Friday, December 3, 2010

La Fatiche di Ercole (Hercules aka The Labours of Hercules) (1958)
ITALY --- fantasy

Dir: Pietro Francisci

Mythological superhero, Hercules (or in Greek known as Heracles), has been around for centuries. Though he's had many contemporaries such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and even the Scandanavian Thor, none of their exploits have been as famous as Hercules. The son of Jupiter (or Zeus) and the mortal woman Alcmene, by his very birth, he was an enemy of Hera. Cinema has attempted to capture Hercules' superhuman adventures since the silent film era. He appeared in a 1914 film titled "Cabiria", under the name of Maciste. He also had a completely different appearance, sometimes dressed in contemporary clothing and other times in the typical loin cloth and sandals. Going by Maciste, the character and films slowly but surely began to transform into the sword and sandal Hercules films we know of. In the 60's, to cash in on the success of this very film, Italian filmmakers reused Maciste as well as other characters such as Samson, Goliath, etc. There was really only one Hercules and this film set the standard.

"La Fatiche di Ercole" (aka The Labors of Hercules) stars American bodybuilder beefcake Steve Reeves as the titular demigod in an episodic adventure. When he rescues princess Iole from a runaway chariot, Hercules promises to escort her back to her village of Jolco, if only for her own protection. In a flashback sequence, she retells the events that have turned her village into a place of betrayal and intrigue. Her father, Pelias, and uncle (once King of Jolco) met a platoon on the road including a soldier named Eurysteus, and it is inferred that they know each other. Jolco is home to the golden fleece, which Iole once showed her cousin Jason. Soon the king turns up dead, both Jason and Eurysteus is missing, and her own father claims the throne. Though many believe it was Jason who was responsible since was the direct heir to the throne, some believe differently.

Hercules of Thebes tells her the rumors are that her own father murdered the king to usurp the throne, and that he feels he needs to be with her in Jolco. Meanwhile, an oracle warns king Pelias a stranger with one sandal, just as Hercules enters the scene. Seeing Herc is not the man he was forewarned about, the king invites him in. Hercules offers his help as master-at-arms, and the king needs him to assist and tutor his son, Prince Iphitus.

Eurysteus turns up again in royal clothing talking with King Pelias. We find out they did indeed plot the murder of Pelias' brother for the throne. The bone-headed Prince, however, grows envious and continually rebellious against Hercules as he trains Ulysses and a band of men. Eventually, Iphitus' attitude and stupidity results in his own demise when he's killed by the Nemean Lion. Hercules kills the lion, and when the Jolco soldiers find them, they return to the city to give the king the unfortunate tidings. but the event results in Hercules' banishing by the suggestion of Eurysteus. Hercules then goes off to the oracle and demands the gods he become mortal for the sake of his love for Iole. The gods allow it and soon Hercules goes off on a quest for the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts as events set into play for Jason to rightfully claim the throne.

This film derives its story on the classic Greek epic poem "Argonautica" by Apollonius Rhodius as well as the myths of Hercules including his infamous twelve labors. Though, it of course, does not stick to the source material much at all due to time constraints. Characters are missing like Hercules' friend Hylas, we see a couple of actual labors, such as the slaying of the Nemean Lion and the capture of the Cretan Bull, and there isn't much emphasis on the Argonauts. It also features some interesting sequences such as a battle with a dinosaur (that sounds all too conspicuously like our Japanese friend Godzilla), a race of vicious monkey men, and a visit with beautiful amazon warrior women.

"Hercules" can make a good companion piece to the '60's Hollywood "Jason and the Argonauts" featuring the sfx work of legendary Ray Harryhausen. Though the perspectives are of course switched out as Hercules takes a back seat as simply a supporting player. It is interesting that many of these Grecian mythological stories seem to have their root in the Hebrew bible. Both Hercules and Jason have their biblical counterparts in Samson and Gideon. It's not so far-fetched, as we well know Jerusalem was under Grecian authority for some time.

"Le Fatiche Di Ercole" was really the first of the 'sword-and-sandal' movies to garner world-wide attention. As for these badly post-dubbed low-budget pepla films, filmmakers like Mario Bava and Sergio Leone cut their teeth on the tales of the brawny oil-soaked heroes of the ancient world. You can almost feel Bava's presence in this film with the staging of the oracle's speech and the Skittle-flavored cinematography. The costuming and art direction is also impressive and looks historically accurate. What's really odd is how much they've lost their appeal these days. I could imagine this genre would be particularly of interest to young ladies, as nearly every film looks like lost footage from a Chippendale club or bachlorette party. Though they are campy fun, I much prefer the Hollywood versions such as "Jason and the Argonauts" if only for Harryhausen's special effects.