Hercules Unchained (1958)

Genres - Action, Adventure, Fantasy  |   Sub-Genres - Costume Adventure, Sword-and-Sandal  |   Run Time - 94 min.  |   Countries - Spain , France , Italy   |   MPAA Rating - G
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Review by Bruce Eder

Hercules Unchained wasn't greeted with much more respect by the critics than was Steve Reeves' previous film, Hercules. In point of fact, both movies were better than reviewers acknowledged at the time -- a fact borne out by their spectacular success at the box office -- and had the effect of establishing a new film genre, the sword-and-sandal epic. It the wake of both movies, producers and directors in Italy began recruiting professional bodybuilders and commissioning scripts that put them into loincloths, battling hundreds (or, in more impoverished circumstances, dozens) of extras dressed as soldiers in some corner of the ancient world. The fact is, though, that few of the movies that followed could match the qualities that made Hercules Unchained so beguiling. Steve Reeves never cut a more commanding presence, and his only better film may have been The Trojan Horse, in which he had to do more acting and fewer feats of strength. The plot drew from the legends surrounding the royal house of Thebes, which are most familiar to modern audiences through the Theban plays of Sophocles. That story line, involving Oedipus the King of Thebes and his two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, opened up opportunities onscreen of which director Pietro Francisci and cinematographer Mario Bava took full advantage -- the scene in which Hercules meets Oedipus at the gates of Hades is a stunner (rumor had it for decades that Bava directed this scene himself), and the eventual battle between the two armies, with Hercules attacking both to stop the fighting and save the kingdom, is a spectacular action scene. Additionally, Sylvia Lopez's portrayal of the Lydian queen Omphale is memorable for its sensuality and passion -- alas, this proved to be her last role; Lopez died later that same year of leukemia. The film as a whole is filled with just enough of the strange, disconnected, episodic nature of the Greek myths, and a good measure of their brutality, so that it served as an introduction for millions of baby-boomer children to the original source material, fostering an interest in mythology that quickly manifested itself in popular culture not only in dozens of rival sword-and-sandal films but in creations such as Stan Lee's Mighty Thor comic book and The Mighty Hercules cartoon show.