Skip to content

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.

Plot: lone muscleman must lead uprising against despotic Atlantean god-king

In all likelihood The Giant Of Metropolis is one of the greatest peplum-science fiction hybrids from the legendary first wave of the Italian sword-and-sandal genre. As one would guess from the title it merges the two central conceits from Eugène Lourié’s The Colossus of New York (1958) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with lush production design by Eugenio and Mario Bava protégé Giorgio Giovannini and starring roles for Gordon Mitchell, Roldano Lupi as well as Liana Orfei and Cuban belle Bella Cortez. The Giant Of Metropolis begat The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) which in turn inspired Luigi Cozzi from everything to StarCrash (1979) and his two Hercules movies with Lou Ferrigno. Everything has a beginning – and while Atlantis in the desert had been done earlier in the form of The Mistress Of Atlantis (1932) and Journey Beneath the Desert (1961) – both based on the 1920 Pierre Benoit novel Atlantida/L’AtlantideThe Giant Of Metropolis was one of the crazier exercises to follow in the footsteps of Pietro Francisci’s The Labors Of Hercules (1957), the first genuine kitschy pulp peplum.

The director of The Giant Of Metropolis was Umberto Scarpelli. Scarpelli worked as an assistant director on 17 movies from 1933 to 1951. From 1941 to 1954 he was employed as a production manager, mostly on comedies, dramas and romances. In the 18 years from 1943 to 1961 Scarpelli co-directed four productions and as a writer he had established himself with David and Goliath (1960), and Fury Of the Barbarians (1960). That The Giant Of Metropolis is his only directing credit that is truly his own should speak volumes. Scarpelli wasn’t exactly a good or particularly talented director. The Giant Of Metropolis was the first Italian production for American strongman Gordon Mitchell and Bella Cortez had crossed paths with Furio Meniconi, Roldano Lupo, and Liana Orfei earlier in The Seven Revenges (1961) and The Tartars (1961) earlier. If The Giant Of Metropolis is remembered for anything it’s the production design by Giorgio Giovannini and the special effects work from Polish surrealist painter Joseph Natanson. Natanson had worked with everybody from Vittorio De Sica, Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Franco Zeffirelli to John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz, Jean-Jacques Annaud, but also exploitation kings as Luigi Cozzi and Lucio Fulci. That producers were going to capitalize on the on-screen pairing of Mitchell and Cortez resulted in the Emimmo Salvi directed Vulcan, Son Of Jupiter (1962) a year later.

In 20,000 B.C in an unspecified unhospitable desert landscape a group of men is traversing until the elder (Mario Meniconi) expires from exhaustion and old age. He orders his son Orbo (Gordon Mitchell) to travel beyond the mountains and into the city of Metropolis in the heart of Atlantis and issue a dire warning that they “shouldn’t try to change the natural order.” Within the span of just a few minutes his former travelling companions turn on him as their allegiance was to the elder and not much later Orbo’s brothers are killed by an electro-magnetic blizzard that will later be called “the Whirlwinds of Death.” Orbo is taken captive by the Black Guard and its captain (Ugo Sasso) brings him before their iron-fisted ruler. Metropolis is presided over by Yotar (Roldano Lupi), an implacable arch-rationalist who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge and conducting experiments to attain immortality, the closest thing to actual godhood.

Yotar envisions to transplant his the brain of his 200 year-old father (Carlo Tamberlani) into the body of his pre-teen son Elmos (Carlo Angeletti, as Marietto). In other words, The Giant Of Metropolis can pride itself for having a brain transplant a full decade before Lady Frankenstein (1971) and two before Zombie Holocaust (1980).  He is advised by the Prime Minister (Ugo Sabetta) and his sage, corpse-like scientist elder (Luigi Moneta) and Yotar even goes as far as to revive his former science lieutenant Egan (Furio Meniconi) to get validation that his experiments are just. One and all they warn him of the possibly cataclysmic consequences of his experiments. The arrival of strongman Orbo only adds to his resolve as the musclebound hunk of flesh defies any and all scientific data the Metropolis engineers had collected by that point. Orbo is an genetic anomaly that Yotar and his legion of scientists need to study and experiment for the betterment of all.

Within the palatial chambers discord and distrust is growing. Queen Texen (Liana Orfei) and Egan conspire against Yotar by freeing Orbo from bondage. Princess Mecede (Bella Cortez) is initially reluctant to join the insurrection as she’s torn between loyalty to her father and her attraction to the madly babbling desert muscleman. It isn’t until Texen commits suicide by poisoning when confronted by Yotar that Mecede chooses sides. Meanwhile Yotar continues his scientific experiments apace despite Orbo’s ominous warnings. Orbo is forced to guerrilla tactics and shorts bursts of warfare when his dire warnings fall on deaf ears. Yotar, understandably, retaliates by trying to contain the rapidly escalating situation through brute force. However Orbo is nothing the Metropolitans have ever experienced before and Orbo’s persistence forces Yotar into increasingly desperate means of repression to quell the opposition. Means that will eventually spell the fall of Metropolis and fulfill the very same prophecy that Orbo was send to warn him against. By not heeding the cryptic warnings of a primitive, desert-dwelling doomsayer as the most serious thing in the world, Yotar has ensured that his “amazingly advanced civilization” will forever be “lost beneath the waters of the ocean.

How is it possible that with a team of five writers and another two contributing dialogue that the screenplay for The Giant Of Metropolis is such a staggering mess that it barely qualifies as a three-act story and fails to set up the most important characters? It starts with an opening crawl that conveys the necessary background information for the story, but it also gives away the ending and thus kills any and all possible suspense. None of the lead characters, with exception of Yotar, are properly introduced. A majority of supporting characters, irrespective of their overall importance, remain unnamed through out. The Metropolitan society is obviously divided into various classes (scientists, clerics, defense), but none of the hierarchy is given proper explanation and the only way to differentiate between them is the costumes. The screenplay also never truly decides who the point of view character is supposed to be. Orbo is the designated hero of the piece, but he’s quickly reduced to a bystander in what is supposedly his story, and Yotar by sheer necessity becomes the point of view character. Yotar endlessly consults and confers with a series of faceless advisors, only to remain deadly passive. It’s certainly a problem when Liana Orfei and Bella Cortez portray far more internally conflicted characters than Roldano Lupi, somewhat of a specialist in despotic foreign tyrants, and supposedly the main antagonist. Orfei and Cortez far more interesting as such but their roles are merely supportive and don't carry the same narrative weight.

What is also clear is that Sabatino Ciuffini, Ambrogio Molteni, Oreste Palella, Gino Stafford, Emimmo Salvi, and Umberto Scarpelli were a bunch of staunch Catholics. Orbo is, by prophecy and destiny, a desert-dwelling messiah foretold to bring down the great house of Metropolis and liberate mankind from the dire oppression of scienctific progress and the grand pursuit of knowledge. It requires of Yotar, just like Abraham in the Old Testament, to sacrifice his only begotten son in the name of ‘science’ – and strikingly, Metropolis or Atlantis, a den of godlessness and decadence, is swallowed by the sea. Just like God punished mankind with the Great Flood for its disobedience. The Giant Of Metropolis pushes its message of anti-intellectualism hard, as it gives Orbo several occassions to proselytize with grand declarations as, “Your power is based on a criminal use of science. it will destroy you! You will die miserably” and “Perhaps, before we are destroyed, Yotar will realize he has been mistaken. He's not evil. He's only blinded by science.” In age-old Christian tradition women are men’s property and supposed to be submissive. Something which Liana Orfei’s Texen won’t stand for, rebuking Yotar’s “you’re in my power” speech with, “You desire only to possess my body. And you want to destroy every vestige of my will. But I refuse to let you, Yotar. I loath you!” Likewise does Yotar have an incestual longing after his teen stepdaughter played by Bella Cortez.

While the screenplay has its share of problems, big and small, the outlandish production design is some of the most exquisite you’re likely to see in what by all accounts is an Italian exploitation cheapie from the sixties. The sets, miniatures and matte paintings were rendered by Giorgio Giovannini, a protégé of celebrated domestic filmmakers Eugenio and Mario Bava. The locations alternate between wide, spacious, geometric spaces with sparse columns, angular pieces of technology and underlit cavernous subterranean chambers. The Metropolitan palace interiors, often in bright pastel colors, fuse Aztec and Terracotan designs and motifs. In others chiseled faces protrude from walls and stalagmites form centerpieces of barren and desolate chambers. Furniture is sparse with only the king being given the luxury of chairs. In an instance of incredible prescience a building at the center of the royal court resembles the Android mascot.

The production design would be imitated in Mario Bava’s science fiction classic The Planet Of the Vampires (1965) and Dino de Laurentiis’ Dune (1984). The influence of Bava, the elder and the younger, can be seen through the brightly colord atmospheric lightning and liberal use dry ice. The costumes by Giovanna Natili are both uncomfortable and impractical and are much a monastic habit as they are prescient of The Planet Of the Vampires (1965). The weaponry are strangely formed,  leaflike reconfigurations of large, plastic feather dusters and large ornamental fans. To have such exquisite production design wasted on what amounts to a glacially paced potboiler low on both action and thrills is unfortunate to say the least. What kills The Giant Of Metropolis the most of all is the flat and ugly cinematography that doesn’t capitalize on the wonder and spectacle of the production design. The editing is equally infuriating as it contains endless inconsequential scenes of people shuffling in and out of rooms and never builds towards a climax. Likewise does the portentous, minimalist, almost atonal score from Armando Trovajoli - rife with clarinet, piano, theremin - not help at all.

The Giant Of Metropolis is first and foremost Gordon Mitchell’s movie and his bared oiled chest. Liana Orfei and Bella Cortez steal the show in every scene they’re in, but unfortunately never bare theirs. Orfei sports a few very flattering dresses and veils and in her most memorable scene wears but a bikini. Bella Cortez is initially introduced as Yotar’s somewhat mousy daughter, but only becomes a character after her prerequisite exotic dance routine. Orfei would get her own dancing routine in much better peplum productions as Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963). Had The Giant Of Metropolis been helmed by a better director and with a tighter, more succinct screenplay it could have been one of Italy’s most memorable genre-hybrids. The Giant Of Metropolis is a historic curiosity that no cult movie fanatic should be without. It’s everything that Alfonso Brescia’s The Conqueror Of Atlantis (1965) was but infinitely better realized, at least from a production design standpoint, and far more brooding all around. It’s a highpoint of Italian peplum exploitation and it wouldn’t be until Luigi Cozzi’s two Hercules movies two decades later that something quite as crazy would surface. For that reason it’s a towering achievement of exploitation filmmaking at its finest.