Hercules Conquers Atlantis

English Title: Hercules Conquers Atlantis

Original Title: Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Spa Cinematografica and Comptor Français du film

Director: Vittorio Cottafavi

Producer(s): Achille Piazzi

Screenplay: Duccio Tessari, Vittorio Cottafavi, Sandro Continenza

Cinematographer: Carlo Carlini

Art Director: Franco Lolli

Editor: Maurizio Lucidi

Runtime: 101 minutes

Genre: Peplum

Language: Italian

Starring/Cast: Fay Spain, Reg Park, Ettore Manni, Laura Altan

Year: 1961

Volume: Italian

Androcles, King of Thebes, believes that the kingdom is menaced by a power from the West and sets sail to combat it, taking with him a reluctant Hercules. During a storm, Androcles is swept overboard, fetching up on the island of Atlantis, where he is taken prisoner by its queen, Antinea. Helped by a vision from his father, Zeus, Hercules makes his way to Atlantis, where he finds that Antinea is cloning a race of robotic soldiers. She does this by means of a mineral on the island, to which she has access by making human sacrifices, including in intention her own daughter Ismene, to the God Uranus, enslaving her people to do so. Hercules discovers the means to destroy the mineral, by causing the sun to fall on it; he rescues Androcles and sets free the people even as his action causes Atlantis to erupt and fall beneath the ocean. He returns home with Androcles and Ismene.

Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide manages to be among the most serious of pepla, while also not taking itself too seriously.

What Hercules discovers in Atlantis are evils with very evident twentieth century reference. The Queen’s clones are bleached blonde soldiers, a eugenic Aryan master race. Hercules’ discovery of them has him wielding a club, iconographically associated with him, against the armour-clad soldiers, with yet more serried ranks appearing. The critique of fascism is thus not only in their appearance but also in his, pitting old fashioned weaponry and a single bare body against new fangled technology, the identical, massed rows recalling the spectacles of the regime. Similarly the design of the court recalls the monumentalism of Italian fascist architecture, the depiction of the enslaved people concentration camps and the destruction of Atlantis the atom bomb.

All this is carried off with panache. There are the generic set pieces of action: Hercules has his labours, single-handedly pulling a ship to the shore, fighting shape-shifting prison guard Proteus on his arrival in Atlantis, taking on the cloned ranks with his single club. His body is displayed in these set pieces, but also in his lying across the widescreen frame while the court of Thebes deliberates, or Antinea runs her hand over his chest. The film is also lovingly crafted. The music contrasts an inspirational fanfare-based theme against evocative and thrilling arrangements for percussion and electronic instruments at the court of Atlantis. The scale and splendour of the sets at court are emphasized just as it is about to be destroyed, Hercules driving a chariot and team of horses through underground tunnels, emerging beneath a massive, indeed Herculean gold statue.

Much of this touches on a contradiction common in the peplum. The decadent, sadistic court is more interesting and enticing than the rather dull one in Thebes. The body at the centre of the film is, in its heroic muscularity, much of the kind promoted by the regime, not least through the presentation of Mussolini.

What saves the film from being itself Fascistic, apart from the clarity of its critique of Fascism, is the casting of Reg Park. The stars of the peplum were always American, or American seeming, bodybuilders, something removing them from the taint of Fascism and associating them with the liberatory ideals of the USA. Park however (in fact British) has neither the square jawed handsomeness and sculpted body of the most successful peplum star, Steve Reeves, nor the street kid haircut and beach boy muscles of Kirk Morris (real name Adriano Bellini, the only Italian peplum hero star); Park’s face is genial, comfortable, his body massive and chunky. This makes him well able to carry off one of the film’s central conceits: that he never wanted to go on this mission in the first place. This Hercules is not interested in fighting and conquering. In a brawl scene in a tavern at the start of the film, he sits tranquilly eating and drinking, indifferent to what is going on around him. He is only on the voyage because Androcles drugged him. This gives the film humour, the reluctant, even lazy and bored, action hero (and Park smiles a lot) amused at the antics of literally lesser mortals. This refusal to take things quite seriously not only allows the film to make its serious and aesthetically relished points, but is also in itself an attitude the antithesis of the grim seriousness of Atlantis, Antinea, her clones and slaves. By not taking itself too seriously, Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide succeeds in being serious.

Author of this review: Richard Dyer