Hercules can compete with Dracula as the most frequently recurring mythical figure in cinema. Probably his most famous incarnation is Steve Reeves in the 1958 Joseph Levine production and its sequels. But where horror has become almost respectable, the “sword-and-sandal” epic, of which Hercules is an iconic example, has not quite acquired cultural acceptance, despite considerable popularity.
Possibly that is because it is based on a classical legend. There is a mistaken expectation that the material will be treated with po-faced solemnity or obsequious deference. The makers of Hercules have instead mashed together several of the hero’s legends without fully realizing any of them. They are held together by a story about Hercules denying his semi-divinity so that he can love Iole (Sylvina Koscina), daughter of King Pelias (Ivo Garrani) the illegitimate ruler of Iolcus. Instead of being the focus, the mythology works like a garnish chosen for its spice of action and sex.
Classical mythology does not require reverent fidelity to entertain, of course. Like the Dracula story, the basic myth can be used as a starting point for variations on situations everyone knows from the beginning. (Leave aside how familiar contemporary audiences may be with Greek myth.) Because the content is known in advance, distinction results from imaginative variation. The changes in Hercules result in a choppy, slowly-moving, declamatory, silly, predictable hodge-podge. (For example, the solution to a contrived “mystery” is so obvious you cannot help wondering why anyone is confused.) None of which, however, matters in the least.
For what does matter are the lush locations, the handsome widescreen compositions, the sleekly gorgeous women, the virile men, the imaginative quasi-Cretan/Greek architecture, the outrageous costuming and flamboyant lighting effects (supervised by horror film legend Mario Bava). Hercules is, in other words, ample evidence that visual style is to Italian cinema what story-telling is to Hollywood, the base line below which its filmmakers cannot go and an inexhaustible source of pleasure that has only minimal concern with literary considerations. At the center of those images stands Mr. Universe Steve Reeves in his breakthrough role. Reeves’s body is the alpha and omega of his performance, indeed, of the film. Whatever acting ability he did or did not have is irrelevant since the script is such a mess the dialog hardly matters and in any event is ruined by the dubbing. There certainly are no calls for subtle characterization.
In short, the film and the genre are practically the definition of camp. And like all camp pleasures, much of its appeal results from laughing at its excesses and absurdities—and at ourselves for enjoying them. You cannot for a moment mistake Hercules for a serious dramatization of Greek mythology. Its only serious intention is to provide spectacular, florid, guiltless entertainment. If some of the formula is dated (the appeals to our gonads feel innocently decorous today), what remains appealing is the sheer high-spirited trashiness and the refreshing lack of pretense.