For those of you who haven’t yet read the first chapter in this Sword & Sandal / Peplum and MST3K double series, I refer you to the first part, which is especially important if you’re still unfamiliar with the power and glory of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
For everybody else, feel free to read on….
As has been noted in the annals of film criticism, the sequel is rarely as good as the original. This is no exception.
In fact, where the first Hercules film starring Steve Reeves took liberties with the mythology, Hercules Unchained (original title, Ercole e la regina di Lidia, “Hercules & the Queen of Lydia”) gang-rapes the mythology its based on.
The film is very loosely based on the legends of Herakles and Omphale (a noble woman of the island of Lydia; possibly a local Earth-mother deity whom the Hellenes, oddly, did not recognise, not even in syncretism), but what the opening credits did not tell us was that this also combines elements from The Seven Against Thebes and Oedipus at Colonus. The end result is something that plays out like an episode of, say, The Sarah Silverman Program, where you have these two totally unrelated plotlines, save for a single character that manages to connect the two in the vaguest way possible, and when it’s over, you’re somehow curious if it was really just as weird as you think you remember it. Except it’s about four times as long as Sarah Silverman, and no-where near as funny.
On the good side, it has Steve Reeves as Hercules, so if you can turn down your brain for an hour-and-a-half, you can get through it like I did, even though you’re still going to be aware that this isn’t even half as good as the first one. Reeves as Hercules may be perfect, but that’s hardly enough to carry an entire film, cos Reeves may look the part, but his acting abilities are still kind of lacking. — though to his credit, he gives one of the least painful performances in this one.
The film opens with a body being taken in on a stretcher into this… palace of some sort, and then the scene shifts to a boy and (who we later learn is) Omphale. There’s a large Buddha head in her room, which I thought was odd, if only on historical grounds — after all, this is presumably set long before Alexander opened up trade with India, and further presumably, before the founding of Buddhism (which, as per Wikipedia, was around 600BCE, or just after Homer and Hesiod); but hey, this was one of four peplum films starring Steve Reeves released that year, so obviously they didn’t have the time or money for some pretty basic sense of accuracy in the sets — they just had to establish that this palace is East of Hellas, and what better way to do that than… I dunno? Stick Buddhas all over? It’s bad when we’re not five minutes into this and i can already tell it’s going to be ridiculous.
So, the boy tells Omphale that her soldiers have come back, she goes over to the body they’ve brought in, and then her guards or soldiers… kill the boy.
Yeah, that makes sense.
This is going to hurt.
Now we get the credits! Yay! The credits fade in over Hercules and a bunch of other guys from the first film on a ship… headed somewhere… Then the next scene opens with Hercules and Iole loading up a caravan with a pair of horses hitched to it, and the narrator tells us:
This is the land of Attika, part of ancient Greece. What adventures await Hercules in this, his native land? …
OK, mythology aside, this is a sequel to the last film, yes? It was established in the first film that Hercules is Theban, which is in Boeotia — not Attika. Therefore, this is not his native land. Unless they just figured those watching the English dubbing would neither know nor care about the geography. Still, even with my brain turned down a bit, this hurts. I somehow felt compelled to replay that line three times just to make sure I heard it right, and it stung harder each time. I think this officially makes me suicidal in some states.
Many months ago, he set out alone, now he returns with Iole, his bride. Accompanying Hercules and Iole to the city of Thebes would be the young Ulysses, son of Laertes. Now they must bid farewell to their comrades, who have shared their dangerous adventures for the last two years.
I generally don’t mind this narrated intro, bringing the audience up to speed, on the chance that there are people in the audience who didn’t catch the first one. Sometimes I wish more sequels did something similar.
So then we see Laertes give Hercules some carrier pigeons and tell Hercules and Iole to take care of Ulysses, and before they’re sent off, they give Iole a gift lyre from Orpheus — guess which gift is going to be a plot point later?
The three shuffle off, Ulysses driving, so Hercules decides to nap in the back of the caravan and Iole sings “Evening Star” by Mansetti and Parish, which is lyrically irrelevant, so it plays out as kind of gratuitous padding. After Iole’s song finishes, they encounter Antaeus. While I can’t deny that Antaeus is expertly cast by 6’6″ Italian heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera (in his last film role, and looking damned amazing for being fifty-three), I’m here wondering why, on a trip that’s theoretically heading somewhat NNW-ish (from somewhere in Attika to Thebes), did these three take a Southwest-ish detour to Libya for Hercules to take on the labour of Antaeus? More importantly, …
No, wait, this is going to end up longer than the last review if I nit-pick the small stuff like this. Long story short, the fight scene between Hercules and Antaeus is pretty cool, at least it is if you like watching old wrestling matches. Yeah, Athene’s role in Hercules’ besting of Antaeus is replaced with Ulysses suggesting it, but then She is his patroness, so it makes some sense, if you’re feeling generous enough to give the writers that much credit. And the guy doing the English overdub for Carnera has this pompous spark to his voice acting that makes the character about as enjoyable to watch as Steve Reeves as Hercules, but only for that one scene, which is maybe five minutes long and ends less than fifteen minutes into the film.
(As an aside: My flat-mate suggested that Antaeus actually encountered them en route to Thebes, sans tripping through space, because Antaeus is on vacation and, being a son of Gaea, all valleys are thus “his” valleys, and for fun, being a giant, he likes to engage in random thuggery. This really doesn’t help things make any more sense, but he promised I could have the last Ghiradelli muffin if I mentioned this.)
Then it starts to rain and Hercules, Iole, and Ulysses fall back through that wormhole to get back on the road to Thebes, and no sooner do their molecules settle back into place, but they get cut off by Argive soldiers. Despite the fact that they’re all wearing the same armour (oh yeah, the costumes in this one aren’t nearly as good as they were in the first one), Hercules can tell that their captain is Theban — I guess when you’re Theban, you can smell your countrymen. Then it starts to rain, so the three decide to pull over and, despite having a perfectly good caravan to take shelter in, they dismount and head for a cave — cos if they took refuge in their caravan, they wouldn’t have met Oedipus and Polynices, who were hanging out in there.
Apparently, Oedipus and Polynices are hanging out in the cave cos Polynices’ brother, Eteocles, won’t give up the throne, like he promised. Now Hercules has walked in on the Seven Against Thebes plot, and it kind of hurts, cos apparently Herc is one of those guys who thinks he can solve everybody’s problems with the power of his own awesome. Granted, Hercules loves his city, hates seeing this turmoil, and so has a personal interest in this, but really, we all saw this coming from a mile away. Then the soldiers enter, and Polynices declares war on Thebes if his brother doesn’t surrender the throne; Polynices and the soldiers leave, and then we get a cut of the sky and a voice-over that says:
The time has come, Oedipus. The gates are opening for you.
…and then Oedipus walks down into a pit.
I really don’t know what else to say to that. I really don’t.
Then Hercules goes storming the palace and we see Eteocles (and every time I see this actor, I’m reminded of Eddie Izzard), who is playing with his pit of tigers. I don’t know why, but this bothers me — but no, I promised, I’m going to stop nit-picking details.
So, yeah, Eteocles gives Hercules and Ulysses a scroll to give to Polynices, presumably to negotiate a truce, but the two comment on how Eteocles has gone mad as they leave to meet Polynices again. As the two stop to eat, Herc drinks from the fountain of forgetfulness and then hallucinates Iole’s song; he pushes over a boulder, and then faints. Ulysses realises that they’re surrounded by soldiers unknown to them, so he pretends to be a deaf-mute, and the soldiers assume him a slave. Now we see Hercules carried off on a stretcher to the same palace as the first scene and a boy fetches Omphale, and the next action is Hercules waking in a room with a wall open to the palace garden. Herc wakes to find he has no memory, and Omphale tells him that he is the king of this land; enter gratuitous dancing girls and Hercules proclaiming that he likes being King — but wait, says Herc, I don’t even know my name? Omphale replies “to me, your name is Love!”
For those unfamiliar with the Herakles and Omphale mythos, Herakles was remanded by decree of an oracle to be enslaved to Omphale’s service for one year for the Iphitus’ manslaughter; in fact, a common variation of this legend is that Herakles was also ordered to wear women’s clothing while Omphale wore the skin of the Nemean lion, making it clear to ancient Hellenes that this was no picnic, so yeah, this was hardly a holiday for Hercules with the only drawback being temporary amnesia. This deviation hurts me somehow.
Next we see Iole wondering where Herc is, and an old guy whose name I didn’t write down in my notes assures her that Hercules is fine, they’ve only been gone for three days.
Next, we see Ulysses in his cell, sending out a pigeon — because for some reason, these weren’t sent with Hercules… You know, I’m not going to ask this shit to make sense any-more, it just gives me tiny headaches. Then Ulysses is fetched to give Hercules his morning massage, and servant girls bring in breakfast. Ulysses notices the water they’re pouring for him, and after they leave, he dumps it over and refills the cup from the fountain in the garden. As Hercules drinks the refilled water, Ulysses tries to remind Hercules who he is, but since this isn’t going very far, we cut to the pigeon returning to Ithaca, where Penelope recognises it and the message gets to Ulysses’ father. We then learn that Iole has tried to run away to find Hercules, and Eteocles declares war, cos I guess that’s what you gotta do when you look like an Executive Transvestite.
Then presumably a few days back at Lydia have passed, cos Ulysses is getting new water for Hercules again, and Ulysses tries to explain the statues to Herc. What statues?
Well, you see, Omphale has these Egyptians working for her, who dip strong men into milk and dry ice for her, and when they come out, they are perfectly preserved “statues”. Why she’s doing this is anybody’s guess, as is when Egyptian mummification got that ridiculously simplistic. I really want to know when Omphale became a Batman villain, cos this is about as ridiculous as some of Mr. Freeze’s schemes.
So then Hercules suddenly remembers… something, but apparently not who he is, cos in the next scene, there’s a rescue party from Ithaca in the main room, and as Hercules stumbles in, people recognise him, but he has no idea what they’re talking about, so the men are kind of snarky about it, only for everything to suddenly come together for him a few hours later. They all escape and Omphale throws herself off a cliff all Sappho-like, and into a vat of milk and dry ice, but not before we see some really scary close-up shots of how much mascara they put on this actress.
Now it’s time to stop the war on Thebes — cos that’s what you do when you’re Hercules. Eteocles plans to execute Hercules’ family, and manages to throw everybody off the city wall except Iole, whom he decides is to be saved for the tiger, cos everything up to this point made too much sense, I guess. As the men return from Lydia, Hercules gets trapped n the tiger pit, and he defeats the tiger, as if we didn’t expect it. Then there’s a duel between Oedipus’ sons and they both die. Just when you think it’s going to wrap up, it seems a soldier has captured Iole, and he threatens Hercules with keeping her, and then there’s a big battle scene, which is kind of disappointing.
Then there are funerary rites for the brothers, and I like that the actor playing the priest is using proper prayer stance (but mostly I’m surprised by it, at this point), and the film ends with Iole saying “The Gods will be kind if we just love one another.”
The MST3K cut was the first Hercules film that aired on Mystery Science Theatre. I’d seen this about a dozen times or more long before watching the uncut version for review, and it’s available commercially as part of MST3K Box #7. Honestly, maybe it’s the running commentary throughout the film, or the way that it’s been cut (unlike 1958’s Hercules, the scenes MST3K cut from Hercules Unchained don’t really add anything, however minor, to the film), but it just never struck me how goofy this film was until watching it uncut.
The MST3K cut opens with host sketches; its the annual wash-n-wax day for the Bots (see Hercules review, or at least check Wikipedia), and Joel and Dr. Forrester are doing their invention exchange (a remnant of the days when Joel Hodgeson was a half-bit prop comic). I didn’t mention the invention exchange in the previous review because 1) it’s a feature that ended after Joel left the show, and 2) it rarely has any relevance to the film, it’s just something silly that’s somehow one of the few venues for prop comedy to actually work. This one is only peripherally relevant to the film: As Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank (yes, that’s the character’s full name) show off their Swatch Roaches (a goof on the sometimes absurdly colourful Swatch™ watches that were popular from approximately 1986-1992), handyman Steve “Hercules” Reeves (played by head writer Mike Nelson) finds one of their would-be escaped roaches; Joel’s invention is The Steve-O-Metre (no relation to Steve Reeves) because “There is the Known, the Unknown, and What Steve (Allen) Knows”, and this machine is calibrated to detect things comedian/writer/actor/game designer/songwriter/etc… Steve Allen has thought of. As Forrester and Frank fight over their roaches, Steve Reeves is encouraged to introduce his second film, Hercules Unchained.
The first pre-credits scene has been cut because, really, I can’t think of anything that added to the film besides initial confusion, since it takes another good half-hour for the film to come back to Omphale. The majority of the jokes from the first segment revolved around Reeves’ pecs, the idea that all body-builders are on steroids, Iole’s song, and pointing out the sometimes stupid dialogue and shoddy costuming (Antaeus seriously looks like he’s wearing a bathroom rug, but otherwise the actor/boxer looks perfect in this role). When Hercules, Iole, and Ulysses encounter Oedipus and Polynices in the cave, Joel and tom’s comments goof on the idea that the trio have inadvertently walked in on another film set, which it really kind of felt like watching it uncut.The second sketch features Gypsy’s “Greek Song” with set and costumes. Seriously, that song deserved it; lyrically irrelevant, stylistically very 1950s, it was just completely gratuitous excuse for a musical number.
The MST3K cut also left out the big almost too-long introduction of Eteokles and his tiger pit, because we already knew where Hercules was headed, so simply cutting to Hercules getting the scroll from Eteokles is fine. And really, while it wouldn’t have hurt me to see Hercules storming the palace a second time, I’m not sure how much more of Eddie Izzard as Caligula as Eteokles I could take.
The third sketch goofs on The Fountain of Forgetfulness by introducing us to:
- The Carob Shake of Pretentiousness
- The Blizzard of Lonliness
- The Fruit Stripe Gum of Stability
- and The Green Bean Casserole of Happiness
…I’m not sure how funny two of those four would be if you’re not from the American Midwest.
After the third sketch (and for the first time, oddly) it hits me that the relatively capable and somewhat independent, if infatuated Iole of the first film has been replaced by a damsel-in-distress sort of pod person who wants nothing more than to escape Thebes to go find Hercules. Where the Iole of the first film probably would have eventually found him, this pod person repeatedly gets captured by Eteokles’ guards, who return her to him as his hostage — for some reason it suddenly hits me has never been made exactly clear.
The fourth sketch sheds some light on the fact that the Bots have a sort of parent-child type relationship with Joel (after all, he did create them), as they repeatedly ask Joel what Hercules and Omphale do alone when they’re “snuggling and kissing and the scene fades out”. While MST3K may have aired on cable, it aired during prime time and was largely marketed as a family show, so that’s pretty much the real reason Joel doesn’t just come out and tell the Bots (and the audience) that Hercules and Omphale are probably “making the squishy” (as one of my best friends once put it), but in the end, it seems kind of silly that a film with gratuitous titillation in the form of dancing girls would stop so short of implying sex; after all, this was only a couple of years before The Children’s Hour, starring Audrey Hepburn, implied same-sex love all over the place, and we barely see Omphale’s bare back — and this was filmed in Italy which, despite its rampant Catholicism, had a much more relaxed film code than the American industry.
The last segment of the film leaves in all the really relevant parts of the uncut version and the episode ends with Joel and the bots discussing the socio-philosophical “needs” this film, and others in the peplum sub-genre of action films filled in the late 1950s — or, more accurately, Joel, Crow and Gypsy are discussing this, while Tom Servo is quick to point out that they were simply cheap imports brought in to North America in hopes to turn a quick profit.
So, is this as bad as its inclusion on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would imply?
To its credit, again, Reeves as Hercules and Primo Carnera as Antaeus, but when compared to the first Hercules vehicle for Steve Reeves, it has incompetance written all over it. The costumes aren’t half as good as they were in the first film, the writing is a complete mess, and the changes to the mythology involved are easily comparable to watching an hour-and-a-half of the love-starved Amazon Sirens from the first film. It’s really obvious that this was made in half the time as the first one, and that the majority of the budget was probably Steve Reeves’ guarantee.
I pretty much only recommend seeing this in its MST3K cut, but if you have a perverse love of train-wreck films, you can probably find a cheap copy of the uncut version at Big Lots or Dollar General, as its lapsed into the public domain and really isn’t worth more than a couple bucks; if you’re on Cinemageddon (my favourite torrent site), seeds come up periodically, as well. I found this on a DVD at Big Lots for $3, and also on the DVD was the first Hercules film, so it was like paying $3 for the first one and getting this stink-burger for free. The MST3K cut manages to buffer some of the absurdity with the running commentary, and it gives you breaks with the sketches, which I gladly welcomed by the time they came.