Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Steve Reeves IS Hercules In (What Else?) "Hercules"

He's big! He's ripped! He's Hercules! Well, he's actually Steve Reeves in the 1958 epic "Hercules".

Before there was Magic Mike, there was Hercules: a big, beefy, bodacious Greek demi-god who stormed the world's drive-ins from the late 1950's to the mid 1960's.

Herc could do it all: race chariots, slay monsters, captain ships, lead expeditions, negotiate treaties, head armies, triumph in the arena, rally the oppressed, punch out aliens, tangle with the Three Stooges, walk on a bed of hot coals. Herc was the MAN.

However, it was another man (producer Joseph E. Levine, to be exact) who snapped up the rights to the 1958 Italian movie "Hercules" and brought him to American movie screens in the ripped form of Steve Reeves.

Before we dive into today's feature, I must issue a warning: if you are a Greek scholar or hold a Classical Studies degree, you might want to turn back.


Because the script writers of "Hercules" (Ennio De Concini, Gaio Fratini and director Pietro Francisci) were a bit scatter-shot in telling Herc's story. In other words, they raided the Greek myths fridge, indiscriminately tossed everything they could find into a blender and then pushed the puree' button.

"A Hunk of Burning...Barbecue?" Herc and Princess Iole (Slyva Koscini) have an awkward first date.

Thus we have The Nemean Lion, Amazons, a T-Rex with Godzilla's distinctive roar, Jason and the Golden Fleece all battling for screen time alongside Herc. There is also palace intrigue, an oracle who resembles Morticia Adams, dancing girls and our hero falling in love and wanting to have kids. In the final result is a Junk Cinema smoothie with a Feta cheese flavor--in Technicolor, no less.

Our story begins on one of those rough'n rocky hillsides in ancient Greece, where a lonely goat herd is playing his pan flute...I hope that doesn't sound too dirty... as his flock nibbles away. This peaceful scene is suddenly shattered by the hysterical shrieks of Princess Iole (Slyva Koscini, a dead ringer for Shirley Jones), who has lost control of her chariot. While she speeds pell-mell around the twisty mountain roads, Herc (Steve Reeves) uproots a tree and blocks her path, causing the horses to heel. Iole being a girl and all, faints in Hercules' arms. By the time she has revived, Herc is madly in love.

Unfortunately, the demi-god doesn't have a lot of experience with chicks. Herc stares at Iole slack-jawed and fumbles at making small talk. Then he shoves a big hunk of meat in Iole's face. She takes a dainty bite to be nice, after which Hercules chows down, declaring, "I will start where your lips have touched!" This offends the princess ("How dare you be so audacious!") and she stomps off. Herc, on the other hand, admits he's too hungry to understand what the fuss is all about.

Because her chariot has a broken axle, Hercules must take Iole home to her palace. See, Iole is the daughter of King Pelias of Iolcus (Ivo Garrani) and he has hired Herc to teach his son Prince Iphitus (Mimmo Palara) the arts of warfare. Iphitus, by the way, is a bombastic jerk. The king, meanwhile, is consumed with guilt over how he ascended the throne: by hiring a baddie to off his older brother! What's more, he had the rightful heir Jason (and the Golden Fleece) kidnapped! Iole knows there is a cloud hanging over the legitimacy of her father's reign, but she refuses to believe her pa was in cahoots with a murder-for-hire scheme.

Anyway, Herc's presence in Iolcus inspires all the local guys to start totally hitting the gym. That doesn't include Iphitus, who would rather party than show up for his daily workouts. This, in turn, upsets Herc, especially when scrawny little twerps like Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini) are pushing themselves to learn pole vaulting and archery to earn Hercules' favor.

Hercules shares the finer points of his work out routine with his gym buddies (the nerdy guy on the left is Ulysses).

Because Iphitus never wants to train and thinks he knows everything and is always in Hercules' face, it's only natural that he'll insist on tagging along when Herc sets out to slay the Nemean Lion. The demi-god orders the heir to the throne home, knowing the princeling will only makes a mess of things, which he promptly does. He also gets himself killed by the huge rogue kitty. When Herc returns to the palace with the corpses of Iphitus and the lion, he is unfairly blamed for not protecting the prince (and nobody thanks him for killing the lion, either, which he was charged to do). However, what really bums Herc out is when Iole sobbingly accuses him of being unable to empathize with human suffering. 

King Pelias, meanwhile, is growing battier by the second. That's because an oracle who looks just like Morticia Adams (except she wears red, not black) says the king should beware of a claimant to the throne who arrives wearing only one sandal. Sure enough, Jason (Fabrizio Mioni) shows up wearing, yes, only one sandal. To prove he is the rightful heir to the throne, Jason and a crew of men accept the challenge of voyaging to the Colchis and finding the Golden Fleece. Herc will come along, too. Before he leaves, Hercules and Iole kiss and make-up, but the princess still isn't sure if the bearded demi-god is truly "the one" for her.

After enduring a storm at sea that throws them off course, the crew stumble upon an island inhabited by the legendary Amazons. The men are delighted to be captured by a gang of super cute girls and offer little resistance as they are marched off to meet their queen. Turns out her name is Antea (Gianna Maria Canale), and she looks like Mick Jagger's ex-wife Jerry Hall with her hair pulled into the world's tightest ponytail. The queen says the men can stay a few days in order to stock up on supplies, but she neglects to inform them that they will be killed according to local custom.

"So you're the Queen of the Amazons. Does that pay well?" Jason and Antea get personal.

Complicating matters is the fact that Jason and Queen Antea fall madly in love. Their romance plays like a scene from that smarmy "Bachelor in Paradise" reality show with dialogue lifted from an especially over-ripe episode of "The Bold and the Beautiful". Dig this:

Antea, explaining the Amazon way of life to Jason: "The gods created us purposefully to punish you men for your wrongs!"

Jason: "But a woman isn't complete without a man!"--and soon the proto-feminist agrees.

Antea: "In your arms I found I was not a queen, but a real woman!"

Later on the duo snuggle in a garden and discuss their relationship. If you close your eyes, you can picture this same dialogue being mouthed by Ridge to either Taylor or Brooke. Or Katie. Or Christine (Ridge has no had no shortage of cuddlemates over the years).

Jason: "Why did we meet like this? Brought to me by a strange adventure..."

Antea: "Your destiny brought you to me."

Jason: "We must get away, somewhere, just the two of us, together, living like normal (people.) Is Jason proposing they move to the suburbs? Just asking!) (Pause) I can't let you go, I want to stay by your side, to taste your kisses, hear your voice..."

Well, OK, fine. Wonder if Jason ever tried this kind of sweet talk out on anyone else...say, like, oh, I don't know, MEDEA perhaps?

"You Make Me Feel Like A Natural...Amazon?": Jason and Queen Antea discuss their relationship.

After this hot'n heavy romantic interlude, "Hercules" gets back to the original plot, which is to locate the Golden Fleece. Actually, it's that sniveling twerp Ulysses who gets everybody's rear in gear. See, he over hears Queen Antea begging the Council of Elders not to off their gentlemen guests, especially Jason. "You know I love him!" the queen warbles, but the white faced Elderesses(?) refused to be swayed. "Your feelings are of no concern at all!" one boss lady snaps. "The law is the law! It must be obeyed by all of us!"

Horrified, Ulysses runs off to warn the guys. In the end, he concocts a sleeping potion that he slips to all the revelers at the big Saturday night bash the Amazons are throwing. While the gals snore away, Hercules and the men manage to sneak off and sail away.

After dodging that bullet, Herc and the boys continue on their quest to find the Golden Fleece. They go ashore on another mysterious island and are subsequently attacked by a tribe of hairy ape men with buck teeth--they must have wandered over from "The Quest for Fire" set by mistake. Anyway, Herc and company easily pound these cavemen into mincemeat, which allows Jason to search for the Golden Fleece. And lo and behold, he does find it! The Fleece is dangling from the branch of a tree, which is surrounded by piles of raked leaves! What luck!

Problem is, those mounds of raked leaves can morph into a stop-motion T-Rex that roars just like Godzilla! That's because craft producer Levine bought the rights to use Godzilla's voice! That Levine, he thought of everything! But have no fear! Jason battles the beastie like the brave soul he is; he even gets the upper-hand when he hurls his spear into the critter's eye. The T-Rex keels eventually keels over and the Golden Fleece belongs to Jason. Huzzah!

Herc and the gang (who had been watching the deadly duel from the sidelines) applaud Jason's victory. They also declare his bravery proof that he is truly the king of Iolcus. Thus, with the Golden Fleece slung over his shoulder, Jason scampers back to the ship and Herc declares that it's time for everybody to return home.

The giant rouge critter that guards the Golden Fleece: body by claymation, voice by Godzilla.

Now, as you can tell, quite a lot has already happened in "Hercules"--but we're not done yet. Not by a long shot! There are still more plot points to wade through! In fact, "Hercules" is so jam-packed with plot points that it reminds me of a clown car: open the door and plot points pour out. Endlessly! How much more can possibly happen? The answer: plenty!

OK, try and keep up! Right before Herc et al are about to land in Iolcus, they discover that the Golden Fleece has been stolen. Hmmm, could it have been that baddie with the scar over his eye that wrangled his way onto the voyage in order to spy for King Pelias?

Herc is drugged and chained up in a jail cell. Luckily, one of Iole's ladies-in-waiting has discovered this and alerts the princess to his predicament. So the girls sneak off to release him. Unfortunately, Iole and her lady-in-waiting don't pay attention to what they're doing and lock themselves in Herc's cell. D'oh!

Meanwhile, upstairs in the palace throne room, King Pelias taunts Jason for having lost the Golden Fleece. Then he orders his guards to arrest the whole lot of them. This creates quite a free-for-all, as you can imagine, with Jason and his men drawing their swords and King Pelias' guards drawing their swords and soon, like, everybody is swashing and buckling all over the place. 

Then, out of nowhere, in charges Herc. He still has those pesky chains around his wrists, so, being an inventive kind of demi-god, Hercules turns himself into a whirling, twirling Weed Wacker. Once he's finished mowing down his foes, Herc struts outside and knocks over the large columns flanking the entrance of King Pelias' palace. The columns crash to the ground and break into bread crumbs, kicking up a lot of dust in the process. In fact, the whole front section of the royal palace collapses behind Herc--and when it's all over, Hercules looks really, really satisfied.

"And for my next trick..." Herc prepares to bring down the house--literally.

End of story? Not yet!

King Pelias, finally reaching the end of his royal rope, confesses to heart-broken daughter Iole that, yes, he killed his brother the king. And put his own her jerk son on the throne. And kidnapped the rightful heir Jason. And absconded with the Golden Fleece. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but, well, upon reflection Pelias realized it was a bit of a fiasco. Naturally, he feels terrible and he's super sorry. Then the king gulps down a toxic martini he's mixed and promptly drops dead. Oh, but before his majesty pops off, he tells Iole to marry Hercules because "he's a good man."

With King Pelias dead and the palace in ruins, the royal guards lay down their arms and head for the hills. Herc has triumphed and Jason is declared king. Huzzah!

With the Golden Fleece once again hanging the palace's great hall, peace and prosperity return to Iolcus. Jason proves to be a wise and just king. Meanwhile, Herc and Princess Iole have tied the knot. Together the two cuddlemates sail off for parts unknown, where new adventures and twenty nine (!!!!) other Hercules movies wait beyond the horizon.

Whew! "Hercules" has everything, everything, a movie lover could want: romance, adventure, intrigue, exotic locals, cheap F/X, battle scenes, men in short skirts and uneven dubbing. Toss in a ripped hero like Steve Reeves and you a movie full meal deal that's hard to beat.

Unlike today, in 1958 (the year "Hercules" was released) movie goers regularly got a lot of bang for their buck: a news reel, a short subject, a cartoon, coming attraction trailers AND two features. Now, folks fork over nearly $20 bucks and get one movie...with lots of explosions. Seems like a big step back if you as me...

Ah, well. That's why we need Hercules movies today, to remind us of when going to the cinema was a real event. So, until next time, keep your toga clean and pressed, and SAVE THE MOVIES!