Labouring the part – Hercules in cinema

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In many ways Hercules is perfectly suited to feature in film, his adventuring and all-action attitude makes for a good story. Oh, and for bonus points he’s ripped. Yet his appearance in film hasn’t always been as straightforward as you might expect, indeed some of it is quite bizarre.

To start with we need to consider Hollywood after WW2 and more specifically a film you would have seen or at least heard of. In 1951 Quo Vadis was released having been produced in Italy, the simple reason was that it was much cheaper to make films abroad at that point. Quo Vadis was a huge success, and the trend of making films in Italy resulted in the eternal city becoming known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’.

Success breeds imitation and soon everyone was getting on the act, literally. A genre of film developed called ‘Peplum’. These were cheaper films, made for an international market and with a famous strong-man character from history as the lead. Samson, Hercules and Goliath all partook of baddy smashing with panache.

With CGI, extreme conditioning and more nefarious options ruled out the lead needed to be suitably muscular. Hence the search went on for bodybuilders or strongmen. What resulted was gallons of body oil and, well, you’ll see.

Hercules (1958)

 Steve Reeve’s first lead appearance has been cited as where the Peplum genre really took off. The film was a huge success, it was like Sharknado, only with some acting and no sharks. Previously Reeves had only played bit parts, it was one of those (in the musical Athena) which got him noted by the daughter of the director. Just for some trivia, Reeves was one of the athletes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

 all of that and a perfect beard.

The success led to several years of work in Italian cinema, though it has been alleged that Reeves was offered the role of James Bond in Dr No (1962) and turned it down. Reeves continued to work playing other large types, such as Goliath, the fabulously named Randus (Spartacus’ son) and a giant in more sword’n’sandal type Italian films.

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

Three interesting points mark this Italian film out. The first is that it features Reg Park, he of British bodybuilding fame (and later mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he took up the sport). The second is that the baddie is played by Christopher Lee (though they dub his voice for some reason). The third is that it features zombies.

Less pecs, more Lee.

Yes, zombies – a full seven years before Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. The inclusion of zombies does make some sense as Hercules descends to Hades, though there are an absence of croaking frogs which will disappoint Aristophanes’ fans.  Unlike the Hercules films which followed this one seems quite well produced and with scenery that looks like it wasn’t stolen from a Dr Who prop bin.

The Three Stooges Meets Hercules (1962)

As mentioned above the sword’n’sandal genre was in full swing, little surprise that this was themost lucrative of the Three Stooges films. The chap playing Hercules was the aptly named Samson Burke, a, yes you guessed it, bodybuilder, wrestler and Olympic swimmer from Canada.

Hercules – crazy body, crazy guy.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

One of my favourite films ever and the first I remember seeing Hercules in. Not a central role by any means though worth it for the discus throw and for managing to get several crew mates squashed when he awakens Talos.

more a pub Hercules, the sort you could just talk to, he would listen and not judge

The casting was as normal, though the actor in this instance, Nigel Green, was more actor than strongman and chosen because he was an actor who happened to be big. This film didn’t seem to do him much harm as he was cast the following year as Colonel Frank Bourne in Zulu.

Hercules against the Moon Men (1964)

Really. This really happened.

You get the sense that the Italian film Industry was finally running out of vehicles for Hercules, though, as we’ll see later, this isn’t the most baffling Hercules film. In short men from the Moon invade and Hercules faces a weird monkey type creature, a Batman-esque spike trap and Redolphis, a baddie who looks like a metallic Aztec sex toy.

Redolphis comes with three different speed settings

The man in the loincloth was Sergio Ciani an Italian bodybuilder who had doubled for Steve Reeves and who changed his name to Alan Steel, presumably for marketing reasons (no offence but ‘Alan’ really?).

100% pure Steel, well, actually no.

Hercules in New York (1969)

As mentioned earlier Reg Park was a big name in bodybuilding and he suggested to one chap he was mentoring that he should give acting a go. The chap in question was a 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest is history.

The film is utterly bizarre, kitsch and tongue-in-cheek. Sequences involve riding a chariot in Central Park, wrestling the least convincing bear in film history and scaring a woman on a plane by appearing on the other side of the window require watching. Words will not suffice.

No bears were hurt in the making of this film, careers may have been.

In much later interview Arnie admitted he regretted being in this film. Think on that.

Hercules (1983)

Presumably in an attempt to wipe the minds of Arnie’s outing the Italians decided to reclaim the Hercules franchise with a little help from Lou Ferrigno (Incredible Hulk). Ferrigno also starred in the 1985 sequel, The Adventures of Hercules.


Ferrigno was Arnie’s upcoming rival in the bodybuilding world (something covered in the documentary Pumping Iron which has several unintentionally hilarious moments). Perhaps he wanted to score one on his old rival and thus we have a bear-fighting scene which is marginally better, though that might be damning with faint praise.

On the upside it won award, albeit not ones it might have wanted, namely the Razzie for Worst New Star (Ferrigno) and Worst Supporting Actress (Sybil Danning).

Hercules (2014)

Chances are you’ve seen this one in which Hercules faces the mammoth task of deciding whether he’s a myth or real, or a myth, or a legend, or a legend of a real myth. It’s fun and if nothing is worth the price to watch Ian McShane channel Frankie Howerd from Up Pompeii and Joseph Fiennes steal the scenes as a sneaky Eurystheus.

if he could only get some Nemean shoes….

In fairness the film does try and place or at least deal with concepts of truth and legend, a notable example being how centaurs may have been inspired by horseback archers. There’s also an interesting angle on PTSD and how it may be something not exclusive to modern generations. This wasn’t due to some revelation about how to handle Hercules as much as the film being based on a Radical Comics series titled The Thracian Wars.


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