Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hercules Unchained (1959) – MST3K Review

Taking pieces of it story from classic Greek myths and classic Greek tragedy, we get Hercules Unchained. It all starts with Hercules (Steve Reeves) returning from his adventures with the Argonauts. He travels with his wife Iole (Sylva Koscina) and a young Ulysses (Gabriel Antonini) to his home city of Thebes. Before he can get there, he gets in a battle with Primo Carnera as the demi-god Antaeus. Herc is able to defeat this clown and continues on his way. He discovers his old pal Oedipus (Cesare Fantoni), was deposed by his own greedy sons. Hercules vows to end the destructive conflict between the squabbling brothers and return Thebes to a peaceful rule.

Herc leaves Iole in the not so trustworthy hands of one of the brothers Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and takes a secret message to the other brother Polynices (Mimmo Palmara). Before he can complete the mission, Herc drinks from the waters of forgetfulness (as the voiceover helpfully tells us, but doesn’t bother to mention it to Herc). Our hero falls asleep and is captured by the lovely queen Omphale (Sylvia Lopez) and taken to the land of Lydia. Ulysses uses his quick thinking to pretend to be a deaf mute servant and is taken along as well.

Can Ulysses bring back Hercules memories, before the demi-god becomes completely ensnared in a life of sweet lovin’ with the evil queen? Will Iole be thrown into a pit of tigers? Will Hercules save Thebes? Will the bad-dubbing blow your mind? The answers to these questions and more are revealed in Hercules Unchained.

Movie Review:

Antaeus finds everything hilarious, even his
eventual beat down by the Herc.
A couple years before this movie came out, Steve Reeves stared in Hercules, a film that covered the Jason and the Argonauts story from Herc’s point of view (and with lots and lots of changes to the original myth). American distributor Joseph E. Levine created a marketing campaign for the flick after picking it up fairly cheap. It made a bundle and soon all kinds of Italian muscle men movies were being made and unleashed on the world.

For many folks, Hercules means Steve Reeves. The irony is, he only played the role twice. But the film was so popular (and aired on television so often) that people always associate the role with him. This changed in the 1990s when Kevin Sorbo became associated with the character. I will always hold a spot in my heart for the ultra-cheesy Hercules with Lou Ferrigno.

By I digress (as usual). How does Hercules Unchained measure up? Well it’s a bit of a mess actually. The main problem is the fact that two stories compete for screen time with a subplot or two and you end up with a muddled blob of confusion. The film could have functioned just fine if it focused on Hercules’ role in saving Thebes from the feuding brothers. You also could have had a fun movie with Hercules and Ulysses attempting to escape the isle of the evil queen. But to fuse the two together ends up making everything a jumbled mess. There is no clear narrative here.

Ulysses is sitting right there when Antaeus announces
Now keep in mind, this is a badly dubbed and edited version of Hercules Unchained . And I’m not talking about poor matching to lip flaps (which is in full swing as well). I’m talking about a script that can’t clearly express what the hell is going on. There are plenty of lines that make no sense at all. I’m not sure if this was a sloppy translation, or a too literal translation (which can be just as bad).

An early example is when Hercules runs into the demi-god Anteaus, who demands Iole as his prize. When the thug first appears he says something like “I’m Anteaus and this is my valley. You must pay a toll to pass”. When Herc finally battles the clown, he defeats him pretty easily. He throws the giant to the ground and then turns to leave. But Anteaus just gets back up again. Herc fights him, defeats him, and then Anteaus gets up again. About the third time this happens Ulysses says, “Oh, this must be Anteaus, the legendary man who gets his strength from the earth. Don’t let him touch the ground Hercules!”

Ok, Anteaus announced himself at least once (I’m pretty sure he says his name about three times). Ulysses was standing right there the whole time. The line should have been something like; “I just remembered that Anteaus gets his strength from touching the ground.” Instead, Ulysses comes across like a moron who isn’t paying attention when danger threatens. Of course Iole had just sang a song. So maybe the sound of her voice deafened him and he missed Anteus grand entrance.

This is only a small example of the script issues in Hercules Unchained. It’s much worse with the convoluted brother plot and the evil queen nonsense. If we can look past the bad script, how are the characters treated. Well Hercules comes across as mostly brawn and not much brain. He seems really lazy in this movie, preferring to loaf around and sleep rather than have adventures. Only near the end, when he tries to save Thebes with his special ops team, does he seem like the legendary Hercules we know and love.

Ulysses, teenager of many wiles, helps return
Hercules memories.
I do like how Ulysses is a teenager, but shows all the cunning and craft that his older self will be known for. He deceives the Queen’s men by pretending to be a deaf, mute servant. He figures out how the waters of forgetfulness are being used to keep Herc enslaved. He’s the one that devises the rescue plan. We even get to see him use his legendary bow to save Hercules from a leaping tiger.

The ladies in the film are fairly predictable. Iole is the loving dutiful wife, who pines for her husband while he is away on his mission. Queen Omphale is a complete vamp, who tarts around the palace with her nymphy serving wenches. She uses men until she’s bored, then turns them into statues with the help of some Egyptian priests. She wicked, selfish and sexy – a theme you’ll see in plenty of Italian Muscleman movies that followed this one.

It’s hard to judge the performances here, because the dubbing is so poor. Everything seems a bit over the top and theatrical. The evil brother Etocles is really chewing the scenery here. Omphale is vamping into overdrive. Even Ulysses is playing it pretty broadly. But in a way the whole film is huge, over the top and going for an epic feel on a smaller budget.

A cast of hundreds prepares for the siege of Thebes.
That’s not to say that the visuals aren’t up to snuff. There’s some great location shooting in this film, with the high cliffs of Greece looking really impressive. The entire end sequence with the battle in front of the gates of Thebes uses a cast of hundreds. There are full siege towers rolling up, chariots, archers, infantry and all kinds of chaos. Even the interior sets of Thebes and Omphale’s palace have a large scope to them. You can tell this movie had a good sized budget and that a lot of the money was put on the screen.

Finally there is the old fashioned score by Enzio Masetti. It’s really channeling the classic Hollywood scores of the time, the likes that Miklos Rosza wrote for Ben Hur or Quo Vadis. It’s big, bold and brassy and fits Hercules Unchained like a glove.

The movie’s pacing is what keeps it from being as entertaining as it can be. The movie starts really, really slowly. Herc doesn't meet his first challenge, Antaeus until nearly 15 minutes in. That's an eternity in movie time. The whole sequence with the evil queen also meanders around. It is mostly scenes of Herc lounging around making kissy faces with Omphale. Ulysses schemes are fun to watch, but the whole thing just slogs along. Once the escape attempt starts, things pick up, and the finale battle in front of Thebes is a hoot. I had never seen Reeves in the role before, but he makes a very good Herc, and seems to be having some fun in the part. But the whole film is just messy enough to make it a good fit for Joel and Bots to riff on.

Episode Review:  
"Come to your sugar momma, Herc."
This was the first of the sword and sandal flicks that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would riff on. It wouldn’t be the last. From this moment forward, the sword and sandal flick would be a regular target for the show during the Comedy Central years. More Hercules, Maciste and Colossus films would come down the pipe and provide plenty of laughs for all of us.

I was always a bit puzzled as to why Hercules Unchained was the first one they tackled, instead of Steve Reeves first pass at the role in Hercules. It is obvious from the opening of the film that we are coming in at the end of some kind of grand adventure. There are some brief intros, but nothing else to really develop the characters. We’re just expected to know how these people are and how they all know each other.

Maybe the crew at Best Brains figured this would just add to the confusion that Joel and Bots feel as they watch. Most of the comments deal with how none of the boys can figure out who the characters are and what the hell is going on. This causes the riffing to get a bit stale in places, as all they are really saying is some variant of “Wow, is this movie confusing.”

This is Herc's beautiful wife. This is Herc's beautiful
city. How did he get here?
Some of the best jokes come around when Herc is first affected by the waters of forgetfulness. Tom comments that the spring and it’s surrounding rocks “Look like a Star Trek set.” After Herc takes a big gulp and starts wandering around with a vacant look on his face Crow says in his best Steve Reeves voice, “I’ve forgotten everything but I still can’t get ‘Afternoon Delight’ out of my head.” Later as Herc is still looking a bit dull and staring at the Queen Joel does his best Talking Heads imitation with “This is not my beautiful wife. I ask my self, how did I get here?”

Later in the film when Herc tries to save Iole and gets trapped in a pit full of tigers the boys threaten to call Betty White because of all the injured horses and tigers they keep seeing. As one tiger jumps on Hercules’ back Joel says, “Hobbes get off me!” He eventually joins the battle raging in front of the gates of Thebes a bunch of warriors are wearing white caps that flop forward. Tom declares it a battle of “Smurfs vs. Skins”. When Hercules is riding around in a chariot and using grappling hooks and rope to pull down siege towers, Crow comments, "Hey it's just like The Empire Strikes Back!" Tom adds, "But it's not very good."

Joel and the bots attempt to live it up, ancient Greek
style. But Gypsy's "song" causes much pain.
The host segments are a bit of a mixed bag. The episode starts with Joel attempting to subject the bots to “wash and wax day”. It ends in robot tears. For the invention exchange the mad scientists create designer colors for roaches.Joel creates the Steve-o-meter. It allows the user to determine if Steve Allen already thought of their idea. Turns out that Steve Allen already thought up the Steve-o-meter.  Before the mad scientists send the movie, it turns out Steve Reeves is helping them out around the lab. Of course its Mike dressed up as the muscled actor. At the first break Crow and Tom enjoy some ancient Greek living as Joel peels grapes and Gypsy attempts to sing while strumming the lyre with her head. It’s not impressive or relaxing. For the next break everyone comes up with his or her own food with a magic property, inspired by the water of forgetfulness. Later on, Crow and Tom interrogate Joel about what Herc and “the nice lady” are doing all day, especially after they start kissing and the screen goes dark. Joel won’t tell them a thing. Finally, after the movie ends, they try to figure out why there was a huge increase in these types of movies in the 50s and 60s. All kinds of ideas are mentioned, including Joseph Campbell. Tom ruins the whole thing by giving a dull pragmatic answer – they were cheap to make, sell and distribute and always made a profit.

In many ways the highlights balance out some dead spots, and the constant riffs on how confused they are. The pacing here is a little off, almost as if the writing crew wasn’t sure how to best tackle the film. I chalk this up to the fact that Hercules Unchained was the first sword and sandal flick. The next one they tried Hercules Against the Moonmen is a classic episode. Here, the riffing ends up being just average.

The evil queen and her nymphettes vamp it up!

I give it three badly dubbed Italians out of five.

This episode is available on The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 7.


  1. I first saw this at a drive-in from the back seat of a 1957 Pontiac. While I remember some scenes from that occasion (including the fight with Antaeus), I'd be lying if I said I remembered the general plot from then. (If the screen had been built lower any to the ground I'd have seen little more than the back of the front seat.) However, as you say, it was on TV a lot in the decades following, and I have seen it since. It was goofy and much-copied -- but there is something to be said for being the model others copy. (In the 60s, a slew of these movies -- though originally filmed separately as movies, not for TV -- were slightly edited and then shown as a weekly TV show "Sons of Hercules"; they all are remarkably similar.)

    Lou Ferrigno had the best Herc story I heard from an actor who played the part. One scene called for him to break the ropes binding him. Normally, for such shots, the ropes are pre-cut so they break easily. He struggled and struggled, and finally asked that they be cut a bit more. It turned out they hadn't been cut at all: the prop men assumed he really could just snap them.

    1. Yeah of all the 60s Herc flicks, the two with Reeves seem to have the best production values and are closest to the mythology. A few of the other flicks are just as fun, but more for their low budget hilarity and extremely silly plots. MST3K helps with those a lot, but they can be fun on bad movie night on your own.

      Love that story from Ferrigno. I'd never heard that before.

  2. Regarding the whole Anteaus issue, here's an alternate way to look at it. Initially, Herc and Co. assume it's just some random dickweed claiming to be Anteaus. This way, Ulysses' reaction could be read as a, "Holy shamoly, he really is Anteaus!" rather than just him being inattentive.

    1. If that would be the case that would make a whole lot more sense. Sadly the acting doesn't really support that case. Its not like everyone rolls their eyes when this "Anteaus" walks out and say something like "Oh man, not another one".

      But I like the effort you took to get there. :)