Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Joseph E. Levine's "Hercules" Muscled Its Way to Blockbuster Status

In 1959, producer and distributor Joseph E. Levine bought the U.S. rights to an Italian film called Le fatiche di Ercole (translated as The Labors of Hercules). The film's stars, former "Mr. Universe" Steve Reeves and former fashion model Sylva Koscina, were hardly household names in the U.S. However, Levine recognized box office potential where no one else did.

He retitled the film simply Hercules and concocted a massive marketing campaign, flooding theatres with prints of Hercules while advertising heavily in newspapers and television. The movie became a surprise smash and Levine fared even better with a sequel featuring the same stars called Hercules Unchained. Seen today, it's hard to comprehend Hercule's massive success and impact on the industry--it spawned dozens of imitations as well as a genre known as "sword and sandal epics."

A iconic image from the film's climax.
The plot weaves elements of the Labors of Hercules and the quest for the Golden Fleece, with most of the time spent on the latter. In the opening scene, Hercules (Reeves) rescues Princess Iole from an out-of-control chariot. It's practically love at first sight. Unfortunately, Iole's brother Iphitus is a worthless wimp and her father, King Pelias, has stolen the throne. Hercules tries to tutor Iphitus in the art of combat, but when the prince meets an untimely end, Hercules is partially blamed. When the King's heroic nephew, Jason appears, he is quickly dispatched to recover the long-ago stolen Golden Fleece. Hercules accompanies his new friend on the perilous voyage, hoping to return in triumph for Iole.

Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina.
Hercules lacks the sense of adventure (and colorful creatures) of the later Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The narrative plods along all too often, especially during an extended visit with the Amazons. The film is also hampered with horrible dialogue dubbing (especially for Koscina) and a dreadful translation. When Iphitus is struggling at his archery lessons, he tells Hercules: "Prove to me you haven't got muscles in your head as well."

Still, the scenery is attractive, both the landscapes and the two stars. Enzo Masetti's music score hits all the right notes, except for a weird electronic theme employed whenever Herc is about to display his exceptional strength. Visually, Hercules is often stunning, which is no surprise given that its cinematographer was future director Mario Bava (Black Sunday).

"Hercules" at a Boston theatre in 1959.
In the end, though, the film's success can be attributed to Levine's marketing prowess and the attractiveness of its two stars. Joseph Levine got his start in the film industry as a theatre owner, which provided him with insight to both sides of the distribution business. After the success of the Hercules films, he imported art films, such as 8 1/2,  to the U.S. and executive-produced major motion pictures such as The Lion in Winter and The Graduate. He also founded Embassy Pictures which he eventually sold to Avco.

Steve Reeves was born in Montana and had earned several bodybuilding titles before trying his hand as an actor. He was offered many similar roles after Hercules, with his best film probably being Duel of the Titans, the tale of muscular brothers Romulus and Remus (former Tarzan Gordon Scott). According to some sources, Reeves turned down the roles of James Bond and The Man With No Name, although it's hard to imagine him in either part (though he did make a Spaghetti Western called A Long Ride from Hell). Reeves retired from acting in 1969 and spent the remainder of his life at his ranch in California. He died from lymphoma in 2000.

The fetching Sylva Koscina enjoyed a long film career after Hercules, often starring in international films. She took a shot at Hollywood stardom in the late 1960s, starring with Kirk Douglas in A Lovely Way to Die and opposite Paul Newman in The Secret War of Harry Frigg. Success in the U.S. eluded her, though she remained a major star overseas. She died from breast cancer in 1994 at age 61.


  1. STEVE REEVES! I haven't thought about him for a long time. We used to play Mystery Science Theatre 3000 type games when my brothers and sisters and I watched his movies. He was, of course, gorgeous, but with the emphasis on muscle rather than brain, and that horrible dubbing, we had a ball with his movies. Their mouths never matched the voices, and I laughed at your example of the translations.

    Of course we are totally spoiled now after experiencing Ray Harryhausen and mythology, and it is hard to believe that these movies were blockbusters. But Steve and his beautiful buxom girls were a lot of fun. Great pick, Rick!

  2. Steve Reeves IS Hercules! He was an incredible bodybuilder and had a ton of charisma. Later in life, he preached out against the use of steroids in bodybuilding. He never used them.

  3. Rick, Steve Reeves is a hunk!! He is the best actor to ever play Hercules. He not only has muscles but a handsome face as well. I have always loved this movie. Used to watch it every time it was on TV. I never cared that the plot wasn't terrific or the special effects weren't great, I just enjoyed the film. I like the music by Enzo Masetti too. Enjoyed reading your review.

  4. Rick, this is a great post to open up Mythological Heroes and Creatures! I remember first studying Greek and Roman mythology in junior high school and was fascinated by it. Steve Reeves was an excellent choice for Hercules and Silva Koscina was a beautiful love interest for him.

    Becky, your comment made me laugh because we used to watch poorly dubbed films, especially martial arts, and make up our own dialogue, too, with really dramatic foreign accents.

  5. Sylva was a hottie! Too bad the photo of her with Reeves isn't better quality. Steve

  6. I haven't seen HERCULES or the sequel with the returning Reeves and Koscina, but I enjoyed reading your post immensely. I have, however, seen HERCULES IN NEW YORK, best known as the debut for Arnold Shwartz... Schwartzin... the former governor of California. Mario Bava was indeed a talented cinematographer, which also showed in the films he eventually directed. Thanks, Rick, for a superb write-up and a great start to this month's theme!

  7. I enjoy the first two Hercules movies very much, but would love to see them properly letterboxed and with the correct color. Great post.

  8. I remember watching the new version as a teenager with pegasus! Great movie.

  9. Sorry I'm so late with my comments, Rick. I remember watching this on various Saturday afternoons with my brothers and then going out in the backyard and re-enacting many of the scenes. Steve Reeves is just awesome to look at and the story is mesmerizing to those who enjoy mythology. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review, Rick.

  10. As a young boy in the early 60'ds I really enjoyed the Hercules movies. I wanted muscles like Steve Reeves, and wanted to start lifting weight but everyone was saying I was to young (age 12). I do remember having a crush on Sylva Koscina when I saw her on the big screen in the Hercule movie...just starting to notice women's breast at the time and I thought seeing her was way over the top...and wondering when I would be old enough to lift weight and hold a beautiful girl/woman in my arms...still enjoy those movies even today.

  11. The hercules of myth was a murderous barbarian.a sacker of cities , and an occasional child killer.