Rating: ***
Origin: Italy, 1958
Director: Pietro Francisci

In the 1950s Hollywood was churning out big-budget biblical epics, widescreen extravaganzas that did quite well when exported to Europe. Italian producer Federico Teti wondered why these sword-and-sandal flicks should all be made in California when he could shoot them in actual Rome, so he hired director Pietro Francisci and American bodybuilder Steve Reeves to make Hercules.

And thus the Italian genre of “Peplum” movies (named after the brief tunics worn by the ancients) was born. It would dominate Italian film production until the mid-sixties, when the industry switched overnight to making so-called “Spaghetti Westerns.” Peplum films quickly fell into a formula, mostly cheesy low-budget wrestle-fests in which shirtless muscle men in ancient Rome, Greece, or Babylonia battle the minions of bosomy tyrannical queens wearing gauzy gowns, backed up by dungeons full of torturers and arenas full of beasts. Though Hercules established the pattern for these films, it didn’t set out to be cheesy; it aspired to compete with the Hollywood epics, had a substantial budget, a good cast, and decent production values. Its cheesiness was just an incidental result of the decision to lose the inward-looking finding-faith aspect of the biblical flicks and replace it with sheer, gaudy spectacle. And it worked: the film was a big hit on both sides of the pond, begetting the dozens of ever-cheesier imitations that immediately followed.

It helps that Steve Reeves can genuinely act, sort of. (He’s also handsome and big—really, really big. If any actor ever looked like he was born to play a demigod, it’s Steve Reeves.) And he’s surrounded by a cast of top-notch Italian actors overseen by a competent director. The story is a loose interpretation of the familiar tale of Jason and the Argonauts questing for the Golden Fleece, with a couple of the twelve labors of Hercules tacked on in front to get things moving. In this version Hercules gets to be the protagonist, and Jason, though heroic, is demoted to second fiddle. Herc also gets most of the romance when Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina, drop-dead gorgeous) of Iolcus falls for him, though her father is inconveniently the king who stole the throne from Jason’s father.

This Hercules is a straight-up demigod with superhuman strength, but though there’s a lot of talk about the gods none of the divines show their faces, and things stay pretty down-to-earth: when Herc fights a lion, or the Cretan bull, he’s pitted against an actual beast, and you can see Reeves working hard to defeat it. Occasionally there are minor magical shenanigans, which are always announced by a theremin sting that sounds like it came from Forbidden Planet. Hercules has come to the kingdom of Iolcus supposedly just to train their youths (Ulysses, Castor and Pollux, et al.) in the martial arts, but soon gets involved in dynastic politics and comes out in favor of Jason as the true heir. King Pelias decrees that Jason can prove he’s the heir only by recovering the Golden Fleece, and soon all the heroes are off to sea in the Argo, represented by a lovely full-sized sailing galley. Treachery, of course, sails with them.

After they lose all their cargo in a sudden storm, the Argo puts in to an island to re-provision, and everybody gets captured by the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women. Queen Antea tells Jason the Amazons suffer no men to live on their island, because they know all about male brutality and their unchecked desires, but Jason just tells her, “Not all men are alike!” He follows this with, “A woman is incomplete without a man,” and I guess that’s persuasive because soon all the Argonauts have Amazon girlfriends. But clever Ulysses learns that their sibyls have decreed that on a certain dawn all the men must be murdered, so he puts poppy seeds in the Amazons’ wine, and the men escape with a ship full of loot while the women are sleeping it off. Good thing not all men are alike!

From there it’s a short hop to Colchis, where they find the Golden Fleece, Jason defeats the one fantasy creature in the film, a really disappointing dino-dragon that looks like it’s made of chicken wire, dowels, and old carpeting, and then it’s back to Iolcus to install Jason on the throne. But the king’s traitor steals the fleece, Jason is declared an imposter, Hercules is dropped through a trap door into a dungeon, and Pelias orders his soldiers to attack the Argonauts. (This film, by the way, establishes the Peplum visual shorthand where the good guys who are fighting for justice and freedom are always shirtless, while the goons of the evil tyrant wear armor and helmets.) Things look bad until, with Princess Iole’s help, Hercules escapes and tears into the king’s helmeted goons, swinging a fifteen-foot iron chain from each hand. The final fight, an impressive finale, includes some thrilling feats of strength from the demigod: it wowed ‘em in 1958, and still looks pretty good sixty years later. Sneer at the Peplum genre if you must, but this film, which started the craze, is worth a look even today.