We know them by a few different terms: peplum films, sword and sandal films, neo-mythology historical epics. Call it what you will, the genre takes historical/mythological/biblical stories, fills them with as much cast-of-thousands epicness as they can afford for epic battle scenes and high melodrama. Mastered by the Italians, they’ve long been overlooked and ridiculed despite Hollywood aping this basic model every single summer. No more! Not on our watch! Behold in awe: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

NEFERTITI, QUEEN OF THE NILE (Nefertite, regina del Nilo)
Dir. Fernando Cerchio
Italy, 1961



It all starts so simply: in ancient Egypt, Tumos the sculptor (the great Edmund Purdom! PIECES! THE FIFTH CORD!) is in love with priestess-to-be Tenet (Jeanne Crain of STATE FAIR and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN). Simple, right? Not when high priest Bekanon is set on keeping them apart! Did I mention Bekanon is played by Vincent Price? VINCENT PRICE! Bekanon splits up the couple, throwing Tenet in prison and condemning Tumos, who flees to the desert to gather help and hear revelations of the future. Meanwhile, Bekanon tells Tenet that he’s…her FATHER, and so gives her the name by which history would know her…NEFERTITI, QUEEN OF THE NILE!

That’s just the start: from here we have double-crosses, prophecies, lion maulings, the destruction of false idols and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of sardonic Price monologues. Director Fernando Cerchio was well-prepared for this kind of historical spectacle, having directed CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER and GODDESS OF LOVE earlier, and all of his stars make the most of the larger-than-life drama. Sword and sandal fans expecting something like the Firesign Theatre’s HERCULES’ BIG ARMS might hope for two hours of swordfights, but while there’s action aplenty it’s much more of a historical epic.

HERCULES (Le fatiche di Ercole)

Dir. Pietro Francisci (1958)
In English (dubbed from Italian)


“How simple men are.”
In the 3rd century BCE, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote The Argonautica, a retelling of the story of the Argonauts, derided in its time as a cheap reboot of Homer. One of the main reasons for this was the reinterpretation of Jason as less a mighty god than nearly an anti-hero, excelling not at fighting or bravery but cunning and manipulation, and now the main focus of the story, while Heracles (Hercules) is more a loveable but lunkheaded oaf.
1958, and Pietro Francisci delivers what even the opening credits call a loose interpretation of The Argonautica, putting Hercules back in the main role but keeping much of the original dynamic. No one’s as ready to fill these particular shoes as the pride of Montana himself, Steve Reeves, who manages to be both a mighty slab of demigod and a “hero” who generally stumbles into trouble and fights his way out. Our opening, in which Hercules saves Iole (Sylvia Koscina, LISA AND THE DEVIL) and ends up travelling the world, fighting armies, unsuccessfully resisting the schemes of sorceresses and fighting pretty much everything that lives when all he wants to do is take a nap.

With gorgeous Technicolor cinematography and special effects by none other than Mario Bava, a truly jaunty score, a cast of thousands and plenty more, this was the film that led to the sword and sandal boom around the world. There have been many Hercs, but Steve Reeves is our personal favorite, and we hope you see why this July — ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?


HERCULES UNCHAINED (Ercole e la regina di Lidia)
Dir. Pietro Francisci, 1959
Italy, 97min
In English (dubbed from Italian)

Beginning directly where HERCULES left off, the whole gang is at it again, this time from a story (*very* loosely) adapted from Sophocles’ final play, OEDIPUS AT COLONUS, in which Oedipus, in exile after his eye-gouging mother-fucking tragedy, laments his sons Eteocles and Polynices fighting over control of Thebes. Here, Hercules gets in the middle of all this, which seems a bit realpolitik for The Herc, but worry not; before he can get very far he drinks from a poison fountain that erases his memory and is taken captive by Omphale, Queen of Lydia (played by Sylvia Lopez, who sadly passed away the same year this film was released). Omphale seduces and convinces Herc he’s her husband, and our hero spends plenty of time loafing around drinking wine and watching dancing girls. It’s kinda like Overboard! Meanwhile his long-suffering wife Iole (the great Sylvia Koscina of JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, JUDEX, A LOVELY WAY TO DIE), still in Thebes, tries to prevent being flung to the wolves by the scheming Eteocles. Will Thebes fall? Will Iole live? Will Hercules stop taking naps?

Savage Steve Reeves is back for his second and final turn as Herc, and if anything he’s even more of a lovable oaf, fighting curses, palace intrigue, endless spear-carriers and hangovers with perfect hair and pecs for days. Director Pietro Francisci and cinematographer Mario Bava make the most of every location, and the technicolor caverns where Omphale’s licentious ritual dances are not far at all from BLACK SUNDAY’s Technicolor tableaux. There’s a song near the beginning that’ll make you think we fell into a Western, a duel for the future of Thebes and a final everything-and-the-kitchen-sink battle where Herc whips people with chains and destroys entire buildings. Everything you could want from a Hercules film! ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

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