THE BOOTLEG FILES: HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER Image

BOOTLEG FILES 253: “Hercules and the Masked Rider” (1963 Italian cheapo import).

LAST SEEN: Available for unauthorized download on at least one online video site.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Via labels specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It may be a public domain film, but I have my doubts.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

When you see a film with a title like “Hercules and the Masked Rider,” it is easy to assume that this flick will follow in the well-worn tradition of the tacky Italian muscleman mini-epics of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And, in a way, that assumption is correct. Yes, this is a tacky Italian mini-epic, circa 1963. And, yes, there is a heroic muscleman who gets to flex and stretch his overdeveloped physique in various fight sequences.

But, no, this is not a Hercules movie. This film takes place in 17th century Spain, not ancient Rome. And the big boy with the biceps is not Hercules. In fact, the original Italian title is “Golia e il cavaliere mascherato” – or “Goliath and the Masked Cavalier.” And, no, that’s not the Biblical Goliath, either, but a muscular Gypsy in leather pants.

Confused? Well, it’s quite simple. When American International Pictures brought this film across the Atlantic, it changed the title character from Goliath to Hercules – after all, Americans loved those silly Hercules movies, so why not pull a bait-and-switch? In a way, it worked – there were no mass protests over the switcheroo.

So now that we know that Hercules really isn’t Hercules, we have to wonder…who was the Masked Rider? Well, this is where we launch into the plot of the film. Are you ready?

Our story takes place between two rival duchies separated by a river. On one side of the river is the Duke of Madina, a dyspeptic meanie who sends his troops to round up farmers and force them to either serve in his army or work in his salt mines. Of course, this leaves his fields without anyone to harvest them. If the duchy winds up in famine, at least it won’t be lacking for soldiers to guard the salt surplus.

On the other side of the river is the duchy run by kindly old Don Francesco. His daughter, the blonde Dona Blanca (who wears 1960s-era Cleopatra eye make-up), is in love with the dashing Don Jose, who just returned from battle – by himself (in this low budget epic, it is explained that he came ahead of his supposedly numerous troops that conveniently never arrive). But Don Francesco wants to marry Dona Blanca off to the Duke of Medina in order to secure peace between the neighboring duchies. This doesn’t sit well with Dona Blanca and Don Jose, who try to elope. However, their escape plans are discovered and Don Juan is banished.

However, banishment isn’t that bad – Don Juan falls in with a bunch of wacky Gypsies who take their marching orders from the ravishing redhead Estrella. She has the hots for Don Juan, but realizes that his heart is elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Medina overplays his hand by killing Don Francesco and taking over his duchy by force. Don Juan decides to ride to rescue in disguise – wearing a black suit with a white collar and a crimson mask with matching cape, he becomes the Masked Rider (sort of a low-rent Zorro with serious tailoring problems). The Masked Rider makes trouble for the Duke of Medina’s allies, while Estrella and her fun bunch manage to have their own lethal mischief on the duke.

So where is Hercules, or Goliath, or whatever? Well, he’s part of the Gypsy caravan. He walks around in tight black leather pants but no shirt, and he is called upon for various feats of strength (mostly lifting and slugging people). However, his strength may be overstated – when Don Juan comes upon the Gypsy caravan, he is challenged to fight against Hercules. And he wins, too! Which proves that bigger is not always better.

The strong man in this film is one Alan Steel, who is actually an Italian bodybuilder named Sergio Ciani. Sometimes, he appeared in films as John Wyler. Steel/Ciani/Wyler had an impressive upper torso, but no conspicuous acting talent. Thus, his dialogue in the film is fairly limited to either hearty laughs as he shows off his muscles or irritated growls as he punches someone in the face. But, then again, one doesn’t come to a film called “Hercules and the Masked Rider” expecting the Royal Shakespeare Company.

American International Pictures haphazardly dubbed this effort into English and then dumped the movie into the drive-in/grindhouse circuit; it was later sold to television syndication. Over the years, copies of the film turned up via video labels specializing in public domain films. That’s curious, since I don’t think the film is a public domain title. Nonetheless, washed out pirated prints continue to proliferate, and at least one web site has the full movie online.

And now, the ultimate inquiry: Is “Hercules and the Masked Rider” a lousy film? Actually, it is strictly okay. It is basically a weak ripoff of Robin Hood and Zorro – you know exactly what to expect long before the various plot points get touched upon. As a distraction, it is acceptable. Don’t come to the film expecting intellectual provocation and you won’t be disappointed. But if you come to film expecting Hercules, you will be in for quite a letdown.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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