‘Oracle, you who see truth in shifting sand, in the moving tides of the sea, in the flight of birds across the sky, you to whom the stars reveal their secrets and the fates disclose their mysteries we mortals see only in our admonishing dreams.’
Hercules visits an Oracle for guidance on the will of the Gods. While he is away, his camp is attacked by the forces of the King of Acalia. His wife is killed, and he vows revenge but soon discovers that the King is already dead and his daughter is on the throne….
The fourth in the loose series of Italian films produced in the wake of global hit ‘Hercules’ (1957) starring Steve Reeves. As a legendary hero, the demi-god was (mostly) not subject to copyright infringement, so there was nothing to stop rival Italian producers bringing their own vision to the screen. This entry comes from Alberto Manco who had not surfed the wave of muscleman ﬁlms but had previous experience in the Peplum arena with ‘Aphrodite, Goddess of Love’ (1958). The major selling point of his film? American star Jayne Mansﬁeld, only four years on from her star-making turn in ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (1956). She was still under contract to 20th Century Fox, but they were perfectly happy for her to go work for someone else. Her only condition? The title role in the film had to be played by her husband.
Fed up with a life of labours performed at the whim of the Gods, Hercules (Mickey Hargitay) wants nothing more than to settle down to the quiet life with pretty wife Megara (Lidia Alfonsi). Unfortunately, fate has other plans. He’s seeking advice from an Oracle when the army of his greatest enemy, King Eurysteus (Cesare Fantoni), overruns his camp and slaughters almost everyone, including Alfonsi. It’s not a good day for Fantoni either, who ends up on the wrong end of the blade of his trusted lieutenant, snake in the grass Licos (Massimo Serato). Why Kings in ancient times put some much faith in their right-hand men is a bit of a mystery! They were about as trustworthy as a Caliph’s Grand Vizier!
Predictably steamed by events, Hargitay storms the gates of Acalia solo, ready to call out Fantoni and unleash a world of hurt. But, of course, it’s daughter Deianira (Mansﬁeld) on the throne, and the big lug has second thoughts at once. Mansﬁeld opts for the ‘Trial of Themis’ to atone for the wrongs done to our hunky hero. This ritual involves Hargitay throwing spears at her much like a nightclub knife-throwing act! She survives and, of course, the two fall in love. The same romantic complications occur for the big man’s sidekick, Timanthes (Andrea Scotti) and Mansﬁeld’s handmaiden, Aleia (Rossella Como) so I guess some time is supposed to have passed? If so, then the ﬁlm spectacularly fails to make that clear. Perhaps Hargitay didn’t care for his murdered wife that much, after all!
The evil Serato can’t be having all this lovey-dovey stuff, of course, and frames Hargitay for murder. Going on the run to prove his innocence, the big man ends up in a hilarious ﬁght with an almost entirely immobile Hydra and falls under the spell of Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Tina Gioriani). She’s able to disguise herself as Mansﬁeld, thanks to the spells of Maga, the witch (Olga Solbelli). Hargitay seems fine with a photocopy of his lady love, though, thus proving that looks are everything and that he’s a complete jerk. What he doesn’t know is that Evil Mansfield turns her discarded lovers into Tree Men who are rooted to the ground in a nearby quarry. They make for quite an impressive visual image, at least until one of them tries to cuddle Evil Mansfield to death!
Those expecting a ‘so bad, it’s good’ experience based on the film’s somewhat cheesy reputation are likely to be in for a bit of a disappointment. Yes, it’s certainly bad, and there a few laugh out loud moments, but it doesn’t plumb the depths that might be expected. This is mostly because of the technical expertise on display. Some of the sets (presumably at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome) are very impressive in their scale, and the cinematography of Enzo Serafin is pretty good in the location scenes. However, the cheap Eastmancolor process doesn’t help with the interiors.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of weak links in the finished product, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who I mean. Despite being a bodybuilder and former Mr Universe, Hargitay even fails to convince in the action scenes, let alone when he’s called to interact with the rest of the cast. Apparently, in real life, he was extraordinarily strong, but he often seems to be struggling to lift the various props. Tales of his muscular prowess could have been exaggerated, of course, but the props could have possessed genuine weight. Of course, it’s hard to believe that the filmmakers were searching for that kind of realism, but perhaps Hargitay insisted on impressing his wife? Whatever the truth of it, the results are not pretty.
For her part, Mansfield struggles in both roles with a tendency to overact at crucial moments. Many modern critics point to this film as evidence of her lack of talent, and it is true that light comedy was a far better fit for her style of performance. However, those lacking faith in her ability as a dramatic actress should check her out in Paul Wendkos’ interesting noir ‘The Burglar’ (1957) opposite Dan Duryea. It was actually filmed two years before its release and, in effect, was her first leading role. No, she’s not award-worthy in the film, but she’s perfectly acceptable and, on occasion, quite effective. It’s also worth remembering that it’s highly likely that there was a language barrier when filming this mythological adventure and Mansfield wouldn’t be the first inexperienced actress exposed by a lack of direction.
By this point, her big-screen career was effectively already over anyway. Of her five films that were released immediately after her breakthrough hit, only ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter’ (1957) was successful at the box office. A seeming addiction to public attention led to an endless series of cheap publicity stunts which over-exposed her and fostered the general perception of her as less of an actress and more of a cut-price Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Pregnancies in 1958 and a year later scuppered whatever plans 20th Century Fox might have had for their new starlet and they closed out her contract with a couple of loan-outs for low-budget British thrillers in the early 1960s. A few independent projects followed, including her notorious nude appearance in ‘Promises…..Promises!’ (1963), before she met with a fatal road accident in 1967. And, no, she wasn’t decapitated as urban legend has it; that was one of her wigs on the dashboard.
Hargitay struggled on as an actor for a while after the couple’s Mexican divorce in 1963. There was a starring role in another Italian muscleman picture ‘La vendetta dei gladiatori/Revenge of the Gladiators’ (1964) and a handful of Spaghetti Westerns. His only other real roles of note were in guilty pleasures ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ (1965) and ‘Lady Frankenstein’ (1971). He left the business in the 1970s but came out of retirement to appear on TV’s ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’; sharing the screen with series regular Mariska Hargitay, his daughter with Mansfield.
Serato was an actor whose career stretched from 1938 to his death in 1989. He never stopped working, running up an impressive 176 credits. These were mostly second leads in Italian ﬁlms, often historical dramas, swashbucklers and biblical epics, but he moved into the cult arena as tastes changed in the 1960s. Offbeat science ﬁction projects, such as ‘The Tenth Victim’ (1965) and Antonio Margheriti’s demented ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966) were followed by Giallo ﬁlms like ‘Who Killed The Prosecutor and Why?’ (1971) and ‘The Bloodstained Shadow’ (1978). He also had a supporting role in Luigi Cozzi’s ridiculous space opera ‘The Humanoid’ (1979) and the notorious ‘Killer Nun’ (1979) with Anita Ekberg. At the other end of the scale, he also appeared as the Bishop in Nicolas Roeg’s classic ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973).
Having defended the film to some extent, it is worth mentioning that there’s more than one version out there. The one I saw featured our golden couple dubbed by other American actors, but apparently, there is a print that features their original voices. This has the distinction of giving the world the only screen Hercules who speaks with a heavy Hungarian accent.
Mostly competent mythological madness derailed by the performances of its imported stars.