Saturday, November 23, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: "Hercules Unchained" (1959)

Hello dear friends, it has been awhile hasn't it, well I have just returned from a viewing of the 1959 epic Hercules Unchained, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves.
For those of you who were too young to remember, Hercules films, along with other films about heroes from Greek mythology, were all the rage back in the late 50's. These foreign import films were known in the trades as "Sword & Sandal" and were marketed as exploitation films. Most film snobs look down on these movies, I think due mainly to how they were treated in North America. These were originally Italian made films, made before the "Spaghetti Westerns", that depicted heroes from Italian and Greek mythology like Maciste, Hercules, Ursus, Samson and Goliath. When they were exported to the U.S they were often re-titled, re-edited and dubbed over. Most of these were distributed by low budget film distributors like AIP (American International Pictures), with the exception of a few like the film being reviewed today. Sadly, today many of these films are offered to the public in shoddy public domain movie collections (i.e Mill Creek's 50 movie packs) and are usually either 16mm dupes or VHS transfers, mostly in full frame. Most of these films when first released were in Cinemascope (Widescreen) formats, so it was a disservice to view a full frame presentation of a film originally meant to be viewed in widescreen.
            Hercules Unchained (Italian title: Ercole e la regina di Lidia, Hercules and the Queen of Lydia) was a sequel to the very popular 1958 film Hercules (or The labours of Hercules), which also starred Reeves, and a good portion of the sequel's main cast members. The plot follows Hercules (Reeves), his wife Iole (Sylva Koscina) and Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini) as they take a trip to Thebes where a war is brewing between two brothers, Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and Polynices (Mimmo Palmara), who want the throne. Hercules is asked by an elder to bring peace between the two, so Hercules is off to carryout his deed. He, along with Ulysses stop to rest a moment before continuing on with their quest. Hercules drinks water from an enchanted spring and forgets everything about himself. He and Ulysses are captured by Queen Omphale's (Sylvia Lopez) band of knights. At Omphale's palace he falls under her spell and falls in love with her, while Ulysses is desperately trying to convince Hercules of who he is. In every attempt he is thwarted by Omphale's men and he is escorted back to his dungeon. Iole is now victim to Eteocles', and he imprisons her to feed her to his savage tigers. Visitors from Thebes arrive at Omphale's palace and give Hercules greater understanding of who he is. He finally comes to his senses and unleashes an all out attack against Omphale's guards, using his strength to fend them off. At last moment, Omphale attempts to close the gates only to have Hercules use his mighty power to prop them open. Along with Ulysses and the Thebians, Hercules escapes, leaving Omphale to fall to her death (which given the fact that this was one of Lopez's last films before her untimely November 1959 death to leukemia makes the scene all the more unsettling). Hercules arrives in Thebes just in time to stop the war and save his wife in one of the greatest film climaxes since Ben Hur. The film ends with Hercules promising his wife eternal love and the high priest Creon (Carlo D'angelo) gaining ownership of the throne.
                At the end of the day, I can most certainly recommend Hercules Unchained, though there were moments of the film that could have been handled better by U.S exhibitors, like some poor editing choices and some over zealous dubbing, the film is still highly recommended. I would, however, insit that one seeks out the original widescreen Italian version (with English subtitles, if available) to truly appreciate the scope and the beauty of this film. I am now an official fan of the "Sword & Sandal" genre, which is officially referred to as the Peplum film genre. I have many more of them to see, but I fear that they may not meet my expectations that were set high by this film. This is a very underrated grandiose spectacle, it truly does not belong in the exploitation genre, it is as good, or even better than the aforementioned Ben Hur. If you see the film, you won't be disappointed, it has all the beauty and charm of one of the major Hollywood blockbusters of the time. If you love an action packed story, than this is the one for you, but if you love romance and simplicity than this is also for you. The story is superb, and acting is excellent. Hercules Unchained gets a definate 4 out of 4 stars from me. You won't want to pass up the opportunity to see it. Now I must be off, to search for the 1958 predecessor film Hercules, have a great day all and give the film a chance, you won't be disappointed. Cherrio everyone. -Geno C.

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