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LE FATICHE DI ERCOLE (THE LABOURS OF HERCULES) (1957) [aka Hercules]

"Enough, Hercules! As you choose…. From this day on you shall have to face all the ordeals reserved by your destiny with only your mortal strength. You may win your battles, or go down in defeat; kill others – or be killed…."

ercole.jpg (12089 bytes)Director: Pietro Francisci

Starring: Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mioni, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici, Mimmo Palmara, Lidia Alfonsi, Afro Poli, Gianna Maria Canale, Gabriele Antonini

Screenplay: Ennio De Concini, Pietro Francisci, Gaio Frattini

Synopsis: After losing control of her chariot, Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) is rescued by a man she rightly guesses to be Hercules of Thebes (Steve Reeves), who is travelling to Iolcus to tutor the heir to the throne in the arts of war. Telling Hercules he would be better staying away, Iole reveals her family’s dark history. As a child, she woke one night to the sound of screaming, and upon rushing to the throne room of the palace, found her father, Pelias (Ivo Garrani), standing over the body of his brother, the King of Iolcus. The Captain of the king’s escort, Chironi (Afro Poli), and Jason, the king’s son, had vanished, as had the Golden Fleece, the royal symbol kept by the throne. As Chironi had quarrelled with the king only the day before, it was assumed by many that he had killed him for revenge; however, it was also whispered that Pelias had had his brother killed that he might seize the throne. Telling Iole that he has heard this story, Hercules insists that Chironi, his former tutor, could have had nothing to do with the king’s death. Hercules and Iole ride into Iolcus, where Pelias is consulting his soothsayer, the Sybil (Lidia Alfonsi), who tells him that a one-sandaled man will cause his downfall. Iole introduces Hercules to her father and her brother, Iphitis (Mimmo Palmara). Suspicious, Iphitus makes Hercules prove his identity by bending a metal spear. As Iole takes Hercules to his room, Pelias tells the resentful Iphitus that Hercules will train him to be a fit king. That night, Pelias finds a mysterious visitor in his rooms. It is Eurysteus (Arturo Dominici), a man supposedly condemned to death for murder many years before. Eurysteus warns Pelias that Hercules might find out the truth about them. Before long, Hercules is the hero of every young man in Iolcus, with the elders complaining that lessons are being neglected for sport. The jealous Iphitus challenges Hercules, who first coaches his young protégé, Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini), to beat Iphitus at archery, then defeats him personally at the discus. Humiliated, Iphitus runs off. Iole tries to convince Hercules to leave the city, but he refuses, telling her he loves her. Arriving back in Iolcus, the two are horrified by the sight of the victims of a lion that has been terrorising the city. Hercules immediately goes hunting the animal, and Iphitus follows him. As Hercules orders him back to Iolcus, the lion attacks, and Iphitus is killed. Hercules kills the lion. Two of Pelias’ soldiers ride up, then return to Iolcus to report Iphitus’ death. As Pelias grieves, Eurysteus suggests that there is now a way for Pelias to be rid of Hercules. Accordingly, Pelias denounces Hercules publicly, blaming him for Iphitus’ death, and telling him that the only way he can redeem himself is by killing the Cretan Bull. Stung by Pelias’ injustice, Hercules turns to Iole, but she, too, spurns him, accusing him of not understanding mortal grief. Hercules consults the Sybil, telling her he wants to be mortal. She warns him to be careful, but he persists, and the gods grant his wish. Hercules finds the Cretan Bull as it is attacking two men, critically injuring the elder one. He fights the animal and, although wounded, succeeds in killing it. To his astonishment, he then learns that the two men are Jason (Fabizio Mioni) and his old mentor, Chironi. Hercules begs Chironi for the truth about the king’s death, but he dies without speaking….

Comments: Although The Labours Of Hercules was the first of the sword ‘n’ sandal movies, or "peplum", that enjoyed worldwide popularity from the late fifties through to the mid-sixties, it is nowhere near the best of the crop. As with most of its brethren, the film’s structure might best be described as just-one-darn-thing-after-another – in other words, its story consists of a series of almost unrelated incidents strung together in the most haphazard of ways. The main problem is that many of these incidents do not even involve Hercules, or do so in only the most perfunctory way – odd considering the specific nature of the film’s title. The other strange thing is that scenes which you feel should be highlights are treated with inexplicable casualness – most notably, Hercules’ prayer to become a mortal, which is supposedly granted, then never referred to again! Today, the film is perhaps most interesting as a point of comparison with Jason And The Argonauts, made six years later. This is not just because both films follow Jason’s legendary quest for the Golden Fleece, but because for a good part of The Labours Of Hercules, we see that story from the opposing point of view, that of the usurpers. The first half of the story concerns Pelias, who murdered his brother to seize the throne, but finds that he cannot live with himself afterwards; Iphitus, the worthless son for whose benefit Pelias committed his heinous crime; and Iole, fiercely protective of her father, yet herself not entirely convinced of his innocence. The unfamiliarity of this section of the venerable tale lends it a certain interest which, however, is lost once Pelias challenges Jason to prove his identity by recapturing the Golden Fleece.

Structurally, The Labours Of Hercules set the pattern for everything that was to follow. The film opens just as you’d expect it to do, with a "cute-meet" between Hercules and his inevitable love interest. The disclosure of the "evil" that Hercules will be expected to overcome follows shortly afterwards – in fact, very shortly afterwards. Granted, Herc just saved Iole’s life; but still, her immediate disclosure of all the skeletons in her family closet seems a little unlikely, particularly since she knows she’s talking to a friend of Chironi, the accused killer. However, Iole’s attack of motormouthitis does serve to kick-start the story proper, and soon we are immersed in the machinations of the palace dwellers. We meet Pelias, the regal fratricide; his paid assassin, Eurysteus; and Iphitus, supposed heir to the throne. (Most of the [inadvertant] laughs in The Labours Of Hercules come in the next section of the film, thanks to an absolutely dreadful performance by Mimmo Palmara, whose constant mugging and eye-rolling is in bizarre contrast to the restraint shown by the rest of the cast.) Despite the warnings of Iole, Hercules takes up his position as tutor to Iphitus, and soon finds himself the idol of all the other young men of Iolcus. Having, as a Sydneysider, just lived through the Olympics, I found myself laughing sympathetically as the elders and scholars of the city groused about everyone’s sudden obsession with sport – or, as one of them calls it, "the disease of fanaticism". "They become careless about their studies for the glory of the arena!" grumps another while, in a particularly gigglesome moment, one of the would-be athletes, while being carted off on a stretcher, wails, "Just let me finish the marathon!" As you might imagine, Hercules’ popularity goes over like a lead balloon with the perpetually sulky Iphitus. Having already had his nose put out of joint by his father hiring Hercules to "make a fit king out of you", Iphitus is made even angrier by his tutor’s superiority at sport. Foolishly challenging Hercules to a contest, Iphitus gets his butt soundly kicked in front of a suitably amused audience, then throws a massive tantrum and flounces away.

Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view – we do not have Iphitus inflicted upon us for much longer. Iole and Hercules ride back into town, where they find a frightened mob and a line-up of dead bodies – oddly, all women and children. This turns out to be the work of a lion which has been lurking in the vicinity of the city. Naturally, Hercules no sooner hears this than he goes after the beast, and Iphitus goes after Herc, hoping to see him become lion-bait. While Hercules is trying to convince Iphitus to go back to the city, the lion attacks and Iphitus is mortally wounded. Herc springs into action, wrestling with the "savage" beast and strangling it with his bare hands. (Watching, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was the same lion that appeared in Hercules Conquers Atlantis. At any rate, it seems to share that feline’s laid-back approach to film-making.) We cut back briefly to Iphitus, who dies as he lived – hammily. At that moment, two of Pelias’ soldiers ride up, see Herc with Iphitus’ body, exclaim, "Whoo, busted!" (well, not really….) and rush back to the city to break the news (leaving us to infer that Pelias is a bit more lenient towards bearers of bad news than some of his ilk). Realising that all his evil deeds have been for nothing, Pelias is thrown into a double agony. However, Eurysteus takes advantage of the situation, and suggests that Iphitus’ death be made an excuse for banishing Hercules before he has the chance to find out the truth about the king’s death. (This is a plot contrivance of the most blatant kind – there is no evidence that Hercules has so much as lifted a finger in the matter.) Pelias acts on this advice, and when Hercules brings Iphitus’ body back to the city, Pelias denounces him, blaming him for the tragedy and placing a curse upon him. Herc is then told that only by killing the Cretan Bull can he redeem himself, and is banished from Iolcus. Rightly ticked off by all this, Herc turns to Iole, but for some reason she too chooses to blame Herc for the death of her foul-tempered and moronic brother, and runs away in tears. (Herc, I’m telling you – forget her!) Hurt and angry, Hercules visits the Sybil, telling her that Iole is right (!), that he cannot live, love, feel as mortals do. When the Sybil explains that this is because of his immortality (duh!), Hercules calls upon the gods to make him mortal. "I want to love as other men do!" he announces. "I want to raise a family!" (Oh, please!) Probably thinking that there could be no greater punishment for Herc’s stupidity than giving him what he wants, the gods grant his wish. All this takes place in the midst of an impressively staged and lit thunderstorm, and it comes as a considerable surprise when, after all this hoo-ha, Herc’s mortality proves to have absolutely no bearing on the rest of the story.

The newly use-by-dated Hercules travels to (presumably) Crete, where he finds his adversary goring an elderly man. Rushing in, he is cut up by the bull’s horns (how’s that mortality feeling, Herc?) but manages to dispatch the deadly beast with a fist between the eyes. He then follows the bull’s victim and his companion into a cave, where he discovers that they are Jason, rightful king of Iolcus, and Chironi, supposed murderer of Jason’s father. Chironi recognises his old student, but when Hercules begs him to reveal the truth about the king’s death, Chironi gasps, "I can’t tell you! You wouldn’t believe me!" and carks it. (Annoying Plot Contrivance #2.) Hercules and Jason travel back to Iolcus, and along the way, Jason manages to lose a sandal in a stream (maestro, a dramatic chord, if you please….). Not surprisingly, Pelias is none too pleased at seeing either of his visitors – particularly when he gets an eyeful of Jason’s footwear. Jason reveals that on the night of his father’s death, Chironi took him and the Golden Fleece and fled the land. Their ship was driven ashore in the Colchides, where they hid the Fleece for safe-keeping. In response to this, Pelias jeers, "Pull the other one, mate – it plays ‘Jingle Bells’!" Or something like that. Challenging Jason to prove his identity, Pelias gives him three months to recover the Fleece, or relinquish all claim to the throne. The elders and scholars whom we encountered earlier, either because they’re unemployed thanks to Hercules’ efforts, or because it’s no fun in Iolcus any more without Iphitus to laugh at, decide to go along on the journey. "Perhaps this is what Argos’ boat was made for!" announces one. Hercules makes one last effort to patch things up with Iole, but she gives him the cold shoulder again, this time because he’s helping Jason against her father. (Herc, listen to me, bud…!) The adventurers set out, not realising that there’s a traitor in their midst: Eurysteus, who wastes no time in spreading dissension.

The second half of the film is a major disappointment. What should be a series of exciting scenes turns out to be one anti-climax after another. The biggest letdown (well, one of two, anyway), is the Argonauts’ encounter with the Amazons. Now, women usually do get short shrift in films like these. The heroine is always hopeless, there to scream and be rescued, and to give the men something to fight over. Usually, however, this dismal portrayal of "goodness" is balanced by a much more entertaining depiction of "evil" in the shape of a queen, or a sorceress, or a warrior, who is consumed by "unwomanly" ambition, and who will either (a) fall for the hero and redeem herself by dying a noble death; or (b) stay rotten to the end and die a gruesomely ignoble death. One of the main problems with The Labours Of Hercules is that no truly evil woman ever appears to liven up the proceedings; while at the same time, we get way too big a helping of the film’s "good" woman. Sylva Koscina is certainly very pretty, and looks fetching in her mini-dress, but her Iole has the personality of a sea slug. When she isn’t spurning Hercules, then crying her eyes out afterwards in case he took her seriously (will you make up your mind, woman?), she spends most of her time running away from poor Herc, either flirtatiously or angrily, in a most aggravating manner: a cutesy little trot compounded by her tucking her right elbow into her hip and waving her arm back and forth. It is an enormous relief when Hercules joins Jason on his quest and leaves her behind. Things seem to be picking up even more when the Argonauts go ashore on what they think is a deserted island, only to be ambushed by a tribe of warrior women who turn out to be the legendary Amazons themselves. (Like every all-female lost civilisation, the Amazons wear the skimpiest clothing imaginable – but since in this film all the men are equally briefly dressed, I suppose I can’t really complain about it.) The advertising for The Labours Of Hercules promised audiences that they would see "the seductive Amazons lure men to voluptuous revels and violent death", and for a while it looks like we might indeed get our money’s worth. There is an ominous reference to drone bees ("The females kill them after mating!"), a visit to an all-male graveyard ("He landed, loved and died here" reads one tombstone), and an impressive display of archery from the ladies, in which they fire arrows into the spears the men are carrying, in order to "persuade" them to disarm. All this leads nowhere, sadly. Belying their reputation, these "warriors" turn out to be a bunch of giggly airheads (and really bad dancers). The Argonauts score an Amazon each, and pass their time running through fields of flowers, swimming, lying around and being fed grapes. (Yup – these women have spent their entire lives dreaming of having the chance to feed grapes to elderly lechers.) Worse still, Antea, Queen of the Amazons, falls for Jason. This leads to some truly excruciating dialogue, including – wow, betcha didn’t see this coming! – the scene where Jason tries to convince Antea that no "real woman" can live without a man. "You’re an intelligent woman!" Jason interrupts when Antea tries to tell him that there is no such thing as "love". "You cannot believe what you’re saying!" (Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear….poor Sappho must be rolling around in her grave….) Fortunately, this, ah, "idyll" is cut short by the Amazon’s High Priestess, who orders Antea to "obey the law". This is overheard by Ulysses, who manages to drug the paired-off couples, and with the help of Hercules (who has been offscreen for an annoying space of time) carries the men back onto the ship. They wake the next morning with hellish hangovers, and discover that they are sailing away from their Amazons, who line the shore of the island calling their lovers’ names in mournful voices. The men are none too pleased about this development either. In fact, it’s probably just as well ol’ Herc kept quiet about that whole "mortality" thing.

The Argonauts reach the Colchides, and Jason rushes ashore. The men follow, and are attacked by a band of "ape-men" wearing shaggy fur robes (and some most unconvincing make-up: when the defeated "ape-men" flee, we see that, oddly, their "skin" is much darker on the front of their bodies than on their backs). Meanwhile, Jason has found the Fleece, which is hanging over a bare branch right out in the open. Must be a very well-behaved people, the Colchidans. But wait! What’s that moving under Jason’s feet? Yes, gang: it’s monster time! And we all sit up, breathless with anticipation – then slump back in our seats as the "monster" is revealed to be a guy in a dinosaur suit: a very, very dodgy dinosaur suit. Fittingly, though also disappointingly, Jason defeats this unimpressive creature with a minimum of effort and reclaims the Fleece. On the back of it, written in blood, is the king’s dying statement, wherein he reveals that Pelias was responsible for his murder. He also exhorts Jason to take no revenge, and for a few ghastly minutes we fear that we are to be robbed of the (we thought) inevitable climactic biffo. The Argonauts sail for Iolcus, but shortly after their arrival they find that both Eurysteus and the Fleece are missing. Herc, finally taking centre stage again, rushes off to the palace and breaks in upon Pelias and Eurysteus as they are examining the incriminating object. Herc summons the Argonauts, but before he can regain the Fleece, he is dropped through a trapdoor and into a dungeon. Word of this reaches Iole, and she and her maid try to bust Herc out, but only succeed in getting themselves locked in with him. Jason and his men confront Pelias, who demands that they show him the Fleece. Sheepishly (geddit? geddit?), Jason explains how they did have it, but…. Pelias then asks Jason if he’d like to sell him the Brooklyn Bridge – or at least, orders his soldiers to attack the Argonauts. Yes, biffo at last! Meanwhile, Herc breaks out of his cell. He forces his way into the throne room and disposes of Eurysteus and most of the soldiers using the very chains they tried to bind him with. How’s that for poetic justice? Pelias, seeing which way the wind is blowing, ducks off to his room and chooses the cup of poison rather than the dagger; while Hercules, for no readily apparent reason, wraps his chains around the main pillars at the front of the palace and brings the whole thing crashing down. The Labours Of Hercules then ends rather abruptly, with Jason assuming the throne of Iolcus, and Herc and Iole literally sailing off into the sunset.

After a couple of minor parts in American movies (including one in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait!!), this was Steve Reeves’ first starring role, and in it he made the character of Hercules his own. Nevertheless, his actual performance is a little hard to judge. For one thing, he is the victim of some particularly bad dubbing, both in terms of its pacing and its shonky translation of the actual script (at one point, though Reeves clearly says "Don’t speak!" he is dubbed with "Don’t talk!" – why?). However, Reeves is unquestionably an imposing screen presence. Body-building in the fifties still being largely a "natural" thing, Reeves’ Mr Universe frame is believably "super-human" without any hint of chemically assisted grotesqueness. As for the rest of the cast, they’re a mixed bag. The best performance probably comes from the reliable Ivo Garrani, who manages to give Pelias a fair degree of complexity. We feel the way that Pelias’ ambition has eaten away his affection for his brother, and we also feel his gnawing guilt and spiralling despair as he realises that the son for whom he committed his terrible crime wasn’t worth the effort. (Appalling as Mimmo Palmara’s performance as Iphitus is, it actually helps in delineating Pelias.) The scenes between Pelias and his evil genius, Eurysteus, are also interesting. (Garrani and Arturo Dominici would meet again three years later, in Mario Bava’s glorious The Mask Of Satan.) No-one else makes much of an impression – well, Mimmo Palmara and Sylva Koscina do, but not in the right way. The film’s other main assets are its cinematography and lighting effects, both by Bava himself. Whatever the shortcomings of The Labours Of Hercules, it was a huge hit all over the world, and triggered a flood of such movies that took another decade to dry to a trickle. (For those interested, the admirable gentlemen of Teleport City have just concluded an entire season of sword ‘n’ sandal reviews.) Most of the same cast and crew were rounded up again two years later to produce a sequel, Hercules And The Queen Of Sheba (aka Hercules Unchained). Despite Reeves’ continuing appearances in similar roles, this would be the last time that he actually appeared as Hercules – unless you count the, shall we say, "unfortunate" Hercules Recycled in 1994.

Footnote: Luciana Paluzzi, she of The Green Slime, ah, "fame", is supposed to be one of the Amazons, but I couldn’t spot her.