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TCM Spotlight: Sword and Sandal
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Hercules Against the Barbarian

That Hercules really got around. Or, if you're viewing this in Italian, it was his son who got around. Either way, this 1964 sword-and-sandal epic sends the ancient Greek hero to 12th century Poland where, despite the colder weather, he strips to nothing but a loincloth to fight off invading Mongols. Fans of the peplum genre have a soft spot for this particular entry because of its unusual setting, stronger than usual plot and beautiful color cinematography.

When Hercules (Mark Forest) defeats the first Mongol attempt to take Krakow, General Kubilai (Ken Clark) convinces his father, Genghis Khan (Roldano Lupi), to give him one more chance. Kubilai sets out to kidnap Hercules' true love, Armina (José Greci), a peasant girl he believes to be a hidden Polish princess. He also determines to kill Hercules using snakes, a crocodile and his strongest warriors in his pursuit for conquest.

Hercules Against the Barbariansis actually a prequel to Forest's earlier peplum Hercules Against the Mongols (1963), using the same director, Domenico Paolella, and some of the same cast and crew members, including Clark and Greci, albeit in different roles. Where the earlier film was shot mostly on exteriors sets, the new one is more studio-bound (shot at the Incir De Paolis Studios), though it uses recycled exterior shots from Hercules Against the Mongols. The score is taken from an earlier Hercules film, The Witch's Curse (1962). The producers spent more money on costumes, creating a more lavish look for the Mongol invaders, Polish armies and the two leading ladies (the other is a Mongol spy played by Gloria Milland, another regular in Paolella's pictures). As was the case with many peplums, the picture was originally about Hercules' son, Maciste. When the film was picked up for redistribution, the character was renamed Hercules to capitalize on the success of Steve Reeves' Hercules films. It also was severely cut for U.S. distribution. The Italian version, which is called Maciste in the Hell of Genghis Khan, runs 30 minutes longer.

Star Mark Forest, whose real name was Lorenzo Degni was a Brooklyn-born body builder. After attempting to break into U.S. show business, where his main gig was as one of the muscle men in Mae West's nightclub act, he followed Steve Reeves to Italy to star in sword-and-sandal films. Starting with 1960's Vengeance of Hercules, he made 12 films in the genre before retiring after making Kindar the Invulnerable (1965). He was the first modern actor to play Maciste, a character he introduced in 1960's Son of Samson (the character was rarely called Maciste in the English-dubbed versions of the film). When he left the genre in 1965, he invested his peplum money into studying opera. He currently lives in Long Beach, CA, where he teaches singing and does some personal training.

Forest isn't the only muscle in the film. His adversary, Kubilai, is played by another American physique model, Ken Clark. Clark had an extensive career in the U.S., with several television credits and appearances in films like Love Me Tender (1956) and South Pacific (1958). He eventually moved into low-budget pictures, starring in Bernard L. Kowalski's swamp-set horror film Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and the space opera 12 to the Moon (1960). He moved to Italy in 1962 to star in The Defeat of the Barbarians (1962) but, with his more slender build, soon moved into supporting, often villainous roles in peplums like Hercules Against the Mongols and this picture. He did much better in spy films, starring in None But the Lonely Spy (1964) and From the Orient with Fury (1965).

Hercules Against the Barbarians was one of the last peplums to have s substantial budget. The genre, featuring the fantastic adventures of mythological or biblical heroes, had been around for decades. During the silent era, there was a series of films about Maciste, who was introduced in the pioneering Italian epic Cabiria (1914). There had been similar films throughout the early sound era, but the genre experienced its greatest resurgence with Hercules (1958), starring Reeves. The genre went on to enjoy its greatest popularity from 1958 through 1962. There were 19 Hercules movies in total, 25 Maciste films, nine featuring Ursus, another strong man, five with Samson and another five with Goliath, not to mention numerous others with heroes of different names. Then the production of Cleopatra (1963) at Cinecitta in Rome monopolized most of the period costumes and props available to filmmakers. As a result, budgets were cut. Before the genre could recover from that, the popularity of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) made the spaghetti Western the leading Italian film genre. The peplums had a hard time competing for budgets and studio space and died out as a genre by 1965.

Director: Domenico Paolella
Producer: Jacopo Comin, Felice Felicioni, Giulio Pappagallo
Screenplay: Domenico Paolella, Alessandro Ferraù & Luciano Martino
Based on a story by Paolella & Ferraù Cinematography: Raffaele Masciocchi Score: Giuseppi Piccillo
Cast: Mark Forest (Maciste/Hercules), José Greci (Arminia/Armina), Ken Clark (Kubilai), Gloria Milland (Arias), Howard Ross (Gason), Tullio Altamura (Christian Priest), Roldano Lupi (Genghis Khan)

By Frank Miller

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