The Loves of Hercules/Hercules vs. the Hydra

English Title: The Loves of Hercules/Hercules vs. the Hydra

Original Title: Gli amori di Ercole

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Grandi Schermi Italiani

Director: Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia

Producer(s): Alberto Manca

Screenplay: Sandro Continenza, Luciano Doria, Alberto Manca

Cinematographer: Enzo Serafin

Art Director: Alberto Boccianti

Editor: Roberto Cinquini

Runtime: 102 minutes

Genre: Peplum

Starring/Cast: Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield, Massimo Serato

Year: 1960

Volume: Italian

Megara, the wife of Hercules, is killed on the orders of Eurytus, king of Oechalia, who then is killed by Lichas, who schemes for the throne. Hercules comes to avenge Megara’s death and meets Deianeira, daughter of Eurytus. They fall in love, though she is betrothed to Acheleus. Lichas has Acheleus killed, framing Hercules, hoping to turn Deianeira against Hercules and win her hand. Pursuing Acheleus’ killer, Hercules fights and defeats the Hydra, a three-headed dragon. He is severely injured and saved by the Amazon Nemea, then brought to the Amazon Queen Hippolite, who, upon tiring of her lovers, has them turned into tree trunks in the Forest of Death. Hippolyte is transformed into the image of Deianeira and seduces Hercules. Nemea saves him, but is killed by Hippolite in the Forest of Death, where she herself is killed by one of the man-trees. Back in Oechalia, Lichas tortures political opponents and imprisons Deianira for refusing his proposal of marriage. The people of Oechalia rebel against Lichas, while he orders mass killings and some soldiers throw down their arms in order not to fight brother against brother. Lichas then drags Deianeira to a cave, where he is killed by an apeman whom Hercules must vanquish.

Gli amori di Ercole is most notable for starring the then hot tabloid couple Mickey Hargitay (Hungarian-American Mr. Universe) and Jayne Mansfield. It was produced to exploit Mansfield’s fame for an American market, but, with that fame in decline, the film was not released in the United States until six years after it was made. Neither Hargitay nor Mansfield furnishes a particularly strong performance, the Hydra and Forest of Death are tacky, the apeman clichéd, and Hercules’ ‘labours’ predictable, but these limitations from a traditional artistic perspective are pluses from a comic, sub-genre, cult point of view. A persistent emphasis on monsters, magic, religious superstition, and the grotesque evoke a world of marvels and of danger on, just beyond, or at times within the borders of organized life - reflecting both Greek mythology and fairy tale but also embodying something crucial to the pseudo-mythological peplum. A sense that anything can happen, coupled with a clear rejection of standards of perfection (narrative, technical, theatrical, and so on), give the genre a potentially anti-rationalist bias that is arguably counter-cultural and progressive.

The massing of the populace against sadistic authority, with references to soldiers potentially forced to fight against kin recalls the end of the Second World War, which pitted not only Italians against Germans but Italians against one another (partisans versus fascists). Here, as in so many pepla, resolution is achieved through American-identified might from outside (Hargitay-as-Hercules). The usual peplum gender issues are in evidence with women divided into good and evil, men allowed to have multiple relationships (cf. the title of the film), women vilified if they do the same, and masculinity at risk in the presence of strong women (Hippolite and, of course, the highly compromized ‘phalli’ of the Forest of Death). The fact that Hercules can be in love with two different women as long as they appear the same suggests that women are merely appearance or masquerade. On the other hand, women drive the narrative. Megara’s death precipitates the major action. Deianeira is strong, particularly at the beginning. Nemea rescues the hero from his own weaknesses. And Elea, Deianeira’s lady in waiting, uncovers the evil plottings of Lichas.

The film exemplifies common peplum implications around weightlifting, body hair, colonization, and nature vs. culture. Hercules’ near naked body would normally be coded ‘natural’, but because it is built and almost ludicrously hairless, it is clearly also ‘cultured’. Shaved, it is also, in part, ‘feminine’. As body, Hercules is a physical creature, but as trained body, he embodies planning, control, intellect. His body is unmistakably white, but also tanned, making it ‘of colour’, though its coloration (like its hairlessness and contouring) reflects choice not determination. In short, Hercules occupies all positions possible in terms of naturalness and primitivity, civilization and culture, masculinity and femininity, white and other. His hairlessness contrasts with the decadent (over cultivated) beards of his enemies and the hirsute physical aggression of the apeman; his whiteness overcomes the darkness of the other, whether it be a black bull he kills in defense of Deianeira or the racially different caveman; his masculinity is a guarantee against effeminacy; his ‘natural reason’ the perfect weapon against civilized irrationality and its craving for power.

One is led to conclude that the film comes down on the side of nature. The caveman is as tender towards Deianeira as he is threatening to everyone else. He kills the villain of the piece, Lichas. And the film ends with the hero and heroine on horseback in a natural setting, moving away from civilization. However, the extreme close-ups of the hero’s and heroine’s faces just prior, suggest what the film has been about all along: not heroes from a classical past but merely Hargitay and Mansfield themselves: two popular stars who, though waning, help proclaim the emerging dominance of celebrity culture.

Author of this review: Frank Burke