This debut feature of muscleman favorite Reg Park is one of the better sword ‘n’ sandal epics; it has good action and a terrific villainess in Fay Spain. The okay story is Benoit’s L’Atlantide, re-shaped to fit the fad for all things Hercules. The Film Detective’s disc is the Woolner Bros.’ American release, trimmed by half a reel and given an entirely new audio mix. It’s still an impressive show.
Hercules and the Captive Women
The Film Detective
1961/ 1963 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 95, 101 min. / Street Date April 13, 2021 / Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, Hercules Conquers Atlantis / 24.99
Starring: Reg Park, Fay Spain, Ettore Manni, Luciano Marin, Laura Efrikian, Enrico Maria Salerno, Ivo Garrani, Gian Maria Volontè, Mario Petri, Salvatore Furnari, Maurizio Coffarelli, Nicola Sperli.
Cinematography: Carlo Carlini
Film Editor: Maurizio Lucidi
Original Music: Gino Marinuzzi Jr., Armando Trovajoli
Written by Vittorio Cottafavi, Sandro Continenza, Duccio Tessari, Nicolò Ferrari using a character by Pierre Benoit
Produced by Achille Piazzi
Directed by Vittorio Cottafavi
Arriving just as the Italian sword ‘n’ sandal epic was reaching its peak, Vittorio Cottafavi’s Hercules and the Captive Women imported a new Hercules that some say was the best, champion bodybuilder Reg Park. Although in some ways a fairly modest production, it was filmed in the same large-format process as Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus. Attractive sets, fun characters, a reasonable script and vigorous direction from Vittorio Cottafavi help out as well. It’s not world-class cinema, but it’s much better than Cottafavi’s earlier Goliath and the Dragon.
From Hercules to Odysseus to Benoit’s Lt. de Saint-Avit, heroes in far off places habitually ‘fall under the spell’ of alluring, predatory females, and it’s never their fault: ‘Honest, Penelope, I was thinking of you all the time.’ How did Hercules explain all his dalliances to his beloved Iole? Did he even bother? Does being a demi-god mean never having to say you’re sorry?
Hercules and the Captive Women sees our hero once again courted by a powerful, evil woman. Thebes is having hard times, and King Androcles (Ettore Manni) talks his friend Hercules (Reg Park) into a voyage to find out what country or force is threatening all of Greece. Hiding in the ship is Hercules’ adventurous son Hylus (Luciano Marin). Abandoning a disloyal crew, they continue sailing until separated by a storm. Hercules ends up on the magic island of the monster god Proteus (Maurizio Coffarelli), who transforms into several animals before Hercules kills him. That frees young Princess Ismene (Laura Efrikian aka Altan) from confinement within a rock wall. Hercules returns Ismene to the island of Atlantis, to the cold embrace of her mother, the conniving Queen Antinea (Fay Spain). She lies to Hercules, drugs him and tries to rob him of his memory. Antinea has also used drugs to turn Androcles into a remote-controlled murderer. Hylas and his midget helper Timoteo (Salvatore Furnari) come to the rescue when Antinea gives orders for Ismene to be killed. Hercules frees Antinea’s scarred captives and learns the Queen’s real purpose from Zantas, the Priest of Uranus (Mario Petri): she’s using a magic stone to create an army of super-men to conquer the world!
Hercules and the Captive Women / Hercules Conquers Atlantis tries to be a cut above the booming competition in Hercules / Maciste / Samson / Goliath pictures. The Italian producers distinguish the show with an early scene that gathers three name actors as Grecian kings — Enrico Maria Salerno, Ivo Garrani & Gian Maria Volontè — before sending Reg Park’s laid-back muscleman off on another ill-defined adventure. The story moves along quickly via a series of ellipses. We don’t see Hercules initially being drugged to go on the voyage, and we cut from the mutinous crew sabotaging the water skins, straight to the next day’s search for water on a nearby island (the same archway beach seen in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts). Reg Park’s Herc prefers to sleep through everything until it comes time to rescue the cute Ismene, who Proteus has locked into solid rock, just like the damned souls of Dante’s Inferno. ↑ Brisk pacing and a good sense of humor brighten the proceedings, and Vittorio Cottafavi’s camera direction is excellent. Unlike some lower-echelon sword ‘n’ sandal groaners, this is a carefully-filmed show.
Having been impressed at age seven that there’s no substitute for Steve Reeves, this reviewer tends to find fault with Reg Park, who seems like a perfectly nice guy but just hasn’t the attitude of a demi-god. Physique-wise Park is probably even more developed than Reeves, and we’re told that he was incredibly strong. In his one scene with his wife Deianira (Luciana Angiolillo) she caresses his chest as if fascinated by his shape. Park has the regulation Steve Reeves beard but can’t do much with his one facial expression, which always evokes a bemused patience… he’s a pleasant, slightly bovine Hercules. Director Cottafavi has Park sleep through various minor problems. When a fight breaks out in a tavern, this laid-back Hercules refuses to become flustered.
A good supporting cast fills in the acting gaps. Luciano Marin and Laura Efrikian are a cute couple, and she’s particularly deserving as a teen princess in need of rescue. Ettore Manni is just okay as the brainwashed Androcles, who initiates the adventure but sits most of it out; for much of the running time the story makes us suspect that he’s an Atlantean double agent. Mimmo Palmari is appropriately sinister as Antinea’s Grand Vizier. Her drugs and/or magic give him a strange, somewhat Metalunan beetle-brow, an appearance he shares with his lady’s personal guard.
The one acting standout in this costume pageant is Fay Spain, previously the U.S. exploitation queen of drive-in pix like Dragstrip Girl and Teenage Doll. Ms. Spain is visually one of the best evil Queen types ever — her Antinea could have been a model for illustrator Wallace Wood’s slinky, viper-smiled vixens. Ms. Spain does good things for a strange black hairdo, a stack of raven hair at least four inches in height. She also rocks the overdone, over-emphatic ’60s eye makeup — those hypnotic eyes are as startling as those of Claude Dantes in Blood and Black Lace. In this kind of story, the right look can provide most of the performance.
Italo fantasies often fronted malign, perfidious female villains, which invited charges of sexism and misogyny from English genre critics. Like the other truck stop sirens that got the hots for Steve Reeves’ Hercules — Sylvia Lopez’s Queen Omphale, Gianna Maria Canale’s Antea — Fay Spain’s Antinea tries to lobotomize-monopolize the muscle hunk with a date-rape drug. Unlike the others, she doesn’t seem to fall in love with him. Herc drinks the Queen’s sleeping potion but is smart enough to spit it out and escape from her icy clutches. Actually, Antinea’s maidservant serves Herc with a look that would tell anybody they were drinking poison, so maybe he’s not that smart after all.
The replacement English dialogue is better than usual with one pointed exception. Antinea has obtained her wicked magic by usurping the powers of the god Uranus, which cues lines like, “All hail the power of Uranus!” and “The blood of Uranus can never be destroyed!” The American importers surely knew a gold mine of juvenile humor when they saw one.
The special effects are basic but make their point. The dissolves and other (potentially) in-camera effects look fine. Proteus is a goofy rubber-suited lizard monster and not all that impressive. ↑ Thanks to some interesting special makeup, all of Antinea’s invincible super-soldiers share her Grand Vizier’s albino beetle-brow look, under Eloi-like white wigs. They are meant to be the vanguard of a future world-conquering Atlantis. (Last photo below ↓ )
Hercules, Hylus and Ismene witness a byproduct of Antinea’s experiments with transformational magic, a hundred or so scarred, sickly citizens banished to a quarry not far from downtown. The situation seems inspired by the outcast lepers in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur: soldiers arrive to throw food down into the quarry. The ‘scarred ones’ insist on starting an impromptu rebellion, just after Hercules has advised them to stay cool because he’ll fix everything. That’s an interesting wrinkle considering that Herc’s ‘fix’ is to nuke the whole island-nation, including its unfortunate peasants.
The costumes are also given special attention, especially Fay Spain’s many form-fitting gowns. The film has several large crowd scenes and a couple of reasonable fights; the only moment that comes off as silly is a crane shot that reveals dozens of dead bodies. It’s all too-neatly posed, like the unconvincing post-orgy scenes in quasi-Biblical epics. Reg Park’s reaction is vacant as usual: he stares at the corpses as if disappointed that there’s nobody left to play with him.
The enormous main exterior set consists of two large buildings with columned façades given a ‘carved from solid rock’ look. I’ve seen this set in several muscleman movies and wouldn’t doubt that it was constructed for this one, although it might have been repurposed from Hercules Unchained. The ubiquitous underground grotto location (presumably close to Rome) also gets a lot of use. Reg Park appears to drive a real chariot with six or eight horsepower, charging right through the narrow grotto.
The titles for Hercules and the Captive Women announce that it was photographed in Super Technirama 70. Ordinary Technirama (Night Passage, The Vikings) just gives VistaVision a slight squeeze, and prints out to normal anamorphic 35mm. Super Technirama 70 performs a blow-up to the larger film format. For some venues (in Europe only) this sword ‘n’ sandal romp was thus elevated to the elite club of 70mm productions like El Cid, 55 Days at Peking and The Music Man. This was quite an anomaly considering that most sword ‘n’ sandals used the cut-price half-frame Techniscope 35mm format. The lighting may not be up to the fantastic standard of Mario Bava’s Hercules or Hercules in the Haunted World, but is again much better than the norm.
The story stays fresh and exciting up to the scene in which Hercules crumbles the ceiling of the Uranus shrine to let in a shaft of Evil-Banishing light — a feat nicely staged. From that point forward formula takes over for the rescue of Hylas, Ismene, and the ‘possessed’ King Androcles. The concluding inundation of Atlantis utilizes some good angles of real volcanoes amid falling miniatures and giant fake rocks. A colossal-looking falling stone column clobbers Fay Spain’s mannequin stand-in. I can see Hercules and the Captive Women playing well to audiences of cheering ten year-olds, who can laugh at the Uranus jokes, too.
In his chapter ‘The Wedding of Poetry and Pulp’ in Films and Feelings, critic Raymond Durgnat makes the case for political interpretations of juvenile movie fare, as with the pacifist-warlike alien civilization in This Island Earth. Durgnat then contrasts Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis with another Italo Atlantis tale, Umberto Scarpelli’s The Giant of Metropolis with Gordon Mitchell and Bella Cortez. He notes that both stories hinge on the idea of transforming men into supermen … who of course are no match for our handsome, ‘natural’ muscleman heroes. Durgnat calls Scarpelli’s film “the reactionary retort to all that is democratic and happily pagan in Cottafavi’s film.” (para.) Liberal Cottafavi condemns Antinea’s scheme because she victimizes the peasantry for her experiments. Durgnat sees Scarpelli’s more conservative film as unyielding, Catholic: its ‘wise man’ character blames the evils of Metropolis (Atlantis) on science itself.
I don’t think that Hercules Conquers Atlantis and The Giant of Metropolis were ever again discussed on such lofty terms. Following Durgnat’s thought process, the super-spy movie Our Man Flint is a reworking of the same themes — a mysterious island civilization threatens New World Order that will enslave men, create a new race, whatever. Our bigger-than-life hero singlehandedly wipes it out. It’s not ‘Hercules conquers Atlantis,’ but ‘Hercules Obliterates Atlantis.’
The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of Hercules and the Captive Women is a very good 4K encoding of the American version of Hercules Conquers Atlantis. The bright and colorful picture is sharp enough to appreciate the superior Technirama optics. The many settings are enormous, but overall the art direction feels a bit off — all those open spaces sometimes seem generic, lacking in detail and character. ↑ Cottafavi compensates by moving his camera quite a bit, and showing plenty of vitality in the combat scenes.
This American cut may be shorter only by a few minutes; the Woolners’ animated title sequence is probably much shorter than the Italian original. The big difference is in the audio track, supervised by Hugo Grimaldi and music editor Gordon Zahler, a tag team that created kiddie matinee versions of foreign films from East Germany (First Spaceship on Venus) and Japan (I Bombed Pearl Harbor), in each case loading the music tracks with busy action cues, often from recognizable Hollywood films like Creature from the Black Lagoon. As Tim Lucas points out, Zahler retained the Italian track’s electronic music stings, which show up whenever something ‘big’ happens. These were the work of Gino Marinuzzi Jr., who later composed the entire electronic score for Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.
The Woolner remix cheapens the movie somewhat. Reg Park and Fay Spain are surely speaking English, before being dubbed in both language versions. I fully admit my preference for foreign fantasy in the proper foreign language. In many cases the Italo-language mixes are much better, as is really noticeable in the stereophonic track for Sergio Leone’s Giù la testa.
Daniel Griffith’s Ballyhoo Productions provides a substantial featurette about the movie and the sword ‘n’ sandal genre in general. He begins on too general a plane but is soon giving us an overview of the various musclemen and their main pictures, with as decent of clips that could be . found. Why are Italo westerns and horror pix so nicely restored, and this genre so neglected?
Tim Lucas knows his Italian films and his commentary has plenty to report about Hercules and the Captive Women. He also thinks Reg Park is an ideal Hercules, so I’m way in the minority. I even prefer Gordon Mitchell, who is no more expressive but compensates with proletarian tough-guy appeal — Mitchell always looks like he’s suffered. Lucas’s coverage of the sword ‘n’ sandal genre, the myth of Atlantis (it’s almost entirely literary) and especially the personnel and acting talent involved is really thorough. His calling the film a 70mm production is a semantic argument between camera format and release format. To my eyes the large Atlantis ‘plaza’ with the giant colonnades carved out of stone is a full-sized set, and uses no mattes or foreground miniatures. It’s also not likely that the few quality optical houses in Europe had optical printers that could work in the eight-perf Super Technirama format. The show has excellent physical effects. The destruction of Atlantis neatly intercuts that terrific-looking real eruption — Lucas even knows who shot the volcano footage.
Tim details the differences between the Italo original and the Woolner revision in close detail — just the kind of info I like. Removing a song and several minutes more of fighting up front doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea. The original longer version is available in a continental DVD, restricted for Region 2 and without English subtitles.
C. Courtney Joyner’s liner notes cover the basics. He writes that the designation ‘peplum’ or ‘pepla’ is demeaning, an idea that’s news to me — Peter Wollen in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema uses the term without an implied slight, and the few writers that think it hip to laugh at Hercules movies don’t know words like ‘peplum.’
Speaking of laughing, we’re also given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, which didn’t appeal — the movie is too easy of a target for frat boy put-downs. Frank Conniff of MST3K is given an intro video, which to me also does the movie no favors.
Sorry to disappoint readers of the testosterone-compensation magazines Stag, For Men Only and True Action: the suggestive cover artwork has no relation to the film at hand. In fact, the English title Hercules and the Captive Women is a cheat, as there is only one ‘captive’ woman, Ismene, and she’s never placed in a sexually compromised position. This was confirmed by that shifty minx Queen Antinea, who said you could bet Uranus on that.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hercules and the Captive Women
Movie: Good +
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Tim Lucas, featurette Swords and Sandals by Daniel Griffith, Mystery Science Theater 3000 comedy version with an intro by Frank Conniff; illustrated booklet with an essay by C. Courtney Joyner.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson