeira reveals that Illus told her about the prophecy despite promising Hercules he wouldn’t. Good old Illus!
The departure of Hercules and Illus prompts Eurytus to plan his marriage to Thea—he having wrung consent out of her by lowering Alcinoe into a snake-pit. Dammit! Why can’t I find a man like that? I’d like nothing better than to be lowered into a pit containing the most gorgeous little harmless pyth— Uh, I mean, containing deadly, deadly snakes. Yes, that’s what I meant.
Meanwhile, as Hercules looks for a way to cross a flooded valley, Illus begs his mother to free him so he can kill himself. Seconded!
But of course, Deianeira decides to sacrifice herself instead, and cries out to the gods to take her life. (Specifically she invokes the Eumenides, which doesn’t seem like quite the right court to be appealing to.) The gods are obligingly prompt in answering this request. Polymorpheus appears, first in the form of a centaur, then as a faun. Deianeira conveniently faints, and Polymorpheus carries her off.
For someone who claims to be, “Centaur and fawn…the water and the mist in the valleys”…
Hercules sees this, gets the wrong idea (although I don’t suppose the right idea would have worked out any differently), and does what he does best. The mortally wounded Polymorpheus manages to carry off Deianeira anyway, and Hercules loses it altogether, shouting threats at all the gods in general and his father Zeus in particular, before hurling a javelin into the sky. The gods respond with a blast of cartoon lightning that hardly seems designed to make Hercules regret his temerity.
On the contrary, Hercules goes to the temple of the God of Vengeance and demands to know where Deianeira is. “Answer! I am Hercules! You won’t answer me?” he concludes in a rage, apparently not having grasped the fact that, you know, he’s talking to a statue, and sets about messing up the joint, including smashing the taciturn stone object to pieces.
For some reason this inspires the Sibyl to announce that although the gods are against him, she is with Hercules; and that on this day her grim prophecy is fated to come true. She reveals that Deianeira is in Oechalia, and that to enter the city (its walls, having been built by the Cyclops, being impenetrable), Hercules will need to find the rock in the woods marked with lightning, and—
More cartoon blasts then punish the Sibyl for her disloyalty.
(Note, however – or at least according to the English-language subtitler – that the Sibyl declares that when the prophecy comes true, Hercules’ wife will die…)
…he sure goes down easy.
Indeed, the Olympian wrath extends so far as causing the sun to set in the middle of the day. This gives Eurytus a fit of the shakes, although he recovers himself sufficiently to try and strangle Tyndaros, when his advisor is unwise enough to taunt the tyrant with his cowardice.
This friendly little scrap is interrupted by the news that there is a centaur outside the palace calling for Eurytus. And so there is. Polymorpheus lives long enough to exchange Deianeira (still in that convenient faint) for a promise of Hercules’ death, then keels over.
Hercules is met in the forest by a Theban army rounded up by Androcles on receipt of a message carried by Illus. By the gods! Illus did something useful!! Androcles assures Hercules that they are prepared to help him fight his way into Oechalia, whatever the cost, but Hercules responds that a frontal assault won’t get them past the walls.
Instead, he and Androcles go searching for the Sybil’s rock. Once found, Hercules pushes it aside to reveal an underground passageway, into which protrude the roots of Oechalia’s walls. Hercules sends Androcles back to his army, telling him to storm Oechalia should its walls fall; and then, yup, he starts messing up the joint. The impregnable walls crumble immediately, almost as if the slabs of rock in them had just been loosely piled on one another.
Hercules manages to escape the collapsing passageway and rejoins his army, which enters Oechalia without difficulty. The ensuing ruckus is heard by Deianeira, who is, yup, in the dungeon. Tyndaros offers to free her and take her to Hercules (presumably buying his own life in the process), but Eurytus hurls a knife into his back.
So having gone to all that trouble to bring back the blood diamond…
Eurytus then grabs Deianeira and starts calling for Hercules, who arrives to find his wife teetering on the edge of the snake-pit. Half her luck. Eurytus promises to spare Deianeira if Hercules gets down on his knees and begs him for her life…which, in agony, he does.
Ha, ha, made you beg, says Eurytus; and starts to push Deianeira towards the edge anyway.
But then Alcinoe finally makes her move, rushing at Eurytus and propelling both him and herself into the pit. Hercules pushes aside the barred door he’s been cowering behind all this time, and lowers himself into the pit to rescue Alcinoe. I suppose I should be grateful that he doesn’t stop to kill all the snakes while he’s down there, particularly since Eurytus has already reminded us how the infant Hercules was strangling snakes while still in his cradle.
(The highlight of this sequence is a all-too-brief shot of a no-doubt mortified Broderick Crawford wrestling with a rubber snake).
Alcinoe is brought out of the pit, but lasts only long enough to declare that she loves Hercules before she dies.
Then Illus and Thea, who so richly deserve one another, are married; and Hercules’ progeny rules in Oechalia.
And thus is the Sibyl’s prophecy fulfilled.
…don’t you feel just a little foolish right now?
But wait! – there’s more!
In the US, the English-dubbed versions of Hercules and Hercules Unchained made a lot of money for their distributor, Joseph E. Levine; and it was not long before others started jumping on the pepla-distribution bandwagon—including, inevitably, James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff.
AIP had already dabbled in this area by distributing Steve Reeves’ first non-Hercules film, Il terrore dei barbari: not a peplum, but a history-based actioner. Nicholson and Arkoff toyed with the notion of trying to pass it off as a Hercules film, but legal trouble beckoned. Instead, they renamed it Goliath And The Barbarians, and ensured that the English dubbing contained plenty of references to Reeves’ character as “a Goliath” and “the Goliath” (not actually as “Goliath”: that would come later). Sent out on a double-bill with Sign Of The Gladiator (another retitled actioner, Nel Segno di Roma / The Sign Of Rome aka Sheba And The Gladiator), the film helped return a tidy profit.
Tidy enough indeed for AIP to announce an intended sequel, Goliath And The Dragon, which was conceived as a newly-shot feature, rather than a makeover. The company didn’t have a Goliath, of course, and Steve Reeves had injured himself badly doing his own stunt-work for The Last Days Of Pompeii (injuries that would eventually cut short his acting career); but negotiations did begin with Debra Paget as the female lead. When that fell through, Nicholson and Arkoff gave up on the idea of making their own peplum—at least on their own.
Instead they decided to co-produce a peplum, in exchange for the American distribution rights. This did happen, though not as originally planned (see below); and the film they ended up with was The Revenge Of Hercules.
However—what they had announced was “Goliath And The Dragon“; and while the original film’s Hercules does cut a swathe through the animal kingdom, dragons were one species that eluded him.
But a dragon there clearly had to be; while turning Hercules into Goliath would mean tweaking one or two other details…
Just who, then, is this “Goliath”? An opening narration explains – or tries to:
Narrator: “Emilius the Mighty – the Goliath of Thebes – lived in the days when men worshipped strange, magical gods, believing in their powers with unshakable faith. Legend has it that Goliath served the God of Vengeance and the Goddess of the Four Winds. In return for his devotion, he was said to be favoured with immortality. He would never know death at the hands of any mortal. Goliath was held in awe by his friends and enemies alike. Only one man – Eurytus, the tyrant of Oechalia – did not believe in Goliath’s power to escape death. Determined slay him and seize Goliath’s powerful kingdom of Thebes, Eurytus had stolen the precious blood diamond belonging to the God of Vengeance, and hid it in the Cave of Horrors. After many months of searching, Goliath found the fearsome cave and, unafraid, entered it to fulfill his vow to return the blood diamond to his god.”
Okay, so there we have it. No Hercules, just some strong guy. Who happens to live in Thebes.
(I’m guessing they picked “Emilius” because Steve Reeves’ character in Goliath And The Barbarians is called “Emiliano”.)
This alteration forces some others, of course. There being no Hercules, there can be no labours. Similarly, there is no trip to Hades…although personally I’m willing to accept a “Cave of Horrors” as a substitute. There is no Sibyl now: the spectral prophetess is the Goddess of the Four Winds herself; it is she who carries Thea’s warning to Illus. And while her prophecy is essentially unchanged, some changes made to the Hercules family do rather alter its impact.
In Goliath And The Dragon, Illus has made a leap from being Hercules’ son to being Goliath’s brother. One can only speculate as to the reason for this: perhaps the similarity in age of the three actors involved was discomforting to the US distributors of the film. (When The Revenge Of Hercules was made, Mark Forest was 27, Eleonora Ruffo 25 and Sandro Moretti the oldest of the three at 29.) Of course, Hercules had that whole “immortality of a demi-god” thing going for him—and now that I think about it, Deianeira was a demi-god too, her real father being Dionysus (which I guess makes Illus a hemi-demi-god…or maybe a hemi-demi-semi-god); so she was under no obligation to age either.
But the same was clearly not the case for Mr and Mrs Emilius. The prophecy is consequently altered to, “Your brother will reign in Oechalia, but it will cost the life of the woman who loves you”, and this in turn lends a different tension to the rest of the film: Illus might have been prepared to take it all on the chin for his mother (not that he was, actually), but now he must sacrifice himself for a sister-in-law. His evident reluctance to surrender to circumstance thus makes him look a little less of a putz. Conversely, Deianeira’s willingness to give up her life for Illus is rather difficult to swallow.
What a shock, Goliath doesn’t like dragons.
But the prophecy is not the only reason that Goliath is against Illus and Thea: the re-writers here threw in another plot thread about Thea’s parents killing Goliath and Illus’ parents. This seems an unnecessary complication…particularly as it leaves us wondering, if the two sets of parents had gotten along well enough and long enough for Illus and Thea to have “loved one another from childhood”, how and why it all ended in bloodshed. One imagines a bridge party gone horribly wrong.
There are some other curious things about Goliath And The Dragon. A number of the actors were clearly speaking English during the shoot, and we are able to see that the original script was actually much closer to the English-language version than to the Italian-language version released in Europe.
(On the whole. Even though he was speaking English, Broderick Crawford’s voice was dubbed in the US version by someone who must have seen Eurytus as a Hell’s Kitchen-spawned gangster: you almost expect Eurytus to start calling people, “You dirty rat!” And actually, there’s one glorious moment when the faux-Eurytus spits at Tyndaros, “And after this morning, I forbid you to work on any of these plots that don’t make sense…ya moron!”)
And of course, there’s also one entirely new subplot. The film opens with Goliath descending into what is now Eurytus’ Cave of Horrors, where he encounters (as you might have guessed) a dragon. Later on, when Polymorpheus delivers Deianeira to Eurytus, she ends up, not in Oechalia’s overcrowded prison system, but chained up in the same cave, where Goliath must slay the dragon to rescue her.
And it is Mark Forest fighting the dragon, and Eleonora Ruffo chained up in the cave—leaving us to conclude that AIP realised they couldn’t work around this, and so sprang for the two to shoot this extra scene.
And while we’re on the subject, it appears that Eurytus doesn’t much care for snakes.
And this was in fact the case. Originally, in return for the American distribution rights, AIP had agreed to co-fund the production of The Revenge Of Hercules, and at that time had a prop dragon head made for use in the film…only for Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson to be greeted, upon their arrival in Rome, with the news that the film’s budget had doubled.
This was a standard Italian tactic at the time, a money-raising stunt pulled by producers used to interacting with the big American studios like MGM. They had reckoned without their hosts this time, however: the AIP boys turned around and got the first plane home.
Then, some time later, Arkoff and Nicholson caught wind of a peplum whose producers had run out of money before completion of their shoot—and sure enough, it was The Revenge Of Hercules. Now in the box-seat, AIP was able to make its own terms in exchange for funding the film’s completion—including the shooting of some new scenes for the American market, using that dragon head for which the company had – [*shudder*] – already paid money.
And so Goliath And The Dragon manages to one-up The Revenge Of Hercules by giving us one additional pathetic animal for its hero to slaughter. Well – “pathetic” – yes and no. In long-shot, it is an adorable stop-motion beastie, truthfully more like a dinosaur than a dragon (and either way, courtesy of Jim Danforth); in close-up, it is a distinctly non-threatening puppet head that bears little resemblance to its alter-ego (though it does have the remarkable ability to re-grow an eyeball, after Goliath puts its eye out with his sword…you American bastards); and while it smokes a lot, fire is conspicuously absent. It is the latter version of the beast which Goliath, uh, “battles”: something that makes him seem even more of a nasty old bully than when he was strangling that poor stupid bat-cat thing in the opening sequence.
And really, it is hard to regard someone as “heroic” when he does nothing but beat up refugees from Fraggle Rock. Personally, by the time the credits rolled on Goliath And The Dragon, I was just wishing that the Theban branch of the Humane Society would show up and haul our so-called hero’s sorry butt away.
I think we’re all on the same page about this, though.
Sure, no-one ever said Hercules was bright, but clearly he had an eye to the main chance. “Hey, weren’t you blonde last night? Eh, never mind.”
In glorious new Oechalian order, there is a spy behind every tree! (Half the population are spies, the other half are in the dungeon.)
With these films you always have to remind yourself that the thick-headed, tantrum-throwing Hercules is much closer to the real deal.
…the only exception being the high-paid and much-respected profession of elephant handler.
I can’t help wondering whether the irony of giving this particularly animal-hating version of Hercules a friend named “Androcles” was deliberate. Come to think of it, considering that one of Hercules’ labors involved him crushing a lion to death, I suppose giving ANY version of Hercules a friend named “Androcles” would be ironic. (Of course, he can’t be THAT Androcles, unless the chronology is even more messed up than I think. Which is possible, I’ve seen worse.)
I’m sure the thinking went no further than that “Androcles” was a properly Hercules-ish character name.
But your point highlights the fact that the one animal that is pretty standard in any Hercules film is weirdly enough missing here, while everything else is getting slaughtered: no big cats. They obviously blew their real-animal budget renting the elephant and didn’t / couldn’t spring for a lion or tiger as well.
In fact I wonder if that’s where the funding ran out?? 😀
Maybe the flying cat creature began as an attempt to do a lion or a tiger (so they wouldn’t have to pay for a real one), and went horribly (or hysterically) wrong? “Eh, let’s just give it wings and say it’s some sort of underworld monster.”
I guess they did recognise that they needed a cat of some kind; some kind.
Given that Polymorpheus was both half-horse and half-goat, does his death add another animal to Hercules’ body count?
I was adding two to the body-count, actually. (Your maths vs my hostility. 😀 )