Saturday, November 29, 2008


In the year 1227, our hero Hercules helps an Asian woman and her kids, and she repays the favor by presenting us with a lot of narrative exposition that she sees in a handful of water from a stream. It seems that Genghis Kahn has just died and his three nasty sons are out to subvert the peace that their old man had established; they pillage the land of Juleda (or Tuleda or Tudeda, the sound was murky at best) and hold the princess Bianca as a slave, hoping she'll lead them to her dead father's hidden treasure. Hercules soon meets up with the rightful heir to the Juleda throne (a little blond boy named Alexander), protects him from the bad guys, and enters a tournament to whip the Kahn boys' asses so he can free Bianca. He wins, Bianca is freed, but Hercules has to take her place in the slave quarters, which he does willingly until the Kahns, with some help from a treacherous Juledean named Adolphus, re-imprison Bianca. Then Herc goes all medieval and saves the day, with a little help from a small rebel band.

Most of the popular sword-and-sandal movies of the early 60's were made in Italy and featured a muscle-man hero named Maciste, who made his debut in Italian cinema during the days of silent movies. However, when these films were released in the United States, the hero's name was usually changed to something more familiar to Hollywood audiences, like Samson or Goliath, but most often, Hercules (supposedly the name Maciste was derived from a Greek city which had a temple to Hercules). The "historical" background never really mattered, since Hercules had clearly become timeless. These movies are still sort of fun to watch, sometimes in a campy, MST3K bad-movie way, though this one is short on camp value. It compensates with an interesting Mongolian background and plenty of sweaty beefcake. The hero is Mark Forest (pictured), a little more handsome and less hyper-muscular than most Herculeses; only 31 when he made this movie, he retired from the screen a year later and became an opera teacher. The hunkiest sons are played by hairy-chested, Ohio-born Ken Clark and shaved-headed Italian Renato Rossini, who later took the name Howard Ross, despite staying in Italian films for the rest of his career. Jose Greci, a red-haired Ann-Margaret-wannabe is fine as Bianca, and the even more attractive Maria Gracia Spina has a largely silent supporting role as a Mongolian bad girl who becomes a self-sacrificing good girl in the end.

There are a few problems with critiquing these movies: 1) the English dubbing is always terrible, and in this case, even the English-speaking actors are apparently speaking Italian and are then dubbed into English; 2) the prints are poor (probably public-domain films of which no one has taken proper care over the years): washed out, chopped up, and worst of all, not presented in their appropriate widescreen ratio. This one, on DVD from low-rent Alpha Video, is especially bad on that last count; instead of pan-and-scan, the widescreen image in crammed into a TV square by a process that could be called chop-and-scan, in which, instead of the image being panned along to catch the action, it is chopped and moved, leading to lots of startling cuts within shots. It's a shame because this one seems to have had a little more attention to detail (both narrative and scenic) than most of its ilk. Makes a fun Saturday afternoon flick for fans of the genre. [DVD]

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