Hercules Unchained

English Title: Hercules Unchained

Original Title: Ercole e la regina di Lidia

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Lux Film, Galatea, Lux Compagnie Cinematografique de France

Director: Pietro Francisci

Producer(s): Bruno Vailati

Screenplay: Ennio de Concini, Pietro Francisci

Cinematographer: Mario Bava

Art Director: Flavio Mogherini

Editor: Mario Serandrei

Runtime: 96 minutes

Genre: Peplum

Starring/Cast: Sylva Koscina, Sylvia Lopez, Steve Reeves

Year: 1959

Volume: Italian

Hercules and Iole set out for Thebes with Ulysses. After disposing of Antaeus, Hercules meets Oedipus and seeks to resolve a conflict between his sons Eteocles and Polynices over control of Thebes. Eteocles agrees to give up the throne, but before Hercules can communicate this to Polynices, he drinks from a magic spring and loses his memory. He falls under the spell of Omphale, Queen of Lydia, who collects lovers and, tiring of them, has them embalmed and turned into statues. Meanwhile Eteocles thinks Hercules has betrayed him to join up with Polynices, and the latter, unaware of Eteocles’ willingness to concede power, has enlisted an army of Argives to attack Thebes. Ulysses finally brings Hercules back to his senses, and, along with a small band of Ithacans who have come to Ulysses’ and Hercules’ aid, they escape Lydia and return to Thebes. Omphale, who has come to love Hercules, throws herself in a vat of embalming fluid. A duel between Eteocles and Polynices leaves both dead, Hercules leads the Thebans (with the Ithacans) to victory against the Argives, and he and Iole are reunited.  

Ercole e la regina di Lidia served as the sequel to Le fatiche di Ercole/ Hercules (Pietro Francisci, 1958). It earned even more than its predecessor in Italy and like Le fatiche was propelled by the marketing inventiveness of distributor Joseph E. Levine to significant box office success outside Italy. Together with Le fatiche, Ercole e la regina di Lidia set the template for the peplum, leading to hundreds of spin-offs over the next five or so years. Although Steve Reeves stars in both films, the sequel paved the way for what can be termed a ‘seriality of difference’, in which the same character appears over and over again in different and even contradictory circumstances, with different wives and lovers, and played by different actors.

Ercole e la regina di Lidia confirmed a number of fundamental peplum characteristics: escapism and fantasy (in sharp contrast to the Neorealist films of the 1940s); a return to pre-industrial, pre-modern times with a privileging of rural simplicity; an emphasis on spectacle (widescreen, colour, action, the body-on-display) above narrative and character; a strongman hero (appealing particularly to rural southern Italian audiences and reprising silent film heroes such as Ursus and Maciste); hyper-masculinity mixed in with homoeroticism and comic-book heterosexuality; a parody of foundational Western literature (playing fast, loose, and humorously with Greek mythology); a pervasive silliness and irreverence with obvious appeal to an emerging youth culture and audience; and an openness to multiple entertainment and film forms (music, dance, science fiction, horror) accompanied by a vertiginous intermingling of literary genres: fairy tale, epic, theatre, melodrama, and action/adventure. Much of this suggests a subversion of cultural tradition and canonicity consistent with many forms of popular cultural expression.
In terms of artistic merit, Ercole e la regina di Lidia can, like so many pepla, be faulted for implausibility, tackiness, technical lapses, historical inaccuracies, and the thespian deficiencies of its star, but the pleasure of the film lies as much in its defects (including postproduction factors such as poor dubbing) as in its virtues, which lie mostly in the realm of spectacle, and especially in the visual dynamics of Maria Bava’s cinematography and special effects. The film’s weaknesses are liberatingly comic, contributing not so much to individual aesthetic pleasure as to the kind of recollective group pleasure characteristic of cult movies. In keeping with this, Ercole e la regina di Lidia was one of the pepla chosen for full-length screening and parodic commentary by Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

As with any cultural product, Ercole e la regina di Lidia reflects issues and concerns that are independent of its entertainment objectives but inevitable given its cultural situatedness. Most obvious seems to be an anxiety about masculinity. At the beginning, Hercules and Iole playfully discuss the ‘chains’ she has placed on him in marriage. Then Omphale’s matriarchy proves a source of great evil that turns Hercules into an impotent and pampered house pet. To escape from her domain Hercules must hold apart the clamping vagina dentata of a huge door. Masculinity is restored only when women assume their rightful role as passive victims: Iole under threat in Thebes becomes metonymy for the city itself, both in need of Hercules’ protection. Despite this normalization, heterosexual masculinity is highly qualified as Hercules and Ulysses prove to be the film’s most important couple, spending more time together than either Hercules and Omphale or Hercules and Iole.

The Italian foundational myth of fratricide (Romulus and Remus) is reprised in the deadly conflict between Eteocles and Polynices. The implied need for a strong ruler recalls Fascism, while the fact that might and right are embodied by an American actor invites discussion of Italy’s liberation in the Second World War and, more metaphorically, the role of America in postwar Italy. The death of the two brothers ends rule by succession, suggesting a major rupture with the past, consistent with numerous aspects of Italy’s postwar political and social reconfiguration, including the movement from monarchy to republic.

Author of this review: Frank Burke