Hercules Unchained (1959)
I have a set of five Italian Hercules sword-and-sandal movies that I'm going to try and review this spring, adding to my Italian section. First up is 1959's Hercules Unchained, a glorious epic full of beefy leading men and dazzling beauties, all playing fast and loose with classical Greek mythology. They don't make them like this anymore (well, they do, but they're called Alexander and they suck).
And now on to our show...
We open in ancient Greece, and we pick up where 1958's Hercules left off, with the end of the classic Jason and the Argonauts story. Our heroes are returning from the Black Sea via boat, happy to be coming home after being gone for two years of adventuring (ie plundering and stealing Golden Fleeces and women). There are a bunch of people on the boat, but the most important right now is the strapping man-beaver Hercules.
Hercules is played by 33-year old American-born studmuffin Steve Reeves, pride of tiny Glasgow, Montana. Cashing in on his status as Mister Universe for 1950, Reeves made a lot of lira in Italian sword and sandal epics in the '50s and '60s before retiring to eat steak and potatoes and drink protein shakes in the shade of his Roman villa. Reeves isn't the best actor, but he's buff and burly and that counts for something, look at Arnold Schwarzenegger. He played the same Hercules role in 1958's Hercules and would go on to make several sequels.
"By the Gods, my hair is perfect!"
Hercules didn't come back from the Black Sea empty handed, he returned with a new wife! Iole was the daughter of some king that Hercules had to deal with in the last movie, but she's firmly in Hercules' grasp in this one. Iole is played by 26-year old Yugoslavian-born actress Sylva Koscina (star of Kim Novak Is on the Phone, The Demonic Womanizer Costante Nicosia, Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Criminal Investigation Division, Interpol Strip Tease, and My Uncle the Vampire). She's a very tall woman (nearing six foot) and a former beauty queen, with long curly blonde hair and a soft appealing face. She's built like a 1950s starlet, with thickish hips and a healthy fleshed-out upper body, and her standard toga outfit shows off her ample bosom quite nicely, thank you.
"My man Hercules isn't hung like a stallion, stallions are hung like Hercules..."
Hercules will have a pederastic traveling companion for this movie, the young hero of his own books, Ulysses (Odysseus to those so inclined). Ulysses is played by 21-year old Gabriele Antonini (star of Franco and Ciccio and the Cheerful Widows, Getting Away with It the Italian Way, and Beach Party-Italian Style). Ulysses is a thin scrawny young man who looks more like 15 than 21, and he really needs to put his shirt back on or hit the gym more. Ulysses' main contribution to the plot is that he has a small cage of homing pigeons, given to him by his father, King Laertes of Ithaca. The birds have been trained to fly back to the king, and could be used by Ulysses if he ever gets in trouble on his travels and needs help. Remember these.
The boat lands and these three get off. They will be traveling across land to Thebes, Hercules' home city, where he will set up Iole as his bride and Ulysses as his lover. Thebes is a historical city, located northwest of Athens, and the scene of many a classical story. So the three of them load up a two-horse-drawn wagon and head off towards Thebes.
Along the way, Iole whips out a lire and sings us a catchy song. This song is dubbed (so says the opening credits) and is pretty lame. For a second here I though that this was going to be a musical and my review would have stopped right here (I don't do musicals). But, fortunately, this is the only song sung by a character. The song is called "The Evening Star" and is sung by June Valli.
June Valli had the pipes, but Iole had the screen time.
As they travel along the road they're suddenly stopped by a huge giant of a man who demands a toll to pass through "his valley". This is Antaeus, and he means business. The giant first wants both the horses, and then wants Iole (whose not so happy about this). To teach Iole a lesson about being snippy to him (she does have a bit of an edge to her, probably from being a king's daughter and all), Hercules at first acts like Anateus can have her! But then he jumps out of the wagon and makes to defend his woman.
Antaeus the giant is played by 53-year old Primo Carnera (star of Human Bomb, A Kid for Two Farthings, and Blonde Bombshell). Carnera was also a world class boxer in the 1930s before he was an actor, fighting under some cool ring names (The Ambling Alp, Man Mountain, and Satchel Feet). He's indeed a mountain of a man, standing 6'6" and tipping in at around 250 pounds. He's also a spitting image of Andre the Giant from The Princess Bride, right down to the thick European accent.
"I will break you!"
Andre was cool, in a redneck, married-my-cousin sort of way.
Hercules battles the huge man, grappling and straining, sweaty muscles pressed close against glistening hairy man-chests. Hercules wins each round with ease, tossing the hulk to the ground. But, each time, Antaeus gets up quickly, laughing and flexing, seemingly stronger than he was before.
It's Ulysses who makes the vital connection between Antaeus' odd strength regeneration and him being the son of the earth god! The hulk regains his powers each time he touches the ground! Hercules is a smarty boy, however, and so he picks Antaeus up (!) and carries him over his shoulders (so he can't touch the ground). He tosses him into the nearby sea, where Antaeus can only tread water and hurl insults as Hercules laughs.
Our heroes travel on and now enter a copse of trees, which is where the "entrance to Hades" is to be found in a secluded cavern. Oddly, this grove is filled with burly armed cavalrymen! These will prove to be Argive Mercenaries, hired by a character we will meet soon. They're an aggressive, pillaging and looting bunch, though they give Hercules a wide berth out of respect.
Well, all of them except their leader, who thinks he's a match for Hercules (he ain't). Hercules defends Iole's honor (for the first of many times) and tosses the General to the ground when he tries to get handsy with her. Remember this insult, the General won't forget it.
Mercenary General, more later on him.
Hercules and his two companions enter the cavern and walk down into the strangely well-lit tunnels to a large open area full of styrofoam boulders and hidden colored-lensed backlights.
There they find old King Oedipus, former ruler of the city of Thebes. King Oedipus of Thebes is played by 54-year old Cesare Fantoni (star of We Like It Cold, The Overtaxed, and Housemaid). Just a grey-haired old man in fine silk robes now. The old king is here to end his life by tossing himself into the fires of Hades, which is apparently the way to go.
Before he does so, however, Hercules' appearance allows him opportunity to tell him of what has happened. It seems that while Hercules was off adventuring, Oedipus' two sons (Eteocles and Polinices) convinced him to step down from power and give the throne of Thebes to them. The two brothers worked out a power-sharing agreement where each one would alternately rule for a year at a time.
The problem is that Eteocles (the current leader) doesn't want to give up power now that his time is up. His brother Polinices has decided to hire the Argive Mercenaries to storm Thebes and take his turn on the throne by force.
Polinices is here with his father, trying to convince him not to kill himself. Polinices is played by 31-year old Mimmo Palmara (star of I'll Kill You and Recommend You to God, The Beautiful the Bad and the Idiotic, and Slave Girls of Sheba). Palmara often acted under the stage name "Dick Palmer", which is just the greatest gay pornstar name ever!
Hercules, knowing that a war between the brothers would only ruin his fair city of Thebes, offers to go to Thebes and negotiate with Eteocles, using his influence as the city's favorite son. Polinices has already put a deposit down on a regiment of Argive cavalry (non-refundable) so he's not so agreeable to that, but he gives his ok in the end. Hercules has six days to deliver an offer of peace from Polinices to his brother and return, and failing in that, he will release the hounds of war.
They go to Thebes to meet Eteocles, barging in without asking for an audience. Eteocles is played by 29-year old Sergio Fantoni (star of Corpse for the Lady, Ten Italians for One German, Atom Age Vampire, and The Wanton Countess). Curiously, Fantoni is the real-life son of the actor who plays King Oedipus of Thebes.
Eteocles has been drinking too much wine from lead goblets, because he's crazy as a loon. He rants, he raves, he's paranoid, he's violent, he throws dissenters to the tigers (literally), and is not about to give up power to his brother without a fight. On the plus side, however, the actor playing him does a splendid job of channeling Nero and Caligula while still staying within the limits of the role. Oh, and he looks good in an armored breastplate.
We also see Eteocles raging about the huddled masses of Thebian citizens not respecting him. The citizenry prefers the old sage Creon over him, so it seems, as Creon is the Smartest Man in All of Greece. Creon the High Priest of Thebes is played by 40-year old Carlo D'Angelo (star of New York Calling Superdragon, Planet of the Lifeless Men, and Lust of the Vampire). He's a short, grey-haired man with the haughty air of a Harvard MBA in a room full of Burger King floor moppers.
We also see here that Eteocles has this nifty pit that he uses to toss unruly dissenters and heretics and guys who like The Shins down to their gory deaths at the teeth and claws of several tigers. Remember this, we will see it again later.
Eteocles is not so happy with giving up power to his bother and says so. Hercules is very persuasive, however, and he manages to convince Eteocles of the wisdom of stepping down before a war starts. Perhaps showing some hint of cowardice behind that mask of lusting power, Eteocles spins it to his advantage, saying he will step down for the "good of Thebes". We know that he's got something up his sleeve (he hints that he's off to Egypt to gather an army or something).
Now, word has to make it back to Polinices that his brother is stepping down. Hercules and Ulysses will ride back to him with the news, and Iole will stay here in Thebes and wait for him. During this transition period, keep in mind, Eteocles will still be in power. He will later use this for his advantage.
"Gun of the hand, John Book!"
So, Hercules and Ulysses ride their horses across the land (with the homing pigeons...). At some point they stop and rest. Ulysses goes off to catch a meal and Hercules wanders a bit and comes across a small spring bubbling out of a rocky cliff face. He takes a big slurping drink of the cool water. Hmm...big mistake! Not a second later, he begins to get woozy and disoriented. He soon falls to the ground and is unconscious. This is because this spring pumps out the "Water of Forgetfulness", which causes drinkers to loose their memory and become extremely pliable to suggestions from members of the opposite sex. In our times its usually called "Johnny Walker".
Note the spooky skull motif.
Ulysses runs to his side, but is surprised more when a bunch of armed soldiers arrive! He doesn't know who these men are, but there sure are a lot of them and they have sharp pointy swords. The soldiers put Hercules' unconscious body on a litter and carry him off. Ulysses wisely plays the part of a deaf mute servant and is taken with them. Quick thinking there, Ulysses, though I don't see how they couldn't hear you calling Hercules' name before you noticed them.
They take their prisoners down to the sea and load up a big boat. They will be sailing across the Aegean Sea to the kingdom of Lydia, on the southwestern coast of modern Turkey. On the boat traveling across the sea, Ulysses has to keep up the deaf mute facade, which is rather easier than it would seem. I am still trying to figure out how the epic hero of Homer's tales could be such a wimp in our movie. Well, I guess he's just a boy here.
The boat docks at some port city in Lydia (Ephesus maybe). Here we meet the most lovely Queen Omphale, ruler of this kingdom and a very bad girl in need of a spanking.
The Queen is played by 28-year old French-born actress and former model Sylvia Lopez. She's a tallish exotic beauty with sharply defined facial features, blindingly green eyes, high arching eyebrows, and fire engine red lips. Her legs are long and strong and she commands each scene she's in with her raw power and sexuality. Sadly, she had an advanced case of leukemia while filming this movie, and died on November 20, 1959, just nine months after it was released in Italy.
The Queen is a total Black Widow in every sense of the word. She has been getting a series of "husbands" from the Greek mainland, after they have drunk the Waters of Forgetfulness. Why she has to get them all the way from Greece is unknown, you'd think they'd have men meeting her specifications there in Lydia (maybe she just likes her men swarthy and dark). While they are alive, she convinces each that he's her husband and he should enjoy it. The men are continually fed more of the water each day to "help" them keep forgetting. The situation is helped by the Queen's bevy of sexy young servant girls who do little but dote on the husband, giggling and bouncing their boobies as they run. This would be enough to keep me "forgetting". If that wasn't enough, the Queen apparently has a voracious sexual appetite, and her husbands are little more than sex slaves for her (again, sign me up).
The catch is that, when a new man arrives from Greece (as Hercules does now), the Queen instantly looses interest in the old husband. A simple dismissive wave of the Queen's hand is all it takes to have the poor guy "replaced" (once again, the Queen's pretty hot, so I still might be willing to take my chances). The previous husband is now killed off, screaming and begging like a little girl as the Queen ignores him and drools over Hercules. I think I dated this woman once...
This episode is based (sorta) on one of the legendary travels of Hercules in mythology.
Hercules is easily convinced by the beguiling Queen that he's her husband (though not King, she still runs the show here) and that he loves her greatly. In his befuddled and weakened condition, and confronted with this sexy aggressive woman slobbering on him, Hercules drinks the kool-aid and enjoys his new life.
The Queen, note the swans and their coy Lydian mythological reference.
To keep him entertained, the Queen rolls out the red carpet for Hercules. He's first treated to a fairly elaborate dance number. A gaggle of pretty dancing girls does a choreographed routine before deferring to a soloist ballerina who does a nice contemporary softshoe for Hercules. The solo ballerina is played by Colleen Bennet, in her only feature film role.
Dancing chicks, flexible dancing chicks...
Other perks of being the Queen's plaything include, free food and drink (though mostly those sneaky Waters of Forgetfulness, carried back from Greece in goat skins), libations and ointments applied by perky-boobed young girls, couches and divans to lounge upon while being serviced by said maidens, and daily massages by his "deaf mute" servant boy, Ulysses.
Clearly, Ulysses is getting the shaft on this deal, and he knows it. He tries as best he can to get Hercules weaned off the bad water (substituting when he can) and to get him to remember his past, but Hercules is pretty far gone. In desperation, Ulysses sends off a homing pigeon (remember those? He still has them with him, though you wonder why the guards let him keep them) with a note of rescue.
The pigeon flies far and fast, returning to King Laertes at Ithaca. The note says something along the lines of "Come quick, we need help!" So the King must travel to Lydia and save his son Ulysses.
King Laertes is played by Andrea Fantasia (star of Sex Slayer, Drummer of Vengeance, and The Pirate and the Slave Girl). He was also the same Laertes character in 1958's Hercules. He's a really old guy, so don't look for much in the way of sword-swinging heroics. Leave that to the young bucks, pop.
King Laertes and his boys.
Laertes can't do this alone, of course, so he rides about collecting a band of merry men to accompany him. The band includes Argus, Tifi, Aesculapius, Orpheus, Castor, Pollux and Jason, all familiar names to mythology fans and all players in 1958's Hercules. I won't detail them here, mostly because they're all interchangeable parts and only one or two actually do more than just stand around in the background.
They hop a boat and sail across the Aegean Sea to Lydia, and dock at the Queen's city. There they petition the Queen for hospitality (they don't let on why they're here, though the Queen is suspicious). She gives them rooms to stay in and treats them well enough. In fact, the Queen takes an instant lusting interest in the handsome Castor, and you can just see the wheels turning in her head.
Ulysses by now has managed to convince Hercules to stop drinking the bad water and stick to the good water. It doesn't take long for him to begin to regain his memories, much to Ulysses' relief (he was getting tired of being Hercules' masseuse, maybe). Hercules quickly regains his senses and his memory, and he wants to go home. This doesn't sit well with the Queen, but she realizes now that there's little she can do to stop him from leaving.
"Hmm, Iole was right..."
The captain of the guard can, however, and he gives it a good try. A troop of Lydian soldiers swam our heroes, who must have expected this. Hercules, being Hercules, routs the soldiers by picking up various painted styrofoam statues and tables and tossing them at the hapless costumed extras, who yell and fall down unconvincingly.
Arg, this is so "heavy"!
Ah, but the Queen's palace was constructed by Blofeld's engineering company as we see the entrances being closed off by big sliding stone doors. Han and Chewie hold off the stormtroopers while Lu...wait, wrong movie. Hercules and Ulysses hold off the guards while the rest of them make a run for a secret tunnel that Ulysses found earlier.
The tunnel leads through the "Hall of Ex-Husbands". It seems that once the old husband is offed, his body is taken down into the caves beneath the palace and a gang of Egyptian scientists (really) make it into a wax statue. The statue is then put in this hall on a pedestal so the Queen can come down at her leisure and gaze upon their frozen beauty.
They pass through the tunnel, marveling at the waxed figures (even finding an empty base with Hercules' name on it, creepy) and come out near the seashore. Offshore, they can see their ship still tied off at anchor (you'd think they'd have done something about that once the fighting started, but also hopefully the ship's crew would have been wise enough to stay far enough offshore of this dangerous land until they returned). They have to swim for it, and some comedy ensues as Hercules has to carry one of his friends who can't swim.
Once aboard, they set sail for Thebes. Hercules laments that he's several weeks overdue with that treaty offer, which is now most likely off the table. As well, his fair Iole is certainly a prisoner now of Eteocles and he has to go rescue her.
Indeed, in Hercules' absence, Polinices has marched his Mercenary army on Thebes and invested it. Eteocles has reneged on his offer to step down and is now back in control and crazier than ever. The city is strongly defended and so far both sides are content to glare at each other and toss insults and barbs across the siege lines. To up the ante, the mad Eteocles hurls some of Hercules' personal servants over the walls to their deaths! He's pissed at Hercules, who he thinks betrayed him (hard to blame him for thinking that, Hercules did ride off with a peace promise and now there's an army outside the gates). He also has Iole locked in a dungeon with some other "political prisoners".
Hercules shows up around this time, and is allowed to tend to his dead servants, which just makes him very, very irate. And as we have already seen, there is nothing worse than a pissed off demi-god in a loincloth.
Hercules and the boys need to sneak into Thebes and rescue Iole (independent from either opposing side, he's pretty much concluded that both brothers are fucking bastards and all that matters to him is saving his wife and his home town). To do so they surprisingly find an unguarded (isn't Thebes under siege at the moment?) creek flowing into the city. Hercules bends the bars of the underwater gate and they all swim in and enter the city. A brisk fight soon erupts between Hercules' band and a bunch of Thebian guards. As these are Hercules' fellow citizens, they don't kill them, just toss them in the water.
Hercules then goes off alone to find Iole, but stumbles into the tiger's den instead! Once inside, the gates slam close and from around the gallery a bunch of bad guys laugh and taunt. Three tigers are let into the pit, certain to give Hercules a nasty slobbering.
Raaah...I'm a tiger!
The tigers honestly seem to be more concerned with running away and even being scratched under the chin, but some crude editing cuts and camera tricks make it seem like the big cats are ferociously attacking Hercules. Hercules snaps the necks of two of the cats, and Ulysses pegs the third with an arrow as he and the rest of the men now arrive up in the gallery.
The fight in the gallery is quick and frantic, with everyone getting into the act. This is yet another poorly-staged fight scene, with the actors' directions seeming consisting of "Hmm, ok, you guys over there pair off and wave your wooden swords at each other. And try not to get hurt, ok? Has everyone signed their liability waiver?"
Iole, meanwhile, has somehow escaped from Thebes (what?), snuck through the siege lines, and is captured by the Mercenary General. She's menaced by the slimy soldier, and he makes it clear that once the battle for Thebes is over, she will "submit" to him. He remembers that insult that Hercules dealt him way back in the beginning of the movie and banging his wife would be just repayment. Oh, Hercules better come quick!
Sylvia Koscina...I'd rescue her.
Ok, both brothers are actually quite reluctant to go to open warfare, despite their public boastings to the contrary. Eteocles takes the first step and sends a messenger to Polinices' camp with an offer to settle the matter in a one-on-one duel. His brother is game for that, seeing a opportunity to avenge years of wet-willys and atomic-wedgies.
The duel takes place, Iliad-like, in front of the walls of Thebes, with all watching. The brothers joust at each other with lances and thrown battle axes from three-horse-drawn chariots. This doesn't settle much, and in the end the two men square off on foot with swords. These two actors are lousy swordfighters, and this "epic duel" looks more like two third-graders acting out in the playground something they saw in the Powerpuff Girls. And for their sins, both brothers end up stabbing each other and both die. Good riddance.
Come on, get on with it!
With both brothers dead, and with them any sort of agreement that was made, the Mercenary General looks around and realizes that he came all this way so he might as well do something. The riches of Thebes so close are too tempting and the General orders his soldiers to storm the city.
Ok, now we have our final big set-piece battle between the forces of good and evil (well, really of money-lust versus sheer survival). The set carpenters worked overtime to make about five full-size siege towers and a big tree trunk-battering ram, with which the Mercenaries are going to breach the walls of Thebes.
The defenders, however, are not too interested in a protracted siege. Throwing open the gates, the Thebians storm out to drive a wedge into the attacker's ranks. A risky move, to be sure, but buoyed by Hercules' presence, the counterattack succeeds in routing the Mercenaries. The survivors turn tail and run for the hills, leaving the field to the Thebians. In the attack, the Mercenary General is killed by a falling tower and Iole is freed.
Get 'em, Herc!
The movie closes as the two lovers embrace on the walls of the city, to the delight of the cheering throngs. The end, thankfully.
Written in March 2007 by Nathan Decker
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