Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole) is the movie that started the Italian sword & sandal boom of the late 50s and early 60s. And it has cinematography and special effects by some guy named Mario Bava. You may have heard of him. So thats at least two reasons to see this movie. And it’s fun, so there’s a third reason.
This initial entry in the cycle tries to stick to the actual Greek mythology. Or at least it confines itself to characters and events mentioned in the original mythology - it does tend to throw them all in together to male one mighty mythological stew, but that’s part of the enjoyment.
It opens with a girl in a chariot. Something has spooked the horses and they’re out of control, and the chariot is about to plunge over a cliff into the seas. Luckily the mighty hero Hercules happens to be on hand, and saves the day. And the girl. Who turns out to exceptionally pretty. And a princess to boot. She’s Iole (played by Sylva Koscina) and she’s the daughter of King Pelias. She also happens to be wearing a remarkably short and very flimsy dress. It’s a dress that certainly gets noticed by our intrepid hero.
Hercules is in fact on his way to Pelias’s kingdom, where he will take up a position as a kind of advisor and military instructor to the king’s son. He’s not all that keen on the job, until he discovers that one of the fringe benefits may be getting to know very attractive and very scantily-clad princesses. Hercules is a bold and noble hero, but he’s not indifferent to the charms of the ladies.
The king’s son turns out to be an obnoxious and thoroughly unpleasant young man, and an unfortunate accident soon has Hercules in the king’s bad books. And there’s a dark secret in the kingdom’s past. Pelias’s brother had been king, but was murdered in mysterious circumstances and his son Jason disappeared and was also assumed to have been killed. Hercules’ friend Chiron had been accused of the murder, and also vanished. Even worse, the famed Golden Fleece, the symbol of the kingship, also disappeared.
At this point the movie suddenly becomes the story of Jason and the Argonauts, with Hercules being rather awkwardly shoe-horned into Jason’s story. While the mythology gets a bit jumbled the movie can’t be accused of being slow-paced. Adventure is piled upon adventure.
And Jason and his men, in search of provisions lost in a storm, encounter the fabled amazons. Initially his men are rather pleased at the chance of some female companionship. Their ardour is cooled somewhat when they discover that while the amazons are equally keen for male companionship, one night of love is all you get with an amazon. After that any man is put to death. The amazons have a nice little cemetery full of the bones of men who’ve strayed into their queendom, tasted the pleasures of the flesh with amazon maidens, and then ended up pushing up the daisies.
Interspersed with all this are a couple of the fabled labours of Hercules, and some dastardly plotting by discontented Argonauts.
The movie’s biggest weakness is the lack of a beautiful but evil queen, which is really an absolute necessity in this type of movie. We also don’t get to see enough of Iole, which is a pity because Sylva Koscina was not only very attractive she as also a competent actress, and the movie really needs more of a love interest to provide a bit more balance.
On the plus side this film had a reasonably generous budget, so the production values are fairly high. And it has Mario Bava behind the camera. Even in the atrocious public domain prints which are the form in which you’re most likely to encounter this movie it’s still evident that Bava had added a lot of his characteristic visual signatures. Colour is used boldly and imaginatively, and without the slightest regard for realism. This is a fantasy, and Bava makes it look suitably fantastic. I suspect that a properly restored print released in the correct aspect ratio would reveal this movie as a true visual masterpiece.
The acting is mostly what you expect from this genre. Steve Reeves as Hercules looks the part, and he’s a reasonably convincing hero. Apart from Ms Koscina most of the other actors are a little on the wooden side, but these movies are all about the spectacle, and there’s plenty of that.
Pietro Francisci’s direction cant really be faulted. He understands that rule number one in movies like this is that you must never allow the audience to become bored, and that’s certainly not likely to happen in this film. The look of the film is so Bava-esque that it’s impossible not to believe that Bava’s was the most significant creative input. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with that!
A movie with great historical importance in having kicked off an entire genre, and a highly entertaining film in its own right.