Samson Against the Pirates/Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast (1963)

‘I’m looking for a brunette; small in places, large in others.’

Out on a sea fishing expedition, legendary strongman Samson and his friends rescue a beautiful woman adrift on a piece of ship’s wreckage. The galleon on which she was travelling was attacked by pirates, who kidnapped her friends, intending to sell them as slaves. Tired of hearing of such atrocities, Samson determines to hold their notorious chief to account…

Minor, inconsequential Peplum from Italian director Tanio Boccia, hiding behind his usual alias of Amerigo Anton. The film actually has more in common with a historical adventure picture than the mythological shenanigans favoured by Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole’ (1958), the film that triggered Italy’s brief mid-20th Century muscleman craze.

A quiet fishing trip on the ocean blue seems just the ticket for strongman Samson (Kirk Morris) and his happy-go-lucky friends Ramon (Franco Peruzzi) and Gaynor (possibly Pasquale De Filippo). The catch of the day turns out to be Amanda (Margaret Lee), niece of the Governor of Martinique, shipwrecked after an attack by pirates. Under the command of Sandor (Nello Pazzafini), the brigands slaughtered the ship’s crew, kidnapped all the women passengers, and sent the vessel to the bottom with a broadside cannonade.

Hearing Lee’s story, Morris determines to get even with the pirate chieftain Murad (Daniele Vargas), who commands his unholy troops from Devil’s Island. The three friends set out for his stronghold, posing as slave traders, but discover that Lee has overheard their plans and stowed away in the boat. She’s not about to leave best friend Sarah (the lovely Adriana Ambesi) and the other girls to their fate on the auction block. Soon after arriving on the island, they join forces with rebel leader Manuel (Aldo Bufi Landi), who plans to oust Vargas, but their schemes soon go awry.

A severely underwhelming entry into the Peplum genre, this project bears the telltale marks of a quick and somewhat contrived cash-in on the latest box office trend of the time. There’s the definite possibility that Guido Malatesta’s script was retooled to accommodate Morris and his muscles, as there are only a few scenes where his superhuman strength affects proceedings in any significant way. One of these is a lengthy sequence where he pulls against a boatload of rowers to prevent the mechanical advance of racks of spears. Vargas arranges this ordeal on the flimsy notion, unsubstantiated by anything we’ve seen that Morris needs to be humbled before the people as he is the ‘living symbol’ of a possible revolution.

The ‘trial of strength’ is one of the film’s best scenes but highlights another issue. Boccia can’t disguise the fact that there’s a very poor turnout by the local population to watch Morris in action, and the director struggles throughout to convey any sense of scale. The big set pieces take place on the high seas with the pirate army, but most of the principal cast are missing in action, so there’s a good chance that a lot of the crowd appears courtesy of another film. However, to Boccia’s credit, it’s not a certainty. The sense that this just a costume picture, or even a swashbuckler, tweaked for a muscleman is not assisted by the costume department. The pirates at Vargas’ court look like they spend most of their time crossing blades with musketeers rather than sailing on the high seas in search of booty.

Unfortunately, the film has other limitations, which speak to a lack of budget. The fight scenes are not well executed, particularly the tavern brawl, and the fishing village where Morris lives looks like a stiff wind could blow it away. And no audience member will be able to ignore the crocodile in the room. Yes, memories of Bela Lugosi heroically wrestling that fake octopus at the end of Ed Wood’s ‘Bride of the Monster’ (1956) come flooding back as Morris does similar duty with one of the worst prop reptiles in cinema history. Credit to Lee in this scene as she looks on screaming in fear when she was probably struggling not to scream with laughter. Or cry with despair.

The hopelessly underwritten script provides the cast with nothing they can use to build a performance. Characters are reduced to generic archetypes, such as ‘friend of hero’, ‘villain’s lieutenant’, ‘leader of the resistance,’ etc. Peruzzi and Ambesi get a romantic subplot, but it’s over so quickly you wonder why anyone bothered. It might have been an attempt to offset the lack of spark between Morris and Lee, who have no screen chemistry as a couple whatsoever.

Vargas does get to chew the scenery a bit as the villainous pirate king, but he’s offscreen for too much of the time and is only briefly involved in the climax. Lee comes out best as she’s able to give Amanda a little more fire than most Peplum Princesses, although she does seem to have spent a little too long in the makeup chair, perhaps in an attempt to make her look a little older than her 19 years. Morris certainly has the required physical development but makes no other significant contribution to the project.

Born in Venice in 1942 as Adriano Bellini, Morris started hitting the gym and entering bodybuilding contests while at University. In 1961, he was spotted working as a gondolier by a film producer, and Boccia cast him in the title role of ‘The Triumph of Maciste/Il trionfo di Maciste’ (1961). The muscleman had been created more than half a century earlier by Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone for silent films as a rival to the mythological Hercules. Morris went on to play Maciste half a dozen times but struggled after the Peplum movies went out of style in the middle of the decade. Subsequent movie roles were few, although they did include the kitsch sci-fi of ‘2+5: Missione Hydra/Star Pilot’ (1966) and Spaghetti Western ‘Crazy Westerners/Little Rita nel West’ (1968). He also appeared as a model in photo comics, perhaps a more appropriate forum for his acting talent.

A small footnote in the history of Peplum cinema. The crocodile scene is worth a watch, though.

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses/Ercole Sfida Sansone/Hercules Challenges Samson (1963)

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses/Ercole Sfida Sansone/Hercules Challenges Samson (1963)‘A man who is impassioned by a beauty like yours is a foolish one indeed.’

A monstrous sea beast is attacking boats and murdering the fishermen of Ithaca. Legendary strongman Hercules and a crew of brave warriors track down the creature during a storm and kill it but are shipwrecked on a strange shore. While attempting to reach the nearest seaport to obtain a new ship, the comrades are taken prisoner by the authorities when Hercules is mistaken for the rebel Samson, who has a price on his head…

More of the further adventures of the Greek muscleman and champion of justice. This series entry came courtesy of writer-director Pietro Francisci, who had helped to send the ‘sword and sandal’ movie global by unleashing Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1958). After that film became an international sensation, the Italian film industry went Peplum crazy, churning out more than 50 similar adventures over the next half dozen years featuring not only Hercules, but identikit heroes like Samson, Maciste, Goliath and Ursus. The same actors often played more than one of these characters and, to confuse things even more, nearly all the movies were rebranded with the ‘Hercules’ name when released in the United States. However, this one is the real deal.

Hercules (Kirk Morris, real name Adriano Bellini) is perfectly content hanging around at the court of the King of Ithaca. He spends his time chucking the discus about, hanging with young friend Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico) and making whoopee with his beautiful wife, Leria (Diletta D’Andrea). But there’s something rotten in the state of Ithaca, or at least offshore, and it’s not dodgy tax havens patronised by the greedy super-rich. No, this is a more tangible blot on the seascape. When the locals turn up at court with another tale of a murdered fisherman, Morris takes action, asking for a ship, a crew and a star to sail her by. D’Andrea is not pleased, believing that it’s just an excuse for Morris to go off on more of his tiresome adventures, but Morris adamant: Moby Dick is going down.

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses/Ercole Sfida Sansone/Hercules Challenges Samson (1963)

‘Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!’

Unfortunately, things go a bit pear-shaped when Morris and his merry men catch up with the creature. Morris manages to snag it with a harpoon, but it’s not the monster that’s the problem, it’s the weather. And it’s this scene which tells us what kind of ‘Hercules’ film we’re going to get. We don’t see anything of the monster but a shadow in the water and the raging storm is just a meteorological phenomenon, not the work of the Gods. Mythological elements are entirely absent from this story which ties in with the tale of the biblical strongman, Samson, instead. Of course, it’s the goofier aspects of these films which are their most entertaining aspect today, so this is not particularly good news.

The stranded Morris and his companions begin their cross-country trek with just one aim in mind: getting back home. Luckily, Cerusico managed to save the carrier pigeons they’d brought along as a precaution, so they can still send messages back home. This plot device leads to several scenes of D’Andrea and the court receiving these avian telegrams which, although they do allow for the Ithacans to make a last-minute appearance as the cavalry, are pretty much just there to pad out the running time. Meanwhile, Morris has strangled a lion and been misidentified as rebel Samson (Iloosh Khoshabe, billed here as Richard Lloyd). This means trouble with the local authorities, specifically King Seren of the Philistines (Aldo Giuffrè) whose men have burned a local village and killed the populace in an earlier scene. Although not graphic, that sequence is surprisingly nasty, with men and women crucified to the front of their houses before everything burns.

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses/Ercole Sfida Sansone/Hercules Challenges Samson (1963)

‘I do think t’s time you had a haircut, dear…’

The real power behind the throne, though, is Giuffrè’s man-eating queen, Delilah (Liana Orfei). She persuades her king to send Morris after Khoshabe with his crew held behind as hostages, thus setting up the battle that we’ve all come to see. Of course, she goes along for the ride so that she can make a move on our hero, but he’s having none of it. After all, he’s a married man! The fight between Morris and Khoshabe does prove to be one of the high points of the film. The two go at it in the ruins of a deserted temple and, yes, the slabs and stones don’t look like they have all that much weight, but it’s still a fun sequence. Francisci choses to shoot from low angles as well; a clever idea as it emphasises the size and stature of the protagonists. In terms of action, it’s only rivalled by the climactic temple collapse during the big finish.

There is nothing particularly special about this entry into the Hercules catalogue. Morris has the looks and physicality for the title character but brings little to the role in terms of personality. This was a switch of roles for him as his previous filming assignment had been his second appearance as Samson in ‘Sansone contro i pirati/Samson Against the Pirates’ (1963). He’d also played Maciste three times by this point, once in another crossover movie ‘Hercules in the Valley of Woe’ (1961). But the acting honours here definitely belong to Orfei, who play seductive and sexy one minute and penitent and pleading the next when the tables have turned. We can certainly see why Khoshabe starts thinking with his trousers, rather than his head. Although it’s probably not a relationship with much of a future if the bible is an accurate record.

Hercules, Samson and Ulysses/Ercole Sfida Sansone/Hercules Challenges Samson (1963)

‘We got shipwrecked killing a sea monster. Have you got a phone we could use?’

Everything here is workmanlike and professional enough, but, without the mythological elements, it’s nothing to write home about. The action is competently staged, there’s some scale to the battle scenes, and the landscape is appropriately barren and desolate. Look closely, however, and you can’t help but notice that the Philistine soldiers are wearing what appear to be German helmets from World War II. Khoshabe also throws a lot of spears, their flights accompanied by ever-weirder sound effects, which may have been added when the film was assembled for US release. Francisci only directed twice more, but one of those projects was the wonderfully silly ‘2+5: Missione Hydra’ (1968) which makes up for in giggles what it lacks in every other department.

All in all, a very standard sword and sandal adventure that’s unlikely to live long in the memory.

Maciste Against Hercules In The Vale of Woe/Maciste contro Ercole nella valle dei guai/Hercules in the Valley of Woe (1961)

Maciste Against Hercules In The Vale of Woe/Maciste contro Ercole nella valle dei guai/Hercules in the Valley of Woe (1961)‘Put on your show in a place like Gorgonzola. They won’t mind the smell.’

Two washed-up fight promoters overhear a scientist talking about his time machine. Seeing a chance to clean up by betting on future sports events, they use the device, only to end up in Ancient Greece where they tangle with sorcery and legendary heroes…

Silly, knockabout comedy which may not quite qualify as an outright spoof of the muscleman craze ignited by Steve Reeves’ ‘Hercules’ (1958) but certainly takes some affectionate jabs at the genre. It’s a measure of how popular these pictures
had become in such a short time that the Italian public was obviously prepared to accept their legendary heroes getting the same treatment that Abbott and Costello dished out to the iconic Universal Monsters in the post-war years.

Things are not going well for wheeler-dealers Rusteghin (Raimondo Vianello) and Comendatore (Mario Carotenuto). Local investors are more than a little unimpressed by their latest venture: an evening of midget wrestling. Facing mounting debts, and some angry dwarfs, the hapless team seem out of ideas until they overhear a conversation in the street about a time machine. A little housebreaking later and they’re going ‘back to the future’ to check out next week’s race results. Unfortunately, the resulting trip plunges then into the dim and distant mythological past. Oh, and it also sends them a few hundred miles from Milan to Mycenae in Greece!

Maciste Against Hercules In The Vale of Woe/Maciste contro Ercole nella valle dei guai/Hercules in the Valley of Woe (1961)

‘I’m not sure about the flux capacitor on this…’

Landing outside the Imperial Palace, they are immediately arrested and taken before King Eurysteus (Gino Buzzanca). This monarch is more concerned with marrying Princess Dejanira (the lovely Liana Orfei) than anything so inconvenient as ruling the kingdom and fancies his chance now that her boyfriend Hercules (Frank Gordon) is missing in action. The legendary strongman is off dealing with a pesky cyclops who has been ravaging the countryside and has kidnapped two bumbling fishermen (Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia) to be a light snack before lunch. Thinking that the time travellers are friends of the legendary hero, Buzzanca orders them thrown in the alligator pit, but Orfei rescues them in the nick of time.

After a failed escape, our less than dynamic duo are set to be human torches but win the King’s favour by curing his toothache and teaching his prim and proper dancing girls the Cha-Cha-Cha! (One of the film’s few amusing moments). The downside to their sudden success is that our merry monarch wants a champion who can defeat the returning Gordon and thinks that they can deliver one. After failing in their efforts to train the local talent, Vianello and Carotenuto go on the lam where they run into the sulky Maciste (Kirk Morris) who is trying fight off the unwelcome attentions of bumbling sorceress Circe (Bice Valori). Our heroes hatch a cunning plan to match the two strongmen against each other in the ring and regain their time machine during the fight but, predictably enough, things don’t go according to plan.

Maciste Against Hercules In The Vale of Woe/Maciste contro Ercole nella valle dei guai/Hercules in the Valley of Woe (1961)

Don’t get too excited, there’s less than five minutes of the film left…

This knockabout farce is a harmless enough experience, but the negative aspects on display do outweigh the positives by quite a wide margin. There just aren’t many laughs in Marcello Marchesi and Vittorio Metz’s predictable script with few surprises and little invention. The central conceit of a battle between the two legendary heroes is barely realised at all. Morris is almost wholly sidelined, which is ironic considering that he’d just played the role in to box office success in ‘Il trionfo di Maciste/The Triumph of Maciste’ (1961). More outings in the part followed for Morris over the next couple of years, as well as starring appearances as both Samson and Hercules in other projects!

The film’s only real energy and fun comes from Valori’s turn as the amorous (but incompetent) sorceress who has a serious complex about being shorter than her slave girls. There are occasional other amusing moments, such as Vianello and Carotenuto re-inventing the wheel (the Greeks having favoured a ‘square’ design) and the occasional cut to a ‘newscaster’ (Riccardo Paladini) who keeps us up to date with the hot stories in the empire. It’s is a pleasantly surreal touch, if a little out of place.

Maciste Against Hercules In The Vale of Woe/Maciste contro Ercole nella valle dei guai/Hercules in the Valley of Woe (1961)

‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the tallest of them all?’

Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia went onto comedy superstardom as ‘Franco & Ciccio’ in their native Italy with the result that this film is often referred to as one of their comedy vehicles, but that’s not the case, despite their top billing when the film was reissued. This was only their fourth film together, and they are strictly supporting characters here, with their familiar schtick not quite perfected. In other words, Ciccio hadn’t watched quite enough Jerry Lewis movies yet. The duo went on to face off against Vincent Price in Mario Bava’s ‘Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs’ (1966) and a joint film career that stretched right the way until 1984 and eventually comprised over 100 features!

A weak attempt at mining comedy gold from the Italian muscleman genre that manages a couple of mildly amusing moments.