Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Big Muscle Tussle: Vengeance of Hercules (1959)

This write-up is based on the Italian language cut of the film that does in fact feature Hercules as its hero. For some - probably mind-blowing reason - AIP decided to do the exact opposite of what all other US versions of peplums did, namely dubbing their hero as Hercules even when he was initially Aristotle, and turned Hercules into Goliath through the highly potent form of magic we know as dubbing. The AIP version is also re-cut and features an additional battle against a sad cardboard dragon head. 

Original title: La Vendetta Di Ercole

aka Goliath and the Dragon

aka Hercules' Revenge

This February, the members of M.O.S.S. have decided to bring some meat onto their exoskeletons by taking a look at film's most beefcake-y heroines and heroes. And who could be more muscular than the king of the Italian peplum himself, Hercules?

When Vengeance of Hercules begins, the demi-god (Mark Forest, one of the more charismatic and more human-looking bodybuilders/actors throwing around pillars and punching guys in monster suits in the nose) is just beginning to fulfil the last of his Twelve Tasks by punching his way into hades, from whence he is supposed to steal a magic jewel belonging to the god of vengeance. Personally, I do remember the mythology quite differently, but then I also don't remember Hades being inhabited by a human-size catbat (or batcat?) that flies about on clearly visible wires. I also imagined Cerberus to be larger and less mangy looking than the film's three-headed doggie, but then, what do I know? At least he is a fire-breathing, mangy looking three-headed doggie.

While Hercules is out and about depopulating Hades, his enemies are making plans to take the wayward hero's city of Thebes. King Eurito (Broderick Crawford acting like an Ancient Greek gangster boss from the Ancient Greek Bronx), usurper to the throne of Eccalia, is trying to talk the various kings of neighbouring cities into an attack on Thebes, for, or so he argues quite logically, people do not tend to came back from the realm of the dead, even when they are demi-gods.

Eurito's buddies are wavering, and are not becoming more confident in his plans when a messenger arrives in Eccalia to report Hercules's victorious return from Hades. Clearly, Eurito needs to make more subtle preparations to get rid of hated Hercules.

As luck will have it, Herc's improbably dumb emo son Illo (Sandro Moretti) might just be the tool (in both senses of the word) that can bring Hercules down. Illo, you see, has fallen for Thea (Federica Ranchi), the daughter of the true (and dead) king of Eccalia. Since Eurito has taken Thea on as an adoptive daughter with the option to marry her later on to legitimize his claim on the throne, Illo's father has never approved of his son's choice of potential partner. Of course, that doesn't hinder melodramatic (and yes, dumb) Illo from sneaking in and out of the town of his father's greatest enemy to spend some quality swooning time with Thea.

Eurito must have known what's up with the couple for some time now, and decides - with the help of his rather evil aid Tindaro (Giancarlo Sbragia) and his sister Ismene (Gaby André) - that now is an excellent opportunity to imprison Illo. At first, it's planned as a demonstration of his lack of care for a potential return of Hercules from Hades, but once it's clear that the hero is indeed back, it is the beginning of a plan to convince Illo to poison his own father. A plan, I might add, that is made quite a bit more easy by Illo being the dumbest guy in ancient Greece.

It's all too bad, really, for upon his return from Hades, Hercules has decided to retire from the adventuring business and only wants to enjoy his retirement spending time with his wife and idiot son, and probably wrestling a bear or pulling a tree down from time to time.

Alas, the gods and Eurito have other plans. It's all enough to wrestle an elephant and bring down the walls of a city.

In its Italian cut, Vittorio Cottafavi's Vengeance of Hercules is a rather peculiar, and a very uneven movie. It starts out quite as you'd expect from a peplum, with our beefcake hero striding through a moody set full of multi-coloured fog and fighting atrociously realized, yet very cute, creatures that don't necessarily have much to do with Greek mythology. But, as soon as one has settled into the groove for this particular type of movie, Cottafavi turns all genre expectations on their head and goes from a suitmation fest to a movie of political intrigue (with some mild godly interventions).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with subverting genre clichés nor with broadening the borders of the genre one is working in (I did, after all, not complain when Maciste met Zorro), but if a director is going to do that, he should do it right. For example, if you make a movie about political plotting in mythological Greece, you should put actual care and thought into your villain's fiendish plots, instead of trying to get by letting it rest on one character - Illo - being so dumb it seems doubtful he can get into his clothing without help in the morning. A pouting romantic lead acting like a stupid teenager does not for exciting or dramatic political intrigue make, it turns out; and it sure does not help when the political intrigue is only uncovered by an actual deus ex machina. Sure, that's Ancient Greek alright, but it also makes the characters look even more like fools, and is just not very exciting.

Because the movie's intrigues are so lacking in actual tension, Vengeance's middle part becomes quite a drag. From time to time, that drag is broken up by Herc wrestling a guy in a mangy bear costume, and Herc hanging onto the leg of an elephant, ahem, I mean, wrestling an elephant, but even that isn't as fun as it should be, surrounded as it is by bottled boredom. Worse, the middle's tedium takes up space that would have been needed for the sexually loaded (and generally quite sado-masochist) aspects of every good peplum, namely scenes of the shirtless and impossibly buff hero getting whipped, scenes of the hero being seduced or mind-controlled by a dominant (and therefore Eeevil) woman, and anything else that brings the parts of sexual politics films usually just love to repress to the surface.

And then, when the tedium of watching non-characters and their melodramatic exclamations about their non-plans threatens to become too strong, the film takes a second drastic turn which - for once - makes the IMDB's writing credits for seven(!) people believable. Suddenly, Vengeance becomes a film actually rooted in Greece mythology, or rather, some of the basic philosophical tenets behind it. Suddenly, Hercules lives in a world where being a demi-god and having a destiny is a bad thing, where the gods just love to use mortals as their playthings, where making a wish at the wrong moment can lead to one's abduction by a centaur who is also a faun, and where Hercules is the kind of guy pulling down the pillars of his own house down when he's angry enough. Just as suddenly, Hercules also becomes a rebel against the gods and the concept of destiny, his wish to retire turning out to be one to be free of all metaphorical chains. If you ignore the (unfitting) happy end, the film's last act transformation into something more dark as well as something more thoughtful points out a direction the peplum as a genre could have taken but didn't - a movie genre based one more than the outward tropes of Greek mythology.

On the other hand, this imaginary genre (hard peplum?), would probably not have had quite as much time for showing people in monster suits lumbering around, nor for bodybuilders getting undressed and whipped, so I'm not sure if I should rail against destiny like Hercules or thank it.


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