Hercules (1983) written and directed by Luigi Cozzi
What’s it about?
This adaptation of the Greco-Roman legend starts off with a lengthy narrated introduction. Earth’s solar system is created when Pandora’s Jar shatters, sending out pieces of elemental matter which form the planets. Earth’s moon becomes the residence of the Gods, who oversee the affairs of Man. One day, Zeus, the King Of The Gods (played by Claudio Cassinelli), decides to create a man of great strength who will fight in defence of humankind against evil. His name is Hercules (Lou Ferrigno), whom Zeus places on Earth as a baby in the Royal court of Thebes.
However, the forces of evil are conspiring to usurp those of good even when he is at this early age. The treacherous Valcheus (Gianni Garko) has designs on the throne of Thebes. Meanwhile, the enemies of The Gods, King Minos (William Berger) and his daughter Ariadne (Sybil Danning) desire the power of the magic sword that lies within the court. They work together so that the sword is stolen and, in turn, the forces of Valcheus can enter the throne room and kill the King and Queen. He then turns to slay the Royal baby and sever the bloodline once and for all. However, he discovers that a chambermaid has left with the infant Hercules and has sent him floating downstream in a small boat. With Zeus’s help, he reaches safety and is taken in by a poor woodcutter and his wife.
When Hercules grows up, Minos realises the threat he poses to him. Hence, with the power of science that he commands, he sends a trio of mechanical creatures to vanquish him. When Hercules’s adoptive parents are killed - his father by a bear and his mother by one of Minos’ minions - the hero decides to head off on a quest to find out why he possesses such great strength and why the forces of evil want him dead.
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Why is it significant?
The Italian peplum genre was popular during the late-1950s and early-1960s. It revolved around a series of action-packed fantasy adventures featuring various mythological and historical characters. The Hercules movies, kicked off by the Steve Reeves-starring film of the same name in 1958, were the best-known of this cycle. The genre had died out in the mid-1960s as Italian studios reverted to jumping on the Spaghetti Western bandwagon. However, in the early 1980s, films like Clash Of The Titans and Conan The Barbarian had instigated a new era of popularity for mythical fantasy adventures. In turn, Italian writer-director Luigi Cozzi and Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (of The Cannon Group) felt that it was time to dust off the old tunics, swords and shields for another generation of moviegoers.
In addition to cashing in on the early-1980s fantasy/swords-and-sorcery craze, Hercules also nods at the Star Wars space opera sub-genre which was still popular at the time. Indeed, Cozzi had previously dabbled in the latter with Starcrash (1978). In his take on the legend, there are scenes set in outer space, laser-firing robotic creatures and even a lightsaber-style glowing sword which is invoked during the finale!
The cast features a number of ageing actors who had previously worked in the peplum cycle during the peak of its popularity: Brad Harris, Rossana Podestà and Gianni Garko. Harris, an American bodybuilder and stuntman who subsequently turned to acting, was well-known for his leading roles in several of these films, such as The Fury of Hercules in 1962. The title role, however, went to Lou Ferrigno - another American former bodybuilder who turned to acting with The Incredible Hulk TV series in 1977. At a young age, Ferrigno’s idol was Steve Reeves, yet another American bodybuilder-turned-actor who previously played the same mythical figure in Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959). Golan and Globus had undoubtedly fancied their chances of shaping Ferrigno into an early-1980s equivalent to Reeves and Harris since they had also cast him (plus a number of other Hercules cast members) in another peplum throwback called The Seven Magnificent Gladiators which was shot during the same year.
The voice we hear from Ferrigno’s mouth during the film is not his own: it belongs to a British actor named Marc Smith. While English is Ferrigno’s native language, he was rendered practically deaf due to an ear infection at an early age and has struggled throughout his life to overcome a resulting speech impediment.
The film is considered to be a major turkey and has found something of a following as a so-bad-it’s-good cult favourite. It did indeed win two 1983 Golden Raspberry (Razzie) awards: for Worst New Star (Lou Ferrigno) and Worst Supporting Actress (Sybil Danning). It also got nominated for Worst Actor (again for Ferrigno), Worst Screenplay (Luigi Cozzi) and Worst Picture (Yoram Globus). It was, however, a modest hit in cinemas, taking more than $10 million in the US alone on a budget of just $2.5 million (according to IMDB). It also did particularly well on its video release, resulting in Cannon persuading Cozzi and Ferrigno to make an even cheaper sequel called The Adventures of Hercules (1985). This one recycled a fair amount of footage from the original as well as some unused scenes which the director had shot for The Seven Magnificent Gladiators.
How does it hold up?
It’s beyond doubt that Hercules is a bad movie. However, while Razzies were (deservedly) won for terrible acting on the part of Ferrigno and Danning, this isn’t the kind of film that you would seriously watch with fine acting at the top of your priorities list.
The special effects (in a film which relies so heavily upon them) are more of an issue but, again, not the most fundamental. True, many of them are very bad, a classic example being Minos’s stop-motion creatures which are poorly composited over the tops of live action shots. Others, such as the creation of the planets at the start of the film, are actually pretty good, with some imaginative use of mattes and miniatures. Even the bad effects can, at least, be entertaining because of how absurd and inept they are. There is one scene where Hercules fights with a bear, involving footage of a real bear intercut with shots of Ferrigno wrestling with what resembles a man wearing a dirty rug. The coup de grâce occurs when a scruffy teddy is hurled into space and ends up becoming the constellation Ursa Major, signalled by a shot of a roaring bear over a backdrop of stars. If you manage to keep a straight face during this scene you must be suffering from a case of acute paralysis.
No, the main problem with this version of Hercules is the script. It’s an incoherent hodgepodge of bits and pieces from Greek mythology presented in a Ray Harryhausen fashion (including the whole “Gods watching from above and manipulating events” trope previously used in Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans), plus a lot of illogical guff thrown in whenever writer Cozzi fancies diverging from the mythos in favour of creating a spiritual successor to his similarly batshit space opera Starcrash. A lot of elements should simply have been pulled out to make way for a good story instead of being in service of setting up one FX sequence after another.
As it is, it’s too episodic and all too frequently flies in the face of any established logic to provide anything for the viewer to latch onto. Here are some examples:
1) Why do we have a lengthy ramble of complete drivel at the start of the movie involving the creation of the universe? It sounds like Cozzi made it all up after some fever dream he had following consumption of the wrong kind of mushrooms. He even makes up the 4 elements as he goes along - Night, Day, Matter and Air. What’s wrong with the traditional Earth, Air, Water and Fire?
2) Later, Hercules teams with a witch named Circe (the beautiful Mirella D'Angelo) but she just helps to add to the special effects quotient. There is a moment where she mentions that she has lost her powers as she has fallen in love with Hercules. However, instead of bringing some interesting dramatic angle into the script she is simply bumped out of the picture at that point, because of course anything other than spangly special effects is considered outside of the picture’s remit.
3) Minos goes on at length about the powers of science reining supreme, yet he never really demonstrates anything remotely rooted in science or logic. Ok, so his assistant creates some mechanical creatures (which get vanquished pretty easily by our pectorally-blessed hero) but that’s about as tangentially close as it gets.
To be fair, Hercules does provide some guilty amusement in small doses. It is easy on the eye, thanks to some imaginative production design, attractive Technicolor colours and amazingly beautiful women such as the aforementioned D'Angelo and Sybil “You’ve never seen a Valkyrie go down” Danning. There is a suitably bombastic epic score by Pino Donaggio. The trouble is it doesn’t really pan out to nearly 100 minutes’ worth of amusement when there isn’t a functioning storyline to back it up. Starcrash had similar issues but at least managed to move along at a giddying pace, whereas this one crawls from one scene to another. It’s strictly for die-hard fans of Italian genre movies from this era.
Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: Luigi Cozzi
Script: Luigi Cozzi
Starring: Lou Ferrigno, Brad Harris, Sybil Danning, Rossana Podestà, Ingrid Anderson, Mirella D'Angelo, William Berger, Bobby Rhodes, Gianni Garko, Claudio Cassinelli, Delia Boccardo