The Sword and Sandal genre has been popular from the dawn of cinema, providing opportunities for sweeping epics and technicolour sagas that could never be mounted in a stage play - in Italy, epic films like Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii (1913) and Cabria (1914) proved very popular, being stemmed only by the Great War and subsequent economic depression. During the 1950s, the growing use of colour, and the development of widescreen technologies meant that epic sword and sandal cinema was back in big demand, and Italian filmmakers were quick to make their own epics and adventures again.
A young woman is trapped on a chariot when her horses start to run wild, but she is dramatically saved by the muscle-bound immortal, Hercules (Steve Reeves) who throws a tree into the way of the creatures and stops them. The woman turns out to be Iole, the daughter of King Pelias, who has invited Hercules to visit his city and train his son to be a man - but Iole is upset by the events that took place there years earlier, when her Uncle, who was King at the time, was brutally killed, and her cousin Jason vanished along with the fabled Golden Fleece. Hercules travels to the city and begins to train Pelias' son, but when a man claiming to be Jason arrives in the city, Hercules and he are sent on an expedition to find the Fleece, and prove just who he is...
While most of the Pepla freely adapted figures from history into their stories, without reference to their own legends, Hercules is quite closely based on the historical tales (although it seems to be closer linked to the Roman version of the legend, hence Hercules refering to his father as Jupiter not Zeus in the English script). The second half of the film is a retelling of the classic tale of the Argonauts, with Hercules taking almost a back seat to the story. A couple of sequences don't quite work as well as they should - Hercules fights a lion and then a bull rather too close together with a real sense of repetition, while Jason is never given enough characterisation to really become a hero. Relatively slow paced throughout, but gaining from the characterisation and story-line development that this presents, the film has some exciting scenes (particularly during the Argonaut's tale) and builds up to a suitably dramatic climax. Although often quite light in tone, the script fortunately eshews the annoying comic relief of many later Italian genre films.
The film was directed by the otherwise little known Pietro Francisci (who also helmed the sequel), but the look and feel of the film is probably more creditable to the cinematographer Mario Bava, whose matte paintings and creative lighting are clearly in evidence here. The special effects, including the monster at the end are surprisingly good considering what would come in later genre entries and the film as a whole rises far above its limited budget. The music is a strange mix, with some nicely appropriate choral themes and some rather standard orchestral pieces but a couple of synthesised tracks that seem to have been lifted from Forbidden Planet (1956) do seem to be rather out of place.
Steve Reeves stars in the first of what would be many strong-man roles and his first ever feature film leading role - he is certainly at his most 'buff' here and looking rather older than usual thanks to his beard. After winning Mr Universe, he spent several years training as an actor and it shows here as he genuinely looks good in the role, rather than just being a strong man dumped into the film. There are a few recognisable names in the cast and most of them would re-appear in the sequel, but best known is Sylva Koscina as Hercules' love interest Iole and who went on to star in Mario Bava's highly regarded horror film Lisa and the Devil (1973).
Enjoyably written and very well directed, Le Fatiche di Ercole was popular enough to kick start a whole genre of films and it certainly remains as enjoyable now. While not the most original film, it is sufficiently different to most of its follow-ups to stay interesting and it makes a fantastic starting place for exploring the genre. It comes generally recommended.
|Anyone famous in it?||Steve Reeves - the iconic star of the Pepla, who also appeared in several adventure films and a western.|
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Pietro Francisci - a little known Italian director who helmed a couple more Pepla, including the sequel, Hercules Unchained (1959) and later Siege of Syracuse (1960) and Saffo, venere di Lesbo (1960)|
|Who else was involved?||Cinematography on the film was by Mario Bava, soon to become famous for his horror films.|
|Any gore or violence ?||Nothing vivid.|
|Any sex or nudity?||None|
|Who is it for?||An important milestone in Euro-cult cinema and generally recommend to all cult film fans.
|Visuals||Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is good throughout, with only mild grain and minimal print damage.
|Audio||English, Italian and French audio
The tracks sound generally good, although the English has some noticable hum or hiss in a few scenes.
Note: The English audio track is different to that used on the American print of the film.
|Subtitles||FORCED SUBTITLE TRACK: With the English and Italian audio selected, French subtitles are automatically turned on and cannot be removed on a standard DVD player.|
|Extras||The disc includes:
|Region||Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL|
|Availability||French DVD Release - Title: Les Travaux d'Hercule
This DVD is now out-of-print and not readily available.
|Other regions?||Released by Retromedia in the US with a lower quality but correct ratio widescreen print, available in a dual-pack with 'Mole Men Against
the Son of Hercules' or in the seven film Hercules Collection. There are various budget DVD releases in the US, although these are generally fullscreen and very poor quality.
The German release from Concorde, in a dual-pack with Hercules Unchained comes with English and German audio and looks reasonable, but with some noticable cropping at the sides and more seriously, it is cut by 10 minutes as per the original German theatrical print.
|Cuts?||The film is believed to be fully uncut. The print used is English langauge.|