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Plot: colonists discover a white girl living in the jungles of Kenya.

The noble savage is a literary convention as old as time. After the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller in the thirties and forties had made Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most enduring creation one of the heroes of the big screen, imitations were bound to follow. In Golden Age comics and serials Nyoka, Sheena, Rulah, Rima, Princess Pantha, and Judy of the Jungle were regulars in the various comic households. This meant that there was a built-in audience for a jungle goddess character. Through the forties the jungle goddess was immortalized on the big screen with as dubious highlight Lewis D. Collins’ Jungle Goddess (1948). Italy had Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (1967) and Samoa, Queen of the Jungle (1968). America had Eve (1968). Argentina had Laura from Captive Of the Jungle (1969). Spain had Kilma, Queen of the Jungle (1975) and in Hong Kong there was Soviet import Evelyne Kraft in Shaw Bros giant monster epic The Mighty Peking Man (1977). What is almost forgotten today is that Germany got there first with Liane, das Mädchen aus dem Urwald (or Liane, the Girl from the Jungle, released in the English-speaking world as simply Liane, Jungle Goddess). It made a star of Marion Michael overnight and was lucrative enough to warrant a sequel with Liane: White Slave (1957), the composite Liane, Daughter of the Jungle (1961) and even a television remake by Horst Königstein simply called Liane (1996) with Ina Paule Klink inheriting Michael’s most famous role and her iconic micro-loincloth.

Liane, Jungle Goddess boasts two of the most recognizable stars of the day. Hardy Krüger and Marion Michael. Krüger was a mainstay in French, German, and Italian cinema as well as German television. In the Anglo-Saxon world he’s known for his roles in The One That Got Away (1957), Howard Hawks’ African action-adventure Hatari! (1962) with John Wayne, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Stanley Kubrick’s multiple Academy Award winning period costume epic Barry Lyndon (1975), and the Richard Attenborough World War II ensemble piece A Bridge Too Far (1977). Today, or at least since the late eighties, Krüger has reinvented himself as a prolific writer and documentary maker.

The other was Marion Michael. Michael was born in Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad in Russia) in 1940 and she was the second German actress to appear nude in a film preceded only by Hildegarde Knef from Die Sünderin (1950) (or The Sinner) a decade and a half before. At the tender age of 15 Marion was selected out of 12,000 candidates by Gero Wecker from Arca-Filmproduktion for the lead role in the company’s big jungle adventure, later famously novelized by Anne Day-Helveg. The role was initially promised to Christiane König from the Heimatfilm The Girls from Immenhof (1955). However, König’s contract was voided when she refused to enter into a relationship with Wecker and Michael was installed in her stead. Marion was touted as “the German Brigitte Bardot” and signed to an exclusive 7-year contract with Arca-Filmproduktion who were looking to make a Liane franchise. Liane, Jungle Goddess was a domestic box office success, but none of the 10 movies that Michael appeared in over the next six years would come close to eclipsing her first big hit. Obviously Marion Michael would define the blonde jungle goddess archetype for decades to come…

On an unspecified expedition in Kenya a group of colonist scientists – rugged adventurer Thoren (Hardy Krüger), French anthropologist Dr. Jacqueline Goddard (Irene Galter, as Irène Galter), their aide Kersten (Edward Tierney, as Ed Tracy), and their mentor Prof. Danner (Rolf von Nauckhoff) – happen upon savage white girl Liane (Marion Michael, as Marion Michaels) when the men of science capture her pet lion cub Simba (Simba is, after all, the Swahili word for lion and king). Liane has been living with Botos tribesmen who venerate her as their white goddess. The scientists ship their latest discovery to Hamburg, Germany for further observation and study. There her presence comes to the attention of industrialist Theo Amelongen (Rudolf Forster) who’s on the verge of signing away his vast shipbuilding empire to his overzealous, scheming, and morbidly ambitious nephew Viktor Schöninck (Reggie Nalder). The sudden surfacing of the sole known heir to the Amelongen industrial estate stirs the sleeping giant that is Schöninck. In order to preserve the inheritance that he worked his entire life for Schöninck does not shy away from discrediting the scientists’ findings that Liane is indeed the biological granddaughter of old man Theo Amelongen. In a fit of blind rage and rank desperation Schöninck kills Amelongen and tries to frame Liane’s tribesman Tibor Teleky (Peter Mosbacher) for the cold-blooded murder. Thoren sees through the deception and exposes Schöninck for the criminal he is. Liane, fearing that she will never acclimate to the urban jungle, returns to the safety of the Kenyan wilds.

While hardly novel in any significant way Liane, Jungle Goddess reinvented the well-trodden jungle safari subgenre by injecting it with a dose of old-fashioned violence and situational nudity. That Marion was both a minor and almost wore a tiny loincloth (hopelessly tame and innocent by today’s standards) for most of the time. All of which caused a ruckus with moral arbiters and child protective services the controversy all but ensuring that Liane, Jungle Goddess would be a sure-fire box office smash. Producer Wecker knew a success formula when he saw it and besides Heimatfilme and Schlagerfilme his Arca-Filmproduktion was behind 7 (!!) Oswalt Kolle Aufklärungsfilme, 9 (!!) sequels to The Girls from Immenhof (1955), and after the Sexual Revolution helped sire a new more permissive era of the Germany sex comedy the same way that Alfred Vohrer's Sweetheart or How Do I Tell my Daughter? (1969) (with a 16-year-old and frequently nude Mascha Gonska) did with his The Love Mad Baronesses (1969) (with the delectable trio of Andrea Rau, Barbara Capell, and Ingrid Steeger). Perhaps we’re slightly exaggerating the importance of The Love Mad Baronesses (1969) - especially since it’s something of an anomaly in Wecker’s otherwise respectable filmography – but without him Alois Brummer, Hubert Frank, Franz Josef Gottlieb, and Franz Marischka wouldn’t have been able to turn the wholesome and optimist Heimatfilme on its head and create the farcical Tiroler sex comedy as we know it.

If chroniclers of the day and promotional slogans are to be believed Liane, Jungle Goddess was supposedly, allegedly shot on location in Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth as Wecker was an exploitation producer, first and foremost. And why risk the expensive move of shooting on location in Africa when much of the required scenery could be found in the much closer Italy and Spain? The brunt of the feature was filmed at Circeo National Park and Lago di Fogliano in Lazio, Rome but perceptive viewers might or will recognize that very familiar looking dunes and palm tree forest of Maspalomas in San Bartolomé de Tirajana, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria standing in for what we are told are the Kenyan jungles. Indeed, it’s the same stretch of Washingtonia - and Canary Island date palms and pampas grass later used as a prominent location in the spaghetti war movie Heroes Without Glory (1971) and Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) as well as the Jess Franco Eurociné trashtaculars The Devil Came From Akasava (1971), Cannibals (1980), Cannibal Terror (1980), Devil Hunter (1980), Oasis Of the Zombies (1982) and Franco’s own perverted takes on Liane, Diamonds Of Kilimandjaro (1983) (complete with an almost permanently undressed actress that hadn’t yet reached majority age) and Eurociné’s lurid and botched attempt at a family adventure, Golden Temple Amazons (1986) (with a permanently topless Analía Ivars).

In the dying days of the Italian cannibal/zombie gutmuncher cycle the jungle safari subgenre would briefly flicker up again some three decades later with William C. Faure’s prestigious big budget British-South African-German historical mini-series Shaka Zulu (1986) and the advent of Indiana Jones in popular culture before coming to a grinding and much deserved halt. For all intents and purposes Liane, Jungle Goddess is a relic of a much less enlightened and more innocent age. If nothing else, there’s at least one scene that was spoofed thirty-plus years later. At one point the colonists are obligated to communicate their findings back home. They do so by means of a bicycle-powered generator for a Morse code radio. Yeah, exactly like Larry Laffer does with the computer on Nontoonyt island in Sierra’s 1988 point-and-click adventure Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places). Truth be told did it not only spoof the jungle goddess subgenre but also the James Bond franchise at large. It has to count for something. If Al Lowe knows who you are, you must have done something right in the annals of pulp cinema history. Few are immortalized this way.

Plot: Hercules falls under the spell of a mysterious queen

On the back of the international box office smash that was The Labors Of Hercules (1958) (hereafter Hercules) the inevitable sequel came with the following year’s Hercules and the Queen of Lydia (a direct translation of the Italian title Ercole e la regina di Lidia) that was released in North America as the abbreviated Hercules Unchained. Both leading man Steve Reeves and director Pietro Francisci moved onto greener pastures. Reeves would play a succession of mythological strongmen while director Francisci delved into more historical territory with Siege Of Syracuse (1960) and closed the gates on the sword-and-sandal genre with Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963). Hercules Unchained managed to top its box office breaking predecessor on every front. Armed with a much more engrossing story, an epic array of quests and tests of strength, and with the stakes raised that much higher for everyone involved. The sets are more elaborate, the combat scenes are more involving, and the women are universally and uniformly breathtaking. Hercules Unchained set the template for the b-grade peplum to follow for decades to come, ensuring its survival well into the mid-seventies.

This time around the basis for the screenplay by Ennio De Concini and Pietro Francisci were Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Returning home from the previous movie’s quest for the Golden Fleece Hercules (Steve Reeves), Iole (Sylva Koscina), Jason (Fabrizio Mionzi), and Ulisses (Gabrielle Antonini) barely have time to recover. On the road to Thebes Hercules is challenged by the giant Antaeus (Primo Carnero) but can’t defeat the behemoth on land. Hercules and Ulisses are asked by Edipus, the dying king of Thebes (Cesare Fantoni), to negotiate a heavily escalated royal succession dispute between his warring sons. En route Hercules is seduced by a harem girl dancing the “Dance of Shiva” leading him to drink the Waters of Forgetfulness from a nearby magic spring, the Lethe. Without memory Hercules becomes a willing captive of the wicked Queen Omphale (Silvya López, as Silvia Lopez) of Lydia. As Hercules finds himself in the gardens of Omphale, unaware that Omphale embalms her playthings once she’s grown tired of them. Ulisses pretends to be Hercules’ deaf-mute servant in order to survive in the Queen’s opulent court, all while figuring out a way to restore Hercules’ memory. Meanwhile Iole is beset by Eteocles (Sergio Fantone) as Polinices (Mimmo Palmara) assails Thebes. Will demigod Hercules be able to both save Thebes from the warring brothers and rescue his wife?

The practice of sequels is almost as old as Hollywood itself, but it wasn’t always that sequels were alotted bigger budgets and higher productions values than the original. In case of Hercules Unchained, once again directed by Pietro Francisci, there isn’t too much of a difference between both titles. Hercules was significant for setting in stone many of the conventions of the more pulpy and kitschy variety of peplum. Hercules Unchained on the other hand was key in introducing future genre conventions such as court – and political intrigue, magic, and embalming – as well as bellydancing interludes, wild animal fighting, and hand-to-hand combat. Hercules Unchained saw much of the same talent, both in front and behind the camera, returning and it allowed for a distinct sense of continuity. Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mionzi, Mimmo Palmara, and Primo Carnero all make their return in either the same role or a similar one. Exclusive to Hercules Unchained are Silvya López, Marisa Valenti, and Colleen Bennett all of whom function as eyecandy in either a greater or smaller capacity. The prima ballerina (Colleen Bennett) at Omphale’s palace court paved the way for Cuban imports Chelo Alonso and Bella Cortez, both of whom would become genre fixtures in the coming decade. Hercules Unchained was not necessarily bigger in scale, but it took on a much darker tone than the whimsical Hercules. (1958).

Hercules was a pretty straightforward recounting of Apollonius Rhodius’ epic poem Argonautica with a giant rubber monster thrown at the end for good measure. Hercules Unchained puts a greater focus on court intrigue and the stakes are raised much higher for everyone involved. Hercules has to leave his beloved Iole in the claws of the reptilian Eteocles, Ulisses is powerless as Hercules walks blindly into the trap that Queen Omphale has laid out for him – and he spents a good portion of the feature trying to break Hercules out of her spell. Thebes is under the threat of war making Hercules’ diplomatic mission all the more important. The political class, corrupted by the power bestowed on them, has descended into squabbling and scheming, often to the detriment of the very citizenry that has entrusted them with said power. Rivalry is another big theme in Hercules Unchained, whether its two brothers vying for kingship or two women fighting for the affections of the same man. Omphale’s embalming theatre is fairly dark stuff for a kitschy peplum, as is the body count and predilection towards bodily harm and cold blooded murder. Steve Reeves is actually given the chance to showcase his acting chops and the entire middle-section is probably the most sumptuous as Hercules is a captive in Omphale’s court. Hercules Unchained is romantic the old-fashioned way as Iole desperately longs for her man to come home and gives lovelorn Queen Omphale of Lydia a boy-toy until Hercules regains agency. It’s an ingenious piece of screenwriting that doesn’t cast any of the parties in a bad light. Unfortunately there are no big rubbersuit monsters to defeat, but for good measure Hercules throws his behemoth nemesis Antaeus into the ocean.

As these things tend to go Hercules Unchained couldn’t escape its share of tragedy. Silvya López, the actress playing Queen Omphale, would die at the tender age of 28 from complications arising of leukemia just one year after the film’s completion. López was born Tatjana Bernt in Austria to Slavonic immigrants. Prior to taking up acting López, who was fluent in six languages, did modeling work with Jacques Fath for Vogue magazine in France. She debuted in an uncredited role in the musical Baratin (1956) and the comedy Five Million Cash (1957). It wasn’t until the Richard Pottier directed drama Tabarin (1958) that she adopted the Silvia López alias. Pottier would attain cinematic immortality himself with The Rape Of the Sabines (1961), a peplum comedy with future Bond actor Roger Moore, Mariangela Giordano, and Marino Masé, that undoubtly was an influence on Terence Young’s own zany mix of peplum and commedia sexy all’italiana The Amazons (1973). The loss of López overshadowed, at least in part, the release of Hercules Unchained. Tragic in a completely different manner was that Sylva Koscina in a decade hence would be working with trash specialist Jesús Franco on the Harry Alan Towers produced Marquis de Sade: Justine (1969) with Romina Power.

Hercules Unchained is an old-fashioned popcorn flick clearly intended as a second feature for a movie matinee headlined by an American production. As a peplum from an earlier generation it spearheaded elements that in a few years time would become standard for the sword-and-sandal genre. It has a hunky bearded hero, two classical beauties to appeal to everybody’s liking and enough comedy, action, tests of strength and romance to appeal to a broad audience. Hercules Unchained might not have been bigger per se than its predecessor. Hercules (1958) was whimsical and kitschy. Hercules Unchained is surprisingly dark at times for what all intents and purposes is a more fantastic inclined peplum rather than the more classical inspired Hercules a year earlier. Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina, Fabrizio Mionzi, and Mimmo Palmara all would feature in peplum for several years to come, and Pietro Francisci’s two Hercules epics heralded the beginning of a cheaper, more philistine peplum movement that would last until the mid-seventies. Obviously Hercules Unchained had more than enough resources and budget to outclass the cheaper imitations it ended up inspiring.