Monday, November 25, 2013


Most Novembers, I've written here about the kind of fantasy movies that I recall being broadcast on TV during Thanksgiving week when I was young—what with kids being off school and most regular daytime programming pre-empted. This year I thought I'd focus on the Italian muscleman movies, aka sword-and-sandal movies, or peplum movies (meaning "tunic," or toga, as the genre, popular through the 1960s, has been dubbed) which usually feature a muscled, toga-wearing hero in some historical setting. I've seen quite a few of them, but they tend to run together in my memory, so recently I've made an effort to watch (or re-watch) some of them so I can tell them apart. I'll start with the granddaddy of peplum movies. Though there had been a handful of these epics before (most notably the silent Italian film CABIRIA which introduced the standard peplum hero Maciste), this was the first one to become a big box office hit in America when it was dubbed and released here by American International.

It begins with a bucolic scene of a shepherd gently piping to his sheep until suddenly a woman tears through in a runaway chariot. Luckily Hercules (Steve Reeves) is strolling by and saves her by ripping up a tree to put in her horses' path. As it happens, the woman is Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina), daughter of King Pelius of Iolcus, and that's where Herc is heading, having been asked by the king to train their men in the skills of warfare. She tells Hercules that it's rumored that the previous king was assassinated, and Jason (the rightful heir) and his tutor Chironi vanished that night along with the Golden Fleece which is symbolic of legitimate rule, and which also has the name of the king's killer written on it in blood. Herc discovers Jason (Fabrizio Mioni), now grown, and the king gives them three months to go find the Golden Fleece. They survive a storm at sea, spend some time with a tribe of Amazons, and face down a bunch of dark, bestial men and a dragon before they get the Fleece and return to Iolcus where Jason can take his place as king.

This mish-mash of mythological themes and stories contains more than I've noted above, including a fight with the Cretan Bull (a very sorry-looking sequence) and a lion, run-ins with oracles, some help from Ulysses, the tearing-down of pillars, and the presence of many loinclothed young men engaged in acts of physical prowess. Even though Steve Reeves' name became a codeword for "bad musclebound acting," he’s OK here—some who came after were much worse. Koscina (who had a lengthy career in Italian cinema and Hollywood B-movies) and Mioni (who did not; both pictured above) are both fine in the main support roles. Though it's not a big-budget movie, it looks pretty good, perhaps due to Mario Bava's presence as cinematographer, just before he struck out on his career as a director (BLACK SUNDAY, DANGER: DIABOLIK, and one of the best peplum films HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD). And finally, a widescreen version of this movie is available from Retromedia, so if you've only seen this pan-and-scanned, you haven't really seen it. Certainly one of the best of the peplum films. [DVD]

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