Joseph E. Levine was a genius. At the time of his death, he’s produced nearly 500 films. He did some pretty amazing things, like introduce the U.S. to Sophia Loren and Godzilla, while bringing foreign movies like Jack the Ripper and Attila: Scourge of God to America, renaming The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World to Licensed to Kill and producing and executive producing everything from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and The Graduate to Mad Monster Party, They Call Me Trinity, Magic, The Carpetbaggers and The Producers. He started the Embassy in AVCO Embassy.
But for the purposes of this story, he was the man who spent $1 million dollars* to make Steve Reeves a star all over the world with this movie. And by the time he did it, Reeves had already made four more movies ready to follow this one.
Unlike many actors who go to Italy to make a film, the former chiropractor and Mr. America of 1947, Mr. World of 1948 and Mr. Universe of 1950 became a huge deal over in Italy, ending his career on his own terms in 1968 after the western A Long Ride from Hell, which has the incredible alternate title I Live For Your Death!**
Funny enough, this is more the story of Jason and the Argonauts, yet with Hercules taking center stage. And from this movie, an entire industry of peblum movies was born.
Hercules joins the crew of Jason, along with Ulysses and his father Laertes, Argos, the twins Castor and Pollux, Orpheus and Aesculapius when Pelias, the King of Iolcus, sends Jason on a fool’s errand to take the Golden Fleece. That’s because Pelias has been warned that someday, Jason would take his throne. Meanwhile, Hercules is in love with the king’s daughter Princess Iole. Who can blame him? She’s played by Sylvia Koscina, who is also in Deadlier Than the Male and So Sweet, So Dead***.
Hercules battles ape men and Amazons when he isn’t fulfilling his labors, like fighting the Nemean Lion and the Cretan Bull. There’s even a dragon with the voice of Godzilla, which makes sense, as Levine owned the rights to that sound effect.
By the mid-60’s, 10% of all Italian films were sword and sandal movies. That’s how influential this one is. And speaking of importance to Italian film, the cinematographer for this movie suggested that Reeves grow a beard. His name? Mario Bava.
*Levine spent more money promoting this movie than it cost to make. He was ahead of his time, if today’s movies are any indication. He also introduced the concept of saturation booking by using over 600 prints of this film, which at the time was a huge number of prints to be struck, as most theaters only had one screen.
**Reeves had turned down A Fistful of Dollars because he felt that Italians couldn’t make a western out of a Japanese samurai film. He also turned down Dr. No — this could be apocryphal — because they could not afford his salary demands.
You can watch this on YouTube.