Samson Against the Black Pirate/Sansone contro il corsaro nero/Hercules and the Black Pirate (1964)

‘Your compliments are even more persuasive than your muscles.’

Samson distinguishes himself in battle against the Black Pirate and receives the gratitude of the Governor of San Sebastion. However, the nobleman’s Chief Consul has been working secretly with the evil buccaneer. He isn’t about to let the muscleman interfere with his plans to loot the colony of its fabulous treasure…

Ho-hum Peplum patterned more on a Hollywood swashbuckler than the usual muscleman antics. Sergio Ciani, under his screen name of Alan Steel, is back on leading man duties, working here for director Luigi Capuano.

The Black Pirate (Andrea Aureli) and his ships have long been the scourge of the oceans around the island of San Sebastian. However, an engagement with forces led by Samson (Ciani) proves to be a disaster, with only his flagship escaping to the open sea. The action brings Ciani honours from Governor Don Alonso (Nerio Bernardi), but not the hand of his beautiful daughter Rosira (Rosalba Neri). After all, Ciani is just a fisherman by birth. Disillusioned, he heads for home.

However, all is not well at the Governor’s mansion. Chief Consul Rodrigo Sanchez (Piero Lulli) is Aureli’s silent partner, feeding the buccaneer the secret information that has enabled his reign of terror on the high seas. Together, they plan to kill Bernardi and make Lulli the interim Governor. Once in place, he can loot the treasury and get his greedy paws on Bernadi’s wife, his old love Carmelita (Elisa Mainardi). But when things do not go according to plan, he kidnaps their seven-year-old daughter Alma (Cinzia Bruno) and frames Ciani for the crime.

By 1964, the Peplum craze was running on fumes. The sheer quantity of muscleman features produced in the decade’s early years had drained all ideas and creativity from the concept and left a stale, familiar formula. Although it could be argued that Capuano’s film is attempting something different by co-opting the locale and story from an old Hollywood swashbuckler, it’s far more likely that this was simply an old script retooled for current box office requirements. It wasn’t even a new idea, really, with previous vehicle ‘Samson Against the Pirates/Sansone contro i pirati/Samson and the Sea Beast’ (1963) treading a similar path. Even less effort is made to impose the familiar Peplum tropes here, with very few scenes that involve the character’s superhuman strength, other than an escape from the flooding hold of Aureli’s ship. Mostly, he’s just a heroic chap who’s handy with a sword and good at wrestling.

The film opens with the sea battle between Ciani’s army and the pirate fleet. It’s unclear if our hero is leading the fight or earns Bernardi’s gratitude just because he’s an outstanding soldier, but no one else gets any thanks, so I guess he was in charge. Perhaps the lack of any other credit is down to the fact that the battle seems to be mostly appearing courtesy of another film with a grinning Ciani superimposed over the top waving his sword about. Thankfully, there are better combat scenes as the film progresses, although the fight choreography and swordplay aren’t particularly inspired.

Unfortunately, with events entirely predictable from beginning to end, Capuano needs to deliver spectacle and action rather than plot mechanics, and it’s obvious he didn’t have the resources available to mount much of either. Producers were never going to throw money at a project like this, with the box office beginning to run dry. Indeed, this film was Samson’s last stand-alone adventure, with his only subsequent appearance in the cycle being as part of the tag team in ‘Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: The Invincibles/Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). Almost inevitably, when it was picked up for stateside distribution by American International Pictures, Samson became Hercules and a lacklustre dub track was provided to paper over the substitution.

On the plus side, Ciani does his best Errol Flynn impression when the script permits. The film would have benefited no end from adopting more of a humorous, devil-may-care approach to the material and with more screen personality than most of his muscleman rivals, Ciani might have been equal to the task. Instead, a few moments of lame comedy relief are centred on a henpecked villager and his domineering wife. It is a novelty to see Neri early in her career as a passive Peplum princess, though, and contrast it with the far more assertive roles she played in Italian genre cinema over the next decade. The eagle-eyed may also spot an uncredited Giovanni Cianfriglia, marking time before taking the lead as costumed crimefighter ‘Superargo’ under the somewhat less Italian name of Ken Wood.

Capuano began his screenwriting and directorial career in post-war Italy, racking up a couple of dozen titles before his first, much better, Peplum feature ‘The Revenge of Ursus/The Vengeance of Ursus/La vendetta di Ursus/The Mighty Warrior (1961). It’s clear, however, that he specialised in romantic costume adventures, including ‘Zorro and the Three Musketeers/Zorro e i tre moschettieri’ (1963) and two other features starring the masked rider created by Johnston McCulley. A smattering of American stars graced these projects, such as Guy Madison, ex-Tarzan Gordon Scott, Mickey Hargitay, Ray Danton and another ex-Tarzan, Lex Barker. Toward the end of his career, he made a couple of Spaghetti Westerns and anonymous Eurospy ‘The Big Blackout/Agent Perry Grant/Perry Grant Agente Di Fermo (1966).

There are a few crumbs of interest here and there, but this is one for die-hard Peplum buffs only.

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.

The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre/The Invincible Three (1964)

‘Who forced us to go and live in the rocks?’

Legendary strongman Ursus is not pleased when he discovers that the Tunisian city of Atra is under the rule of a man who has taken his name. Accompanied by two thieves, he vows to unseat the usurper and bring the war with a neighbouring tribe to a peaceful end…

It was the seventh and last time out for Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz’s strongman, who he had created for his 1895 novel ‘Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero.’ The Italian Pepium craze that followed the international success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) saw film producers hijack the character for a series of similar escapades. Here, he’s incarnated in the athletic form of veteran muscleman Sergio Ciani, billed as Alan Steel.

The city of Atra and the surrounding kingdom seem to be under the rule of elderly King Igos (Carlo Tamberlani). However, decisions of state are taken by legendary strongman Ursus (Mimmo Palmara) and his partner, slimy official Teomoco (Gianni Rizzo). Unfortunately for the populace, Palmara is an imposter – ‘False Ursus’ – who has used his fighting prowess to perform a bit of identity theft and hoodwink the King. He plans to seize the throne, of course, and liquidate the neighbouring Hanussa tribe, led by Samur (Nello Pazzafini). However, he receives word that the real Ursus (Ciani) is in town, accompanied by light-fingered rapscallions, Pico (Arnaldo Dell’Acqua) and Manina (Enzo Maggio).

Palmara suggests that the youthful Prince Dario (Vassili Karis) track down our three heroes, branding them as Hanussa spies and promising to renounce command of the city and return to his homeland. The callow Prince agrees, but his inexperience leads to capture by the Hanussa. Things look bleak, but he has an advocate in Pazzafini’s sister, Demora (Rosalba Neri), who he had taken prisoner on the latter part of his trip. Karis had been the perfect gentleman during her incarceration, and it’s obviously not going to be too long before the two pick out curtains and start spending Sunday mornings at the Garden Centre. Meanwhile, Ciani has challenged his namesake, and it’s not long before the question of who’s who will be settled by some personal combat.

Writer-director Gianfranco Parolini’s film is a curious mix of knockabout comedy and serious adventure. Proceedings open in the former vein with the acrobatic Dell’Acqua and stammering Maggio involved in a knockabout brawl with traders in the Atran marketplace after lifting some apples and a couple of knick-knacks. Dell’Acqua establishes his impressive tumbling credentials while we discover that Maggio’s voice problem is so severe that often he remains mute. After the duo escapes, Ciani turns up like an indulgent uncle to scold the pair and get them to return what they’ve stolen. The trio’s dynamics are almost certainly a nod to Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat’s partnership in Hollywood swashbucklers ‘The Flame and the Arrow’ (1950) and ‘The Crimson Pirate’ (1952). The pair had worked together as circus acrobats before Lancaster turned to acting, and Cravat played both roles mute to conceal a thick Brooklyn accent.

These comedy shenanigans are entertaining and well-played by the principals but sit strangely at odds with the more serious story developing alongside at court. Everyone there is playing it completely straight, with Palmara and Rizzo playing it straight and resisting any inclination to chew the scenery. It takes time for the two sets of characters to interact, so, at times, it feels like two separate films. The comedy takes more of a backseat when things come together, although Ciani remains a good-natured presence throughout. He also shows up well in the action scenes, particularly in the arena fight, where he goes up against Palmara on a platform raised above spikes. He’s getting the best of it, too, until he’s struck blind by a potion concealed in his helmet by the nefarious Rizzo.

Elsewhere in the cast, the women make the best of it, with the gorgeous Neri a passionate presence and Lisa Gastoni effectively conflicted as the disloyal Queen Alina. There’s also the mysterious Orchidea De Santis, who hangs around a little in the background, offering Ciani water on one occasion and providing the ointment to cure his blindness on another. It may be that she’s a helpful goddess, but she seems curiously timid for that, and the English version never addresses her identity, helpfully billing her merely as ‘Blonde Girl’. Something lost in translation, in all probability.

By 1964, it’s fair to say that Peplum was on life support with dwindling box office returns and audiences about to get far more interested in cowboys and spies. So, it’s pleasing to report that this film has little of the threadbare quality of some contemporary productions, the budget probably boosted by Tunisian money. However, some moments, particularly at the climax, seem to suggest a lack of resources. Rather than a pitched battle between the two tribes, one side just runs away (!), and the final showdown between Ciani and Palmara is ridiculously brief, particularly compared to their earlier combat in the arena.

Parolini already had experience with muscleman capers, having delivered entries like ‘Samson/Sansone’ (1961) and ‘Fury of Hercules/La furia di Ercole’ (1962) but really hit paydirt with the Kommissar X Eurospy series. The adventures of Agent Joe Walker, played by Tony Kendall, ran for seven films, and he was behind the camera in some capacity on all but the final entry. He often worked as sole director, such as on opening salvo ‘Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill/Kommissar X – Jagd auf Unbekannt’ (1966). In later years, he directed a trio of Spaghetti Westerns showcasing the fictional gunfighter Sabata and attempted to cash in on the hype surrounding Dino De Laurentiis’ remake of ‘King Kong’ (1976) by unleashing ‘Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century/Yeti – Il gigante del 20° secolo’ (1977). He passed away in 2018 after a film career spanning almost 60 years.

As a character, Ursus always struggled to establish a coherent identity in the world of Italian Peplum but closes out his account here with a likeable enough romp.

Ursus, the Rebel Gladiator/Ursus gladiatore ribelle (1962)

‘By Hercules, at last, it’s my monstrous barbarian.’

When the Emperor of Rome dies, his son ascends the throne. Rather than follow the old man’s dying wish for peace, the new regime is one of violence and conquest. Legions rape and pillage with impunity, but eventually, their reign of terror reaches a village where they meet their match…

The fifth in the loosely connected series of films featuring Ursus, the only Peplum muscleman who came not from mythology or the bible but was a modern-day fictional creation. This lack of ancient origin meant he could be placed in any time period or setting. Often these were cheerfully vague, but writer-director Domenicio Paolella’s film finds him fighting in the Holy Roman Empire.

The deathbed wish of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Nando Tamberlani) is for his successor to bring peace to his Empire. Unfortunately, that person is his son Marcus Commodus (Alan Steel), and he is not for the peaceful kind. Preferring to fight with his gladiators in the arena than practice good government, it’s no surprise when he follows the usual time-worn strategy of taxing the populace into abject poverty and ruling with an iron fist. Of course, conquering new territories and enslaving their people are also high on his ‘to-do list.

Eventually, his hordes reach the home of Ursus (Dan Vadis), who has converted to this new-fangled thing called Christianity and put aside swords for ploughshares. Even so, he’s ready for action when Steel and his men attack, fighting off their forces almost single-handed. He also emerges victorious in one-on-one combat with Steel, but his principles preclude him from dealing the final death blow. In fact, Vadis wants nothing more to do with the whole business. However, his fighting prowess has caught the eye of the scheming Senator Emiliis Leto (Gianni Santuccio), who acted as the chief advisor to the previous Emperor.

Santuccio feels that Steel is leading the Empire to disaster and realises that Vadis is the man to stop him. The problem is that Vadis will only fight in self-defence. The solution? Abduct the big man’s beloved Arminia (José Greci) and take her to Rome. The price of her freedom is for Vadis to go to gladiator school and graduate to fight in the arena, Santuccio believing that Steel won’t be able to resist the opportunity for a return match.

Of course, the real-life Commodus is familiar to audiences these days thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the fighting Emperor in Ridley Scott’s multi-Oscar winning ‘Gladiator’ (2000). Neither that film nor this one would win any awards for historical accuracy, but the basic facts concerning his preference for fighting in the arena are apparently true. Indeed, Vadis and Steel’s second face-off is, without question, the highlight of this film, with both actors selling every blow in their lengthy, knockdown, drag-out contest. It’s probably the most brutal and convincing piece of combat in the entirety of Peplum and worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately, its placed before the final act, which makes the climactic invasion of Rome by the forces of the noble Septimius Leto (Carlo Delmi) somewhat of an anti-climax.

The film’s other main virtue is that Ursus is back to being the main focus of the story, rather than relegated to a half-baked sidekick as had occurred in the previous film ‘Ursus and the Tartar Princess/Ursus e la ragazza tartara’ (1961). Crowbarring in Christianity was pretty much a given in every historical epic made in the early and mid-20th Century, but, of course, it is appropriate here. Personal inner conflicts regarding acts of violence allow more nuance to the story than usual, as when Greci has an opportunity to stab the sleeping Steel but finds that her faith prevents her from killing him. However, it is puzzling that Steel chides his mistress Marzia (Gloria Milland) for being influenced by these strange beliefs ‘from the Orient’. Still, it is to the credit of the script by Paoella, Alessandro Fearraù and Sergio Sollima that this extra layer is provided, rather than entertain the most well-worn and over-familiar Peplum cliches.

The film’s main weakness lies in its ineffectual supporting cast. Although Paolella’s handling of the material and the decent production values convey some scope to the story, it’s hard to be invested in such a colourless bunch of characters. This throws the main dramatic weight onto the shoulders of Vadis and Steel, who were obviously not hired for their acting abilities. Having said that, both prove surprisingly equal to the task here, with Steel quite charismatic as the villain of the piece. Although both struggled in early roles, particularly Vadis, it is fair to say that their performances improved in leaps and bounds with each project and, by this point, they were holding their own with script requirements. Understandably, Paoella was focused on showcasing their impressive physicality and fighting skills, but more work with the other characters would have helped give the story more punch. Andrea Aureli does manage to score as the instructor at Gladiator School, but his character is begging for more development and screentime.

Alan Steel was born Sergio Ciani in Rome in 1935, whose screen career began as a body double for Steve Reeves in ‘Hercules’ (1958), the film that launched the whole Peplum craze. With a couple of similar gigs under his belt, he finally got his big chance playing opposite Brad Harris when the American actor debuted ‘Hercules’ rival ‘Samson/Sansone’ (1961). The duo re-teamed for ‘The Fury of Hercules’ (1962) before Ciani got the chance to play the big man himself in ‘Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma’ (1964). He also played muscleman Maciste and wrapped up the Ursus series in the title role in ‘The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre’ (1964). Post-Peplum, Ciani fared better than most of his contemporaries, taking roles in early Giallo ‘A… For Assassin/A… come assassino’ (1966) and Spaghetti Westerns, including ‘Sapevano solo uccidere’ (1968), which featured fellow musclemen Kirk Morris and Gordon Mitchell. He co-wrote and starred as Robin Hood in swashbuckler ‘Storia di arcieri, pugni e occhi neri’ (1976) and retired from the screen in 1979.

An excellent example of Peplum elevated by its two stars, whose arena combat remains a highlight of the entire genre.

Goliath and the Masked Rider/Golia e il cavaliere mascheratio/Hercules and the Masked Rider (1963)

‘Could you prepare a love philtre for my fiancee? Make her change her stupid and arrogant behaviour.’

In 16th Century Spain, an evil Duke plans to take the lands of his wealthy neighbour by marriage or by force. A soldier in love with the prospective bride teams up with a gypsy bandit queen to thwart his evil scheme…

Pity poor Goliath! The strongman was only four movies into his screen career when he was relegated to a side character in this lacklustre swashbuckler. Director Piero Pierotti fails to inject any sense of dash or dynamism into this riff on the all-too-familiar exploits of one señor Zorro.

Don Juan (Mimmo Palmara) returns from the wars to find that things have taken a turn for the worse at the hacienda of his lady love, Dona Blanca (José Greci). Her father, Don Francisco (Renato Navarrini), has promised her hand to troublesome neighbour Don Ramiro (Arturo Dominici), who has threatened war. The young lovers can’t control their passion, and Palmara is banished while Dominici takes delight in torture and mayhem with his increasingly disillusioned right-hand man, Captain Belasco (Ettore Manni).

Palmara links up with red-haired bandit queen Estellla (Pilar Cansino) after fighting her henchman Goliath (Alan Steel) to a draw in hand to hand combat. She also has an axe to grind with Dominici, who was responsible for the death of her husband. Palmara dons a scarlet mask and cloak to become Zorro wannabee the Masked Rider, and events develop on entirely predictable lines. There’s even a scene where Palmara and the band intercept Dominici’s courier Don Ruiz (Tullio Altamura), when he’s bringing Greci gifts from the dastardly warlord. Unfortunately, Palmara is no Errol Flynn, and the woods north of Rome ain’t no Sherwood Forest. Yes, the film hits just about every story beat you expect in a way that lacks any significant interest.

So where does legendary muscleman Goliath fit into all this? Well, he is simply one of Cansino’s merry men. He takes part in the small scale battles with Dominici’s guards and has three or four short lines of unimportant dialogue. It’s pretty clear that the character’s been inserted for name value only, probably into a production conceived initially without him. What’s not surprising is that when the film was retitled for a stateside release, Goliath did his routine name change to Hercules.

Perhaps significantly, around the same time, Steel appeared as Maciste (the Italian version of Hercules) in Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Samson and the Slave Queen’ (1963), originally called ‘Zorro contro Maciste’ and was also set in 16th Century Spain! As the two films shared the same producer, Fortunato Misiano, and were shot around some of the same locations, it’s quite probable that Steel was asked to hang around after one film wrapped to appear in the other. Perhaps he was contracted for another couple of day’s work.

Steel, real name Sergio Ciani, had started his Peplum career with a couple of brief showings in films starring the original Hercules, Steve Reeves. His impressive physicality rewarded him with more prominent roles in ‘Samson’ (1960) and ‘Fury of Hercules’ (1962), supporting American actor Brad Harris before he took up the reins of Maciste. After that, he went onto play Samson for real in ‘Sansone contro il corsaro nero’ (1964), Hercules for real in ‘Hercules Against Rome/Ercole contro Roma’ (1964), Maciste again, Samson again, Hercules again, and finally completed the full set as Ursus in ‘The Three Avengers/Gli invincibili tre (1964).

Dominici, who gives the best value here as the sneering villain, is probably familiar to most as the undead Igor in Mario Bava’s ‘La maschera del demonio/Black Sunday’ (1960) but had roles in many Peplum outings, including the original ‘Hercules’ (1957). Perhaps what’s most surprising is to see that director Pierrotti was on script duty with a couple of the mainstays of the Giallo thriller, which was to take Italian cinema by storm in the early 1970s. Writer Ernesto Gastaldi penned many of the best examples of that sub-genre, and Luciano Martino became well-known through his work as a producer with his brother Sergio usually in the director’s chair.

Little more than a lost footnote in the Peplum genre and the exploits of its musclebound heroes. Not worth your time unless you are a die-hard fan.

Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: The Invincibles/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).

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.

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.

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.

A…Come Assassino/A…For Assassin (1966)

A Come....Assassino (1966)‘Nonsense is the pillar of any investigation.’

The last will and testament of a murdered rich businessman stipulates that all his greedy relatives must live in his gloomy old mansion for one month. At the end of that time, three of them will get an equal share of his fortune but no-one will get anything if a greater number make a claim…

Italian murder-mystery from director Ray Morrison (real name Angelo Dorigo) that takes a concept as old as silent cinema and attempts to refresh it with a more contemporary spin. We’re all familiar with the setup, of course; the dark, gothic house, the reading of the will, the unknown killer, the cast disappearing one by one. It was most successfully presented on the movie screen for the first in various versions of stage play ‘The Cat and the Canary’ although the general format was further popularised by the various incarnations of Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And Then There Were None’.

Our cast of characters here could most accurately be summed up as ‘the usual suspects.’ There’s the promiscuous ex-stripper (Aliché Nana) and her weak-willed husband (lvano Staccioli), the beautiful niece (Mary Arden) and her suave boyfriend (lvano Davoli), and the old man’s embittered sister (Giovanna Galletti), who’s spent the best years of her life looking after him in the role of a housekeeper, and taking care of his only direct descendant; idiot son Julian (Charlie Charun). Finally, there’s the cool and handsome secretary (Sergio Ciani) who looks no more trustworthy than the rest of them. Unusually, the film makes no real effort to present any of them in a positive light, choosing to engage the audience in the puzzle of the plot rather than encourage emotional investment in any of the characters. So, there’s the requisite number of crosses, double crosses, and hidden loyalties exposed, as the plot twists and turns, and the players manoeuvre around each other, each seeking an edge in their struggle for the inheritance.

Unfortunately, the story developments aren’t that gripping or particularly inventive, with one big exception that the film surrenders far too early on. The will isn’t real. It’s been tweaked by inspector Gilberto Mazzi to flush out the old man’s killer. Now, leaving aside the question of whether anything gained from such a strategy would be admissible in court, I doubt that this can be approved police procedure. After all, he’s encouraging all his suspects to kill each other! It’s an intriguing premise on which to hang the story, but hardly a plausible one.

A Come....Assassino (1966)

‘I know a good wig man if you’re interested…’

There’s still a fair level of entertainment available, though. The cast give it that their best, even though their roles are fairly generic, and the stand out is American actress Arden. She’d played a major role in Mario Bava’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964) – both as actor and interpreter! – a movie often cited as the first in the Giallo genre.

This effort is also categorised in that way by some commentators but really the links are a little tenuous. Sure, it’s an ltalian movie from the mid-1960s with a series of murders, but the deaths are bloodless, bullets are used as much as a blade, and our mysterious killer is not masked. There’s also a distinct lack of a suspenseful lead-in to each of the kills. If you must label the film, it’s more of a murder-mystery. The story did originate with writer-director Ernesto Gastaldi, though, who was behind the far superior, but similarly themed, ‘Libido’ (1965) and did go on to direct a number of Giallo pictures.

Probably the most interesting cast member is the chiselled Ciani, who remains best known for several outings at the start of the decade as Maciste (‘Hercules’ to you and me). These included ‘Hercules Against The Moon Men’ (1955), ‘Hercules and the Black Pirates’ (1964) and ‘Samson and the Seven Challenges’ (1964).

A decent, if somewhat anonymous, thriller that will probably entertain mystery fans without lingering too long in the memory.