Plot: Hercules undertakes an epic quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece
The peplum, or sword-and-sandal, reigned supreme over the Italian cinematic landscape from 1958 to 1965, even though it was practiced well into the mid-seventies. The movie to launch the peplum phenomenom was Pietro Francisci’s unassuming and somewhat pulpy The Labors Of Hercules – released in North America as Hercules and domestically as le fatiche di Ercole – whose success had producers scrambling to launch their own pepla to capitalize on its box office success. The Labors Of Hercules laid out the groundwork and established the conventions that the peplum would adhere to for the next two decades. More importantly, it introduced the world to American strongman Steve Reeves, the image of perfection to which all subsequent Hercules would be measured.
The Latin term peplum is derived from the Greek peplon, and, according to the writings of Plautus and Virgil, designates the primitive dress of Greek women and, in particular, the tunic of Pallas Athena, while other sources define it as a Roman ceremonial mantle. It was French critic Jacques Siclier who first used the term - in an article titled L'âge du peplum in the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma in the summer of 1963 – describing a specific brand of Italian costume drama set in the ancient world with muscle-bound historical, religious, gladiatorial, archetypical heroes in the lead role. Central in many peplum were the fantastic, and mythological adventures of Greco-Roman historical figures as Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Atlas, and the fictional Maciste. Many of the non-Hercules protagonists were based of, or derived from, characters appearing in classic Hollywood peplum they sought to imitate. The peplum was almost exclusive to Mediterranean Europe, specifically Italy, France and Spain. The peplum genre never aimed for historical, or mythological, accuracy – instead they chose the most marketable elements from whichever Hellenic legend, myth, and poem sounded most appealing.
Director Pietro Francisci envisioned his own peplum after the commercial success of the Kirk Douglas-Anthony Quinn peplum Ulysses (1954). The production needed a hulking presence as lead man, as per the template set by Bartolomeo Pagano in Cabiria (1914). Years of searching for the right man came to an end when Francisci’s daughter suggested Steve Reeves, an American body builder and Mr. Universe 1950, after having seen him in Athena (1954). Reeves’ portrayal of the original Hercules allowed bodybuilders around the world to enter the industry. Following in his footsteps were the likes of Gordon Mitchell, Adriano Bellini (as Kirk Morris), Mickey Hargitay, Lou Degni (as Mark Forest), Sergio Ciani (as Alan Steel), Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (as Rock Stevens), Mike Lane, and Lou Ferrigno. The Labors Of Hercules became one of the biggest box office hits, both foreign and domestic, that it prompted a peplum cotton industry in its native Italy, and in the neighboring countries of Spain and France. In its native Italy alone it grossed 887 million lire, or four times its budget – in addition to another 18 million in box office revenue worldwide thanks to the promotional efforts of its American distributor Joseph E. Levine. A year later a largely similar sequel followed with Hercules and the Queen Of Lidia, released in North America as Hercules Unchained. Again, thanks to Levine's savvy, it became a box office smash.
The Labors Of Hercules does indeed have its titular hero (Steve Reeves) completing two of the Twelve Labors in defeating the Nemean Lion, and the Cretan Bull. However the majority of its plot is derived from the Argonautica, the 3rd century BC Greek epic poem by Apollonius Rhodius, chronicling the myth of the voyage of Jason (Fabrizio Mionzi) retrieving the Golden Fleece from Colchis. In fifties western fashion The Labors Of Hercules opens with the hulking hunk rescueing the dashing princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) of Iolcus from certain death as her chariot storms towards a cliff. Meanwhile Pelias (Ivo Garrani), the king of Iolcus, has to deal with the treacherous Eurysteus (Arturo Dominici) in his court. Prior his quest Hercules seeks counsel of the prophetess The Sybil (Lidia Alfonsi, as Lydia Alfonsi) whereas Iole does the same in Thessaly with her multiple handmaidens, one of which is played by Luciana Paluzzi (as Luciana Paoluzzi). In an early flashback young Iole is played by Paola Quattrini. A good portion is spent on chronicling the trials and tribulations Hercules, Jason, and the Argonauts face crossing the Aegean Sea. They land at Lemnos, situated off the Western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the island of the Amazons, presided over by Antea (Gianna Maria Canale) where the gentlemen enjoy the warrior women’s hospitality. Towards the end some Samson is thrown in. It’s all fairly standard peplum business until in the third act the pulp comes to the fore as Jason and Hercules are forced to battle the dragon Ladon, a creature bearing a remarkable resemblance to Godzilla (1954), a movie that Levine had distributed three years earlier.
While leading man Steve Reeves was fairly new to acting Francisci assembled an ensemble of recognizable faces for the remainder of the cast. Reeves allegedly was paid $40,000 US cash for the part, a considerable salary for the time. Later Reeves was allegedly offered the roles of James Bond by producer Cubby Broccoli and The Man With No Name, the part that cemented Clint Eastwood as an icon of Italian exploitation, by spaghetti western specialist Sergio Leone. Croatian actress Sylva Koscina was a regular in Italian dramas and comedies during the fifties. Gianna Maria Canale had prior starred in the original Italian version of Spartacus (1953) – famously remade by Stanley Kubrick in 1960 with Kirk Douglas starring and producing – as well as in Theodora, Slave Empress (1954) and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957). Lidia Alfonsi would cross paths with Reeves again in Morgan, the Pirate (1960) and The Trojan Horse (1961). Alfonsi would find steady work in Italian television afterwards. Luciana Paluzzi, obviously a star in the marking given her bit part here, was Bond Girl Fiona Volpe in Thunderball (1965), played opposite of Farley Granger in A Black Veil for Lisa (1968), as well as being present in the Kinji Fukasaku science fiction opus The Green Slime (1968) and the Arabian Nights cheapie 1001 Nights (1968). Paluzzi returned to the peplum genre as Phaedra, the betrothed of Theseus in Terence Young’s campy shlockfest The Amazons (1973).
Distinct not only for being the first of its kind The Labors Of Hercules is far slower and with fewer action scenes compared to the many imitations that it spawned in the ensueing two decades. It was one of the last productions by Federico Teti and The Labors Of Hercules possesses a sense of scale that would be largely absent from the 1970s excursions into the genre once the peplum was no longer deemed profitable. It’s also far more technically proficient than the imitations that followed in its wake. The cinematography by Mario Bava, son of Italy’s first special effects artisan Eugenio Bava, makes use of vivid colors, long shadows, and painting-like composition, and contrasting light and shadow. Mario Bava would in the 1960s and 70s establish himself as the master of Italian gothic horror and giallo murder mysteries. American distributor Joseph E. Levine bought the English dubbed version for a modest $120,000, shortened the title to simply Hercules, relied on radio, television and word-of-mouth promotion to stir interest in the movie and booked it across 600 theaters nationwide, a practice now known as saturation – and one practically unheard of during the 1950s. The Labors Of Hercules made $4.7 million in domestic ticketsales in North America alone. Its influence on the pepla of the following two decades is undeniable, and directors would continue to borrow from the kitschy shenanigans of Pietro Francisci’s sword-and-sandal epic.