Goliath and the Barbarians/Il terrore dei barbari/Terror of the Barbarians (1959)

‘Leave that woman alone, you swine!’

After his hometown is sacked by Barbarians and his father killed, a young warrior vows vengeance and forms a small band of rebels to defend his homeland. When the Barbarians establish a fort in the area, the fight escalates, but things get complicated when he falls in love with the daughter of the fort’s commander and both the lovers struggle with divided loyalties…

More sword and sandal action from Italy with U.S. actor Steve Reeves following up his star-making turn in ‘Hercules’ (1958) and ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959). Writer and producer Emimmo Salvi teams up with director Carlo Campogalliani to deliver the usual mixture of feats of strength, combat and adventure in a film that never strays too far from the ‘Hercules’ template, although there’s not a whiff of magic or mythology.

The Barbarian hordes led by King Alboino (Bruce Cabot) have swept across the land, looting and plundering without check for generations. Their latest target proves to be the hometown of woodcutter Emiliano (Reeves), who is off in the forest when the hordes descend. By the time he gets back, his father is dead, skewered by shaven-headed, pony-tailed Igor (Livio Lorenzon). Reeves bands the survivors into a guerilla group, who hide out in the hills, although he prefers to hassle the Barbarian troops solo, wearing an animal mask. These successful skirmishes earn him the name ‘Goliath’ and prompt the return of Lorenzon from Cabot’s court and the building of a stockade, commanded by Delfo (Andrea Checchi).

Out in the woods one day, Reeves helps a beautiful woman who has fallen from her horse. The two fall in love, of course, even though he’d probably rather be fighting and chopping wood. Unfortunately for him, it turns out that this dark-eyed beauty is Landa (Chelo Alonso), Checchi’s wild and spirited daughter. Worse is to follow when it’s revealed that Lorenzon plans to kill Checchi and grab both his command and Alonso for himself. So it’s time for Reeves to flex his muscles and ride to the rescue.

This is a very standard Peplum adventure that hits the expected beats and targets with predictable results. The plot is such a formulaic assembly of tried and trusted adventure tropes that nothing is ever in doubt, and each event and plot development is entirely predictable. There’s even a hopelessly contrived sequence where Reeves has to perform some feats of strength (labours, if you will) to avoid execution at Barbarian hands and go free.

Of course, the success or failure of such an enterprise falls heavily on the shoulders of the combat and action choreography and, here, it’s hardly inspirational. Some of the climactic battle footage is even speeded up in a desperate effort to infuse it with some level of excitement and, although there is a pleasing scale lend by the good number of extras, it still comes off as a little flat and under-rehearsed. The film did have budgetary issues, running out of funds entirely at one point. It was only the purchase of the U.S. distribution rights by American International Pictures that allowed production to continue.

The film does have some good points, though, principally thanks to some of the main cast. Alonso was a Cuban actress whose striking, exotic looks saw her take the title role in ‘Queen of the Tartars’ (1960) and play opposite Mark Forest in ‘Son of Samson/Maciste nella valle dei Re’ (1960), again for director Campogalliani. She also had a small role in Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ (1966). Her performance here as the untamed warrior princess is the best thing about the film. It’s particularly welcome in her scenes with Reeves, who fails to bring a great deal of personal charisma to the screen.

She also performs a couple of sexy dance routines, one around upturned swords, that both help to establish her character and most probably provided some enticing clips for the film’s trailer. Unfortunately for Checchi, her fierce performance was not just a good acting job. In one scene, he slaps her, and, unable to contain herself, the actress slapped him right back. Apparently, she blew several takes that way and had to have her hands tied together! When the cameras stopped rolling, the first thing she did was go over to him and return his latest favour.

Similarly, Lorenzon is an imposing figure and scowls and snarls his way through his villainous role with some relish. He’s ably supported in his black-hearted schemes by Svevo (Arturo Dominici), more familiar now from his work with director Mario Bava in ‘Caltiki, The Immortal Monster’ (1959) and ‘La maschera del demonio/Black Sunday’ (1960). He also appeared in several other muscleman pictures, including another run-in with ‘Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus/Golia alla conquista di Bagdad’ (1965).

It’s also good to see Cabot, who is best remembered these days as Fay Wray’s non-hairy boyfriend in the classic ‘King Kong’ (1933) and graduated to a long list of character parts in the later phase of his career. A supporting gig with John Wayne in ‘Angel and the Badman’ (1946) led to a life-long friendship and roles in many of the Duke’s later pictures, including ‘The War Wagon’ (1967), ‘The Green Berets’ (1968), ‘Chisum’ (1970) and ‘Big Jake’ (1971). His final role was as casino manager Albert R Saxby in the James Bond adventure ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971).

A mildly entertaining slice of muscle man heroics, enlivened by a stronger than usual supporting cast, but there’s little to make it stand out from the crowd.

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)‘You don’t depend on your brains; you’re just a mass of fat and muscle.’

Goliath, King of Thebes, is forced to quest for a sacred blood diamond, stolen by rival King Eurystheus and hidden in an underground cave system filled with monsters. Believing Goliath will not survive the quest, Eurystheus plans to invade Thebes and conquer the kingdom. But he has reckoned without Goliath’s superhuman strength…

Oh, my. To fully appreciate the full splendour of this third entry in the Italian ‘Hercules’ cycle, it’s necessary to examine some production information. Yes, I know it’s called ‘Goliath and the Dragon’ (not ‘Hercules and the Dragon’) but, be patient, we’ll get to that.

After the first two Hercules films made him an international star, US muscleman Steve Reeves expanded his range with a vastly different acting challenge; the lead role in ‘Goliath and the Barbarians’ (1959). This film was picked up for US distribution by American International Pictures, and it proved enough of a hit stateside for studio heads James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff to announce a sequel: ‘Goliath and the Dragon’. But that film never happened, possibly because Reeves sustained a severe shoulder injury during the filming of ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (1959), a problem that caused him difficulties for the rest of his life.

With no film in the works, Nicholson and Arkoff needed a movie. What could be better than buying the rights to the third official Italian ‘Hercules’ film: ‘Le Vendetta di Ercole’ (The Vendetta of Hercules) (1960)? It even had Italian-American Mark Forest in the title role and big-screen tough guy, Broderick Crawford, as the villain! It might have been a while since Crawford’s terrific, Oscar-winning turn in ‘All The King’s Men’ (1949) but he was still in the spotlight thanks to long-running hit TV show ‘Highway Patrol.’ So, Nicholson and Arkoff acquired the movie, renamed ‘Hercules’ as ‘Goliath’ and the day was saved! Only it wasn’t. Not really. What happened when the film was re-cut and re-dubbed for US audiences is unrecorded, but the finished article is a complete disaster. And in the best possible way.

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

The new gym equipment was a little weird…

The film opens with Forest already on his quest, descending into the fiery caves where the diamond is hidden. First, he encounters a three-headed dog chained to the wall. Cerberus is never mentioned by name, and the hound of hell is probably quite grateful for the lack of a shout out, given that this abomination seems to have more than a touch of the mange. It’s also almost entirely immobile, movements restricted to some bobbing of the heads and breathing a little fire. Next, our hero is attacked by a stuntman swinging from wires and dressed in a furry bat costume! Not surprisingly, Forest reclaims the gem shortly afterwards without breaking much of a sweat and can restore it to the head of a huge idol, which falls on him a couple of times later in the film, just for a laugh.

Meanwhile, intrigue abounds in the court of King Eurystheus (Crawford), whose generals won’t join him in the attack on Thebes until they are sure that Forest has taken a permanent, one-way trip to the underworld. And it’s here where things begin to get extremely confusing. Crawford has usurped the throne from the parents of Princess Thea (Federica Ranchi), who seems unaware that they were killed by Crawford’s slimy lieutenant Tindaro (Giancarlo Sbragia). Forest’s brother, Ilius (Sandro Moretti) and Ranchi are in love, but Forest doesn’t approve, because Ranchi’s parents killed his own parents…or something? And is Moretti the brother of Forest or the brother of his wife, Dejanira (Leonora Ruffo)? He seems to be both!

Goliath and the Dragon/Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

‘You keep grilling me, you’ll catch these hands!’

And then there’s Crawford’s slave, the scheming Alcinoe (Wandisa Guida), whose parents were killed during one of Crawford’s previous campaigns. Is she related to any of the other characters? I really don’t know. The only thing I am sure of is that it was hazardous to your health to be a parent in Ancient Greece! Whether all this confusion was present in the original film or is the result of the writers of the US adaptation being unable to think of any character motivation other than the murder of parents, l guess we’ll never know

From then on, it’s a crazy rollercoaster ride through Forest’s encounters with various idiotic monsters and the machinations of Crawford and Sbragia as they attempt to kill him with schemes of underhanded treachery. These also involve some sneaky manoeuvres by the duplicitous Ismene (Gaby André), because, hey! We really don’t have enough characters already! All this does suggest a much longer original running time, of course, and it often seems that a lot of important story stuff went on before the film began.

Goliath and the Dragon:Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

Cerberus was overdue his visit to the vet.

But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy here, nevertheless. See Forest wrestle a large man in a silly bear suit to the death! See Forest bring an elephant to its knees while the beast’s handler heroically attempts to hide behind the creature while dressed in bright blue robes! Hear a ridiculously over the top woman’s scream each time we see the occupants of Crawford’s snake pit! Hear an unnamed American voice actor giving us his best Broderick Crawford impression every time the actor delivers one of his lines!

As a matter of fact, this anonymous dubbing artist is pretty good at mimicking Crawford, but it does leave the audience with the inevitable impression that this Greek King would be more at home setting up a bookie joint in the back room of a pool hall in Queens! The confrontation between Forest and the dragon is also predictably laughable, with the great beast portrayed in long shot by some less than stellar stop-motion animation (added by the American studio) and close up by a terrible, life-sized head puppet which can barely move!

Goliath and the Dragon:Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

‘You are supposed to brush twice a day, you know…’

Director Vittorio Cottafavi was already an experienced pair of hands when it came to the Sword and Sandal genre and stayed on board for the next film in the series: ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla Conquista di Atlantide’ (1961). Ruffo skipped that one, before taking the same role she plays here (this time as a blonde) opposite Reg Park in Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1962). A few years later, she starred in the wonderfully trashy space opera ‘2+5: Missione Hydra’ (1968). André had already appeared in the very British science-fiction oddity ‘The Strange World of Planet X’ (1958).

Forest went onto more muscleman roles, including another one more official turn as Hercules in ‘Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun’ (1964). He also played the character Maciste half a dozen times in a series of films that eventually ran to almost 30 titles. These were usually retitled as ‘Hercules’ films in the States. This was purely for box office purposes, of course, but there was some justification for it, Maciste being generally considered as an alternative name for the Big H. To add to the confusion, Forest’s first film in the series, ‘Maciste nella valle dei Re’ (1960) was re-christened ‘Son of Samson’ in the States, to cash in on another series of films featuring that character!

Goliath and the Dragon:Le Vendetta di Ercole (1960)

She hadn’t expected the audition for ‘Fifty Shades off Grey’ to be so hardcore…

But this film features ‘Goliath’ of course, and the dub track doesn’t let you forget it. It’s almost as if the US editing crew were desperately trying to convince everyone that this wasn’t a ‘Hercules’ movie. It makes for a good drinking game, though, if nothing else. Try taking a shot every time ‘Goliath’ is mentioned by name. You won’t make it to the end of the movie, and you probably won’t remember much about your trip in the ambulance to the hospital.

Regrettably, the butchered US cut is the only version readily available for our viewing pleasure today. Ok, given the goofy monsters and the lack of production value, this was never going to be a classic or, quite probably, even a remotely decent film. But at least the original version might have made a bit more sense.

Sword and sandal cheese at its finest!

The Thief of Baghdad (1961)

Thief of Baghdad (1961)‘The first gate is in the East. It is to be seen where it is not.’

A handsome thief impersonates a visiting Prince so he can pick the pockets of the nobles at the court of the Sultan of Baghdad. During the ensuing confusion, he meets the Sultan’s beautiful daughter. They fall in love but she is promised to a  Prince who wants to be the next Sultan…

After the global success of ‘Hercules’ (1959), it would not have been unreasonable to expect Hollywood studios to come calling on muscleman Steve Reeves with offers to utilise his acting skills and charisma to good use in big stateside productions. Sadly, the star wasn’t over-blessed with either quality and he remained in Italy, starring in a string of pictures that showcased his greatest asset: his physicality.

These pictures were guaranteed a big play in Europe at least so American money was often involved, and this film was actually distributed in the states by MGM. A ‘name’ Hollywood director was also drafted in to take charge: veteran Arthur Lubin, whose biggest hits included ‘Black Friday’ (1940) with Karloff and Lugosi, ‘Buck Privates’ (1941) with Abbot and Costello and, most significantly here, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ (1944). He also gave a break to a young Clint Eastwood, giving him small roles in a string of pictures in the 1950s.

The story follows the Douglas Fairbanks model, of course, rather than the classic Michael Powell version from 1940 where the title character was a young, teenage boy. So we get Reeves as an Arabian Knights version of ‘Robin Hood’, stealing from the rich merchants and court lackeys and redistributing the wealth to poor market traders and the people of the city. The setup is stuffed with a lot of familiar characters; the nice but hopelessly muddled Sultan, his beautiful daughter, the scheming chief of staff and the evil, foreign Prince. It isn’t hard to predict that these last two will form an unholy alliance to grab the throne and that it’ll be up to Reeves to undo their nefarious schemes, on this occasion with the assistance of an old magician rather than the usual genie.

lt’s also no surprise when Reeves is tasked with a quest. He must travel to the East and obtain a Blue Rose to save the Princess, who has been poisoned by the evil Prince with a love potion gone wrong. The quest involves travelling through 7 gates and facing 7 challenges (or ‘labours’ perhaps? Reeves never really escaped from the shadow of Hercules) and these consist of some of the usual suspects, including fighting with a bald muscleman and resisting the temptations of a mysterious and seductive Queen who turns all her lovers to stone. It ends with a big brawl outside the city gates and the usual lesson that love conquers all and what you’re looking for is usually right under your nose.

Thief of Baghdad (1961)

‘Ooooh…who does he think he is?’

The SFX are of their time, of course, but their shoddiness only adds to the general charm. There’s still a joy in old fashioned practical effects, rather than smooth and hopelessly unconvincing CGI. There’s a cloak of invisibility (long before Harry Potter owned one), a flight on the winged horse Pegasus, deadly trees that come to life, and the old magician who pops up and vanishes with pleasing regularity. He’s the only real wrinkle story-wise, in that his help is mostly advisory and not magical, meaning that Reeves is often thrown back on his own resources rather than having his problems wished away in the usual fashion by a genie.

Although not remotely original, the production’s fuzzy familiarity does make for a pleasing and engaging experience and, although the U.S. dub track is pretty hideous, Reeves manages to convey a lightness of touch that is surprising if you’re only familiar with him from his more musclebound roles. The gorgeous Giorgi Moll is perfectly cast as the object of his desire, and also delivers a good performance. She was an actress with plenty of experience in the ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre, but enjoyed her greatest international fame when she featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Le Mépris’ (1963).

A pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half of your day.

Hercules Unchained (1959)

Hercules Unchained (1959)‘Polinices at the Gates of Thebes! lole! I have been tricked by the gods! 

Hercules returns home to Thebes accompanied by his new bride lole and Ulysses, the son of a friend. But the old king has abdicated and his two sons are contesting the throne. The mad Eteocles is in possession, but Polinices plans to overthrow him using foreign mercenaries.

After the worldwide success of ‘Hercules’ (1958) kickstarted the entire ‘sword and sandal’ genre, a direct sequel was really an inevitability. Stars Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina returned, along with director Pietro Francisci, who also worked on a script that was ‘freely adapted’ from some more of the legendary hero’s original exploits. Unfortunately, the results are decidedly mixed.

The original ‘Hercules’ (1957) was a tatty, ragbag of legendary bits and pieces that mostly revolved around the great man’s labours, but here we get virtually no mythology at all!  There is a fight with a ‘giant’ and a mysterious Queen who uses the ‘waters of forgetfulness’ to snare her lovers, but that’s about it. What we get instead is a fairly dull and generic drama, which lacks action or creative story developments to make it memorable.

Hercules Unchained (1959)

‘Seconds out, Round One!’

The fight with the ‘giant’ pits Reeves against former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Primo Carnera, in the last role of his brief film career. Camera might have been 6′ 6″ but l’m not sure that actually qualifies him as a giant. It was always alleged that Carnera was backed by the mob in his boxing days, and several books, and subsequent films, were loosely based on his life, including Budd Schulberg’s ‘The Harder They Fall’, which became Humphrey Bogart’s final movie.

After his wrestling match with Carnera and a rather disappointing homecoming involving nutbag Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and his pet tigers, the big guy goes off to broker peace with Polinices, rather stupidly leaving Koscina behind. On the way, he ends up in the clutches of sexy Queen Onfale (Sylvia Lopez) who keeps him doped up on the local water which makes him lose his memory. She normally has her lovers killed and then mummified by some rogue Egyptians(!) but, of course, she falls for the big lummox instead and, understandably, he’s quite happy with the whole idea. Unfortunately, pesky Ulysses puts his oar in and spoils the party. What a killjoy.

Then it’s back to quickly wrap up the main story with some swordplay and a battle at the gates of Thebes. The rival brothers fight a duel for the throne, Hercules pulls over some siege towers, and Koscina resists the advances of the horny leader of the evil mercenaries. The battle is quite impressively staged but it’s a little brief and it can’t atone for the long, dull build up. Hercules does fight the tigers, but it’s really left to Fantoni chewing the scenery, and the smouldering Lopez to keep things afloat. Sadly, Lopez was dead within a year after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Mario Bava worked on the film as the assistant director, lighting director and SFX director. He was only a year away from his full directorial debut on ‘The Mask of Satan’/‘Black Sunday‘ (1960), the horror classic with Barbara Steele that made his name. Two years after that he delivered what remains easily the best Hercules film ever made; ‘Hercules ln The Haunted World’ (1962). This effort from Francisci pales in comparison to that.

Unremarkable ‘sword and sandal’ shenanigans with barely a whiff of sorcery or the machinations of the gods.

The Giant of Marathon (1959)

The Giant of Marathon (1959)‘Strong arms don’t win a fight if the other parts of the body are not working with them.’

Steve Reeves wins every event at the Olympics but doesn’t get any gold medals, just a laurel wreath and a new job as head of the Athenian guard. Inevitably, it gets involved with court intrigue, a designing woman, a forbidden romance and cracking some Persian skulls when they decide to invade…

Vintage peplum from Italy’s Galatea Studios with Mr Universe taking a break from his Herculean labours to focus on more Earthly matters such as tongue wrestling with the beautiful Mylene Demongeot and saving Greek civilisation almost single handed.

‘Hercules’ (1958) had been a surprising international success so it made sense to grab a Hollywood director for another Reeves vehicle. The choice was Jacques Tourneur, who had helmed classic spooky horrors like ‘Cat People’ (1942) for producer Val Lewton’s RKO b-unit and film noir masterpiece ‘Out of the Past’ (1947). Recently he had returned to horror with the unsettling ‘Night of the Demon’ (1957) so this was a director with a serious pedigree, if not in the ‘sword and sandal’ arena. And that shows in the finished film. It’s tiresomely formulaic; based on history but saddled with silly romance and cardboard characters. Tourneur walked during filming when his contract was up and director of photography Mario Bava picked up the reins. As a reward for taking it on, the studio allowed Bava to develop his own project. Somewhat ironically, this turned out to be the genuinely creepy ‘The Mask of Satan’ (1960) and Bava was off on his own career of spooky horror films.

The Giant of Marathon (1959)

..and representing the U.S. in the javelin…

Sadly, the change of director is by far the most interesting thing about the film. The climactic battle scenes are quite violent and well staged but this does only go to highlight the lifeless buildup, which plays almost like an afterthought. It is nice to see big scenes with hundreds of extras rather than tame CGI but, in the end, this is very standard peplum, playing exactly according to the rules of the genre.

Buy ‘The Giant of Marathon’ here

Hercules (1958)

Hercules_(1958)‘In your arms, I found I was not a queen, but a real woman.’

Hercules saves a beautiful princess when her chariot goes out of control. Her father has asked the muscleman to teach his son the ‘arts of war’ but Hercules is more interested in clearing the name of an old friend, who was accused of assassinating the previous King many years before.

Steve Reeves was a champion bodybuilder and small time actor (Ed Wood’s ‘Jailbait’ (1954)!) before he took this gig in Italy for writer-director Pietro Francisci. No one was interested in distributing the movie stateside until independent producer-exhibitor Joseph H Levine saw it. Later he called it: ‘One of the worst pictures I ever saw, but I knew it had great appeal.’ Spending more on promotion than the original production budget, Levine released the movie simultaneously to over 600 screens (unheard of at the time). It was an absolute smash and kick started a craze for Italian muscleman pictures, which lasted until the mid-1960s.

It’s hard to understand what the fuss was about now because the movie really is rather poor. Reeves is impressive physically but isn’t much of an actor and scenes where he wrestles a dopey lion and a stuffed bison are not convincing. The plot mixes its mythologies (Greek and Roman) and features such disparate elements as a geriatric lizard monster, a mysterious wise woman and a search for the Golden Fleece. The script ties this all up logically enough but the story still rambles all over the too generous running time. The English dubbing is terrible and Reeves meets other characters with the kind of outrageous coincidence often favoured by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his ‘Tarzan’ books. These include Gianna Maria Canale as the Queen of the Amazons and Sylva Koscina as the Princess Iole, who repeated her role in sequel ‘Hercules Unchained’ (1959), again with Reeves.

At the height of his fame, Reeves attracted quite a few hangers on...

At the height of his fame, Reeves attracted quite a few hangers on…

It’s interesting to speculate whether Ray Harryhausen saw this film and realised the cinematic potential in the Golden Fleece, realised so brilliantly in his vastly superior ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963). Actually, I’ve always wondered why no one knitted the Fleece into a nice sweater or a pair of socks. Reeves reportedly turned down the roles of James Bond and The Man with No Name and, although it’s possible to imagine him in Eastwood’s poncho, it’s hard to see him as 007.

There’s a new Hercules movie currently shooting with Dwayne Johnson in the title role. No doubt it will be ‘darker, grittier and more organic’ – like every other remake/reboot/re-imagining than comes out of Hollywood these days… Just wake me when it’s over…

Buy’ Hercules & Hercules Unchained’ here