Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hercules Unchained (Galatea/Embassy, 1959)

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

Charles and I had a chance to run a movie and I picked out the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 take on Hercules Unchained, the second in the series of Italian Hercules movies from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. For some reason they did this one before they did Hercules, the 1958 film that initiated the cycle and first cast American actor (using the term loosely) Steve Reeves in the title role — maybe because this is even worse than its predecessor. Made mostly by the same people — director and co-screenwriter Pietro Francisci, who along with his writing partner Ennio De Concini pieced his story together from various mythological sources, including the Queen Omphale story as well as the sequels to the Oedipus myths, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Aeschylus’ The Seven Against Thebes. The writers got one story right: they staged the fight between Hercules and Antaeus the giant (played, in his last film appearance, by former heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera — whom Charles and I could recall having seen previously only in his bizarre appearance as himself in Mighty Joe Young) at least something like the way it was in the original myths: as the son of the earth goddess, Antaeus was rejuvenated and refreshed by his mom’s energy, so Hercules couldn’t defeat him until he realized this and held him up in mid-air, lifting him with one hand and punching him out with the other … though in the film Hercules gives him a wrestling-style spin and hurls him off the shore into the nearby ocean (different god, no jurisdiction).

What seemed most obviously different was the level of sexual content; Hercules Unchained (a really silly title because you never actually see him chained at any time during the film!) spends most of its time in the kingdom (or queendom) of Lydia, ruled by Queen Omphale (Sylvia Lopez), which is the location of the “Fountain of Forgetfulness,” which causes Hercules to forget all about his wife Iole (Sylva Koscina) back home in Thebes, along with King Oedipus (whom he’s encountered blind and living in a cave) and his sons Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and Polynices (Mimmo Palmara), who were supposed to take turns ruling Thebes and switch off at one-year intervals, only Eteocles double-crossed his brother and intends to keep the throne, while Polynices organized a resistance movement and threatened a civil war. In this version, Oedipus asks Hercules to become a shuttle diplomat and negotiate a truce between his two sons — only by the time he regains his memory the war has already happened and both Eteocles and Polynices have been killed. (Since this was intended as a “family film,” the script carefully omits the backstory — we see Oedipus blind but don’t get to find out that he put out his own eyes in shame when he learned that he had killed his father and married his mother, so Eteocles and Polynices have no idea that their mom was also their grandmom — nor do we get the aftermath of the war and the nasty business with Oedipus’ daughter Antigone that Sophocles wrote so movingly about.)

What director Francisci seemed to be more interested in this time than last was appealing to the straight male audience; the Gay hints he dropped in the first film are removed and instead he uses the “Fountain of Forgetfulness” gimmick (not all that different from the big plot twist in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung — which only highlights the vast gulf between Wagner and Francisci as artists!) mostly as an excuse to allow Steve Reeves to cavort with a hotter-looking actress than the one playing his wife (and if Sylvia Lopez hadn’t got leukemia and died after completing only one other film, she might have been able to give Brigitte Bardot a run for her money in the Euro-bimbo department) and to show a lot of other scantily clad actresses playing Omphale’s serving girls serving the men of Hercules’ crew in other ways. For all its silliness — and the surprising (well, not so surprising to anyone who’d seen the first Hercules in the cycle) dullness of the action scenes — this movie does take advantage of the greater sexual frankness of European films at the time, and while we don’t get any out-and-out soft-core porn there’s a refreshing honesty about what all these men want out of all these hot-looking women.

Alas, that’s about all that can be said for Hercules Unchained; otherwise the film is ludicrous, from the opening scene in which Hercules and Iole are shown riding around in a covered wagon (did the ancient Greeks really have such things or were these producers warming up for the spaghetti Westerns?) to the absurd casting of light-skinned, blond-haired Sergio Fantoni and swarthy, dark-haired Mimmi Palmara as brothers, from the bad English dubbing to the even worse reformatting to fit a CinemaScope image into a TV-screen shape (they didn’t even pan-and-scan this one: they just put up whatever was in the middle of the screen originally, which means we get a lot of shots of half-people), this is a pretty useless movie and the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew do what they can with it, including dressing Mike Nelson up to look like Steve Reeves (this was before he was the host, but he was the head writer and filled in when they needed a bit of on-air talent in addition to the “regulars”) and passing him off thereof in the interstital segments.