Thursday, 14 April 2016

Hercules, Samson & Ulysses (1963)

1958 saw the beginning of the short-lived but spectacular Italian peplum boom. Scores of imitators followed, and then after five or six years it was all over. The Italian film industry abandoned the peplum and embraced the spaghetti western. Which is a pity since on the whole the peplums were a lot more fun. Pietro Francisci directed the movie that started the craze, Hercules. And In 1963 he directed one of the last notable entries in the cycle, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses.

Francisci had in fact been making historical epics since the beginning of the 1950s. And in 1973, long after the peplum craze had run its course, he made yet another movie of this type, Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad. Clearly Francisci had a taste for this sort of thing.

Hercules, Samson & Ulysses opens with Hercules and his young friend Ulysses battling a sea monster that has been menacing Greek fishermen. Before the monster can be dealt with a storm intervenes and the heroes are shipwrecked. Hercules and Ulysses and four companions survive but the storm has taken them a very long way - all the way to a Danite village in Judea.

The people of Judea don’t seem too pleased about the arrival of these shipwrecked Greeks. Actually they’re mostly worried that the Greeks might be in league with the hated Philistines. The villagers are also worried that these visitors might betray their hero Samson who is hiding out amongst them.

Hercules and his friends set off for Gaza (where they hope to find a ship to take them home to Greece) accompanied by a Philistine merchant. When Hercules kills a lion with his bare hands the merchant is convinced that he must really be the famous Danite hero Samson. And there’s a very large reward for anyone who helps the Philistine king to capture Samson.

Hercules will meet the real Samson and in order to save his friends he will have to betray Samson to the Philistines. Unless of course he can find some honourable alternative - and Hercules can surely be relied upon to do the honourable thing?

Pietro Francisci knew his stuff when it came to directing this type of movie. The pacing is taut and there are some inspired moments. The action scenes (of which there’s no shortage) are well executed. The highlight is the epic fight between Hercules and Samson with the two heroes hurling gigantic stone blocks at each other, knocking over stone walls and generally demolishing every structure in sight. It’s truly one of the best peplum fight scenes ever. There are more superb and inventive action sequences in the latter part of the film.

The sets are very impressive. For a low budget movie this production manages to look very expensive.

Francisci wrote the screenplay as well as directing and he came up with a fairly decent story. It takes some of its inspiration from the Biblical story of Samson but brings Hercules into the story in at least a vaguely plausible way.

The acting reaches no great heights but it’s fine for this style of movie. Kirk Morris (who despite his screen name was an Italian actor and bodybuilder) is a convincing and quite acceptable hero and his performance is actually quite lively. Samson is played, and played pretty well, by Iranian actor Iloosh Khoshabe (under the suitable American-sounding name Richard Lloyd) while Ulysses is played in rather amiable and not overly heroic style by Enzo Cerusico. To be honest Ulysses is a minor character in this story. The original Italian title Ercole sfida Sansone would have been more accurately and more appropriately translated as Hercules Challenges Samson.

Diletta D'Andrea provides some amusement as Leria, the wife of Hercules. She’s a devoted wife but she’s getting a bit fed up with having her husband constantly away from home doing hero stuff.

Aldo Giuffrè is suitably cruel and villainous as the Philistine King. A really classic peplum should have a beautiful but evil queen and in this film it’s the notorious Philistine queen Delilah, played with considerable panache by Liana Orfei. Hers is the standout performance in the movie. I especially love her costume in the climactic battle scene - she looks like a sexy comic-book super-villainess.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD provides a pretty good anamorphic transfer. There is some very minor print damage but not enough to worry about and the colours are pleasingly vivid. If you’re a hardcore peplum fan you’ll know how hard it is to find these movies on DVD in an acceptable condition and in the correct aspect ratios - and peplums were always made in a widescreen format and even more than most movies they absolutely have to be seen in the proper aspect ratio. This release is most definitely a welcome one. One word of warning - don’t watch the trailer before watching the movie. It gives away far too much!

All peplums have a certain amount of camp appeal but Hercules, Samson & Ulysses stands up as a very decent action adventure movie indeed. This is definitely not to be dismissed as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. It’s superbly made, fairly well acted, it looks terrific and it’s packed with genuine spectacle and imaginative action scenes. It may have come along towards the tail end of the peplum boom but it’s one of the best movies of the genre. Very highly recommended.

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