12/15/06

408 Hercules Unchained

(1959, Fantasy-Sword & Sandal, color)

I’m the Hellenistic ideal.

Rating: ***1/2

In a nutshell:

Civic unrest and a libidinous queen interrupt Hercules’ honeymoon.

Summary:

An accurate, but not particularly descriptive title.After many trials and adventures (not shown until Episode 502) the eponymous muscleman (played by the beefy Steve Reeves) takes his bride Iole to his home city of Thebes. The wispy youth Ulysses tags along in their pioneer-style covered wagon. Herc takes a nap in the back of the wagon while Iole sings a strange repetitive song that seems to consist mostly of trilling the words, “Last night...”

Thankfully, a large jolly man ambushes them, identifying himself as Antaeus, son of the earth goddess. The sleepy Herc ignores him while he beats up Ulysses and makes free with Iole, rousing himself only when Antaeus musses his hair. The giddy giant takes several beatings, but keeps getting back up until Ulysses suddenly recognizes him as Antaeus, son of the earth goddess (sigh) and realizes that he gets his strength from the earth. Herc ends the conflict by tossing him over a cliff and into the sea.

They stop at an abandoned cave in the forest only to discover its new inhabitant, the blind and exiled Theban king Oedipus. Apparently (for reasons that are well known to students of Freud, but are not actually mentioned in the film) his sons convinced him to step down and let them take turns being king. Now that one year has passed, the lunatic Eteocles has refused to yield the throne to his brother, the whiny Polinices. Polinices has gathered an army of bloodthirsty mercenaries to take the city by force, and has stopped at the cave to get his father’s blessing. Herc heads to Thebes to broker peace between the brothers

Eteocles laughs maniacally and accepts the offer, so Herc leaves Iole in the care of Kreon (another famous Greek guy) and heads back to the cave with the peace offer. Stopping for the night, Ulysses stalks birds while Hercules drinks from an enchanted stream. A disembodied voice announces that these are the “Waters of Forgetfulness,” and Herc collapses. Frippily dressed Egyptians gather up the unconscious Herc and his pal Ulysses, who escapes questioning by pretending to be deaf and mute.

They cross the Aegean to an island ruled by Queen Omphale, whose eyebrows have been shaved and then painted back onto her face in a permanent cartoon scowl. She convinces Herc that she’s his wife while pale nymphs do a sexy chicken dance around them. The camera goes up while they go down.

Ulysses continues to hide his true self by mumbling incoherently and occasionally chasing the nymphs. He happens to have carrier pigeons with him and sends a missive to his father, Laertes. He strategically interrupts Herc’s steady supply of the waters of forgetfulness and tells him about a room where Omphale has all of her former lovers killed and stuffed for display. Laertes arrives with their pals from the Argos and helps Herc regain his memory. They make a daring getaway through some spiky secret doors. The distraught Omphale drowns herself in steamy embalming fluid.

Back in Thebes, the deadline for peace has passed, so the murderous Eteocles imprisons Iole, Kreon, and all of the moderate Thebans in the tiger pits. Herc and his pals sneak in through a canal and kill lots of white-clad soldiers. The tigers fall one by one until Herc breaks down the doors to find the prisoners.

Meanwhile, some concerned citizens arrange for the warring brothers to fight one-on-one. Eteocles kills Polinices in single combat, and then immediately bleeds to death. The disgruntled mercenaries decide to attack anyway. They’ve taken Iole prisoner, though no one’s really sure how that happened. Hercules leads the charge, and the mercenaries fall easily, trapped under their unwieldy siege towers. Herc and Iole kiss tenderly, and the whole mess is over.

Introduction:

Steve and the guys reminisce.It’s wash and wax day on the satellite. Tom shrieks and cries under the hot wax while Crow desperately tries to escape a similar fate.

Host Segment One:

Crow sobs while Tom sings about how clean he feels. When Joel asks Crow what he can do to make him feel better, Crow replies, “I want you to kill Tom.” The Mads have invented swatch roaches, which are large insects in designer colors. The exterminator they’ve hired to help them turns out to be Steve Reeves (Mike Nelson in a stuffed jumpsuit), who reluctantly admits to playing Hercules in the film. Joel has invented the Steve-O-Meter, which you can wave it over any new idea and see if Steve Allen has already thought of it. It turns out that Steve Allen’s already thought of everything, even the Steve-O-Meter.

Host Segment Two:

Gypsy has decorated the set with steps and columns. Tom and Crow dress in togas and lounge about, forcing Joel to peel grapes for them. The armless Gypsy has replaced the strings on her lyre with glockenspiel tubes so that she can sing while bashing it with her head. Quoth she, “I am the Hellenistic ideal.”

Host Segment Three:

Magic Voice announces “The Waters of Forgetfulness.” Joel and the ‘Bots want to know who manufactures it, but the person writing the bottle label forgot. In quick succession, Magic Voice also introduces “The Carrot Shake of Pretentiousness,” “The [Dairy Queen] Blizzard of Loneliness,” “The Fruit Stripe Gum of Stability,” and “The Green Bean and French Onion Casserole of Happiness.”

Host Segment Four:

Tom and Crow try really hard to make Joel tell them what Hercules and Queen Omphale do after the kissing scene fades to black. Joel raises a number of possibilities, such as telling secrets, fixing her dishwasher, or perhaps he’s her secret live-in dentist.

Host Segment Five:

Joel and the ‘Bots each have different theories about the deep, inner meaning of the film, speculating on such elements as Joseph Campbell and various distribution rights scenarios. They present the matter to the Mads, who turn to Steve Reeves for clarification. All he can remember about filming is drinking bottle after bottle of really cheap Italian wine.

Stinger:

Omphale blinks deliberately into a mirror.

Thoughts:

Being queen means having the power to execute people who make fun of your makeup.This is one big, brash, goofy film, full of beefy men with glistening pectorals, very liberally adapted from Greek myth. How liberally, you ask? Let me put it this way. All the good guys live happily ever after. Iole forgives Hercules’ amnesiac adultery (or perhaps he just doesn’t tell her), Kreon is depicted as a kindly old man, and no one bothers to mention why Oedipus is blind. There’s even a happy young girl that I assume is supposed to be Antigone. It’s like watching a version of The Ox-Bow Incident where the townspeople decide not to have a hanging after all, or a version of Hamlet where he marries Ophelia and rules Denmark happily ever after.

Gypsy may not really be the Hellenistic ideal, but her song is hilarious. “Last night...” Boom. Tinkle. “Last night...” Boom. Tinkle. She plays the lyre like someone repeatedly rear-ending a pickup truck full of crystal. Mike Nelson does a dead-on impersonation of Steve Reeves, who somehow sounds deadpan even when he’s shouting. The inventions are all right, and Magic Voice has a very funny bit where she introduces all kinds of edible Deux Ex Machina. Apparently, the “Carrot Shake of Pretentiousness” causes you to join an experimental theater group.

The film segments have many opportunities for mockery, and the satellite crew makes the most of them. Tom refers to all the sweaty, bare-chested hunks that row the ship in the beginning as “Frankie Avalon in Slave Ship Bingo.” When the Argos crew comes to Hercules’ rescue, Crow notes the excited Queen and says, “This is an aphrodisiac for her.” Tom responds, “Everything is an aphrodisiac for her.” When the oddly dressed Theban guards resist Hercules’ attack, Tom notes that it’s “Smurfs vs. skins.” This film would be fun to watch even without the commentary, but not as much fun as it is to watch in this form.