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.