Friday, November 27, 2009
Ah, yes! Those were the days! Disregard the dubbed-in dialogue and hokey plot lines. The orginal 1957 "Hercules" is a treasure of fantasy and fun. To those Americans who possess a sense of the past (what used to be known fondly as "nostalgia" prior to the MTV generation and its contemptuous stance toward anything that occurred prior to the maturation of Jennifer Lopez's big, fat posterior), Johnny Weismuller was Tarzen. Bela Lugosi was Dracula. Clayton Moore was the Lone Ranger. And Steve Reeves was Hercules.
Long before Arnold there was Steve Reeves, the prototype body builder who in the 1940s and 50s surpassed what Charles Atlas initiated a generation earlier. A scrawny, unathletic kid who was teased unmercifully, Reeves decided to do something about his predicament. He made body building and fitness a way of life. Between 1945 and 1950, Reeves won every body building competition and award in the universe, and he did so without the use of steroids or any other drugs. It didn't take long for Hollywood to come calling. After being considered and then turned down for the role of Samson (for being "too muscular") in the 1949 MGM production of "Samson and Delilah" opposite Heddy Lamarr, Reeves spent a few years playing mostly forgetable parts in a number of films before achieving celluloid stardom in his adopted home, Italy. In 1957 Reeves portrayed the legendary Greek hero Hercules in the film of the same name, and repeated the role in its sequel, "Hercules Unchained," two years later. Reeves was extraordinarily handsome with black wavy hair and piercing blue eyes. With his beard and spectacular physique, Reeves looked exactly like the image of the Greek demigod as it had been depicted for thousands of years. So ingrained became his image in the minds of movie fans, that the names "Steve Reeves" and "Hercules" became synonomous.
For a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s he was the highest-paid movie star in the world. To kids growing up in an innocent age of malt shops, high school dances, science-fiction comics, and "Father Knows Best," Reeves was the epitome of wholesome manliness. He became the idol and inspiration for a whole new generation of weightlifters and body builders, including Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbo, Reg Park, and old Arnold himself. He enchanted young and old alike as Hercules and as a number of other legendary Greco-Roman characters. In the late 1960s while still fit as a fiddle, very popular, and only in his early 40s, Reeves was asked by Sergio Leonne to star in a series of Spaghetti Westerns. But Reeves decided to leave the acting business. His place was taken by Clint Eastwood, and the rest is history (there's that anachronistic word again). Reeves continued living in Italy where he could be spotted daily "power-walking" (rapidly walking while carrying light weights in his arms) around all the famous sites in Rome. By the 1990s he and his wife returned to America where they raised horses and lived quietly on a beautiful ranch in Southern California. Reeves still looked great into his seventies and remained a steadfast advocate of drug-free athletics. Which is why it was so shocking to hear of his sudden death from cancer in 2000.
Supposedly, Reeves visited his physician and was diagnosed with an accutely malignant form of cancer. In two weeks, he was dead. Upon hearing the news, I couldn't accept the fact of his passing. "Steve Reeves dead? Can't be." He always seemed so invincible. How time marches on. But the image of Reeves as the prototype celluloid demigod will endure. In the hearts and memories of many a young boy in the 1950s and 60s, there was no more popular person in the world than Steve Reeves. In many ways, Reeves may well have been the last great role model of an America that used to be. Malt shops are gone. Early sci-fi classic films with thoughtful plots like Howard Hawks' "The Thing From Another World" and Robert Wise's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" are now considered archaic by a generation whose attention span is measureable in nanoseconds. High school dances long ago devolved into loud, coarse, uncivil environments known as "clubs." There are no TV shows even remotely resembling the quaint idealism of "Father Knows Best." Yet certain images from yesteryear remain transfixed eternally in the minds of those still thoughtful enough to remember. Steve Reeves will always be the one and only "Hercules."
Fantoma's DVD release of Mario Bava's Hercules in the Center of the Earth ought to elevate his stature in the film world, if not as a "serious" movie director, then certainly as one of the cinema's most talented and artistic lighting cameramen/cinematographers. The story is fairly generic muscleman stuff and the acting is competent if unexceptional (although three-time Mr. Universe Reg Park definitely has a believable physical presence as Hercules); what really sets this movie apart from virtually any other peplum flick are Bava's neon-hued Technicolor visuals, which at times border on the hallucinatory. Throughout most of the movie he tosses off shot after stunning shot, many only a few seconds long, nearly every one impeccably lit, artfully composed, and accented with vibrant color.
Bava's interweaving of light, shadow, color, and sometimes literal "smoke and mirrors" to define space, mood, and even character is consistently impressive, even more so after reading the liner notes describing how little he had to work with. Cool sequences and striking set-pieces abound, including Deianira rising from her sarcophagus and floating across the room (like Lon Chaney in Son of Dracula); Hercules's eerie visits with the sibyl; the psychedelic ocean vistas on the voyage to the Hesperides; Lyco (Christopher Lee) reflected in a pool of his victim's blood; the flying ghouls rising from their slimy crypts (which must have given nightmares to the kiddie matinee crowd in 1964); and the climactic showdown between Hercules and Lyco, shot in an atmospheric Roman grotto. There's almost too much to appreciate in a single viewing. While I'm not normally a huge fan of sword-and-sandal flicks (though I did watch lots of them on Saturday afternoons as a kid), and I could've done without the 'comedy relief' character, I still have to strongly recommend this movie not only to fans of Bava's other movies (particularly Planet of the Vampires), but also anyone who simply appreciates breathtakingly beautiful color cinematography.
Fantoma's DVD is transferred in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced, from a virtually pristine Technicolor print of the original Italian-language dub. There is only the lightest of speckling evident; otherwise it's crisp and clean, with lush, richly-saturated color, and excellent contrast and detail. Optional English subtitles are included, as well as the (continental) English-dubbed soundtrack. Unless you're extremely subtitle-phobic, I recommend the Italian-language soundtrack with the subtitles. The English dubbing gives the film a campier, less serious tone and often renders the dialogue much more prosaically than the subtitles (example: Hercules's final words to Deianira in the subtitled version, "Man's love is passionate, but often inconsistent. Ours will last forever"; in the English dub, "As long as Theseus steals other men's girls, I have nothing to worry about.") Unfortunately we don't get to hear Christopher Lee's actual voice in either version. The DVD also includes excellent Tim Lucas liner notes; a gallery of approximately 45 color and B&W stills, posters, and ad mats; and a comparatively rough-looking trailer, matted to about 1.66:1 and suffering from medium to heavy scratching and lining, poor color, and merely acceptable sharpness and detail. The film is broken into 16 chapter stops and the Dolby 2.0 mono sound is full and clear. The definitive edition of an unmercifully neglected film.