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
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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)

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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
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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)

The Hunt for Gollum (2009)

J. R. R. Tolkien spent almost an entire lifetime world-building, constructing languages and writing stories, most of them set in his fictional world Middle-earth. Yet very little of what he wrote was published during his lifetime. Most of it was for his own enjoyment. And even though many texts have been published posthumously, none have had even a fraction of the impact of his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings. So it is perhaps not to wonder that fans have taken to writing fan-fic – and making fan films – in order to satiate their need for ever more LotR stuff. One of the better fan films is The Hunt for Gollum.

Adrian Webster as Aragorn in The Hunt for Gollum (2009)

The Hunt for Gollum fills in one of the blank spots from the books and films in the LotR series. It tells the story of how Gollum was caught when Gandalf needed information about the nature and whereabouts of the One Ring. There is next to no information about this fascinating subplot in the original material, so the film makers had a great amount of freedom to make up their own story.

Aragorn is the protagonist and the hero here, and some other characters from the film trilogy also make appearances (including a computer-generated Gollum, of course). The actors do a decent job for the most part, and especially Adrian Webster manages to hold up the central role of Aragorn surprisingly well.

The make-up and costumes are really good, too. Well, at least so long as the camera stays at a distance. They should have avoided some of the close-ups, which reveal a bit too much of the budget. Even so, the orcs in particular look impressive for a film like this. The fight scenes do look a bit amateurish and awkward, though not disturbingly so. And, frankly, the fight scenes in the “real” LotR films are not entirely problem free either.

I am sometimes amazed when I look at what amateurs can achieve with next to no budget, but in this case it is perhaps not quite as amazing as it may seem at first. Director Chris Bouchard had already been a professional in the movie business for years (working with music and visual effects) when he took on The Hunt for Gollum. That is not to say that his achievement was not a good one, and indeed, it has helped to propel him into a career as a professional film director.

This film is best enjoyed because it is fun. Not only is there a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour inserted here and there, but you can also tell that the crew had a great time while they were making this little piece, and that feeling rubs off on the finished film. Even so, you have no reason to watch this unless you are a fan of Peter Jackson’s LotR movies. Just like most fan productions, this one needs the support of the original works, and does not really hold up as a self-contained production.

Gollum in The Hunt for Gollum (2009)

The Hunt for Gollum
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Year: 2009
Running time: 38 min
Director: Chris Bouchard
Stars: Adrian Webster
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (644×290)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (318 M)

The Lost World (1925)

Those of you who follow this blog may have (correctly) come to the conclusion that I like silent film. That is not only because many silents have considerable artistic merits, but also because they provide exciting insights into the history of cinema.

Take The Lost World, for example. It was a movie that truly rocked the young medium, and the repercussions of which you can still feel in the cinematic world today. What the big-budget, special effects-heavy adventure movie would have been without it we shall never know. Not the same, for sure.

Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Lloyed Hughes, Wallace Beery and Arthur Hoyt in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel of the same name, and tells the story of an expedition that set out to explore a hidden plateau where a scientist was recently reported to have found living dinosaurs. The scientist’s daughter joins the expedition, as does Professor Challenger; his first appearance in both written and cinematic form.

The Lost World is in many ways the archetypal exploration movie. I guess there may have been other similar films before it, but probably none were as influential as this one. The plot introduces us to a team of explorers, including a leader, a reporter, an expert and a woman. Through hardships and adventures they travel to a location that is distant, exotic and hard to find. Many of the plot elements and character archetypes in this film reappear in later films, such as Flight to Mars (1951).

This film is best enjoyed for the special effects, spectacular for their time. Even though the stop motion animation used was considerably improved by later filmmakers, one must really admire the craft and imagination that breathe life into the huge dinosaurs of the lost world.

Triceratops in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Harry O. Hoyt
Stars: Wallace Beery
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (580 M)

Tien shan gong zhu (1941)

The Internet Archive is an American site, and at times it shows. Some collections feature exclusively American material, and there is a considerable predominance of American films overall, not least fictional films.

But the site’s greatness reflects in those exceptions of interesting and sometimes hard-to-find international films that do exist. One good example is the Chinese film Tien shan gong zhu (铁扇公主), usually known in English as Princess Iron Fan (a direct translation of the title).

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu is loosely based on characters and situations from Chinese folklore and legend, such as the popular character Monkey King, who is one of the film’s main characters. In this tale, the Monkey King and his friends need to find a magical fan that can save a village from fire. Along their way, they encounter many creatures and demons.

The animation is a bit rough when compared with high-end American animation from the same time, such as Victory thruogh Air Power (1943) or the Superman series, but in its best moments it is reminiscent of early Disney animations, which is not bad. Just like in early Disney, there are often little amusing details to be found and enjoyed in the animation. The backgrounds are often of spectacular quality.

This film was made at a time when China was partly occupied by Japanese forces. The film also found its way to Japan, where it became very popular, so popular that it is said to have been a significant influence upon the anime that started to emerge later, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Far too often, non-American movies are hard to find without dubbing. Dubbing is often terrible, but in this case the soundtrack is the original Chinese. Fortunately, subtitles in English and some other languages are available.

Two versions of the film are available at the Internet Archive, and they are roughly equal in quality. The one mainly linked from this post is the one where you can find subtitles (also compatible with the other version), but the other one has the benefit of some image noise reduction and black borders from the original image have been cropped.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore classic animation outside America. It has unexpected qualities, and is particularly enjoyable for its burlesque imagination.

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu
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Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Language: Mandarin Chinese (subtitles in various languages)
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×416; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

So you thought that Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first Oz adaptation on film? Not even close! And it was not the first good one, either (even though it could arguably be said to be the best).

In fact, Oz film was incorporated into what has later been described as “a multimedia presentation” as early as 1908, and the first Oz film proper, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was released two years later. But the really interesting titles started to appear a hundred years ago, as three Oz films were released in 1914. The best of them is The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

On trial before Ozma of Oz and the Wizard of Oz in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

L. Frank Baum (the writer of the original Oz books) was very interested in the film medium, and he took an active interest in these productions, acting as writer and co-producer through his own short-lived production company. For fans of the original books, this makes the trio of films highly interesting. As an added bonus, they are actually very good for films that old.

Ojo and his uncle live in poverty, so they decide to go to the Emerald City. Along the way, they witness a magician creating a girl from patches, and Ojo decides to insert some brains into the girl when no-one is watching. Then there seems to be footage missing (the film was almost double the length originally, according to Wikipedia), as Ojo’s uncle and some others become petrified for no apparent reason. Ojo and his friends must search the magical lands of Oz for a cure to the petrification. Their search will eventually lead to the Emerald City itself.

Baum’s Oz films were probably among the first to be made specifically as family entertainment. That means that the plots are fairly simple, there is a lot of slapstick comedy, and there are many actors dressed up as donkeys, apes and other animals.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is in many ways typical of films from the period before The Birth of a Nation (1915). Almost exclusively shot with a single stationary camera and simple (though well-made) special effects, such as double exposure or stop-motion. But where this particular film sticks out is in its effective use of acrobatics, especially by the title’s patchwork girl.

The other two 1914 Oz films produced by Baum, by the way, are The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. These are also good, but tend to be a bit slow and incoherent.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. Since none such is available at the Internet Archive, I suggest that you put on some upbeat instrumental music in the background. Unlike silent dramas or romantic comedy, this one is not terribly dependent on a score that adapts to the various moods in the film.

The Patchwork Girl meets the Scarecrow in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz
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Year: 1914
Running time: 44 min
Director: J. Farrell MacDonald
Stars: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (785×576)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (521 M)

Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Last week I wrote about the original The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks. That film was remade in England in 1940. Well, not a remake, exactly, since there was very little left of Fairbanks’ story, but it shared the title and a number of central themes.

The 1940 movie did not stay very close to The Arabian Nights stories. It developed the fantastic characters (the thief, the sultan, the princess, the genie) and their surroundings (the architecture, the clothes, the magical objects), but wove these into completely new stories, not based on the original film nor the books.

The success was spectacular (it is still a magnificent film) and it opened the gates for a flood of imitators. In 1942 came Hollywood’s response, Arabian Nights (the second-ever Technicolor movie), and in 1944 there were two more. Through the rest of the 40s and most of the 50s, Hollywood released on average one new Arabian Nights film every two years, culminating in 1958 with Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. After that there were considerably fewer Arabian Nights movies from Hollywood for a while, which is ironic, considering that Harryhausen was the first one in eighteen years who actually offered something original to the genre.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Maureen O'Hara in Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Typical of the kind was Sinbad the Sailor, the only one of these films that seems to exist at the Internet Archive. It follows the 1940 Thief tradition in that it uses some characters and themes from The Arabian Nights, but the stories told, indeed the entire storytelling strucutres, have nothing to do with the books.

Sinbad, who beside Aladdin is the most frequent Arabian Nights hero in the movies, tells the story of how he (once again) is about to embark on his previously unknown eighth voyage. (I wonder exactly how many eighth voyages of Sinbad there are.) In this telling, in accordance with the Hollywood Arabian Nights tradition, Sinbad is a thief and a swindler, rather than the peaceful merchant from the books. It all begins as he finds a ship adrift, the crew having been killed by poison in the drinking water. He and his sidekick Abbu take the ship to port, hoping to claim it as theirs. In the captain’s cabin they find an interesting chart and a medallion, and this sets them on the course for Alexander the Great’s(!) fabulous treasure. But others are also looking for the same treasure, including the beautiful woman Shireen.

Compared with The Thief of Bagdad (both versions), Sinbad the Sailor is cheaply made and does not really offer anything new. But it is still worthwhile if you are interested in Hollywood’s treatment of The Arabian Nights. Though cheaper, the sets share the fantastic and magical qualities of the older movies.

It becomes even more interesting because it features Douglas Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., in the title role. Junior was not a bad actor and made a decent career, but he was doomed to act in his father’s shadow. Occasionally, as in this case, he was cast in an apparent attempt to reflect some of the light from his father’s greatest successes.

This film is best enjoyed for the colourful and interesting characters, which make up for the sometimes rather thin plot.

The Arabian Nights, as seen in Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Sinbad the Sailor
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Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Director: Richard Wallace
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (688 M)