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)

Hercules
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)

Advertisements

I Bury the Living (1958)

Imagine discovering that you have the power over life and death for certain persons. With a simple action you can decide who dies within the next few hours. Of course, that is not necessarily a pleasant discovery, and since you doubt that it can be true, you have to try again. And again. And even when you are entirely convinced yourself, people around you think you are crazy, and even urge you to test it upon themselves.

Such is the story of the wonderful B horror I Bury the Living. Robert has just taken over as Chairman of a quiet little cemetery, when he notices that just by putting a black pin (for deceased) in a certain grave plot on the big cemetery map, he can prematurely terminate the life of the person who has bought that plot.

Richard Boone in I Bury the Living (1958)

Surrounding the ever more confused and desperate Robert is a number of interesting characters: His supportive fiancée, the Scottish cemetery caretaker, his uncle George and a somewhat bewildered police lieutenant. All of these will react in very different ways to Robert’s problems.

Several people, apparently including Stephen King, have criticised the ending of this film. I can understand, and to some extent agree with that criticism, since the ending breaks with the film’s otherwise tense mood. The current ending also makes the film’s genre is a bit ambiguous. But I am not one to complain. On the whole, I Bury the Living is a delightful little horror/thriller.

This film is best enjoyed for the intense feeling of suspense. The plot, when you start to think about it, has a number of glaring gaps, but the music, the photo and the excellent actors give you no time to ponder over such trivialities.

Peggy Maurer and Richard Boone in I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living
Download link
Year: 1958
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Albert Band
Stars: Richard Boone
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Television in its early days was essentially a live medium. Almost everything was broadcast immediately, in the same moment it was created, and that was just as true for drama series as for news or comedy shows, for example. This had several practical implications. Techniques had to be invented for changing scenes quickly and effectively, especially if the characters had to change clothes or environment. It also meant that everything had to be extremely well rehearsed, in a sense much more closely related to the theatre than to film.

Some of the best television in the 1950s was produced in Britain by the BBC. Among other things, they broadcast a number of very good science fiction series with the somewhat unique hero Professor Quatermass.

Quatermass and the Pit (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) was the third and final Quatermass series, and arguably the best (the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), is only partially preserved today). It had a higher budget than the previous two series, which can be clearly seen in the scenography, and it used pre-filmed material interspersed with the live action.

André Morell in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

In Quatermass and the Pit, construction workers discover the remains of prehistoric humans in London. Later at the same site, they also find what at first is assumed to be an undetonated World War II bomb, but it appears to be made of a substance that is harder and more durable than anything previously known. Professor Q. advances the hypothesis that perhaps the artefact is not of earthly origin, but some refuse to believe that this is possible.

Quatermass and the Pit was made at a time when science fiction could not rely on cool special effects, especially not in a live TV series. Instead, it had to use aspects such as interesting characters, good dialogue and an intelligent story, things seen far too rarely in modern sci-fi. The series also delivers some interesting commentary on its contemporary society, some of which is still very relevant, for instance the gap between politics and science, and the tension between racial groups.

Professor Q. is a nicely developed character, and a type rarely seen on film. He is a scientist who, unlike Indiana Jones, relies on his brain rather than his muscles. In some moments, he reminds a bit about Sherlock Holmes, but where Holmes tends to use spectacular chains of reasoning, Quatermass relies more upon observable evidence and scientific method. Today’s popular media could use more heroes like that.

For many, Quatermass and the Pit is perhaps best known as the 1967 remake by Hammer Films, but that film has totally different qualities. The budget for special effects was higher, of course, and the whole story was condensed to about half the length, driving up the tempo and cutting out many subplots entirely. Both are good, but the original would be my first choice.

This film is best enjoyed if you want some quality science fiction with a good story and good actors.

Christine Finn and Cec Linder in Quatermass and the Pit (1958)

Quatermass and the Pit
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1958
Running time: 2 h 58 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: André Morell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack