Aka Die unglaublichen Abenteuer des Herkules, Hercules, Hércules
Director: Pietro Francisci
Certification number / date: 26179 del 07.02.58
First release date: 20/02/58
Production companies: O.S.C.A.R. Film (Organizzazione Sociale Cinematografica Artistica Roma), Galatea (Milan).
Story: Pietro Francisci
Screenplay: Ennio De Concini, Pietro Francisci, Carlo Fratini
Cinematography: Mario Bava
Music: Enzo Masetti
Editor: Mario Serandrei
Art direction: Flavio Mogherini
Cast: Steve Reeves (Hercules), Sylva Koscina (Iole, Pelias’s daughter), Fabrizio Mioni (Jason), Ivo Garrani (Pelias, King of Iolcus), Gianna Maria Canale (Antea, Queen of the Amazons), Arturo Dominici (Eurysteus), Mimmo Palmara (Iphitus, Pelias’s son), Lidia Alfonsi (the sybil), Gabriele Antonini (Ulysses), Aldo Fiorelli (Argos), Andrea Fantasia (Laertes), Luciana Paluzzi (Iole’s maid), Afro Poli (Chironi), Gian Paolo Rosmino (Aesculapius, Jason’s father), Willi Colombini (Pollux), Fulvio Carrara (Castor), Gino Mattera (Orpheus), Gina Rovere (an Amazon), Lily Granado (an Amazon), Aldo Pini (Tifi), Spartaco Nale
Uncredited: Paola Quattrini (young Iole)
When it hit the Italian cinemas in February 1958, nobody would have quite realized the huge impact that Hercules was to have. Although by no means a cheapie – the film had enough money to ensure that production values were of a high standard and to assemble a good cast of Italian character actors – there’s little to indicate that it was intended as anything more than another in the irregular line of peplums produced in Italy. Although they were known to turn a profit and were occasionally treated as prestige projects (Mario Camerini’s Ulysses, for example), peplums had been far less prolific than their close relations, the cape and sword films, which were already a stable of low budget filmmakers in Cinecitta. With the success of Hercules, though, this was all to change: the film gained huge international success in the years following its release, inspiring numerous producers to try their hands at similar projects and making a household name out of its star, Steve Reeves, a body builder with little former acting experience.
Beyond that, though, the key significance of Hercules was that it signaled a marked change in attitude for the Italian film industry as a whole. Whereas the occasional film previously had been targeted at the international markets – mostly art-house productions that could be relied upon to pick up a decent following on the festival circuit and a handful of awards – popular cinema had been almost entirely inward looking. The two most productive Italian genres prior to the late 1950s, melodramas and comedies, had been rarely distributed abroad, their content being simply too Italianesque to make them attractive to the foreign distributors. With Hercules and its descendents, though, this was to change: filmmakers became aware of the potential of making films that could be sold around the world, and as such tailored their material to that international market as much as the domestic cinemas and church halls. It was a transition of style and approach, and if Hercules didn’t exactly inspire it, it certainly accelerated the process considerably.
The plot mixes and matches elements of Greek and Roman history, throwing together the familiar Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts stories with a familiar ‘usurpers getting their just deserts’ scenario, already much-used in even the most nascent form of the genre. In this case, the usurper – or apparent usurper at any rate – is Pelias (Ivo Garroni), the King of Iolcus, who is thought by many to have murdered his own brother and forced his nephew, Jason (Fabrizio Mioni), into exile in order to gain the throne. Knowing that his position has been weakened by all these rumours, he calls in Hercules (Steve Reeves), the super-strong, super-wise son of the Zeus, to act as his counsel and advisor.
Hercules makes an immediate impact, not least on Pelias’s children: Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) falls deeply in love with him, while the selfish Prince Iphitus (Mimmo Palmara) becomes resentful of his superior strength and intelligence. Iphitus’s repeated attempts at one-upmanship, however, end only in failure and, eventually, his own death; savaged by a rogue lion he has attempted to kill in order to prove his courage. Consumed by guilt, and accused of selfishness by the grieving Pelias, Hercules is driven to carry out a number of dangerous tasks in order to redeem his name. Furthermore, feeling increasingly constrained by his semi-deific status, he renounces his immortality, meaning that he’ll be able to love like a man, but also to die like one.
In the course of his adventures, though, he meets Jason (Fabrizio Mioni), and his plans change. Convinced of his new friend’s innocence – Jason had been accused of his own father’s murder – he decides to help him regain his rightful throne. Pelias, though, refuses to accept the truth, so they’re left with no option but to prove the truth by setting off to find the ‘golden fleece’, a legendary symbol of power that had been lost somewhere in the mysterious Colchidie Islands.
From a contemporary perspective, Hercules may seem slightly old fashioned, but it certainly feels modern when compared to contemporaries such as Pia of Ptolomy. This is primarily down to the fact that it’s made with a much more advanced sense of rhythym and movement, not to mention a good degree of visual flair. The cinematic language, in other words, seems less old-fashioned, as is exemplified by the vibrant colours and the skimpy skirts sported by Sylva Koscina’s Iole (not to mention the saucy Amazonians who, it is implied, shag their victims before disposing of them). It looks and feels, in other words, like a creation of the late fifties rather than the austere, somewhat stodgy, post-war period.
Beyond that, though, it moves along at a much faster pace than many of its contemporaries. The script, although it might occasionally be episodic and treats some events with an unseemly speed, is packed full of enough action and event to ensure that things never become boring. There are also a couple of genuine surprises – Ithicus, for instance, who is being set up as an impetuous foil to Hercules, is unceremoniously disposed of after about twenty minutes – and the characters, although briskly sketched, are interesting enough. Although it maintains some melodramatic aspects, it doesn’t feel like a melodrama played out in historical clothing, which marks it out as unusual.
Pietro Francisci was by no means an unheralded talent at the time. He’d already carved out a niche for himself in the area, having previously made a number of high profile historical adventures (not least the 1954 film Attila, featuring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren), but this remains his crowning achievement, in terms of commercial success at any rate. Surprisingly, he only made a handful of other peplums after this, but he’s quite rightfully considered to be – along with Vittorio Cottafavi – one of the most important directors in the field. Hercules is certainly made with considerable skill, and, despite some occasionally shakey special effects, it doesn’t compare at all badly to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the first of the hugely popular Ray Harryhausen adventure films, which came out later in the year.
It’s also interesting to note the prominent billing of Mario Bava as ‘lighting and special effects supervisor’, as there are many scenes which make use of the same kind of coloured filters and painted backdrops which would feature so prominently in his films. Some sequences – a nightmare suffered by the young Iole, Hercules meeting with the Sybil – have an incredibly gothic ambience, and feel more like they were shot by Bava than Francisci. Bava, however, probably wouldn’t have been so adept at handling the action sequences, which was Francisci’s area of expertise, and in fact the filmmakers’ two differing styles end up complementing rather than competing with each other. [Read Tim Lucas’s huge tome about Mario Bava, All the Colours of the Dark, for more information about this!]
Although profitable enough on its initial European release, it wasn’t until Hercules hit the international markets that its success rocketed. Picked up by Joseph E. Levine for his Embassy Pictures Corporation, it proved a winner at the US box office, and it wasn’t until the sequel was already being made – reuniting most of the cast and crew – that it became clear quite how much money it would go on to make. As well as making Levine’s name, it also sealed the reputation of Italian production company Galatea, who went on to make over 40 films in the next 7 years, and Steve Reeves became the number one superstar of the peplum genre.
Exactly who chose Reeves for the role is a matter of some debate. Certain sources mention that he was originally approached by producer Federico Teti, while others tell the possibly apocryphal tale of how Francisci’s 13 year old daughter was a fan of the MGM musical Athena (54), in which he had a small part, and she persuaded her father to watch it at the time he was trying to cast his protagonist. Reeves, himself, gave some weight to the latter version:
[Pietro Francisci] wrote the script, and he had been looking for Hercules for about five years. Around Italy, he’d find somebody who was good looking and tall, but had no body. Or someone who was good looking but short, and had a great body. He just couldn’t find the right combination. One day his daughter, who was 13, went to the theater and saw Athena, which had gotten to Italy by then. And she ran home and said, ‘Daddy, I think I have your Hercules.’ He went to the theater the next day, pictured me with a goatee and moustache, and felt I would be his man. At the time I was working for American Health Studios in public relations. I’d go to Riverside and open up a fitness studio with the mayor and Miss Riverside, then wait another two weeks or so and open another one someplace else. I had a good job with them, it didn’t use too much of my time, and the owner made me promise I’d forget about show business if I worked with him. So when the Hercules offer came, I just ignored it. Then Francisci wrote me another letter and said ‘Look, this is serious. Here’s an airplane ticket.’ There was also an advance of $5000, which in those days was quite an advance. I realized the guy was serious. I started growing a moustache and goatee on my job. This way I didn’t have to have something glued on, which is terrible. My boss asked me what I was doing it for, and I said I wanted to look more distinguished. I was only paid $10,000 for Hercules and I had no percentage. The film cost a half million to make, and it earned $40 million in the United States alone. It was the box office champion of 1959. I outgrossed John Wayne, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day, who were the big money makers at the time. And I was the biggest box office star, not only in the United States, but around the world. (from Spaghetti Cinema)
In all honesty, Reeves wasn’t a great actor, but he certainly had considerable presence and was far more charismatic than some of the musclebound lunks who went on to make their name in similar films. He also looks the part, and any deficiancies in his thesping are more than made up for by the experienced performers around him. Sylva Koscina had already made her name as a young actress of talent in films such as Pietro Germi’s The Railroad Man (Il ferroviere, 56), and went on to become one of the bigger international starlets of the 1960s, while the villains, Ivo Garrani and Arturo Dominici, both later appeared in Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio, 60). One of the lesser known participants was Fabrizio Mioni, who plays the heroic Jason more than adequately. Mioni had previously had small roles in a small number of Italian productions, but after this and the sequel, Hercules Unchained, he relocated to America and made his career in US television.