The very first film with HERCULES, or ERCOLE, in the title was released in 1957. LE FATICHE DI ERCOLE (1957) stands today as one of the best examples of the genre. The film was so successful, it proved to be the starting point for a whole new genre. The movie's original director, Pietro Francisci, was supported and finally replaced by the Italian cult figure Mario Bava, best known for his horror thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s. LE FATICHE was followed by ERCOLE E LA REGINA DI LIDIA (1959), also starring Steve Reeves, an American actor, who did not appear in other movies as Hercules, but made a respectable career in many European B-movie productions (usually playing a heroic strongman).
In 1960, two Hercules movies were released: GLI AMORI DI ERCOLE (starring Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay as the title character) and LA VENDETTA DI ERCOLE (directed by Vittorio Cottafavi), the first film that featured Mark Forest as the super-hero.
1961 was a big year for Hercules. No less than five movies were released: ULISSE CONTRO ERCOLE (featuring Mike Lane and directed by Mario Caiano), MACISTE CONTRO ERCOLE NELLA VALLE DEI GUAI (featuring Kirk Morris and framed by an odd story set in the present), LA FURIA DI ERCOLE (featuring Brad Harris, directed by Gianfranco Parolini), ERCOLE AL CENTRO DELLA TERRA (featuring Reg Park, directed by the great Mario Bava) and ERCOLE ALLA CONQUISTA DI ATLANTIDE (featuring Reg Park, directed by Vittorio Cottafavi).
Strangely enough, there are no Hercules films on record that were released in 1962. However, the following year, 1963, saw the release of three peplum epics: ERCOLE CONTRO MOLOCK (featuring the well-known Tarzan actor Gordon Scott and directed by Giorgio Ferroni), ERCOLE L'INVINCIBILE (featuring Dan Vadis) and ERCOLE SFIDA SANSONE (starring Kirk Morris). ERCOLE SFIDA SANSONE was made by the director of the original ERCOLE movie, Pietro Francisci and featured not only Hercules but also Samson and Ulysses.
1964 was the last year Hercules movies were produced: ERCOLE CONTRO I FIGLI DEL SOLE (featuring Mark Forest in a South American setting this time), ERCOLE CONTRO I TIRANNI DI BABILONIA (featuring Peter Lupus, directed by Domenico Paolella), ERCOLE CONTRO ROMA (featuring Alan Steel), ERCOLE, SANSONE, MACISTE E URSUS GLI INVICIBILI (featuring Alan Steel as Hercules, directed by Giorgio Capitani) and finally IL TRIONFO DI ERCOLE (featuring Dan Vadis and directed by Alberto de Martino).
Arnold Schwarzenegger's film debut in 1970 had him play Hercules in HERCULES IN NEW YORK (1970), an ultra-cheesy action comedy. Hercules also returned to the screen in the mid-eighties, starring the "Incredible Hulk" Lou Ferrigno (HERCULES and HERCULES II). Excluding these three imitations, our hero ERCOLE graced the screen with 18 appearances.
The name Maciste (more or less a synonym for Hercules) appears in almost 50 film titles. The early Maciste films (24 in total) were made between 1915 and 1926. The first Maciste film of the sound era, MACISTE NELLA VALLE DI REI, was produced in 1960. This Maciste trend lasted, like the Hercules phenomenon, until 1964.
Ursus was another synonym for Hercules. All in all, there were 8 URSUS films (from 1961-1964).
Five or six movies about the Hercules-substitute Samson (Sansone) were made in the years 1961-1964.
Only three or four Goliath movies were made, all between 1962 and 1964.
Roger Corman directed a movie called ATLAS in 1961, in which a Hercules-like superhero must fight against an evil king.
Sergio Leone directed the costumer IL COLOSSO DI RODE in 1961, but there is no superhero in this story.
Steve Reeves, the original Hercules, made a return to sword-and-sandal in 1961 for the historical epic LA GUERRA DI TROIA (1961), in which he plays hero Aeneas.
In 1963, a cartoon series called "The Mighty Hercules" was produced in the United States.
The first Hercules comedy was made in 1960. LE PILLOLE DI ERCOLE (HERCULES' PILLS)
The muscle-men of the early 1960s lost popularity rather quickly. After 1964, hardly any sword-and-sandal epics were produced anymore. Italian cinema (and its audiences) became more interested in westerns (Sergio Leone's PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI is one of the earliest), sci-fi movies (really hokey ones!) and spy action (as a result of the success with the Bond movies).
A notable revival of peplum movies occurred in the early eighties with the production (and success) of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) and CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking at the action movies of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the super-heroes characterized by Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger do not necessarily rely exclusively on their brains to beat the villains (which goes to show the stagnant development of the supermen).