Samson/Sansone (1961)

‘By the lame foot of Vulcan!’

While hunting, strongman Sansom and his friends are captured by a troop of mercenaries from the neighbouring kingdom of Sulom. Confident that he’s in the good graces of its Queen, he does not resist, but at court, he finds out that she’s no longer on the throne…

Early Peplum adventure, introducing US actor Brad Harris and the Biblical strongman as candidates to assume the mantle previously worn by Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1958). It did kick off a series of sorts, but there were only five features, two of them tag-teaming the character with other musclemen.

While out hunting with friends on the kingdom’s borders, Samson (Harris) gets into an argument over the spoils with fugitive Millstone (Sergio Ciani), who is hiding in a cave. Their bout of bromantic grappling is interrupted by some mercenaries from Sulom, who are looking for the runaway. Ciani escapes, leaving Harris and his buddies, played by Romano Ghini and Niksa Stefanini, to rake the rap. However, Harris isn’t too worried. He grew up at the court of Sulom, and ruling Queen Mila (Irena Prosen) is one of his oldest friends.

Against expectations, they are thrown into a jail cell on arrival and told to cool their heels. Harris puts up with the jibes of the guards for a while but eventually gets impatient, tears off the cell door and uses it like a battering ram to push more than a dozen soldiers before him and into the throne room. There, a surprise awaits. Prosen is apparently off somewhere on the coast recuperating after an illness and in her place is sister Romilda (Mara Berni), at one time his sweetheart. The incarceration has all been a mixup, of course, but handmaiden Janine (Luisella Boni, billed as Brigitte Corey) slips the big man Prosen’s ring as a message that all’s not well. Slimy mercenary leader Warkalla (Serge Gainsbourg) encourages Harris to wrestle court champion Igor to provide some entertainment, but it isn’t much of a challenge. However, celebrating his easy victory with a goblet of drugged wine isn’t a great idea, and he falls through an inconvenient trapdoor and ends up back behind bars.

Fortunately, Boni is on hand with an escape plan, and the big man learns what’s been going down. Prosen isn’t off at the seaside at all; she’s a fellow prisoner in the dungeon, incarcerated until she reveals the location of the kingdom’s legendary treasure. It’s these priceless riches that have prompted Gainsbourg to support Berni’s bid for power. However, one glimpse of Harris’ meaty biceps is enough to make her start having second thoughts about the whole business. In another shocking plot development, our unscrupulous pair have been taxing the populace into poverty and sent inflation to record levels (probably). So, revolution is brewing, and one bearded muscleman pulling chains apart with his bare hands may be all that’s needed to ignite the flame.

The surprising American success of Steve Reeves with ‘Hercules’ (1958) prompted a craze for sword and sandal pictures in Italy that lasted until the mid-1960s. Of course, it helped that the muscleman heroes involved had significant audience name recognition and didn’t come burdened with all those pesky intellectual property rights. Samson took his bow in the Old Testament’s Book of Judges, and it was unlikely that the author, or authors, would come crawling out of the woodwork, lawsuit in hand. Mythology, legend, and the Bible were out of copyright. Given the freedom this gave filmmakers to exercise their creative talents, it’s sad to report that commercial considerations prevailed to such an extent that a standard template for these heroic adventures was swiftly established. Samson’s debut picture merely assisted with that process.

Of course, the character had already appeared on the big screen, most famously with Cecil B DeMille’s Biblical epic ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949) crashing into movie theatres a decade earlier. Director and co-writer Gianfranco Parolini is not interested in that story; his Samson is a short-haired, bearded warrior whose super strength seems to come solely from some serious gym time. The film has no religious, mythological or supernatural elements, being more of an extension of the historical and costume dramas favoured by the Italian industry since the end of World War Two, only with the emphasis placed heavily on action.

Unfortunately, it’s the action where the film fails to deliver. Most of it is not well-staged, often looking clumsy and awkward. The notion of Harris and Ciani tricked into fighting each other blindfolded isn’t a bad one, but it’s a tricky sequence to pull off successfully. As it is, the two protagonists look vaguely comedic as they wave their swords around, slashing at thin air. Villain Gainsbourg should also review his hiring policy as there’s more than one occasion when his mercenaries should have done much better against one unarmed man, even if he can bench press his own body weight several times over.

The script is also rather slapdash when it comes to basics such as motivation and character history. This is no Samson origin story. All we learn about the big man is that he’s super strong, was raised at the Royal Court of Sulom and was once in a relationship with Berni. We don’t find out why he grew up there, why he left, or anything about his current circumstances, other than that he seems to live in a neighbouring kingdom ruled by King Botan (Carlo Tamberlani), who can conveniently furnish some troops for the final skirmish. It’s never clear how Berni and Gainsbourg managed to depose Prosen and throw her in jail, nor why he sticks around after he’s got his hands on the treasure. Or why Berni went along with it all in the first place as just the sight of Harris’ muscles is enough to make her regret the whole thing. All that we find out about Ciani’s character is revealed via some amusing but brief banter with his beautiful girlfriend Jaya (Manja Golec).

There’s also the incredibly illogical final act where the plot ties itself into knots to justify a tournament in which Harris can compete and the sudden raising of stakes that makes it necessary for Tamberlani’s men to storm the city square. This tournament is apparently an annual one, and the winning prize is to assume the leadership of the mercenaries. Can we take it then that Gainsbourg won this contest the year before? Now that would be a movie I’d like to see, given that the character is a skinny little weasel who barely draws his sword in the entire film. Rather brilliantly, he also orders his soldiers to masscare everyone in the square once the tournament has concluded. There is absolutely no reason to do this, and it comes straight out of the blue, but I guess evil has to evil, right?

However, it is only fair to point out that the print available for review was the version dubbed into English. Given that the voice actors sound barely awake, that lack of effort may have extended to translating the script, which might explain some of the lack of logic and other shortcomings. That also doesn’t help with evaluating the perfromances, but Harris certainly looks the part and handles the physical duties with style. Berni is also terrific when depicting her evil side, needing only a look and a stare to convey the sweet promise of treachery to come.

The pairing of Harris and Ciani in the same film is probably of most interest to Peplum fans. The American actor had come to the attention of Italian producers after playing a gladiator in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960), cast afterwards as ‘Goliath Against the Giants/Goliath contro i giganti’ (1961) before hitting the screen as Samson. Next was the title role in ‘Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole’ (1962), again co-starring Ciani, before he transitioned successfully into other genres. Billed as Alan Steel, the two films with Harris were Ciani’s first significant roles. After these, he played second fiddle to Dan Vadis in ‘Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator/Ursus gladiatore ribelle’ (1962) before stepping into the spotlight as Maciste in ‘Zorro contro Maciste/Samson and the Slave Queen’ (1963). Subsequently, he played Goliath in ‘Goliath and the Masked Rider/Golia e il cavaliere mascheratio/Hercules and the Masked Rider’ (1963), Samson in ‘Sansone contro il corsaro nero/Hercules and the Black Pirates’ (1963), Maciste again in ‘Maciste e la regina di Samar/Hercules Against the Moon Men’ (1964), Ursus in ‘The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre/The Invincible Three’ (1964) and Hercules twice in ‘Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma’ (1964) and ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964), making him the only actor to play all five of the legendary heroes during the Peplum craze.

Good production values and a decent cast can’t overcome the haphazard plotting and the poorly realised action scenes.

Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole (1962)

The Fury of Hercules (1962)‘Without violence, power gives no satisfaction.’

Hercules arrives at the city of Arpad to find that his old friend, the King, has passed away. His daughter now rules but she has become fixated on building a high wall around the city. Her chief advisor has indulged this obsession and enslaved the populace to complete the project while he strengthens his grip on power…

The ninth in the loose cycle of muscleman films featuring the demi-god that came out of Italy in the late 1950s and early 60s, riding the coat-tails of the international success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) starring Steve Reeves. This time around US actor Brad Harris sports a nifty beard and toga in the title role and brings the requisite physical presence. However, the results are tired and predictable with director Gianfranco Parolini bringing nothing new to the party.

After being waylaid by apparent bandits on the road, Hercules (Harris) rides his chariot into Arpad to visit the King. He’s immediately confronted by a hostile captain of the guard who needs some form of identification. Luckily, a couple of utility bills and a driving licence are not required as the big man averts an accident at the walls nearby when a building block almost falls on the men working there. As a guest at the court of Queen Cnidia (Mara Berni), he soon realises that all is not well in the city. The real power behind the throne is the silver-tongued chief advisor, Menistus (Serge Gainsbourg) who has levied the usual unreasonable taxes on the populace to fill his own pockets. He’s also put any dissenting voices to work on the building site under the whip.

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

‘Do you come here often?’

The state of the union doesn’t sit well with Harris, particularly when the innocent Mila (Irena Prosen) is accused of treason and condemned to death. Mitigation of the sentence is only possible if a champion appears at her execution and undergoes three dangerous trials on her behalf. This is the big man’s bread and butter, of course, and he’s lowered into a pit to face a sleepy lion, followed by a man in a gorilla suit, who gives Harris a surprising amount of bother. Finally, he defeats a gladiator above ground in front of an appreciative crowd. It transpires that Prosen is the daughter of the local rebel leader, Eridione (Carlo Tamberlani), and, of course, it’s not long before Harris is allied with their cause.

Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that this film hits all the expected targets with such dull and lifeless precision. After all, besides vehicles starring Hercules, there had already been about another dozen features with identikit musclemen such as Maciste, Goliath, Ursus and Samson. So it was inevitable that a formula would arise pretty quickly in such circumstances to keep up with the pace of production. Unfortunately, Parolini’s effort sticks so close to established conventions that the results are drained of any real interest.

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

‘You want another take?’

There are no mythological elements either, so all that remains are just the usual story beats. Queen Berni falls hard for Harris and/or his muscles, but he fancies handmaiden Daria (Luisella Boni, billed as Brigitte Corey) instead. She’s Tamberlani’s daughter, of course, which gives the big man a personal stake in the rebellion. The ‘in-court entertainment’ is provided by the usual troupe of dancing girls in gauzy costumes, although, on this occasion, they are played by the Zagreb Opera Ballet! Arpad’s unlikely to become a recurring list on their tour itinerary, though, what with their act ending with an assassination attempt. There’s also a scene where Harris turns back a herd of rampaging elephants in the best Johnny Weismuller tradition. Umgawa, indeed.

Harris shines brightest in the action and combat scenes, appearing appropriately daring and heroic as he cuts a swathe through Gainsbourg’s men. These include Sergio Ciani, who went onto play Hercules several times himself, under the name of Alan Steel. The climactic battle scene outside the palace is staged on a reasonably large scale; it’s just a shame that the film itself is so lacking in any personality. There is an effort made to show the rebel group as a happy, loving community as a contrast to the selfish, dour city dwellers, but it’s half-baked at best. Also, the attempts to interest us in the fates of various side characters come over as feeble when there’s been insufficient effort to establish their characters in the first place.

The Fury of Hercules (1962)

‘Those dancing girls can sure do the Mashed Potato.’

This was Harris’ sole appearance as the legendary demi-god, but he had already flexed his muscles in the title role of the suspiciously similar ‘Samson’ (1961). He re-teamed with director Parolini for the ‘Kommissar X’ Eurospy series opposite Tony Kendall and with both actor and director as one of ‘The Three Fantastic Supermen’ (1967). Those later roles provided him with far more opportunity as an actor, and he was able to bring a lighter touch to them, mostly as a foil for Kendall. They also allowed him to show off his martial arts skills in fight scenes that he often choreographed himself. Over two decades later, he appeared briefly in Luigi Cozzi’s ‘Hercules’ (1983) starring Lou Ferrigno. On the face of it, this might appear to be a clever cameo, but it was probably just as much a matter of convenience as anything else. Both actors had gone straight into that production from ‘I sette magnifici gladiatori/The Seven Magnificent Gladiators’ (1983) in which Harris had a far more substantial role.

‘Sulk all you like, I’m not doing that record with you!’

And, yes, that is French singer-songwriter and hitmaker Serge Gainsbourg, the man behind the controversial hit ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ which he released in 1969 as a duet with Jane Birkin. Although principally known as a musical artist outside his native country, he also had an acting career, one of his earliest roles being an appearance with Harris in ‘Samson’ (1961). Later credits were appropriately eclectic, considering his roles in multiple aspects of cultural media. There was unusual superhero satire ‘Mr Freedom’ (1968), a part in Jerry Lewis’ still unseen ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ (1972), and a role as a police inspector in Antonio Margheriti’s offbeat Giallo ‘Seven Dead In The Cat’s Eye’ (1973), which reunited him with Birkin.

An uninvolving, desperately unoriginal Peplum which develops on well-travelled lines, but does deliver its action sequences efficiently enough.