As both a sucker for old sword-n-sandal action, and (as loathe as I am to admit, especially with my English grandparents probably watching from the Underworld) somewhat of a product of the American Midwest, I realised that I had to produce a review series involving Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and even the latest project from Mike Nelson (head writer for MST3K for nearly every season), Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (Observer/Brain Guy and the voice of Crow during the Sci-Fi Channel series), RiffTrax. When I can obtain an “unriffed” version of the film (whether by rental or from the bin of $3 DVDs at my local Big Lots — or even, if I simply can’t find it any other way, from a film torrent site), I will compare them, if only to see if the title in question really is as bad as Joel Hodgeson (creator), Mike, Trace Beaulieu (Dr Forrester and the voice of Crow in the Comedy Central series), Kevin, and Bill’s wise-cracking commentary may lead one to believe; and, because I’m what’s known as a hardcore “MiSTie”, I will make it very clear if I’m reviewing a Mystery Science Theatre episode that has not yet had a commercial release (despite the show’s huge cult following, episodes have been slow to release due to rights issues and negotiations with the copyright holders of the original film; on the other hand, the people behind MST3K themselves have always encouraged tape/DVDR-trading among fans, and will knowingly turn a blind eye to fans selling DVD-R copies on sites like iOffer, as long as the price is not for an apparent profit; on rare occasion, you can also find unreleased episodes on YouTube).
The first film I’m going to add to this series of both sword & sandal flicks and of MST3K/RiffTrax treatments is 1958’s The Labours of Hercules, the International English title. I know it was originally shot in Italian, which I have never seen, and which I imagine can’t be much better, as the film’s star, Steve Reeves, was an American of largely Scottish descent (so I can’t imagine him having the firmest grasp of any Latinate dialect), a bodybuilder who once held the Mr. Universe title, and I find it telling that his IMDb biographies would rather mention his fifty-two inch pecs before his acting abilities. I have never seen this film in its uncut-for-MST version prior to this review, and MST-featured films in their original state tend toward boring me to sleep, so I go in with a prayer to Hypnos and to Herakles himself, because if this film did nothing else right, it can at least say that Steve Reeves looked the part in every way, so it already has something on every other Herakles film.
When you think of Herakles of Thebes, you don’t (or at least I don’t) think of Disney’s toothy animated pretty-boy-on-steroids. While I liked that Hercules: The Legendary Journeys had Kevin Sorbo, well, not try to look like Reeves, I don’t think of Sorbo’s Hercules as “really Herakles”; well-built and believable for the material and Sorbo’s abilities? Sure, I’ll even argue that Sorbo is debatably a better actor than Reeves, but he’s not really close to what I think of when I think Herakles. Steve Reeves, on the other hand, looks plucked from an ancient vase painting, a veritable animated statue of the God Himself that no other depiction of Herakles before or since could quite chisel out right. Have there been Heraklean actors of adequate appearance and presence? Sure, but even a pretty good Herakles seems a bit dime-a-dozen; Reeves, on the other hand, looked perfect in this role and all who disagree will be asked if they use that mushy grey stuff between their ears for something more than keeping their skulls from caving in.
I also admit that I have the scantest familiarity with the poem this is based on, The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, as it’s been years since I’ve read it, and hard copies are easier on my eyes than eBooks on my desktop monitor (I won’t turn down a Nook from an aspiring sugar daddy, though), so I will abstain from commenting on its apparent “faithfulness”, except where things seem especially bizarre for Hellenic mythos.
As I sit down with my big bowl of cheese-dust coated popcorn, a cat hoovering behind me on the back of the couch and expecting a tribute of cheese popcorn, I’m forgiving the dust and scratches left over from a well-used archive print of the film, and I’m forgiving the harsh, often grainy colour idiosyncratic of cheap digital “restorations”, and I’m liking the wider aspect ratio of this film better than the familiar MST3K cut, which was presented in a cheap pan-and-scan edit for television — but widescreen presentation does not a good film make, so I regain composure, because all this indicates is that they didn’t have the budget for Cinemascope. Still, a poor restoration is evidence of nothing more than a low budget for the DVD.
After the opening credits typical of the period, we get a scrolling prologue that reads:
Immense and immortal was the strength of Hercules,
like the world and the Gods to whom He belonged…
Yet from lesser men he learned one eternal truth —
that even the greatest strength carries with it
a measure of mortal weakness…
Despite some stylistic quibble characteristic of the genre — “ruins” during a story that pre-dates Hesiod, women’s hair and make-up styles anachronistic to the late 1950s, mostly — the film has good framing throughout, and even the costuming is probably the closest to “accurate” for ancient Hellas that I’ve seen in these late 1950s/early 1960s sword-and-sandal epics. The costuming on this film is rich with colour, and even some fabric painting and embroidery (though not much), the sandals and armours are well-detailed, for the budget this was filmed on, and the sets for the palace of Iolcus make up for what they lack by skilled framing to distract from this relatively minor flaw.
Iole, the daughter of Pelias, is pretty strong and capable for an ancient Hellenic woman of her approximate age and class (though the actess is considerably older than the typical marrying age of ancient women, this is forgiven due to modern sensibilities), and in her first scene, is shown attempting to repair her own chariot, and quickly it’s revealed that Hercules can’t fix it, either. Score a point for people who care about that sort of thing in their films.
As Iole gives Hercules some background about the theft of the Golden Fleece, I’m immediately struck by a scene that MST3K left out, most likely due to time and its minor relevance, at best, to the plot — this is a scene where Iole and her brother are very young and sneak off with Jason to see and touch the Golden Fleece. I understand why MST3K left it out, but I think, due largely to Iole’s narration, it adds to some of the background and majesty of the fleece, despite it being a visually unimpressive scene. The flashback ends with Iole describing the sight of the slain king, and the shock at the missing fleece, and for 1958, there is a LOT of blood in this scene.
Just moments prior to Iole and Hercules’ return to Iolcus, we get a scene with King Pelias receiving a prophecy from an oracle woman directly. I could quibble about this, after all, the visions of oracles were often cryptic, and often relayed through priests trained in deciphering what they spoke of, but if I recall correctly, recent studies suggest that this may not have been a constant figure, and some oracles may have spoken directly. On the other hand, despite the bad dubbing (which really is steeped throughout this film), the actress does an adequate job of being kinda “spooky” in her portrayal of this oracle; she stands inhumanly erect, when compared to other characters on the screen, and has this intense and feline quality to her face, a face framed in a thick lock of long dark hair (as the rest is wrapped in a scarf behind her head), large eyes, chiselled-looking features. Her costuming is also apparently chosen to stand out amongst all other characters she shares a frame with, which probably aids in giving her an other-worldly quality. Pelias, in this scene, is portrayed as very pious, scolding his son for insulting the oracle for being “not even pretty”, and explaining to him that the oracles are “the Gods’ mouthpieces”. She warns Pelias of a stranger who will greet him wearing a single sandal the second before Hercules walks in — and quickly, the camera pans in just enough to reveal that Hercules…
…is indeed wearing both sandals.
The next major scene, if I didn’t know better, I would swear is one of the most splendid yet transparent excuses for beefcake in a film; it’s hard to avoid beefcake in a Herakles film, it really is, and it’s not like this one goes to lengths to avoid seeming gratuitous, when compared to scenes in, say, Troy that seem almost over-dressed. There’s a reason “old Steve Reeves movies” were mentioned so lustfully by Dr Frank, through the song “In Just Seven Days (I Will Make You a Man)” in Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, and maybe it’s cos I’m inclined toward my own gender, myself, but when a scene opens with a bunch of oiled men in perizoma leaping, sprinting, and almost frolicking into the frame, it’s really hard not to see how this could be a hit with gay men.
When Ulysses introduces himself to Hercules, he says:
My father said you put strength ahead of everything, but I know you want us to use our forces only to serve our intelligence.
Forgive me for failing to remember if this is something actually taken from Argonautica, but regardless, I think it’s possibly the most important lesson of Heraklean mythos — after all, what good is physical power when you lack the intelligence to use it best? Big, stupid strongmen are a dime-a-dozen, and often make a nuisance of themselves, or worse.
Hercules quickly bests Iphitus in both archery and discus, which manages to spook everyone there but Iole, who scoffs at the other men being intimidated. Soon afterward, Hercules kills a lion which had already delivered fatal wounds to Iphitus. I admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with these animal effects, but considering the time, I’m not sure if there was much in the way of choices here without it looking too cheesy — which they already sometimes are. There are moments when you have to suspend disbelief that Reeves is wrestling a skin from a Victorian trophy room, and there are moments where you can tell the lion and bull that just got beaned are high on tranquillizers, and it’s impossible to tell if Reeves is holding back much, if at all. The animal effects have no middle ground, and while I really want to forgive this cos of the limited technology available, watching Hercules battle the lion and the Cretan bull in this film make me rather uncomfortable, and this is as somebody who gladly had a burger for lunch.
Speaking of the Cretan bull, MST3K omitted that, as well, again, probably for time and its reduced relevance to the story of the film.
How is this importance reduced? Well, one of the major changes I can definitely say is apparent in this film was how the screenwriters expanded the role of Herakles in the return of the golden fleece; in traditional Heraklean mythos (and, according to Wikipedia, the Argonautica, specifically, as well), Herakles’ role in this quest is minimal, and he leaves the others pretty early on after Hylas becomes lost. Hylas is absent from this film, at least in name; the first image from the first scene is of a youth with goats playing a pan flute, and this may be there to imply that Herakles’ abandons Hylas early on in the film’s story. This is all speculative, as that youth is unnamed, and only appears in that very brief few seconds in the first scene. The de-facto role of Hylas is replaced by the character of Iole, but I don’t mind this so much because she’s pretty well-done.
Soon after the bullfight, i encounter another MST3K-cut scene, that of Herakles and Jason about to cross a river on horseback, but they are stopped by a woman with her daughters, and she asks the men to help them across. As they help the woman and girls cross the river, Jason loses a sandal; when the woman points this out, he laughs about it and says “that’s alright, I can get a better pair in Iolcus.” Hercules then remembers the King’s degree that all men entering Iolcus wearing only one sandal shall be put to death, so after Jason heads out on his own, Hercules follows.
As Jason and Hercules and a band of men set out by ship to retrieve the Golden Fleece and prove Jason’s status as heir, the actor playing Orpheus is singing in Italian (the film’s original language, and the only segments left without an overdub), a lovely tenor, as the rest of the men sing in chorus as they row. Soon after, they hit the storm, and there’s another scene MST3K cut — the details of the statue of Poseidon falling, cracking through the top floor of the ship, and then the storm subsiding as soon as its erected again.
When the men encounter the Amazons (something that doesn’t seem to feature at all in the mythos of the Golden Fleece) in hopes of gathering provisions on an island they assumed deserted, I’m stricken by the fact that the Amazons’ costuming is about as goofy as it is scant. I’m willing to forgive the filmmakers the fact that the Amazons have both breasts (after all, binding both breasts is hard enough, it wouldn’t surprise me if manoeuvring around one to strap down the other is all but impossible, and films have not only budgets, but deadlines), but this costuming looks like a cross between a Roman guard, an art nouveau painting, and a Playboy bunny, it’s hard to believe these women can hold their own in battle, and this is one of those things where I simply can’t suspend disbelief. Contrasting the ridiculously titillating Amazon warriors, we have Queen Antea, who gives a reasonably commanding presence to her role, but this may be helped by the fact that she doesn’t look nearly as ridiculous. Further removing the potency of the Amazons from mythology, there are plenty of gratuitous cheesecake shots of “Amazon” women frolicking through their gardens, feeding the men grapes, and swimming underwater — as beautiful as the underwater scenes are shot (and they seem to be some of the best-preserved scenes in the whole film), I really can’t forgive any of it because Come. The Fuck. On. We’re talking about Amazon warriors here, and this looks like a G-rated cut of Caligula or something. Then there’s the romance between Queen Antea and Jason, which is thankfully very brief, but nonetheless exists despite the queen’s orders from an ageing priestess of the island that the men should be put to death later that evening; Ulysses overhears this and drugs their wine with poppyseed so that when Hercules finally comes ashore to fetch the men, they can all escape. As the men flee the scene, we see Amazons on the shore, doubling as sirens and singing their names, waving at the ship — and you can tell this is still the Amazons, because we see the face of Queen Antea gazing longing into the distance, probably preparing to throw herself off the cliffs, like Sappho, for her One True Hot Todger.
As they leave the island of the Amazon Sirens, Orpheus sings loudly and plays his lyre to drown them out, and Hercules accompanies on drums, which he beats with his club — of note, Reeves manages to snap the club in half during this scene, but keeps beating, anyway.
Now the men have FINALLY gotten to where the Golden Fleece had been hidden years before, and there’s the monster guarding it. Honestly? Gamera looked better than this dragon, which is also pretty obviously a guy in a rubber suit, but again, we have to remember the year this was filmed, the budget it was on, and other potential factors — well-done stop-motion would have probably looked better, but it would have taken longer and probably cost more, depending on the skills of the animation team and puppet builders. A guy in a rubber suit, comparatively, look OK-enough, and is much cheaper, and will get the scene filmed much sooner.
Upon returning with the fleece, Eurysteus betrays the men and steals the fleece to take to King Pelias. Hercules figures this out and threatens to expose this, after signalling to his men to come ashore, only to then have the floor released from under him, dropping him into a dungeon cell. Jason confronts Pelias, who then falsely accuses Jason of being an imposter, and a fight breaks out. As the fight is starting, Iole is informed by one of the young women in the palace (presumably servant girls) that Hercules has, indeed, returned, but that he’s in the dungeon. Iole breaks in and, effectively, sets Hercules free to charge up to the main room where the fight has broken out, and then the fight sequences get really fucking cool-looking. Seriously, when Steve Reeves is swinging heavy chains, it looks absolutely awesome.
Iole runs to her father’s quarters to see that King Pelias has poisoned himself, and as he’s dying, he confesses his wrongs to Iole, and begs forgiveness of the Gods, surrendering the throne to Jason. The film ends with Hercules and Iole sailing off into a mountain-studded sunset, in another perfectly iconic frame.
For those unfamiliar with Mystery Science Theatre 3000, this was a show that premièred on Comedy Central in the early 1990s after a brief season on Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA. The premiese of the show was similar to several local “creature feature” series on local stations of the time (like The Ghoul Show out of Detroit, and Svenghouli out of Chicago [which, as of 2005, I knew from personal experience, was still running]) and previous periods (like Vampira in the 1950s and Elvira in the 1980s, both originally out of Los Angeles), but with a twist: Like the other shows, MST3K had host segments that often talked about and sometimes goofed on the film they were playing, this was nothing new; but unlike the other shows, MST3K had running commentary during the film itself, which was something previously unheard of in 1988/89, when it first premièred on KTMA — this commentary was even completely unlike later DVD commentaries in that it was given while silhouettes of the MST3K cast sat in cinema seating at the bottom on the screen. While MST3K presentations partially obscured the film’s visuals, this usually wasn’t significant, and it often provided for visual gags by the MST3K cast.
MST3K’s cast main characters consisted of at least one “mad” (there were often two) operating from Earth, one “test subject” marooned in space, and two robots (puppets voiced and operated by cast members), and the premise of the earlier seasons was that of a mad scientist who has trapped a co-worker (later a company temp) in space and is forcing him to watch bad films from a satellite in Earth’s orbit (to prevent his escape) in the name of science; to keep the test subject company, there are several intelligent “bots” on the satellite (created by Joel’s character), two of whom (Tom Servo and Crow) accompany him to each film, and one of whom (Cambot) serves as an explanation for the tendency of the host segments to “break the fourth wall” and talk to the television audience (a fourth, Gypsy, rarely appears in the theatre, and this is explained by her internal software being necessary to “perform the higher functions of the ship”, though she often features in the host sketches).
This concludes the necessary background for MST3K, and hopefully will make this and future MST3K reviews less confusing to those who are unfamiliar with the show.
The MST3K cut of 1958’s Hercules is not the first Hercules film from this series that they showed, in fact, I believe it was the third, after Hercules Unchained (the second starring Steve Reeves) and Hercules Against the Moon Men (original title Maciste e la regina di Samar, which is literally translated as Hercules & the Queen of Samar; I believe this is the third in the series, and the first Franco-Italian joint production, and the first to star Italian actor, Sergio Ciani [as Alan Steele], presumably because Steve Reeves was commanding too high a salary, as he had become the highest-paid actor in Europe at the time), and this fact of disjointed continuity is noted in the first host segment by Dr. Forrester. Unfortunately, MST3K’s cut of Hercules, despite an apparent lapse into public domain, remains unreleased, commercially, so I had to watch this on a VHS tape, recorded off Comedy Central circa 1993, judging not only from the copyright year at the end of the episode, but also by the advertisements for Last Action Hero during the commercial breaks. (Also of note, though completely irrelevant to the review, this particular VHS is “inherited” from a friend and starts out with an ex-girlfriend’s “video letter” sent to him while away at Michigan State University. It probably says a lot about me that I find how “normal” this girl is practically obscene, her appearance and personality are so plain and uninteresting. I thus advocate averting normality, lest you become perverse with it, as this poor girl has — the irony of this preceding a tape of three episodes of MST3K is not lost on me.)
During the opening credits animation, Joel and the Bots goof on the constellations, and after Herc rescues Iole, Joel points to the scenery in the background and exclaims “hey, there weren’t ruins yet in ancient Greece!” Again, not necessarily something that makes it a bad film, but definitely betrays the film’s budget status as low. This does seem to be some of the most vicious commentary for this episode, but the kind of playful snark that dominates this MST3K treatment is very typical of the “Joel seasons”, though this may have as much to do with the quickly declining quality of the films when Mike took over the “experiment” character as much as it has to do with Joel’s approach to the films.
Further in, after Hercules meets Pelias and the oracle, Pelias is unsure that this is really Hercules and asks for proof, reasonable enough, until he says “I simply can’t trust the eyes of a girl,” Tom Servo quips “Because I’m a pig!” immediately showing disdain for the film’s occasional sexisms. This display of sexism wasn’t lost on me watching the uncut film an hour-and-a-half prior, but in seemed unnoticeable in contrast to Iole’s apparent competence.
Then there’s a sketch where Crow asks Joel about the constellations. See, Crow can’t make any sense out of the constellations, except for Orion, so Tom steps in to say that the reason Crow can’t see the pictures in the constellations that the ancient Greeks saw is because the culture has shifted so far from the ancient Greeks. Tom then suggests new constellations — such as “Ham Sammich”, “New Christy Minstrels“, and Picasso’s Guernica“. Crow has his own suggestion “two dots — look, it’s a Pencil! The eraser’s almost gone!” a suggestion dripping in sarcasm.
When Joel and the Bots return to the theatre, it’s time for the beefcake scene, Tom comments “It’s a Gore Vidal fantasy!” After Iphitus arrives, it’s noted how much the actor looks like Tom Jones. The MST3K cast are also quick to call out the scene where Hercules kills the lion as cruel and how silly the Amazon costumes are.
The episode ends with Tom and Crow discussing how easy they think they’d have it if Amazons took over the satellite, but Joel comes in and explains that the writers of the film falsely made the Amazons titillating — he also described the film as based on “ancient Greek history”, which subtly legitimises the mythology as potentially based on historical events, which is cool. Of course, in the middle of Joel’s explanation, he and the Bots get a call on the hex-monitor from a pair of semi-retired Amazons in a space ship of their own, and looking, acting, and speaking like stereotypical Midwestern housewives, which Joel comments on after they leave.
The other sketches included Crow in a parody of Match Game, playing the host and all six celebrity contestants; Crow and Tom asking Joel about the 1970s pop group Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. After regular and repeated viewing of episodes of MST3K, I can say that sketches that have little or nothing to do with the actual film are characteristic of episodes that have better films.
In conclusion, was this as bad as its presence on MST3K could make it seem? Not really. It’s not the best Herakles film ever cast to celluloid, and it takes sometimes ridiculous liberties with the mythos, but to be blunt, most of what it changes is at least in-spirit with the source material. I have no problem with replacing Hylas with Iole because looking through a list of the loves of Herakles, it’s pretty clear that the God is bisexual, and expanding Herakles’ role in the quest for the Golden Fleece really doesn’t majorly alter the original versions of the story all that much — after all, Jason fights the monster on his own, and returns to his rightful throne with, in reality, little assistance from Herakles; Hercules is just… kind of there, doing stuff that he does to help out. While I feel there’s really no excuse for what they did with the Amazons, that’s really the only thing I can complain about; seriously, if they were going to merge this concept with the Sirens, anyway, then why not just expand the role and presence of the Sirens? It may not have been exactly in sync with ancient mythos, but it would have made some sense.
It’s telling that this is one of the episodes of MST3K that has more playful commentary, most of it along the lines of humming “Yakkety Sax” to a fight scene and running commentary about Reeves’ pecs and references to The Incredible Hulk. While the Joel episodes are known for having a more playful nature than later seasons with Mike, episodes with films like Mitchell (which resulted in its star, Joe Don Baker, threatening the MST3K writers) and American Ninja and even every Sanday Frank Productions film they ever tackled show that Joel can be mean, if the film truly deserves it. Seriously, the Godzilla and Gamera films imported to the United States via Sandy Frank Productions were so eviscerated by Joel, with a climax that included “The Sandy Frank Song“, and though these episodes have been preserved by former cast and crew for eventual release, Frank has put a stop to this repeatedly, because these are honestly some of Joel’s meanest moments. And dare I forget that “Manos”: The Hands of Fate was also a Joel episode? Even the “mads” were apologising for that one. While Mike will be mean to a movie even over something that doesn’t need it (he’s too quick to reference Glen of Glenda when an actress is especially tall, for example), don’t let Joel’s typical good-natured ribbing of a film fool you. Hercules is a decent effort, it could have been better, but it’s probably among the best films to earn a feature on Mystery Science Theatre.
If I were to give 1958’s Hercules a letter grade, I’d give it a strong C+ and not a B or B- simply because some scenes can drag on a little more than they should, and the dubbing is bad enough in places that it can be a little distracting, especially if you’re not getting into it, but in general, it’s not that bad. Worth checking out if it’s scheduled for a local network’s Sunday afternoon feature, and worth adding to any respectable beefcake and camp film collection, but I wouldn’t call it necessary viewing for Hellenic polytheists.