As the progenitor of muscleman films and the beginning of the Hercules tales in cinema, I put some time into discovering the history behind the film and its origins. This movie was significant not only for its financial success but the enduring model it began with the depiction of bodybuilders as action movie stars. With the rise of historical epics in Hollywood, the Italian film industry’s Peplum (sword-and-sandal) genre came into power in the late 50’s until ultimately giving way to the spaghetti western in 1965.
Hercules was made to emulate the recent success of films like Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. After making a popular run in its native Italian circuit, it attracted the attention of American film producer Joseph E. Levine who had just previously brought over Godzilla: King of the Monsters to the North American market. He acquired the distribution rights for $300,000 (more than the movie’s entire production cost) and ran a “groundbreaking” promotional campaign; He spent A LOT of money on advertising. He dropped a million dollars getting the word out, inundating radio and TV with hype, and distributed 600 prints of the film (A monstrous number at the time) and it worked. The movie brought in 4.7 million at the box office and was a smash hit, making an international film star out its mountainous leading man, Steve Reeves, overnight.
Reeves had been picked primarily for his size. Director Pietro Francissci had been hunting unsuccessfully for the right specimen to play the demigod, until his daughter suggested Reeves after seeing him in a recent American musical, Athena. Until that time, the built body was seen primarily as an American phenomenon, and he was unlike anything the Italian studios were used to having in the star role. Reeves was an inexperienced actor, but possessed an obvious physically engaging film presence. A former Mr. America (1947), Reeves had been having trouble getting a career in film and television started due to his enormous size, which was typically viewed comedically and derided. Hercules helped pioneer the b-movie action model of wooden performance with Adonis physiques that would later see rise in the American film markets of the 80s and 90s. His competitive body building background would also become part of the genre tradition, as most actors to later take on the role all noted some inspiration from the Reeves’ film or the man himself. From Mickey Hargitay (The Loves of Hercules 1961) Lou Ferrigno (Hercules 1983, The Adventures of Hercules 1985) amid countless other, and leaving a huge impact on a young Arnold Schwarzenegger (Hercules in New York 1969).
The formula proved so entertaining to audiences, it spawned 19 other Hercules sequels, as well as auxiliary muscleman movies with the various Maciste, Urus, and Samson seriates. When brought over to the US, these spin-offs would typically be retitled to a Hercules adventure, bringing the actual number of Hercules films from this era to something like 40 films! Reeves would go on to do a single sequel and then abruptly abandon the role as he viewed the later iterations too “low budget” for him now, as he advanced to become the highest paid actor in Europe for a time. He was eventually offered the role of bond in Dr. No, and the lead of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, but declined both due to the low level salary. Though both the film and its star would fall from the spotlight in the mid 60s, their effect on the genre would endure for years and become the inspiration for countless careers and movies to this day.
Hercules (1957) directed by Pietro Francissci, and starring Steve Reeves as HERCULES!!!
On to the movie. When the film’s producer was asked what he thought of the movie after initially viewing it, Levine said”One of the worst pictures I ever saw, but I knew it had great appeal”. After watching the movie I can see this as pretty reflective of my own impression. The film’s costs seem to go primarily to its sets, which look great, and leave little else for entertainment value. It’s pacing and writing trouble follow it all the way to the finish, but Reeves does a good turn at keeping its weight on his broad shoulders. It’s not that Reeves is giving a great performance, he’s not given much and he doesn’t do much with it, but his simple and direct delivery work well for the film and provide its greatest strength. Most of the actual mythos gets scrapped, but we do see one or two of the twelve labors performed, and the Jason and the Argonauts quest for the Golden Fleece accomplished. It’s this latter story line which ends up hijacking the second half of the film, and seem to make Hercules a guest star in his own movie. As the climax returns the eponymous star to the movie, life certainly seems to come back into the screen, and it’s in these final minutes that Hercules delivers its most exciting moments. Breaking free of his chains, Herc unleashes some pretty fun visuals as he uses them to pummel and break apart the city guards. The film’s finale sees Hercules lash his manacles to the pillars at the top of the capital’s steps, and pulling a very Samsonesque move, rip down the foundation through his titanic strength.
As for the depiction of Hercules himself, he is played as the gentleman’s adventure, and much of his primal angst and fits of rage aren’t fully seen. Though he is prone to anger and small moments of tragic melancholy over his divine nature amongst mortal men are peppered in, I came away pretty indifferent on this version. The beard, suggested to Reeves by the film’s cinematographer, helps the otherwise standard affair of dress, though we do see a fur tunic (possible nod to his famous lion skin) in the beginning of the picture. He also never uses a club. This got to me a lot, but the awesome use of chain combat at the end helped a bit. I couldn’t help but think that some influence of this film’s depiction must have come up in the original Marvel comics’ interpretation, they are very similar to me, and I can’t help imagining Kirby taking a night out and catching a showing of Hercules in a New York theater. (side note: As part of the film’s massive commercial media output, 500,00 issues of a Hercules comic book were distributed in North America) I had an interesting time with the film, and do have enthusiasm for seeing its direct sequel, and what Reeves does with it. I’m considering making a chart to track how much each version keeps traits from the mythic origins: uses club, wears lion skin, has beard, etc. as these are the things which originally got me most excited for the new Dwayne ‘The Rock” Johnson picture coming soon. But we have long way to go and 10 more movies separating the time till then, and I’ve been wasting a lot of time on this one. So I’ll leave off until tomorrow’s review for now.
Coming up Next: Hercules Unchained (1959) featuring Steve Reeves as HERCULES!!!