Hercules (1958)

The sword-and-sandal, or peplum, genre of films has a long history, starting in the silent era. But for a few short years, the genre was the bright centre of the cinematic universe, at least in Italy, and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Western world. And that short period in the early 1960s all started with one single film, Hercules with the muscular Steve Reeves in the title role.

Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina in El Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules (1958)

Hercules, more so than most other sword-and-sandals, is solidly grounded in ancient Greek mythology. The plot centres around the legend of the quest for the golden fleece (complete with Argo, Jason and many of the most famous Argonauts), and mixed into the brew are several segments from the legend of the labours of Hercules.

It is difficult to grasp just how popular the sword-and-sandal films were at their peak. The genre is hard to define exactly, so any count of how many films were produced during the peak years must be made with care. One estimate I have seen suggests that during the period 1960 – 1965, an average of one new film every ten days(!) was released in Italy. It is easy to understand that the market was saturated eventually, and after 1965, the genre more or less died, or at least dropped to more reasonable levels.

A few other sword-and-sandal films featuring Hercules are available at the Internet Archive, most interestingly Hercules Unchained from 1959, which was a direct sequel to Hercules; the two are often mentioned together as the two films that sparked the tremendous interest in the genre.

The version I have chosen for this post is a pretty good widescreen version. The Internet Archive also has a different version, edited for 4:3 aspect ratio. It is much less interesting, but if you are fanatic about this film, you may wish to compare them side by side.

This film is best enjoyed for its high production and entertainment values, but also as a truly pivotal piece of cinematic history. Sure, you will have to endure some pretty bad dubbing, but the overall experience is certainly worth some minor suffering.

Steve Reeves in El Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules (1958)

Download link
Year: 1958
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Language: English
Director: Pietro Francisci
Stars: Steve Reeves
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (831×376; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)


Goliath and the Vampires (1961)

The Internet Archive is truly a place for discovery and learning. Like when I wrote about Cabiria last week, and discovered not only that the Italian hero Maciste originated in that film, but also that he was the star of over 50 more films, half in the silent period, the other half during just a few years in the early 1960s. A handful of those 1960s films can be found at the Internet Archive, including what is said to be one of the best Maciste films, Maciste contro il vampiro. As was so often the case with the Maciste films, the hero was renamed for the US version, which is titled Goliath and the Vampires. Utterly illogical, since a generous count reveals but a single vampire in the entire film.

Gordon Scott in Goliath and the Vampires / Maciste contro il vampiro (1961)

Even though I can find no information that a longer version of the film exists, there are several illogical jumps in the plot. I conclude that the film was probably very badly cut, and perhaps not all that well written in the first place. But that matters little, for the plot is no reason to watch this film. It is pretty standard genre fare, even in its best moments. Maciste/Goliath, after having saved a boy’s life, returns to his home village, only to find it burned and the people massacred. Maciste swears revenge, and he also wants to rescue his fiancée who was kidnapped along with some other women.

Italian films from this period are always dubbed. The heroes, and sometimes other important characters, were played by American B actors, whereas most supporting roles were played by Italians. Therefore, you can see that the lip synch of Gordon Scott is actually pretty good (I have no idea if that is his own voice or someone else’s), whereas most other actors, although acceptable, are much more obviously dubbed. In an Italian version of the film, it would have been the other way around, of course.

It must be admitted that Gordon Scott is splendid in the role of Maciste/Goliath. Even though he may not have been a great character actor, he had a decided knack for striking heroic poses, he knew how to deliver his lines fluently and he had a spectacular body. It is no wonder he had been cast as the eleventh Tarzan a few years earlier. In fact, Goliath and the Vampires was his first role after the Tarzan films.

This film is best enjoyed as a representative of a time and place. Italy in the 1960s was the source of a tremendous amount of films trying to mimic various Hollywood genres. Even though they did not quite succeed, they did manage to produce something very unique and interesting. The sword-and-sandal films, as the spaghetti westerns that were to come later, is one example of this.

Leonora Ruffo, Gordon Scott and Jacques Sernas in Goliath and the Vampires / Maciste contro il vampiro (1961)

Goliath and the Vampires
Download link
Year: 1961
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Sergio Corbucci, Giacomo Gentilomo
Stars: Gordon Scott
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×386)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (554 M)

Under the Red Robe (1937)

It seems to me that there is often something special about films set during the period of king Louis XIII (with Cardinal Richelieu in the head of government). I guess it is the gilt from The Three Musketeers, with all of its nice adaptations, that rubs off a bit. One such film that can be found at the Internet Archive is Under the Red Robe.

Conrad Veidt in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

This romantic adventure finds the swordsman Gil de Berault in trouble. He is in danger of being executed for duelling, but the sly Cardinal Richelieu gives him an opportunity for pardon if he can find and capture a rebellious protestant. de Berault eagerly sets off to do the task, but as the plot progresses, he is about to find obstacles he had not anticipated.

The director of this typical genre piece was Victor Sjöström (sometimes called “Victor Seastrom” in Hollywood, as also in this British production). Sjöström started making film in Sweden, where he directed simple melodramas in the early 1910s. He quickly moved to more advanced topics, and made several timeless classics, such as The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjöström was recruited to Hollywood, where he also made several very good silents, but in the early 1930s, he moved back to Europe. He still acted and produced films, but for some reason he directed very few of his own in the sound era. Under the Red Robe, his last film, is nowhere near as groundbreaking as some of his classic works, but it is a nice piece of craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is pretty blurry in places, and contrast is poor overall. I know of no better online version, however.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of either Conrad Veidt (de Berault) or Raymond Massey (Richelieu). Both are very good, even though I think Massey (always an enjoyable and dedicated actor) perhaps overacts a bit at times. The female lead, Annabella, is given first billing in the credits, but even though she is also good as the sister of the religious rebel, she is mostly forgotten nowadays.

Conrad Veidt and Annabella in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

Under the Red Robe
Download link
Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Annabella
Image quality: Acceptabe
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (577 M)


Jungle Book (1942)

It is interesting how inspiration can sometimes go in circles – or at least in spirals. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, published in 1894, lent inspiration to Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote the first Tarzan book in 1912. Burroughs has said that Kipling was among his inspirational sources, and Kipling later admitted that Burroughs was a “genius among genii” of imitators (though, strictly speaking, Tarzan is more than just a Mowgli imitation). The Tarzan character was later changed, in both subtle and not so subtle ways, for the silver screen, and among those changes was the iconic vine swinging, allegedly invented by Frank Merrill and popularized by Johnny Weissmuller. Now, here comes the real inspirational loop, for when Jungle Book, one of the most classic of the film adaptations, was made in 1942, we suddenly see Mowgli swinging the vines from tree to tree, just like the Tarzan that was originally inspired by the book Mowgli.

(NB. Tarzan of the books finally did swing the vines, but not until 1948, in the final Tarzan book published during Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lifetime, Tarzan and the Foreign Legion.)

Patricia O'Rourke and Sabu in Zoltan Korda's Jungle Book (1942)

With or without vine swinging, Jungle Book is really a spectacular piece of film, though truth be told, it is not a very faithful adaptation of the literary original. It begins with a neat framing sequence, where an old storyteller somewhere in the Indian countryside tells the story of Mowgli. Then we see many scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. And at last, the story comes to Mowgli himself and his struggle for finding his place, among the jungle animals, but even more so among the humans. There is naturally also a romantic interest in the form of a young girl.

Mowgli was played by the actor simply named Sabu, who at this time was at the height of his career. Sabu had a very special screen personality, one that mesmerized and captivated the audience. But after he had served as a tailgunner in World War II, his career never quite got back on its feet, and this is therefore one of his rather few films as leading actor. If you are unfamiliar with Sabu, watching him is by itself worth the price of admission.

This film is best enjoyed because it combines the best of Hollywood and British film of the time. From the British, it has the attention to detail, the flowing dialogue, and that little something which I cannot quite put my finger on. From Hollywood, it has the lavish sets and the budget to truly make it rise above the average.

Sabu as Mowgli among the elephants in Zoltan Korda's Jungle Book (1942)

Jungle Book
Download link
Year: 1942
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Director: Zoltán Korda
Stars: Sabu
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)


Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good


Captain Kidd (1945)

Last week, I wrote about how Douglas Fairbanks defined the entire pirate film genre with The Black Pirate (1926). Having said as much, all pirate films are naturally not made from the same template. Though a number of clichés can certainly be found in Captain Kidd, the film also contains a number of original elements.

Randolph Scott in Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd is nowhere near as lavish and epic as The Black Pirate, yet it is well worth watching on its own merits. The plot is a bit too intricate to be described in just a few sentences, but rest assured that you will find both romance and adventure a-plenty. It involves the greedy and scheming pirate William Kidd (Charles Laughton), the greatest menace of the seven seas, and Adam Mace (Randolph Scott), a man who is out for revenge.

Captain Kidd has often been criticised for being historically inaccurate. That may well be the case, but it is totally beside the point. The film does make use of a number of historical names, places and ships, but the entire plot is just a wonderful fantasy, and it should be watched as such.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s acting. Even though Randolph Scott may nominally be the film’s hero, Laughton is definitely the main character. I did not clock, but I am sure he gets more screen time, and he is absolutely magnificent in his role. There is also a very good John Carradine in a minor role.

Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd
Download link
Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Stars: Charles Laughton, John Carradine
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (720×576)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M)


Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

This week, the new Tarzan film The Legend of Tarzan is scheduled for its worldwide premiere. While a new Tarzan film used to be a common occurrence (in the 1930s and 1940s there was usually a new one every year), they have not exactly been as common lately. In fact, the latest live action Tarzan film was Tarzan and the Lost City, a pretty bad flick from 1998.

The Internet Archive has a little over half a dozen Tarzan films and serials, but truth be told, most are not good. One of the better is the serial Tarzan the Tiger (episodes 1–7 and 8–15).

Frank Merrill in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger was made just as the silent era was swiftly marching towards its own grave. This serial is an example of a blend that was relatively common around this time. It is essentially silent, but it has a synchronized soundtrack, including some (pretty annoying) sound effects and also the first-ever recorded version of the Tarzan yell. It was, however, a far cry (pun intended) from the later Weissmuller version.

This was the last silent Tarzan, and it marked the end of the first period of Tarzan films also in another way. Starting with the first Tarzan film, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), Tarzan films had always been based, more or less faithfully, on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books. But with the first true Tarzan sound film, The Ape Man (1932), the stories were original ones, created directly for the movies. Also, the characters and their surroundings changed from the novels, introducing for example the ape Cheeta (who is not still alive, by the way; that is just a myth) and the famous tree house.

But Tarzan the Tiger was still very much rooted in the original Tarzan novels. It has been too long since I read the novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, upon which the serial is based, but my recollection is that the serial follows the original plot fairly well. The traitorous Arnold Werper is there, as is the slave trader Achmet Zek. And most importantly, the jewels of Opar, which everyone wants, and on which the amnesiac Tarzan is positively hung up. If nothing else, the serial is definitely made in the book’s spirit.

With that novel, Burroughs started experimenting with a new plot format, one which involves switching from one character’s point-of-view to another’s and with frequent cliff-hangers. I call this type of novel “the jungle romp”, since it has a number of characters running circles in a jungle, alone or in small groups. They are often completely lost, but in the end they miraculously find one another (and the treasure) in just the nick of time. It is plain that this is a formula which would easily lend itself to the serial style of story telling.

The Jewels of Opar was also Burroughs’ first novel where he used the amnesia cliché. Many critics have said that Burroughs overused amnesia in his plots: it was used several times in the Tarzan series of novels, for example. But in this first, Burroughs was still experimenting, and it actually helps to lift the story and make it more interesting.

Frank Merrill, like so many other screen Tarzans, had a background as an elite athlete. He had been a nationally top-ranking gymnast, and it shows. In terms of physical appearance and ability, he made a splendid ape man. His acting talent was somewhat less splendid, but his over-acting is actually unintentionally funny and helps to raise my level of enjoyment another notch.

The version found at the Internet Archive is, unfortunately, very dark and generally of poor quality. I am not sure if restored versions are available on dvd, but all the versions I have seen on the Internet are like this one, or worse.

This serial is best enjoyed for an abundance of action and sudden plot twists, just like any good serial. On the other hand, one should not expect too much of the acting or scenography.

Frank Merrill and Natalie Kingston as Tarzan and Jane in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger
Download links: 1–7 | 8–15
Year: 1929
Running time: 4 h 28 min
Director: Henry MacRae
Stars: Frank Merrill
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX