By Phil Hall | January 21, 2011

BOOTLEG FILES 359: “Hercules” (1958 Italian feature starring Steve Reeves.)

LAST SEEN: Available on several online sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: As a public domain staple.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Once your copyright is lapsed, you’re in public domain hell for eternity.

In the years following World War II, the Italian cinema enjoyed a remarkable renaissance that produced some of the most important motion pictures ever made. It also brought forth one of the silliest movies of all time – which, not surprisingly, was also among the most commercially successful films ever made. That film was the 1958 version of “Hercules.”

While “Hercules” had a significant impact on the Italian film business, it also played a major role in how American distributors put their titles into theatrical release. Indeed, every Hollywood blockbuster that winds up on a big screen owes a degree of gratitude to “Hercules.”

In the 1950s, many U.S. film companies set up shop in Italy to take advantage of the country’s marvelous landscape and lower-cost production values. Thus, epics like “Quo Vadis” (1951) or “War and Peace” (1956) could be shot in Italy at a fraction of what they would have cost if they were made in Hollywood. However, the ambitious Italian writer-director Pietro Francisci believed that his countrymen could create their own epics and successfully market them around the world.

Francisci decided that the legend of Hercules would be an ideal subject for an epic film. The problem, however, was finding someone to play the mythological muscleman. According to an oft-repeated tale, Francisi’s young daughter saw Steve Reeves in a small role in the MGM musical “Athena” and recommended that her father cast him as Hercules.

Across the Atlantic, Reeves was the best-known American involved in the then-fringe world of bodybuilding. The winner of the 1947 Mr. America tournament, Reeves was marginally involved in show business for a number of years, but with little great impact.  “Samson and Delilah” director Cecil B. DeMille considered him to play the Biblical strongman, but rejected him as being too bulky for the role. (Reeves, for his part, refused DeMille’s request to shed 15 pounds for the role, which went to Victor Mature.) After that experience, Reeves made some appearances on television, appeared in a Broadway flop called “The Vamp” opposite Carol Channing, and had tiny roles in two movies: Ed Wood’s B-grade stinker “Jail Bait” and the aforementioned MGM “Athena.” But most of his entertainment work made his muscular physique the butt of jokes. When Francisci’s offer arrived, Reeves’ career began to shift away from show biz and was primarily focused on making public appearances for a California health club chain.

Although he had no box office cred, Reeves nonetheless maintained name recognition in the U.S. as a champion bodybuilder, and this was clearly important for Francisci’s desire to sell “Hercules” for American release. This was hardly a unique strategy, since many Italian filmmakers in the 1950s routinely cast U.S. actors in their films in order to ensure interest from American distributors. Plus, Reeves came at a very reasonable price: he only received a $10,000 salary for his work.

Unfortunately, Francisci’s film was a cheapjack effort that created unintentional laughs when Hercules showed off his great feats of strength (the lifting of a patently phony tree and the wrestling of stuffed animals that are supposed to be a ferocious lion and the “Cretan bull”). And, strangely enough, most of the film isn’t even about Hercules – the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece monopolizes much of the second half, while Hercules is reduced to a supporting character in his own film.

Nonetheless, Reeves cut an extraordinary figure – there was no one in movies in that era that looked anything like him, and he clearly stood out amidst a cast of average-looking guys. The only time that the film truly comes alive is in the final minutes, when Hercules uses all of his muscular power to tear down the façade columns of wicked King Pelias’ castle.

“Hercules” was a major hit in Italy, but Francisci’s hopes of selling the film in the U.S. seemed doomed – all of the major distributors were concerned about the production’s poor quality (especially with the shoddy English dubbing) and passed on it. However, independent distributor Joseph E. Levine snagged the rights for $120,000 – and then spent a million dollars in a bold distribution plan that had never been attempted in the U.S.

Levine ordered 600 prints of the film to be sent out in a saturation release strategy – which was no mean feat in the pre-cineplex days of single-screen neighborhood cinemas. He then flooded the radio and television airwaves with incessant advertising for the film, another marketing first. The result was a box office smash that grossed $5 million and helped secure Levine’s Embassy Pictures as one of the major independent distributors of its day. This distribution strategy was quickly adopted by the major Hollywood studios and continues to be employed.

Back in Italy, Reeves was rushed into a sequel called “Hercules Unchained,” but then he declined to do further films based on the character. Other bodybuilders would be recruited to play Hercules in an endless skein of cheapo Italian films that flooded the market during the early 1960s. The success of these films helped to popularize bodybuilding, and two men who would play Hercules in later films – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno – would cite these Italian flicks as helping to inspire their lives and career choices.

As for Reeves, his film career continued in Italy through the mid-1960s with a series of cheaply made action/adventure flicks, but none of these ever came close to the success of “Hercules,” which had a theatrical life well into the 1970s.

Today, the English-dubbed version of “Hercules” has fallen into the public domain. (The Italian-language original has never played in the U.S. market.)  A high number of mediocre-quality dupes have been available for years, and there are even two different dubbed versions in release (neither used Reeves for their voice performances). A good quality letterboxed edition can be found online, which is superior to the shoddy pan-and-scan copies that proliferated for years. But if you stumble over “Hercules” today, don’t be surprised to find the cinematic equivalent of a 98-pound weakling!

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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  1. Steve Burstein says:

    People kept telling me that Steve Reeves was dead for years before he actually died! I think that they had him confused with no-relation George.

  2. [A] says:

    I didn’t pay for this one (didn’t download it either) but did pay once for a Reeves movie: Guerra di Troia. I still have it around somewhere.. it was part of an epic movies series, with a few pages magazine and a dvd (Spartacus was the 1st title).

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