04 July 2011

HERCULES UNCHAINED/1959/MARIO BAVA STEEVE REEVES

HERCULES UNCHAINED (Ercole e la regina di Lidia)

1959/Director: Pietro Francisci/Writer: Ennio De Concini

Cast: Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Sylvia Lopez, Gabriele Antonini, Primo Carnera

ALSO KNOWN AS: Hercule et la reine de Lydie,  Hercules e a Ranha, Hercules and the Queen of Lydia,
Hercules and the Queen of Sheba, Herkules und die Knigin der Amazonen    
   
Sometimes called peplum by the cognoscenti, the sword and sandal genre is one of the most ridiculed and maligned in the whole world of cult cinema. The overly harsh criticisms range from everything like worst movies of all time, inept and amateurish to downright being "homoerotic" as if a film being homoerotic means it will be a bad film. I have seen plenty of great homoerotic films but maybe we can go into that another day. Well, who knows, maybe all these criticisms are true to some degree or another but I have found these films to be some of the most entertaining low budget B-films, long with old serial westerns, I have ever sat down to watch and I have seen quite few. Lately I have been able to locate scores of these online and have around a dozen or so queued up for viewing. I actually began watching these as a wee lad in the late 60's on Saturday afternoons, at abut the time the movement was losing its steam to new genres like Spaghetti Westerns and spy films. They were shown on a afternoon show that was called The Mighty Sons of Hercules and I can still hear the macho theme music in my head as I type this. We had a crappy b/w TV with "rabbit ears' back then and I never saw any of these films until only recently in color.

Hercules Unchained is considered one of the best peplum films ever made and I am sure that the involvement of Maestro Mario Bava the project had no small influence on that opinion. Hercules Unchained takes up where Hercules (aka The Labors of Hecules) left off and we will get around to that one here eventually. What Hercules and Hercules Unchained have in common is that both star Montana born body builder Steve Reeves in the role of the son of Zeus. Reeves is rightfully considered the definitive Hercules in the same way Sean Connery is the ultimate 007 or Johnny Weissmuller is the best Tarzan (at least in his early roles), but what is amazing is that Reeves actually only played in the above mentioned two Hercules films.

Hercules Unchained is a sequel, as I mentioned, to Hercules and takes right up where that film ends with Hercules, his wife Lole (played again by the super sexy Sylva Kocina) and his close friend Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini) bid farewell to the Argonauts and begin the journey to Hercules's home in Thebes. Hercules takes a much needed nap in the back of the wagon while Lole sings a poorly dubbed (half the fun of these films is the poor dubbing and atrocious dialog) song with her lyre. They are stopped by the giant Anteo (Italian wrestler Primo Canera) who decides he wants Lelo, along with all their provisions and horses, as his own and then makes the mistake of waking up Hercules from his nap. The fight that follows seems pretty silly now but as an impressionable boy of about seven I was totally stressed out by the fact Hercules could not seem to keep Anteo down. Every time Hercules would body slam the giant to the ground he would rise back up laughing and stronger than before. It is Ulysses who figures out that Anteo draws his strength from the earth and Hercules next tosses the brute over a cliff into the ocean. They continue on their journey and once in Thebes find the city in a state of civil unrest. The sons of blind King Oedipus are contending for control of the city. The city is left in the charge of each son for one year but this year Eteocles (played in hammy Peplum fashion by Sergio Fantoni) has decided to stay in power and his brother Polinices (Mimmo Palmara) has gathered a small army or mercenaries to attack the city and take the title of King that is rightfully his. Hercules seeks to stop a bloody civil war and offers to act as a mediator between Eteoles and Polinices and soon he and Ulysses set off to talk to Polinices.

As in any quest or journey type film the adventures happen along the way and it is not long before Hercules and Ulysses run into trouble. Stopping for a rest Hercules drinks from a well that contains the waters of forgetfulness and soon cannot remember who he is or who Ulysses is or why he is where he is at. He seems to loose some of his power, or maybe forgets he has powers, and a small band of soldiers subdue him and Ulysses and sail them off to the island of Lydia. The queen of Lydia, Omphale, is played by the attractive in a she-male kinda' way Sylvia Lopez. Queen Omphale really likes hunky guys and is soon drooling all over Hercules and seducing him with the allures of a life of good food, wine and loving. Hercules ahs forgotten who he is and is pulled into her trap. The Queen keeps a sort of museum of all her former lovers, where they stand as statues after having a spell cast over them from the quickly bored Omphale. Ulysses spends his time working as Hercules's servant and trying to restore his memory. And of course while all of this is going on Eteocles has gained more power in Thebes and has placed all of Hercules's friends and family under arrest. A lot of the film's time is spent (some people may say wasted but I disagree) with Hercules on the island of Lydia under Queen Lydia's spell. There is not much Peplum action until, with the help of Ulysses, Hercules regains his memory. The time in the underground palace is where we get to see the lush and even lurid lighting work of cinematographer and art director Mario Bava. There is an obligatory dancing girl sequence that is a notch above what we usually are treated to in Peplum films and the eventual conflict between Hercules and the queen's guards is standard Styrofoam boulders and statues being hurled at huddled together guards.

The film climaxes of course with a battle for Thebes that the good guys win. The way it should always be. Director Pietro Fransisci also directed the first Hercules film, which I have slated for a rewatch soon, and there is much in common with the pacing and general feel between the two films. The acting is not that bad if you are the type who likes films like this. If you're going to compare it to Gladiator or Titanic probably best to not waste your time. Reeves does a good job for the part and it is simply sad that he did not go on to do a half dozen or so Hercules films, though he would do some other Peplum styled films such as Romulus and Remus, the Theif of Bagdad and The Giant of Marathon, to name a few. But what really sets Hercules Unchained apart is the atmosphere created by Bava. His sense of the gothic and mysterious is conveyed perfectly in Queen Omphale's underground world and in our next film he works as director and creates what might be the best Hercules film ever, even if Steve Reeves was not the heroic demi-god.





2 comments:

msmariah said...

I actually really enjoyed this movie, especially the commentary when it was on MST3K. Great stuff.

Bill D. Courtney said...

Yea, this one was pretty good I thought. One of the better ones.