Hercules The Avenger (1965)

Hercules The Avenger (1965)‘His soul has not yet entered the nether regions.’

Hercules’ teenage son is seriously injured in a hunting accident. A jealous goddess takes the opportunity to punish the legendary hero by sending the boy’s soul down to Hades, and he has to travel to the underworld to retrieve it. Meanwhile, the goddess encourages her own son to take Hercules’ place on Earth…

It’s Hercules’ Greatest Hits! Yes, rather than create an entirely new film, director Maurice Bright (real name, Mauricio Lucidi), lifts almost 40 minutes of Reg Park’s two previous appearances in the title role and stitches them together with a wrap-around story instead. Although this sounds like a recipe for complete disaster, the adventures of Hercules were always somewhat episodic, so it’s not as woeful an exercise as you might expect.

When we join Hercules (Park), he has settled down to the quiet life with wife Deyanira (Adrianna Ambesi) and his eager young blade of a son, Xantos (Luigi Barbini). These early scenes would appear to have been filmed specifically for this project as neither Ambesi nor Barbini had appeared in either of Park’s other two appearances as Hercules and there’s no technical tomfoolery placing them all in these scenes together. In total, Park’s new footage amounts to just over 10 minutes and a lot of it is in these establishing scenes.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

‘I’m sorry but Christopher Lee wouldn’t come…’

Once Barbini has been injured after his chariot trips on a rabbit hole (or something), it’s up to Park to hightail it for Hades to get his soul back. He does this, thanks to the voyage from ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis’ (1961) and the labours he completed in Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962). Eventually, more footage is used from the former as this film incorporates its fiery climax.

Meanwhile, Queen Leda of Syracuse (Gia Sandri) has a problem. Recently widowed, she’s now besieged by princes from the surrounding kingdoms who want her hand in marriage. It’s nothing to do with love, of course, it’s just a matter of territory, and she wants none of it. It’s a situation strangely reminiscent of Penelope’s plight when waiting for Odysseus’ return after the fall of Troy but, if you have to steal from somewhere when making a Hercules picture, why not from Homer’s Odyssey? Anyway, on the advice of the local Oracle, Leda seeks out Hercules, instead of just hanging about. However, with the big man away from home, she has to settle for Anteus (Giovanni Cianfriglia) who is the second strongest man in the world. He also happens to be the son of the mischief-making goddess who is messing with our hero and a nasty piece of work.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

‘Not in a million years, mate.’

Sandri makes the best of it, and the two join forces, telling everyone that Cianfriglia is Hercules himself. This is quite obviously a blatant lie because, right from the beginning, the man is such an utter bounder. He slays Sandri’s handmaidens to protect his identity and pretty much assumes control of the kingdom, levying ridiculous taxes to fill the palace coffers. Of course, this will not stand and, when Park returns from his little trip, it’s time for the real thing to bring the pain to Hercules 2.0

Expectations are bound to be low with such a ‘copy and paste’ kind of project, but it works surprisingly well. Principally, this is because Lucidi is using footage from undoubtedly the best two Italian ‘Hercules’ films of their time. Arguably, there still hasn’t been anyone better in the role than Park even after all these years. Also, Lucidi (who, not surprisingly, is also credited as the editor), utilises the footage wisely. The story makes sense, and the joins aren’t too noticeable.

Hercules The Avenger (1965)

‘I have the strangest feeling of deja vu.’

Cianfraglia’s impressive physique brought him roles in action movies and Peplum from the late 1950s onwards. To begin with, he was mostly uncredited, and this was certainly his first significant role. His breakthrough came as crime-fighter SuperArgo in two movies based on that character. Appearing under the name Ken Wood, he tackled supervillain Gérard Tichy in ‘SuperArgo Against Diabolicus’ (1966) and then went head to head with more physical opposition in ‘SuperArgo and the Faceless Giants’ (1968). He played several second leads in Spaghetti Westerns, but, by the 1970s, he was often playing uncredited heavies as well. Still, he remained busy and was still showing up regularly in genre cinema in the 1980s, with roles in ‘Road Warrior’ knock offs and action flicks like ‘2019: After the Fall of New York’ (1983).

Of course, this is nothing but a cheap cash-grab and was never going to be anything else but, considering its origins, it hangs together surprisingly well if you’re in a forgiving mood.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)‘Has anyone dared feed your monster a little steel?’

While travelling home to Thebes, Hercules and his crew encounter a ship filled with pirates and put them to the sword. Their cargo of slaves are refugees from Troy, fleeing the city because every month a virgin must be sacrificed to a sea monster to appease the Gods…

At the end of the Italian muscleman cycle, director Albert Band decided to take the Hercules character onto the small screen with the assistance of producer Joseph E Levine, who had brought Steve Reeves to America with the original ‘Hercules’ (1957) and kicked off the whole craze in the first place. Together, they created this 50-minute pilot starring ex-Tarzan Gordon Scott in the title role. Unfortunately, the show didn’t sell, and the result went to cinema screens instead. Although that doesn’t sound promising, the film provides a surprisingly decent level of entertainment.

Sailing home to Thebes after various adventures, Scott and his companions encounter a pirate sharp, captained by Gordon Mitchell. A fairly well-choreographed fight scene follows, ending with Scott dumping Mitchell into a basket and flinging him overboard. Scott’s brothers In arms are led by ‘philosopher, scientist and sceptic Diogenes (Paul Stevens) and Ulysses, the son of the King of Thebes, played by Mart Hulswit. The easy banter between the three is one of the drama’s significant strengths and would have provided a solid base for a series if one had subsequently followed.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

‘Pah! Why does Scott get all the close-ups?’

When they take the refugees back home, the gang are disappointed to find their charges imprisoned when they reach the city. As King Petra (Steve Garrett) explains, they broke the law by leaving. Every month, the young maidens of Troy have to make themselves available for possible selection as monster fodder. Even Garrett’s niece, Diana (Diana Hyland) has to take part until she takes the throne in a couple of months. Of course, Scott vows to challenge the beast and end the curse, but intrigues at court threaten the attempt. The main problem is that Garrett is planning to hold onto the throne by ensuring Hyland is chosen at the next ceremony. Her lover, Leander (George Ardisson) is also jealous of the big man.

There’s enough plot here for a full-length feature and, at times, it does feel like this has been cut down from something much longer. This impression is heightened by actor Everett Sloane, who is fulfilling the role of VoiceOver Man here. This wouldn’t usually be a problem, but the device is overused, and his commentary is often unnecessary. Still, there is a fair quantity of well-mounted action, and it’s evident that Band had a decent budget at his disposal. The monster FX are variable; in the water, the creature looks pretty ragged, but it fares far better on land. It may not stir from the one spot on the beach, but it’s an impressive size and has a good range of body movement otherwise. Scott’s interactions with it make for a decent climax, although you can’t help wondering why everyone else just stands by and watches the fight, rather than give the big man a helping hand.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

‘Keep your tentacles to yourself.’

The performances also help proceedings significantly, with Scott making for a fine Hercules. Physically, he looks the part, and he has a charm and screen presence that elevates him above most of the actors who have taken on the role. Stevens is the brains of the heroic trio and delivers his lines with a dry, cynical humour that provides a nice contrast to the youthful enthusiasm of the good-natured Hulswit. We also get Roger Browne as heroic soldier, Ortag, who unsuccessfully takes on the monster at the start of the story, and later helps to rescue Scott from the bottom of a metal pit. Ardisson also displays a lively presence in his underdeveloped role, although he can’t compete with pirate captain Mitchell who only gets about a minute of screen time.

Scott had first made his mark through military service before pursuing various careers after his honourable discharge: cowboy, fireman and salesman. He was spotted by Hollywood talent scouts while working as a lifeguard, and producer Sol Lesser cast him in the title role of ‘Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle’ (1955). Five films in the series followed before he moved to Italy where he was cast in Peplum films, taking on the roles of many of its’ significant strongmen including Maciste, Samson and Goliath, as well as Hercules. But, by the mid-1960s, the popularity of such characters was being eclipsed at the box office by more modern adventures, typically featuring guns, girls and gadgets. Scott briefly made the switch to the spy game, but, after a couple of outings as a ‘Bond On A Budget’, he retired in 1967.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

‘A little help, please…’

Ardisson and Browne shared a very similar initial career trajectory, both getting their starts in Peplum before transferring to the Eurospy arena. But, while Scott retired, both Ardisson and Browne went onto long careers throughout the 1970s and beyond. Ardisson is probably best remembered for his work with director Mario Bava, appearing as sidekick Theseus in ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and the title role of ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961). Browne took the lead in cult favourite ‘Argoman The Fantastic Superman/The Fantastic Argoman’ (1967) and toplined half a dozen Eurospy pictures, most of which were better examples of the type, such as ‘SuperSeven Calling Cairo’ (1965) and ‘Operation Poker’ (1965).

A surprisingly good little episode in the chronicles of its muscle-bound hero. A series never resulted, of course, and, although that’s not a tragedy, on this evidence, it certainly had the potential to be an entertaining show.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon/Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia (1964)

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)‘I have heard tales of this legendary hero who is usually involved in superhuman undertakings far away.’

The rulers of Babylon are angry when the demi-god, Hercules continually disrupts their slaving expeditions. Although they don’t know it, they have unwittingly kidnapped the Queen of the Hellenes, and the muscleman is on a mission to liberate her from their evil clutches…

The 17th ‘official’ Hercules film that came out of Italy in the wake of the international success enjoyed by Steve Reeves in the title role. It was a loose, disconnected series of features with many different producers and several studios cashing in on the sudden craze. This time around the muscleman appears in the form of American actor Rock Stevens whose brief sojourn on the Tiber was to be followed by far greater success back in his homeland.

The ancient kingdom of Babylon is under the rule of a triumvirate; oldest brother, Assur (Tullio Altamura), bald warrior, Salmanassar (Livio Lorenzon) and their beautiful sister, Taneal (Helga Liné). Much in the manner of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, their dead father has left the kingdom to all three of them to rule together and, although they don’t agree on much, they do agree on one thing: the kingdom needs slaves and lots of them. So, they are less than pleased when news comes back that their hunting expeditions are being broken up by one man (Stevens). Incredulous, they send top warrior (and Liné’s bedwarmer) Behar (Franco Balducci) to deal with it. Unfortunately for him, Stevens easily defeats the raiding party using an assortment of paper-maché rocks and his paper-maché club.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘I am not over-compensating, ok?’

Meanwhile, our evil siblings get a state visit from Malik, King of Assyria (Mario Petri) who offers a fortune in gold for all their female slaves. Apparently, they are needed to repopulate his kingdom, but the trio doesn’t believe him. Liné gets him to her apartments for a private interview (not difficult, what guy wouldn’t?) and slips some truth serum into his wine. Then the secret’s out: Esperia, the Queen of the Hellenes (Anna Maria Polani) is doing slave duty below stairs, and he plans to force her into marriage so that he can add her kingdom to his own. Meanwhile, Stevens is on his way to Babylon (courtesy of a highly unlikely piece of business with a carrier pigeon), and everyone has cottoned on to his true identity as the legendary Hercules.

This is a rather feeble and generic Peplum adventure taken from the end of the cycle when Hercules and his heroic contemporaries had racked up over 50 big-screen adventures between them in the space of about seven years and, inevitably, the formula was wearing pretty thin. The main variation was the presence, or not, of any fantastical or mythological elements, and this comes down in the latter category, despite some half-hearted attempts to pay lip-service to the supernatural. Liné’s character is referred to as a sorceress, but it’s very half-hearted. All she really does is slip Petri that mickey and fool around with a ring at the climax, which seems to do precisely nothing.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘You never take me anywhere!’

Still, there are some things for the aficionados of the genre to enjoy. Our regal siblings spend as much time and effort trying to outwit each other as they do tackling the threat posed by Stevens. Their murderous plots and counterplots are reminiscent of the Roman court intrigues in Robert Graves classic novel ‘I, Claudius’ and, of course, George R R Martin’s much-later ‘Game of Thrones.’ This is the film’s most enjoyable aspect, although it does take the conflict pit of our hero’s hands somewhat. Stevens doesn’t really have to deal with the villains; in a world where almost everyone double-crosses everyone else, he can pretty much leave them all to get on with it!

There’s also a ‘tribute’ to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960) when the nasty Lorenzon devises a way to identify the hidden Queen amongst the female slave population. He has all of them tied to stakes out in the sun and gives them no food or water. After a while, Polani can’t take what’s happening to her sisters in bondage and declares herself, only for all the others to make the same declaration. Rather than carry on with the torture, Lorenzon simply shrugs his shoulders, admits defeat and sends them all back to the slave quarters. On the debit side, a lot of the climactic footage is lifted from Robert Aldrich’s biblical epic ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ (1962) and other crowd footage was probably sourced from there, or other projects.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘I am Brian and so is my wife!’

After starting his career on television in the US, Stevens went to Italy and made a quartet of Peplum pictures, of which this was the first. Returning home, he reverted to his birth name of Peter Lupus for professional purposes. A regular gig as Willy Armitage on the iconic network show ‘Mission: Impossible’ followed. The show ran for seven seasons, and despite producers attempting to replace him midway through with Sam Elliott, he stayed with the show until it ended in 1973. Afterwards, he found getting work difficult but he did resurface as Nordberg on Leslie Neilsen’s much-loved (if quickly cancelled) comedy half-hour ‘Police Squad!’ Of course, when the show was resurrected as the ‘Naked Gun’ film franchise, his role was taken by O J Simpson.

Director Domenico Paolella was a journeyman in Italian cinema, like many his output slavishly following the trends of the time. After a start in documentary filmmaking, by the 1960s, he was delivering pirate movies and swashbucklers before moving into the Peplum arena with ‘Maciste contro lo sceicco/Maciste Against The Sheik’ (1962). Once that cycle had run its course, he moved into Eurospys with the hopelessly muddled ‘Agente S 03: Operazione Atlantide’/‘Operation Atlantis’ (1965), made a couple of Spaghetti Westerns and ecclesiastical dramas which were, somewhat unfairly, marketed as part of the brief and rather bizarre ‘nunsploitation’ craze.

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

‘This is the secret passage? No wonder, I was looking behind the bookcase.’

Liné should be a familiar face to fans of cult cinema, appearing in dozens of genre pictures in the 1960s and 70s, sometimes in roles unworthy of her abilities. At times, she was relegated to surprisingly minor roles, but, by her account, she accepted everything she was offered because she needed the money, even working as far afield as Mexico. She’s probably most recognisable to most from the title role of Amando de Ossorio’s ‘The Loreley’s Grasp/La garras de Lorelei’ (1972), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She starred in several of the better Eurospys including ‘Operation Poker’ (1965) and ‘Special Agent Lady Chaplin’ (1966), the two films featuring super villain ‘Kriminal’, and in ‘Nightmare Castle’ (1965) with Barbara Steele. She also appeared in Gialli such as ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969) and ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972), made pictures with Euro-horror star Paul Naschy and even played opposite the Man in the Silver Mask in ‘Santo vs. Doctor Death/Santo contra el doctor Muerte’ (1973).

Despite some points of interest, this is a distinctly minor chapter in the adventures of Hercules, and probably only really for hardcore fans and completists.

Ulysses (1954)

Ulysses (1954)‘These Greeks are tough, with stringy meat.’

The Princess of Phaeacia finds an unconscious man washed up on the beach. The stranger has no memory of his past life but proves himself strong, brave and honourable. The two plan to marry, but, on their wedding day, he feels compelled to return to the sea, and his memories begin to return…

Handsomely mounted, if necessarily abbreviated, feature version of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ which tells of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after the end of the Trojan War (yes, it’s the same character). It was a passion project for producer Dino De Laurentiis who secured a global distribution list with Paramount Pictures and some important American talent, most notably international box-office stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.

It’s been ten years since the end of the Trojan War and Queen of Ithaca, Penelope (Silvana Mangano) still waits for news of her husband, the warrior Ulysses (Douglas). Unfortunately, her house has been overrun by young nobles eager for her hand in marriage, and, more importantly, the kingdom’s throne. Her son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi) is too young to be taken seriously by these suitors, led by the arrogant, forceful Antinous (Quinn).

‘I’m sorry, sir, but all the First Class cabins are already taken…’

Meanwhile, Douglas has been washed up on the island of Phaeacia and has caught the eye of the Princess Nausicaa (Rossana Podestà). He can’t remember who he is, or where he comes from, but, after proving his he-man credentials, Podestà can’t wait to get him to the altar. Unfortunately for her, he’s called to the sea on their wedding day and suffers a ‘Hollywood Amnesia Flashback’. We see him marshalling his troops inside the Wooden Horse inside the gates of Troy, outwitting the Cyclops Polyphemus and getting caught up in the machinations of the sorceress, Circe (Mangano, again).

During the 1950s, it became common practice for big American Studios to collaborate with their Italian counterparts. Income from US films had not found their way back home during the Second World War. These funds were now available to spend, making productions shot in European countries a desirable financial proposition. In particular, Italy had a thriving pre-war film industry and boasted the massive Cinecittà Studios in Rome built under Mussolini’s government in the 1930s. Biblical epics and historical adventures could be shot there at a fraction of Stateside production costs. ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ as it became known endured for more than a decade before being sunk by the runaway production costs of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle ‘Cleopatra’ (1963).

Ulysses (1954)

‘I’m sorry. Kirk, but I do think that extra hour under the sun lamp was probably a mistake…’

So, although it may seem strange at first glance to see major stars such as Douglas and Quinn acting alongside names unknown outside their native Italy, it made perfect sense from a financial point of view. If such working practices needed endorsement, this film provided it with a hefty take at the box office. Subsequent sources also give it credit as the springboard for the more fantastical elements of the Peplum genre personified by world-wide smash ‘Hercules’ (1957).

The film was not without its problems, though, with acclaimed veteran director GW Pabst quitting the project on the eve of shooting and original cinematographer Mario Camerini taking over as director. He was replaced behind the camera by the five-time Oscar-nominated Harold Rossen and, although it’s debatable who should get the plaudits, the film often looks quite gorgeous. There’s also some excellent work from the team of costume designers, including Barbara Karinska, a two-time Oscar winner for ‘Joan of Arc’ (1948) and ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ (1952).

Ulysses (1954)

It was always that last pint of the evening…

De Laurentiis was reportedly unsatisfied with the final film as he felt it abbreviated too much of Homer’s epic poem. This was inevitable with a runtime of only 104 minutes but, although the story is a little fragmentary at times, there’s some good work here from the team of seven screenwriters. Apart from director Camerini, this included famous American novelist Irwin Shaw and playwright Ben Hecht, who was once described as the ‘most prolific and highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood’. Their work is most impressive in the sequence with Circe, which combines elements of the Calypso episode, the visit to the Underworld, and the events which occur after the crew’s visit to Thrinacia. Still, De Laurentiis did have a point. There’s no encounter with the lotus-eaters, no visit to Aeolus, no Laestrygonians, and no Scylla or the whirlpool containing Charybdis. The film also shortchanges Telemachus, whose travels to find his father are entirely omitted.

Fifteen years later, De Laurentiis put things right by mounting a genuinely epic, almost seven-hour version for Italian television, ‘L’Odissea/The Odyssey’ (1968). Directed by Franco Rossi, it’s a notable achievement, especially on a small-screen budget. The highlight is the tour de force sequence with Polyphemus, the Cyclops. This was directed by horror maestro, and SFX wizard, Mario Bava and some sources give him credit for the same scenes in this film. Watching them back to back, there is some similarity with the cutting and the setups, and the SFX are similarly accomplished. However, the later version is noticeably superior from a technical standpoint, and some dispute his participation in the earlier film.

Ulysses (1954)

Kirk was always an easy gig for the costume department…

There are still some significant things to enjoy in this earlier version, though. Douglas brings his star power and likeable energy to the title role, although it’s notable that this is a Ulysses who does not need help from the Gods. He makes his own decisions and achieves victories through his wits and physical prowess rather than a reliance on divine intervention. However, this brings with it more than a touch of arrogance to the character, particularly when his selfish procrastination brings about his crew’s death.

There’s also the suspicion that the character has been tweaked somewhat to fit Douglas’ virile screen persona, specifically to provide plausible deniability for his associations with women other than the faithful Mangano, who has been waiting for him at home for 20 years. His convenient ‘amnesia’ allows him to romance Podestà without any subsequent guilt, and he gets a pass for his six-month dalliance with Circe too because, after all, she looks just like his wife, doesn’t she? Neither of these devices make appearances in the source material.

Ulysses (1954)

The ‘Robin Hood’ reboot remained in Development Hell…

Incidentally, the circumstances surrounding the making of the film became the inspiration for the novel ‘Il Disprezzo’ by Alfredo Moravia. The book was later filmed by Jean-Luc Godard as ‘Le Mépris/Contempt’ (1963) and starred Jack Palance, Brigitte Bardot and director Fritz Lang playing the ‘GW Pabst’ role as himself. Godard reportedly hated making the film and called the novel ‘a nice vulgar read for a train journey’. However, it remains critically lauded and one of his best-regarded films.

A vigorous, fast-paced run through the highlights of Homer’s epic poem. It won’t please purists or scholars but delivers an entertaining mix of mythology and adventure, even if it feels a little anonymous at times.

Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge (1964)

Samson and the Mighty Challenge (1964)‘I don’t like bullies even if they are the children of Zeus.’

Hercules saves a young woman from drowning and immediately falls in love with her. Unfortunately, she is the daughter of the Queen of Lydia, and her heart already belongs to another. Hercules is tricked into performing various labours while palace soldiers fetch Samson to fight him…

Good-natured action spoof on the Peplum genre with the legendary demi-god ending up not just matched against the Biblical strongman but also facing musclemen Maciste and Ursus. The fact that the results are more dull than funny is down to a padded script that fails to demonstrate much in the way of wit or invention.

Slacking between jobs, Hercules (Alan Steel) pulls his horse up at a crossroads when the disembodied voice of Zeus gives him a choice. Take the left-hand path to virtue or the right-hand path to pleasure. Despite his daddy’s suggestion (accompanied by a lightning bolt!), Steel goes right, heading for the kingdom of Lydia which is supposed to be filled with beautiful women. On the way, he stops to perv over some of them who are swimming in the sea but intervenes to save Princess Omphale (Elisa Montés) when she gets trapped in a net. Rather than be grateful the sulky little brat seems a bit put out, especially when Steel declares his love for her to mum Queen Nemea (Lia Zoppelli). It turns out she’s already in a secret Romeo and Juliet relationship with Inor (Luciano Marin) who is the son of troublesome hill chieftain, Lico (Livio Lorenzon).

Samson and the Mighty Challenge (1964)

‘Where have those bloody builders gone now?’

Right away, Zoppelli and her chief advisor Nino Dal Fabbro encourage Steel’s amorous attentions, hoping to use him to rid the kingdom of Lorenzon and his violent tribe. Meanwhile, dwarf Arnaldo Fabrizio helps the young lovers by taking the place of oracle Astra (Hélène Chanel) during an important ceremony and making his own proclamation: that Steel must find the strongest man in the world before he can tie the knot.

This rival is Samson (Nadir Moretti), and soldiers are sent to fetch him, encountering violent drunk Ursus (Yann Larvor) and the helpful Maciste (Howard Ross) on the way. Even though this section of the action is dragged out for far too long, it does feature probably the funniest idea we get; that Moretti is henpecked by wife, Delilah (Moira Orfei) and is desperate to go on the trip. She’s having none of it, of course, and cuts his hair while he’s asleep in the best Biblical tradition.

Samson and the Mighty Challenge (1964)

‘You’re lucky it’s only your hair that’s getting the chop!’

When the four strongmen finally come together for the melee at the finish, it’s likely that most of the audience will not be too engaged. It’s an amiable enough adventure and Steel (real name Sergio Ciani) gives us a Hercules far more in the easy-going vein of Reg Park than the usual wooden mythological hero. The other legendary heroes comic banter mainly consists of Ross and Lavor bullying the now-weakened Moretti while he whines and waits for his hair to grow back. It’s not particularly pleasing even if director Giorgio Capitani thankfully resists the urge to turn the physical humour into crude slapstick. The fact that the film was re-titled as ‘Samson’s Mighty Challenge’ in the English-speaking world is a bit of a puzzle, considering that the character spends most of the time without his superhuman strength and only really engages in the action via a poorly-choreographed brawl with Ciani at the climax.

Ciani played almost exclusively in Peplum from 1959 to 1964, portraying Samson and Maciste in various films, which were often re-dubbed and re-titled as ‘Hercules’ vehicles in the United States. However, he had already played the demi-god officially earlier that year in ‘Hercules Against Rome’ (1964). After the Peplum cycle ended, he appeared in early Giallo ‘A… For Assassin’ (1966), and appeared sporadically throughout the 1970s, mostly in Westerns, before retiring at the end of the decade.

Samson and the Mighty Challenge (1964)

‘Let’s get ready to rumble!’

Of the other strongmen, both Moretti or Larvor only had brief film careers, but Ross was far more successful. After working with horror maestro Mario Bava on Western ‘Savage Gringo’ (1966), the director went on to cast him in his later Giallo ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970). Throughout the rest of the decade, Ross appeared in other examples of that genre such as ‘Naked Girl Murdered In The Park’ (1973) and ‘The Killer Reserved Nine Seats’ (1974). He also had roles in mob movies such as Fernando Di Leo’s well-regarded ‘Il Boss/Murder Inferno’ (1973), was the male lead in ‘Werewolf Woman’ (1976) and in the following decade linked up with director Lucio Fulci for the controversial ‘The New York Ripper’ (1982) and ‘Rome 2033: The Fighter Centurions’ (1983).

This is an amiable romp that parodies the Peplum genre at the end of its life. However, neither the production nor the comedy displays a great deal of quality.

Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma (1964)

Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma (1964)‘I forgot that the military man is not subtle; he thinks with his sword.’

A village blacksmith will almost superhuman strength is contacted by a childhood friend who is now handmaiden to the Emporer’s daughter. She fears that there is treachery afoot in the Palace and that unscrupulous forces are about to attempt to take the throne by force…

By 1964, the Italian muscleman craze started by Steve Reeves’ turn as ‘Hercules’ (1958) had just about reached the end of its course. This was the 14th such film featuring the legendary Greek hero, and over 40 other movies had featured identikit strongmen, such as Samson, Goliath, Ursus and Maciste. A lot of those had also been rebranded with the ‘Hercules’ tag when released in the United States. So it’s hardly a great surprise that director Piero Pierotti’s effort brings nothing to the table but a succession of tired, old Peplum cliches.

Hercules (Sergio Ciani, billed as Alan Steel) is working as a village blacksmith a few days ride from the city of Ravenna, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Apart from the occasional attack by bandits, he’s living the quiet life, despite being constantly pestered by the teenage Erika (Simonetta Simeoni) whose romantic interest he doesn’t understand because his brain isn’t one of his more fully developed muscles. News comes that childhood friend Arminia (Dina De Santis) needs him in the big city. She’s worried that the ambitious Filippo Arfus (Daniele Vargas) is planning to assassinate Emperor Gordianus (Carlo Tamberlani) and marry his effeminate son to her mistress, the Princess Ulpia (Wandisa Guida). He’s also got a window of opportunity as the loyal General Triano (Mimmo Palmala) is off on tour fighting the Goths.

Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma (1964)

‘No thanks, luv, I only popped in for a swift half…’

Arriving in the city, Ciani joins forces with comedy relief innkeeper Lucilus (Tullio Altamura), and they infiltrate the Palace through the predictably convenient (and surprisingly spacious) secret passage. De Santis gives them the lowdown, but it’s too late; Vargas has already put his plan into motion, and Tamberlani has departed for the Elysian Fields. Our hero rescues Guida in the nick of time and hides her in his village. Unfortunately, the experience has given her temporary amnesia, and Vargas has already seized the throne. But the return of Palmala after a successful campaign provides the opportunity to take it back.

Such a generic plot, predictable story development and faceless characters leave little to discuss. However, there are a few, scattered points on interest. For a start, this is not Ancient Greece; it’s Ancient Rome. Hercules may be associated principally with Greek mythology but, to be pedantic, that’s actually Heracles, even though they are basically the same character. Both are credited with completing the legendary ‘labours’, after all, so it’s no great surprise that he switches origin from movie to movie from Greek to Roman and then back again. Also, Ciani isn’t really playing that character anyway. In some throwaway dialogue at the start of proceedings, we learn that he is supposedly the reincarnation of Hercules because every few generations a man born in this particular village will inherit the demi-god’s strength. This cheerfully brief and vague exposition does serve to inform audience expectations; however: no Gods, no monsters, no mythology.

Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma (1964)

‘I have a wery good friend in Wome called Biggus Dickus…’

What remains is a poor effort in many departments. Ciani looks the part, but lacks personality, Guida makes some ‘interesting’ acting choices, and Vargas’ men are probably the most poorly trained combat troops ever to make up a Praetorian Guard. In fairness, the English dub track does the cast few favours, but it provides one of the few genuinely entertaining moments in the film. When Vargas seizes power on the steps of the Palace, the troops proclaim him their leader with the possibly the most unenthusiastic ‘Long Live the Emporer’ ever heard on film. If he has to rely on their loyalty, then his days are numbered. Also, rather brilliantly, our main villain’s character was originally named Filippo Afro! They should have kept that in for the American release!

But we do have to talk about the last act. The climactic conflict sees the opposing forces meet on the battlefield. It’s a ‘do or die’ struggle for the throne of the Empire. Only most of these soldiers look suspiciously they are busy appearing in another film. Yes, we do see Vargas and Palmala go up against each other, but they are only sharing the frame with about a dozen other combatants. Palmala does discuss things with his generals in a tent, which makes a nice change as few military leaders in these films ever bother with something as unimportant as battle tactics. However, he never shares the frame with a significant number of his men, and neither does Vargas. Also Ciani takes almost no part in the final conflict, at all. Yes, before the battle begins, he turns over a catapult manned by a small cohort on a bridge which is strategically crucial, but, after that, he only appears in the final 20 seconds of the film. And that’s just a shot of him riding off into the sunset with a cheery wave!

Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma (1964)

‘It’s alright for you, I’m boiling in this getup…’

Ciani began his career as Steve Reeves’ body double in films like ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959) and ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) before his elevation to a more significant role opposite Brad Harris in ‘Samson’ (1961). He snagged the role of Maciste for ‘Zorro contro Maciste’ (1963) which was retitled as ‘Samson and the Slave Queen’ in the U.S. An appearance as Goliath followed the same year in ‘Golia e il cavaliere mascherato’ (1963), retitled ‘Hercules and the Masked Rider’ stateside and then as Samson in ‘Sansone contro il corsaro nero’ (1964), which was retitled as ‘Hercules and the Black Pirates’ for export purposes. So, a legitimate appearance as Hercules was probably inevitable! Further appearances as Maciste and Ursus followed, as well as another as Hercules in ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili‘ (1964). Once the muscleman genre died out, he made fewer appearances on the big screen, including the rather poor Giallo ‘A…for Assassin’ (1966), but worked reasonably steadily before retiring at the end of the 1970s.

Somewhat threadbare Peplum from the beginning of the end of the Italian Hercules cycle.

Hercules vs. The Giant Warriors/The Triumph of Hercules/Il trionfo di Ercole (1964)

Hercules vs. The Giant Warriors/The Triumph of Hercules/Il trionfo di Ercole (1964)‘In all my life, I have never witnessed a more frightening spectacle.’

As he lays dying, a murdered king charges two of his subjects to find his old friend, Hercules. The kingdom and his daughter are now at the mercy of his unscrupulous nephew, and there is no-one else he trusts to safeguard their future. The legendary hero comes running, but he finds himself pitted against black magic and a group of mythical golden giants…

Dan Vadis returns after ‘Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l’invincibile (1964) to flex his considerable muscle and battle the forces of darkness for director Alberto de Martino and cinematographer-producer Pier Ludovico Pavoni. Pleasingly, the film retains the mythological aspects employed in Vadis’ first outing, and this helps make the viewing experience more enjoyable than some of the other films in the unofficial series.

The story begins in the thick of the action. Soldiers loyal to the King’s nephew, Milo (Pierre Cressoy) are busy raising a village to the ground, but their fun is short-lived when the monarch himself makes the scene. King Pandeone (Gaetano Quartararo) is not amused by Cressoy’s antics and exiles him from the kingdom, only to find himself at the business end of a spear, courtesy of a nod from his brother’s son. With his dying breath, Quartararo charges villager Erlone (Jacques Stany) to fetch Hercules. Stany finds Vadis on the banks of the Hellespont where he’s building a temple to Hera. The big man is happy to answer the villager’s call for help; after all, it doesn’t look like he’s getting very far with his construction project.

Hercules vs. The Giant Warriors/The Triumph of Hercules/Il trionfo di Ercole (1964)

‘These Olympic exhibition events just keep getting weirder…’

Meanwhile, like all naughty little boys, Cressoy has gone to ‘fess up to mum, Pasiphae, played by Moira Orfei. However, as she lives in a cave and is a mistress of the Black Arts, she’s not inclined to be too harsh on the poor lad. Instead, she helps him out with a present; a sacred knife that can summon the Seven Sons of Juno’s sister. These guys may not be sparkling conversationalists but they are handy in a scrap and are certainly trendsetters with their bald heads and all-over gold paint jobs. But first Cressoy has to keep up appearances, so he organises a tournament where the kingdom’s mightiest warriors can compete for the hand of the late King’s daughter, the Princess Ate (Marilù Tolo).

Things start well for Cressoy, with his lieutenant Gordio (Howard Ross) making the early running, but then he’s challenged by arrogant visiting Prince Abdur (Pietro Capanna). The two face-off and fight in a pretty unique chariot vs horse match-up within the small arena. This proves to be the most exciting sequence in the picture, and the action is still impressive by today’s standards. It’s especially remarkable, given that it’s clear that the two actors are doing the vast majority of the stunt work. Sure, doubles may have been employed for the long shots, but there’s little doubt that it’s Capanna and Ross who are displaying considerable skills of driving and horsemanship. It looks genuinely dangerous when you bear in mind that the health and safety precautions were probably somewhat less than stringent.

Hercules vs. The Giant Warriors/The Triumph of Hercules/Il trionfo di Ercole (1964)

🎵 Purple Haze in my brain… 

Despite this exciting exhibition, the mourning Tolo looks like she’d rather be anywhere else, but then Vadis turns up to fight the winner. A few words from our silver-tongued slab of muscle and she suddenly perks right up, particularly when he saves her life from an attack by deadly rubber spikes during their joint lap of honour. The subsequent drama revolves around possession of the sacred knife and the ability to unleash the golden giants. Naturally, Vadis goes up against them a couple of times, and the actor had to do his own stunts as there was apparently no-one large enough to double for him! Thankfully, he acquits himself very well, and the fights are surprisingly well designed and executed. Vadis also seems far more comfortable with dialogue than in his previous appearance in the role, and the clean-shaven face was a wise grooming choice.

The English dub seems typically confused about whether this is the Roman or Greek incarnation of the mythical muscleman; one minute he’s hanging out at the Hellespont (Greek), the next he’s the son of Jove (Roman). It also refers more than once to the seven golden warriors, although there only seems to be six of them. It’s fair to speculate that the film may have had a lower budget than previous entries in the series. The sets are on a smaller scale, and there are fewer extras to populate them. Still, director de Martino keeps things moving at a brisk pace and delivers a reasonable level of action and adventure.

The attempts to cure her insomnia were getting a little out of hand…

Unlike many of his type, Vadis managed a reasonable roll of credits after the craze for muscles had passed. Regular appearances in Spaghetti Westerns led to a supporting role in ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973) and further Clint Eastwood projects such as ‘The Gauntlet’ (1977) and ‘Any Which Way You Can’ (1980), among others. He even featured on an episode of hit network TV show ‘Starsky and Hutch.’ Most of Tolo’s first leading roles were in ‘sword and sandal’ flicks, possibly because of her passing resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor who starred in ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) around that time. More than Vadis, however, she went onto a varied and prolific film career. She took the female leads in Eurospy pictures ‘Espionage In Lisbon’ (1965), ‘To Skin A Spy/Avec la peau des autres’ (1966) and ‘The Big Blackout’ (1966) and followed those with Giallo films such as ‘Trumpets of the Apocalypse/Murder By Music’ (1969), ‘Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast it’ (1970), and ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972). She also worked on one of horror maestro Mario Bava’s excursions into the Old West – ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970) – and with Richard Burton on ‘Bluebeard’ (1972). She also starred in many other Italian movies of the period before retiring in the mid-1980s.

A slight cut above the usual muscleman antics and the last of the Italian Hercules cycle of any real quality.

Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l’invincibile/The Sons of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)

Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l'invincibile/The Sons of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)‘Who has thrown my soldier into the pit of slime?’

Out for a quiet afternoon stroll, Hercules saves an innocent young maiden from a rampaging lion. Local custom usually dictates that he can marry the girl in such circumstances, but she’s a Princess, and her father demands that he slay a dragon before he will consent to the match…

The twelfth entry in the Italian cycle featuring the legendary hero Hercules finds his labours handed to Dan Vadis, and producer-director duties given to cinematographer Alvaro Mancori billed as Al World. Although the heyday of the muscleman craze had obviously passed, the film still boasts decent production values and professional execution.

After carrying out some casual tree surgery, Vadis is wandering about the forest when he’s alerted to danger by the screams of the pretty young Teica (Spela Rozin). She’s nipped off for a quick skinny dip in a nearby river, only to find there’s a roaring lion on hand to break up the party. Quite why she’s so scared is a bit of a mystery (are lions good swimmers?), but Vadis weighs in anyway and strangles the beast to death with his bare hands. The action is quite neatly accomplished, although it does highlight the problem of Vadis’ hair colour. Sometimes it’s light and bleached; at other times it’s almost black. It was probably an attempt to match up with his fight double, but why not get the stuntman to change his hair? And the little blonde beard he sports was probably not the best idea.

Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l'invincibile/The Sons of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)

‘Take the first left past the temple and the second right past the Cyclops cave and you can’t miss it…’

Anyway, Vadis recuperates from his wounds in the local village and gets a visit from King Tedaeo (Ugo Sasso) and his entourage. Sasso explains the local custom and why Vadis doesn’t qualify as his son-in-law unless he takes care of that pesky dragon that’s been bringing down real estate values in the local neighbourhood. Vadis and Rozin are in love, of course, and the big man readily agrees. The original version of the film may have established a passage of time by this point, however, in the dubbed version it appears to be almost immediately afterwards. This makes the couple’s devotion to each other ridiculously sudden and unconvincing. To be fair, killing a lion with your bare hands and saving her life is quite probably a swift way to a young girl’s heart, but I can’t see it working for most men as a romantic technique.

So, after accepting the hand of Rozin as a bribe (you really do have to question Sasso’s parenting skills!), Vadis is off to see the local Prophetess (Olga Sobelli, billed as Sand Beanty!). She informs him where the dragon’s at, gives him a magic spear to kill it and mentions the powers of the beast’s tooth, which she wants for herself. Having already got the weapon, he blows her off and leaves with her curses ringing his ears. Vadis dispatches the beast and harvests the bicuspid in question, even though there is a distinct possibility that the creature is appearing courtesy of another film. After all, not many dragons have a golden fleece as part of their home furnishings.

Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l'invincibile/The Sons of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)

‘You must tell me the name of your hairdresser.’

But, as in most films of this kind, there’s more than one task on the hero’s job list. While he’s away killing the dragon, the village is raised to the ground by warlord Kebaol (Ken Clark), and Sasso and Rozin are taken to the kingdom of the evil Queen Etel (Carla Calò). Hooking up with sole survivor of the massacre, and cowardly comic relief, Barbar (Jon Simons), Vadis must journey there to save his beloved and bring about the end of Calò’s reign of terror.

Yes, this is just another reworking of very familiar story elements from films of this kind, but there are a few variations. Of course, there are a lot of slaves who need liberating, we see the ‘lost city’ dancing girls on their never-ending tour, and Calò has built her residence inside an active volcano (how did she get the necessary permits?).

Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l'invincibile/The Sons of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)

The Javelin final had reached a crucial stage…

However, her only initial interest in our musclebound hero is having him torn apart by elephants in the arena (or in the throne room, actually; I guess it does double-duty). She does warm up to him after he saves her life though (guys, it always works!) but, just as predictably, he’s not interested. Why? Because she doesn’t ‘have eyes the colour of periwinkles’! (Kudos to the US dubbing crew for that one!). Everything ends in the predictable boiling cauldron of liquified strawberry jam (sorry, hot lava), but the audience is likely to experience more fun getting there than with most of the other entries in the series.

This certainly isn’t a very high-quality piece of storytelling, but it is more fun than a lot of its contemporaries. Vadis certainly looks the part and is decent in the action scenes, although he does look amiably bemused in a lot of the dialogue exchanges. I guess there could have been a language barrier with the Italian cast and crew? He signed on for ‘Hercules vs. The Giant Warriors/The Triumph of Hercules/Il trionfo di Ercole’ (1964) nevertheless. The most interesting aspect of the story probably revolves around Simons’ comedy relief. Yes, he’s incredibly annoying in the early stages and remains clumsy and nervous throughout but, by the last act, he’s engaged with the action and performing an active part on the side of the angels. Not often the comic relief gets a character arc in any kind of film!

Hercules The Invincible/Ercole l'invincibile/The Sons of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)

‘Blimey, I could just murder a pint right now…’

Vadis was of Greek descent; born in China under the name of Constantine Daniel Vafiadis. He’d served in the US Navy was a member of Mae West’s ‘Muscleman Revue’ in the late 1950s, before breaking into film with the assistance of fellow bodybuilder Gordon Mitchell. After the strongman films petered out, he transitioned into Spaghetti Westerns and later was a familiar face in small roles in some of Clint Eastwood’s big hits of the 1970s, including ‘The Gauntlet’ (1977), ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ (1978) and ‘Bronco Billy’ (1980). The work dried up after that, and he was found dead in his car in the desert in June 1987 after an accidental drug overdose.

There wasn’t a great deal of life left in the Italian muscleman genre by this point, but this is still an undemanding and vaguely enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)‘You have inherited a king’s throne because your father has passed on. I killed himself myself in battle.’

The kingdom is in the grip of a horrendous drought, and the Queen of Mycenae demands ever-increasing levels of tribute from her subjects, including pretty young virgins to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. Is there no-one who can lead the people in rebellion against her tyrannical rule?

The Hercules movie that isn’t. Of course, 1960s American audiences were used to the exploits of every Italian muscle man being relabelled with the big man’s name on stateside release, be they Goliath, Samson, Ursus or Maciste. However, this one is an even bigger confidence trick. All we have here is a hero who casually adopts the ‘Hercules’ name when on an undercover mission in the enemy camp. Sure, he’s strong and heroic, but he’s not even pretending to be the legendary Greek demi-god. What a complete swizz.

The city of Mycenae has risen from the ashes after perishing in a fiery inferno. On that day of destruction, the young, pregnant Queen Demeter (Rosalba Neri) promises the dying King to turn the people back to the worship of the Earth Goddess. Fast forward a couple of decades, however, and she’s still got them sacrificing young virgins to the evil deity Moloch, who lives in the caves underneath the city. This so-called god is really her grown up son (Pietro Marascalchi) who is so hideous that he needs to hide in the shadows and wear a metal wolf mask to hide his ugliness! He wiles away the long hours strangling the sacrificial girls or using them as live targets when he fancies a bit of practice with bow and arrow. Everyone has to have a hobby, I suppose.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘Hello, girls!’

The neighbouring cities are planning to get together in open rebellion, but the leaders of one fo them tips their hand too early and bring down the wrath of Neri’s army. Their King is killed, and the Princess Deianira (Jany Clair) is taken prisoner. Fortunately, Mycenean good guy, lieutenant Euneos (Michel Lemoine) takes more than a passing interest in her welfare. Meanwhile, forces from nearby Tiryns are riding to their rescue, led by the heroic Prince Glauco (Gordon Scott). But they arrive too late so Scott formulates a plan to attack Mycenae from both inside and out, taking the role of one of the slaves offered in tribute to Neri so that he can infiltrate the city.

On arrival, he catches the eye of the imperious monarch immediately, probably because he’s calling himself Hercules and every evil queen in history can’t resist falling for the muscles of the big man. She offers him a job as captain of part of her royal guard with probable fringe benefits to follow. Unfortunately, things go awry almost immediately when he stops chief lackey General Penthius (Arturo Dominici) having his way with Neri’s goody-two-shoes stepdaughter, the Princess Medea (Alessandro Panaro). Thrown into the dungeon and the inevitable gig at gladiator school, it’s up to Scott form and alliance with Lemoine, foment a rebellion among the populace and find a way to get the city gates open to let in the cavalry.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘I’ve had enough of this wowdy webel sniggewing behaviour.’

This is very much an undistinguished ‘sword and sandal’ picture that has only a few points of interest to note. At first glance, it appears there is some budget here, which gives a decent scale to the climactic battle scenes. However, most of this footage is taken from director Giorgio Ferroni’s previous film ‘The Trojan War/La guerra di Troia’ (1961). The swordplay involving the principals is energetic and well-choreographed, though, with Scott convincing in both the action scenes and the quieter moments. Neri also makes for a deliciously evil queen, both as a young woman in the opening scenes and as a more mature version two decades later, which, considering she was only in her mid-twenties at the time of filming, indicates her talent as an actress. But both the leading roles are one-dimensional, and the script doesn’t give either performer much material to work with.

What’s most curious, though, is the last twenty minutes of the film. Up until then, things have been pretty grounded. Yes, there’s been talk of the Earth Goddess on the one hand, and Marascalchi being the embodiment of Moloch on the other, but no real indication that it’s any more than talk or local superstition. Then the Goddess seems to take a hand, sending a lightning bolt down to strike the sacrificial knife of high priest Asterion (Nerio Bernardi) that he’s about to use on Panaro in the public square. Maybe that could be written off as an amazingly lucky coincidence, but, then again, there’s what happens in the final act in the dusty catacombs beneath the city when Scott goes to confront Marascalchi.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘Hit it, baby!’

Despite hating feminine beauty because of his deformity, the living god does keep a harem of young lovelies in his man cave. They seem to be under a spell of some sort, and their job is apparently just to play the drums! Anyway, when the forces of good invade their domain in the final scenes, these beauties revealed to be supernatural creatures of some sort, bringing down the roof by running about a bit and making coloured smoke appear. Weird. Especially as we never see them again afterwards. Marascalchi seems to have powers as well, making the floor collapse beneath some soldiers that are threatening him with spears. However, he seems to forget all about these abilities when he fights with Scott. The two clash with conventional weapons and then take part in an extended wrestling match. Scott even manages to hit him over the head with a table. Twice! It’s all a bit confusing really…

Scott made his film debut in ‘Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle’ (1955) as the replacement for Lex Barker in the long-running series about the exploits of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Lord Greystoke. Five more appearances in the part followed, including ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ (1959), which remains one of the best of the Ape Man’s outings and also included a young Sean Connery in a significant supporting role. When his time in the jungle was up, Scott moved straight into Italian muscleman pictures with ‘Maciste contro il vampiro’ (1961) which was also known as ‘Goliath and the Vampires’ or ‘Samson vs the Vampires’ – take your pick. He’d starred in almost a dozen similar projects before he made it to Neri’s basement to face off against Marascalchi. Toward the end of his career, he finally got to play Hercules for real in the pilot for an aborted TV series that was later released to theatres as ‘Hercules and the Princess of Troy’ (1965).

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hatred. Good! I can use your hate.’

Neri became a mainstay of cult cinema in the 1960s and beyond, with starring roles in many horror pictures and Giallo films after several featured supporting roles in the Eurospy genre. She’s probably best remembered as ‘Lady Frankenstein’ (1972) or for Silvio Amadio’s ‘Amuck!’ (1972), but she always brought a quality of performance and natural screen presence to her roles, even if many of them were not deserving of her talents. Director Ferroni made some feature films in the 1940s but did a lot of documentary filmmaking before making a comeback with the visually impressive and strangely fascinating ‘Mill of the Stone Women’ (1960). Unfortunately, it seems that he never fulfiled the promise he displayed with that film, and it’s disappointing to see his name attached to a product like this.

The film was picked up for American distribution by Walter Manley productions but placing the blame for the cheating title at their door would be a mistake. The film’s original, Italian release title was ‘Ercole contro Moloc’ which literally translates as ‘Hercules Against Moloch’. The American print at least has the decency to place that in brackets after ‘The Conquest of Mycenae’ title, which, although it could be regarded as a bit of a spoiler, is far more accurate at least. However, little care was taken with the English dubbing; dialogue doesn’t match mouth movements in any respect and the voice acting is of a very poor quality. Panaro’s lines are delivered in a frightfully posh English accent that makes it sound like she’s been to a very exclusive finishing school and spends her days at garden parties thrashing the servants. It’s hilarious, of course, but it doesn’t help with serious investment in the story.

A minor footnote in the history of the Peplum film and precious little to do with Hercules.