Once again, I find myself presenting another review for a recent/upcoming blu-ray release from The Film Detective. Once again.. again.. it’s for a 4K restoration to a classic film that takes me well outside the “comfort zone” of Horror And Sons, which is “horror”. Hence, that first part in the name of the website. That said, like some of our other recent non-horror blu-ray reviews (particularly reviews for other Film Detective releases, such as Fist of Fear, Touch of Death), the film in question is one that is surely remembered by many older fans of fantastic films, or by fans of early-era Mystery Science Theater 3000.
On April 13th, 2021, The Film Detective will be releasing to special edition Blu-ray & DVD a 4k transfer of the Italian “sword and sandals” epic, Hercules and the Captive Women. Originally released in Italy as Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (or “Hercules at the Conquest of Atlantis”) in 1961, the film was part (the 5th entry, I believe) of the long-running, not-necessarily-connected series of films focusing on the legendary hero of Roman mythology produced in Italy between 1958 and 1965. Hercules and the Captive Women was directed by Vittorio Cottafavi, who also directed 1960’s Goliath and the Dragon, which also saw release under the alternate titles of “Vengeance of Hercules” and “Hercules’ Revenge”. The film was edited, dubbed, re-scored, and retitled for a US release in 1963.
FUN FACT: The first of these films was 1958’s Hercules, which featured former Mr. Universe, Steve Reeves, in the lead roles. Reeves, who earned his SAG card by appearing in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait, would become arguably the most popular of the many actors to assume the role during this era. He would also, at one time, be the highest paid movie star in Europe.
However, Reeves was nowhere to be found this time, here replaced by his successor to the Mr. Universe title, Reg Park, in the lead role. While Park may have been as physically imposing as Reeves, he was surely not as charismatic, and is occasionally resigned to playing the character as something of a lovable oaf, and less as a well-respected and feared warrior. That said, Park is more than serviceable in the role. Presumably, Italian filmmakers and filmgoers agreed, as Park would return to play the role again later the same year, in 1961’s Hercules in the Haunted World, directed by horror legend Mario Bava. Park would also return for the final Hercules film of the era, 1965’s Hercules the Avenger. To be fair, most of his appearance in that film comes courtesy of archival footage from his earlier Hercules films.
MORE FACTS: After their stints as Hercules, both Reeves and Park would return to careers in body-building, with Park serving as a mentor to a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. One might say that Reeves’s “Hercules” is closer to Arnold in the Conan films, while Park is closer to Twins.
When strange events begin to occur in ancient Greece, Androcles (Ettore Manni, who appeared in multiple Hercules films as different characters), the somewhat-sorta king of Thebes, decides to form an expedition to seek out the cause. However, when he can find none to aid him, save for his diminutive companion, Timoteo (Salvatore Furnari – Escape from the Bronx, Caligula), and a small crew comprised of hired thugs and thieves, he turns to his old trusted friend, Hercules, for assistance. Herc, now married and with a probably-teenaged-but-played-by-an-adult-actor son, declines as he no longer seeks action and adventure in his life. However, his son, Hylas (Luciano Marin), does, and joins Androcles’ crew… drugging up his old man and bringing him along for the trip!
Hercules soon wakes from his stupor to find himself many miles out at sea, his son hidden in the quarters below. Instead of being angry at the situation, Herc just decides to spend all of his time fishing and sleeping. That is, until the crew unsurprisingly destroys the water supply before starting a full-fledged mutiny against Androcles. With Herc’s assistance, the mutineers are defeated, but our heroes are left stranded.
Soon, a storm separates our crew, with Hercules washing up on the misty shores of a mysterious island. Here, he rescues a young woman from the clutches of a mad shape-shifting god (played by a frail old man) named Proteus. The woman, Ismene (Laura Altan), reveals herself to be the daughter of Antinea (Fay Spain – The Godfather: Part II, God’s Little Acre), Queen of Atlantis. Somehow, Herc is soon reunited with both his son and Timoteo, and the trio agree to escort the princess home.
Upon reaching Atlantis, the entire tone of the film starts to become much more dark and significantly less lighthearted. Queen Antinea reveals that she herself offered the princess to Proteus for sacrifice, hoping that Ismene’s death would prevent Atlantis’ prophesized destruction. Even more macabre, the Queen is even using the children (again mostly teens and young adults) of her country as guinea pigs in a ritual that either turns them into clone-like super soldiers or disfigured freaks, who are then tossed into a pit and used as slave labor.
With the aid of the pit dwellers, Herc and his friends must defeat the Queen and her army of albino Abe Lincoln soldiers, all while having to rescue the princess (again), as well as a brain-washed Androcles, who is held in the palace dungeons. As Atlantis does not exist in our modern world, one can safely predict how this one ends.
PICTURE/AUDIO: As the Italian Hercules adventures were released many years before I was even born, I did not get to experience them during initial theatrical runs (or, at least the ones that made it to US theaters). As such, my exposure to these films has come primarily through the low-quality prints used for those now 30-year old MST3K episodes, as well as similar quality standard definition copies found on some of those Mill Creek 50-movie DVD sets.
Compared to those releases, the new blu-ray from The Film Detective is a revelation. As one might expect, the new blu-ray restoration is quite clean and crisp, and features bright, lush colors. There are one or two “hiccups” that almost appear to be the result of missing frames. It’s noticeable, but it’s nothing that will disrupt your viewing experience. Detail is greatly improved, but the transfer retains a nice, older-film look.
SPECIAL FEATURES: The release includes a limited number of Special Features, but what is included is pretty notable. The release features a commentary track from Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, as well as “Hercules and the Conquest of Cinema”, a highly-informative look at the history of the Italian sword and sandals era, courtesy of Daniel Griffiths of Ballyhoo Pictures.
Also included is the Hercules and the Captive Women episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, from the show’s fourth season. While I do not feel that Captive Women is the best of the Hercules films, I also do not feel that it is the best of the MST3K “Hercules” episodes, but still provides more than enough laughs and entertainment (for those that actually enjoy the show). Also included is an interview with former MST3K writer and co-star Frank Conniff, who provides some insight into how the Hercules films were obtained for use on the show, as well as the excitement it caused for the cast and crew, who were quite familiar and fond with the films from their own youths. That said, I do believe that the interview was “recycled” from an earlier MST3K box set.
OPINION: I’ll be quite honest. I don’t have a ton of experience with the Hercules films, nor do I claim to be an avid fan. I do have some exposure to these films from their occasional playing on UHF stations on weekend afternoons during my youth, although my biggest introduction to some of these films was from their being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as I’m sure is the case for many readers. As I’ve since learned in both instances, some of these films were actually re-purposed Maciste films.
While not exactly the most action-packed thrill ride of a movie, and arguably not even the most action-packed thrill ride of a Hercules movie, Hercules and the Captive Women still has plenty to offer, even if what is being offered is a little dull at times. The production itself is respectably large in scale, with multiple unique set designs (some more elaborate than others) and countless extras in shots to add a sense of scale. That said, from my perspective, the film could have used one more monster or mythological creature to help enhance the fantasy elements.
Hercules and the Captive Women, as with most Hercules or sword-and-sandals films, is clearly not going to entertain all viewers. It’s not even going to please the majority of folks who enjoy those films. That said, it’s still a decent little time killer with notable production value that is safe for the kids, although they probably wouldn’t be interested. If nothing else, it makes great background noise while working on other things. My only recommendation is to watch it during the daytime, and definitely avoid it if you aren’t all that awake. I know I fell asleep during at least a couple attempted late night viewings, although I was undeniably quite worn out.