Hercules saves a beautiful princess when her chariot goes out of control. Her father has asked the muscleman to teach his son the ‘arts of war’ but Hercules is more interested in clearing the name of an old friend, who was accused of assassinating the previous King many years before.
Steve Reeves was a champion bodybuilder and small time actor (Ed Wood’s ‘Jailbait’ (1954)!) before he took this gig in Italy for writer-director Pietro Francisci. No one was interested in distributing the movie stateside until independent producer-exhibitor Joseph H Levine saw it. Later he called it: ‘One of the worst pictures I ever saw, but I knew it had great appeal.’ Spending more on promotion than the original production budget, Levine released the movie simultaneously to over 600 screens (unheard of at the time). It was an absolute smash and kick started a craze for Italian muscleman pictures, which lasted until the mid-1960s.
It’s hard to understand what the fuss was about now because the movie really is rather poor. Reeves is impressive physically but isn’t much of an actor and scenes where he wrestles a dopey lion and a stuffed bison are not convincing. The plot mixes its mythologies (Greek and Roman) and features such disparate elements as a geriatric lizard monster, a mysterious wise woman and a search for the Golden Fleece. The script ties this all up logically enough but the story still rambles all over the too generous running time. The English dubbing is terrible and Reeves meets other characters with the kind of outrageous coincidence often favoured by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his ‘Tarzan’ books. These include Gianna Maria Canale as the Queen of the Amazons and Sylva Koscina as the Princess Iole, who repeated her role in sequel ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959), again with Reeves.
It’s interesting to speculate whether Ray Harryhausen saw this film and realised the cinematic potential in the Golden Fleece, realised so brilliantly in his vastly superior ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963). Actually, I’ve always wondered why no one knitted the Fleece into a nice sweater or a pair of socks. Reeves reportedly turned down the roles of James Bond and The Man with No Name and, although it’s possible to imagine him in Eastwood’s poncho, it’s hard to see him as 007.
There’s a new Hercules movie currently shooting with Dwayne Johnson in the title role. No doubt it will be ‘darker, grittier and more organic’ – like every other remake/reboot/re-imagining than comes out of Hollywood these days… Just wake me when it’s over…