Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hercules (Embassy, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles arrived home at 9 and we ran the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 take on the 1958 Hercules, the movie that became notorious because it was an Italian production (though the actor — if I may use the term loosely — playing the title role, Steve Reeves, was an American) that U.S. distributor Joseph E. Levine bought the American rights to and spent more money on its promotion than its original Italian producers had spent making it in the first place. This movie and its sequel, Hercules Unchained, were on screens and TV stations constantly during my boyhood — and though I can’t recall if I ever actually sat through this one start-to-finish either on TV or in the drive-ins where it seemed it was most commonly shown, I remember seeing movies like it and enjoying them back when my age was still in single digits.

Watching it now, it’s a surprisingly dull film, engagingly silly and with dubbed (actually fairly well dubbed) English dialogue that is so knotted in its attempts at a Shakespearean grandiosity that it achieves a charming accidental surrealism: after a while, one just grooves on the sounds of the words and ceases to expect them to make sense. What’s most amazing about this film is that, instead of tapping into the actual Hercules legends that were safely in the public domain, writers Ennio De Concini, Pietro Francisci (who also directed) and Gaio Frattini, working from a “poem” by Apollonios Rhodios, fashioned a very dull story about Hercules coming to the rescue of Princess Iole (Sylvia Koscina) when she’s about to drive her chariot off a cliff and crash onto the beach below (it was probably somewhere in Italy but it sure looked an awful lot like Malibu!), and then gets drafted to come to the aid of Iole’s father, King Pelias of Iolcus (Ivo Garrani) in his attempts to train his son (her brother) Iphitus (Mimmo Palmara) — whose name comes off on the soundtrack as “Effete-us,” reason enough for his dad to want him trained by a butch straight guy like Hercules! — to be fit to rule as his successor.

Midway through the movie Hercules is drafted to join Jason (Fabrizio Mioni) and his crew to search for the Golden Fleece — you remember — which, when it’s finally discovered (by a kid in Hercules’ posse named Ulysses, who’s played by Gabriele Antonini and, given what we know about the sexuality of the real ancient Greeks, comes off as Hercules’ boy-toy on the side when he isn’t dallying around with Iole), turns out to be a bit of mangy-looking wool dipped in gold paint hanging off a branch on a tree that appears to be planted on the head of a Godzilla-style monster Hercules is obliged to fight. (Later Jason’s crew, including Hercules, end up on an island fighting a tribe of ape-men in a scene so reminiscent of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later that I joked, “I told you we shouldn’t have landed on the island where the space aliens dropped the monolith!”)

Hercules is a far more professional piece of filmmaking than most of the MST3K movies — the color, though faded (Eastmancolor was used), at least offers a wide-ranging palette instead of the narrow band of the visible spectrum filmmakers of today restrict themselves to, the sets are well appointed, and the actors, though not distinguished, are at least competent: they hit their marks and look like they’ve actually memorized a script and are following it professionally. Where it fails is, ironically, in the aspect you’d have expected them to care the most about: the action scenes. Most of the action is as dull as dishwater and moves about as fast; director Francisci seems to have no sense of pace at all, and virtually all of Steve Reeves’ feats as Hercules are shot in long shots that eat up surprisingly large chunks of screen time with few, if any, cuts between camera angles.

It’s hard to judge this movie in the MST3K context and even harder given that we’re seeing it panned-and-scanned — Mario Bava, who later made quite stylish evocations of the 1930’s Gothic horror films of Universal in his early-1960’s productions as a director, is the cinematographer here but it’s hard to believe that the original wide-screen version was as badly composed as this one is; and it’s also unfair to judge the performances of the actors when we don’t have their real voices (in virtually all European productions of the period — even prestigious ones by major directors like Visconti and Fellini — it was common to post-record the sound to accommodate actors who didn’t all speak the same language), but the irony is that Hercules fails at just the sort of Boy’s Own Story action-adventure one would expect it to excel at, and it’s certainly not literate enough to pull the double act the underrated American film The Magic Carpet did: appealing to pre-pubescent boys as “straight” adventure while subtly ridiculing its own genre so the adults who’d taken their kids to this movie could enjoy it as camp.

Nonetheless, a film that shows off this many bare-chested males (as well as a nice sequence of dancing girls for the straight men in the audience) couldn’t help but appeal to me on that level, if no other. The MST3K interjections achieved a kind of unmemorable but engaging merriment that added appeal to this surprisingly dull movie, though their best gag had nothing to do with the film: after it ended the crew encounter two hefty women (obviously portraying a Lesbian couple) driving a VW van in space and wearing T-shirts that identify them as Amazons, though of course they look nothing like the “Amazons” in the movie!