Hercules and the Princess of Troy/Hercules and the Sea Monster(1965) **½
Hercules had been very good to Joseph Levine. It had cost him only $120,000 to import Pietro Francisci’s Hercules to the United States in 1958 (although Warner Brothers, who distributed the film over here, spent more than eight times that pursuing Levine’s innovative saturation booking strategy), but it grossed $5 million during its initial run. Furthermore, Hercules continued to draw substantial crowds at revival screenings even twenty years later despite having been released to television in 1962, eventually selling an estimated 24 million tickets. The sequel, Hercules Unchained, proved similarly profitable and similarly long-legged. Strangely, though, Levine sat out the rest of the sword-and-sandal craze that he did so much to foster— that is until it was on its very last leg, at which point he must have decided that it was worth trying to make one more nickel on it after all.
The six-year gap between Hercules Unchained and Levine’s third foray into the realm of pseudo-Greco adventure yarns suggests to me, however, the idea for the latter did not originate with him. Rather, I suspect that Levine (who took credit as executive producer) was put up to giving Hercules one last go by Albert Band (credited as director and producer of the new venture). In any case, this was to be a different sort of Hercules project, for instead of a feature film, Band and Levine sought to initiate a weekly television series; think of it as a mid-60’s precursor to “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” except actually bothering to look like it was supposed to be set in a Greco-Roman milieu. The producers’ vision for the show was surprisingly ambitious, calling for a full-hour timeslot and requiring, among other expensive things, the construction of at least two functioning (if perhaps not strictly seaworthy) ancient-style galleys. Levine also saw to it that “Hercules” would preserve to the maximum extent possible the style of the peplum movies imported from Italy. The show would be filmed over there, for one thing, using a primarily Italian crew, and it would star Gordon Scott (a former Tarzan who had more recently played Maciste in Goliath and the Vampires and Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World) in the title role.
Levine and Band got as far as shooting the pilot episode, but they failed to interest any of the networks in picking up the series. I’m not really sure why “Hercules” was a no-go, but one obvious hypothesis presents itself simply from a consideration of release dates. The peplum genre took off like a rocket in 1960, but the ensuing period of frantic activity within it lasted only from then until 1964. The following year, when Band and Levine were shopping their “Hercules” pilot around, saw a sudden contraction of peplum production back to the levels of the 1950’s, with effective extinction coming soon thereafter— so sharp and unmistakable was the drop-off that a joke about the commercial obsolescence of sword-and-sandal pictures even made its way into the script for Bloody Pit of Horror! Significantly, a considerable share of the demand for peplum movies in the early 60’s had come from American television, with some films’ TV licensing revenues equaling or indeed surpassing their take from the Italian box office. In other words, if peplum was passé in 1965, that almost certainly meant that it was passé among the very people whom prospective buyers of “Hercules” would be asking to tune in week in and week out. They could hardly be faulted for recoiling from such a prospect. It also isn’t clear to me exactly how the orphaned pilot, alternately dubbed Hercules and the Princess of Troy and Hercules vs. the Sea Monster, ascended to its current afterlife as a fixture of public-domain home video. Designed to run just one hour even with commercials, it would have been difficult to pass off as a proper movie, and I’ve seen no evidence that it was ever released theatrically, as sometimes happened with un-bought pilots in those days. But for the same reason, Hercules and the Princess of Troy would have been a poor fit for something like WKBS in Philadelphia’s Friday night “Gladiator Movie” program, which ran in a two-hour timeslot. Indeed, it may be that Hercules and the Princess of Troy languished totally unseen until the VHS revolution of the early-to-mid-1980’s. Be that as it may, the “Hercules” pilot is easy enough to see today. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also well worth tracking down. Certainly there are better (or at any rate, more entertaining) movies about monster-slaying, boulder-tossing musclemen out there, but few if any are so streamlined, efficient, and unostentatiously professional— and believe it or not, the sea monster from which it derives its alternate title is actually pretty great.
The city of Troy has a problem. Well, technically it has a bunch of problems, what with King Linus dead of a freak hunting accident, sole heir Princess Diana (Ritual of Evil’s Diana Hyland) not yet of age to assume the throne, and the regency of the dead king’s brother, Petra (Steve Garrett), rather unpopular with the citizenry, but the one I was thinking of specifically is the sea monster that set up shop in the waters offshore not long after Linus met his end. The priests quickly reached the inevitable conclusion that the monster was a curse from the gods (although just as inevitably, they could offer no explanation for Troy’s sudden divine disfavor), and over the two years since then, they devised a system for managing the problem. Every month (and you’ll never see this coming), a maiden chosen by lot is floated out to a pinnacle of rock a few hundred yards out past the beach, and offered in sacrifice to the ravaging monster. True, the creature has ravaged substantially less since the sacrifices were instituted, but that’s small consolation to twenty-some dead girls and their families. For that matter, it’s only a slightly larger consolation to the Trojans as a whole, and those with the courage or desperation to seek other solutions have increasingly done so. Many of the city’s bravest and strongest warriors have died interposing themselves between the monster and its monthly feeding, while ever more families of eligible girls flee the city at the cost of being deemed traitors by both their regent and their former neighbors. Often they don’t get far, however, for that part of the Aegean is thick with pirates, and virgin girls command high prices in the slave markets of Persia, Carthage, and Egypt.
But pirates are not the only mariners who ply that sea. Aboard the triaconter Olympia, in fact, is an implacable enemy of pirates, and for that matter of oppressors of every stripe. He is Hercules, mortal son of the god Jupiter by a human woman, and he has pledged his semi-divine strength to the protection of all those in need of it. Accompanying Hercules aboard his ship are the brilliant philosopher Diogenes (Paul Stevens, of The Mask and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) and Ulysses, heir to the throne of Thebes (Mark Hulswit). The latter was entrusted to Hercules by his father for what amounts to an apprenticeship in heroism, and while he is still but a youth, the courage and cunning that will one day make him famous are already in evidence. The Olympia has only recently set sail on a voyage to carry Ulysses homeward when a pirate ship comes into view. Knowing full well that pirates prefer to man the oars of their galleys with enslaved captives, Hercules orders the Olympia to close in for an attack; the heroes’ victory leaves them with a hold full of Trojan refugees on their hands. Because Troy is not far off his route, Hercules offers to make a detour, but to his astonishment, not one of his passengers wishes to go home. He begins to understand, though, when one of them explains about the sea monster, the sacrifices, and the lottery. Nevertheless, Hercules determines that the Olympia will indeed put in at Troy— not to abandon the people he just finished rescuing to an even worse fate, but to wait out the month until the next sacrifice, so that he can destroy the monster when it emerges to claim its prey. On the final approach through the harbor, the Olympia picks up yet another Trojan, whom the crew finds floating, badly wounded and close to death. This is Ortag (Roger Browne, from Emanuelle in America and Vulcan, Son of Jupiter), the latest among Troy’s warriors to try his hand at curse-breaking. If Diogenes can keep him alive, Ortag’s firsthand experience fighting the monster could prove very useful.
The Trojan reaction to the Olympia’s arrival is somewhat mixed. No one is happy to see the runaways again, first of all— indeed, Petra will not allow any of them to reenter the city. Meanwhile, Diana’s lover, Leander (George Ardisson, from Hercules in the Haunted World and The Long Hair of Death), has more personal cause for misgiving, considering how little the princess conceals the surge of adolescent hormones that comes over her when she and Hercules meet. However, the name and reputation of Hercules are known all across the Mediterranean, so that Troy’s rulers and citizens alike feel honored by his presence. And of course there is great jubilation when Hercules announces the reason for his visit. Sure, plenty of men have tried to kill the sea monster before, but none of them were demigods. Even Leander warms up a bit when Hercules proposes to busy himself during the weeks before the monster’s return by helping a team of Trojan athletes train for the upcoming Olympic Games.
Someone is obviously still displeased to have Hercules in Troy, however, despite— or perhaps even because of— his self-appointed monster-slaying mission. One of the Olympic boxers under his instruction attempts to assassinate him, but kills himself instead by falling accidentally onto the poisoned spikes of his own bronze knuckles. A band of suspiciously well-armed robbers lays an ambush for Hercules and Ulysses in a place where no one outside the palace should have known they would be. And Argus, Petra’s captain of the guards (Jacques Stany, of Hannah D.: The Girl from Vondel Park and Castle of the Living Dead), seems to be keeping just slightly closer a watch over the outsiders than is consistent with the norms of hospitality. Naturally it falls to Diogenes to put all the pieces together. King Linus didn’t die in any hunting accident two years ago; he was murdered by his brother, who coveted the throne of Troy. And while Petra would be happy in theory to be rid of the sea monster, it is absolutely necessary for his long-range plans that it be allowed to survive at least another month. You see, all of Troy’s maidens— even Princess Diana— must participate in the sacrifice lottery, and Petra was counting on the monster to eliminate Diana before her coming of age, clearing his route to permanent rule over the city. The regent has already arranged the rigging of next month’s lottery (the last in which the princess may be included), and it obviously won’t do to have some meddling hero save her at the very altar of sacrifice! But now that Hercules and his crew know what they’re up against, what are they to do about it? Petra will continue to wield absolute power in Troy for another five or six weeks, and the plots to eliminate Hercules before then will surely grow more formidable each time another one is defeated. Leaving now is thus probably the sensible thing to do, but Hercules has a promise to keep— to the refugees, to Diana, to all of Troy— and to flee in fear for his own hide would be gravely dishonorable. Maybe some of those other Trojans he’s been befriending can help somehow…
I’m quite taken aback by how good Hercules and the Princess of Troy is. Not that it’s especially wonderful, or anything, but I was expecting far, far less than it delivered. I mean, it’s a failed TV pilot in a genre that people had stopped giving a crap about, designed to copy, on an even smaller budget, the esthetics of movies that were already bywords of badness for many if not most of its era’s cinephiles. It’s hard to be much less auspicious than that! But in all seriousness, I would definitely have watched this show had it been picked up by anyone. Hercules and the Princess of Troy suggests that “Hercules” would have enjoyed a higher standard of writing, acting, and direction than many contemporary television series dealing in the fantastic (which is to place it above “Lost in Space,” “Land of the Giants,” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” but markedly below “Star Trek” and “The Outer Limits”). The central trio of Hercules, Diogenes, and Ulysses shows the potential to develop into a routinely enjoyable ensemble, if probably never an iconic one. I’m especially intrigued by the question of how Ulysses might have developed over the course of the series, as Mark Hulswit grew into the part and the writers got more of a feel for the character. After all, it ought to be significant that Hercules is teamed here not with his canonical sidekick, Hylas, but with a boy destined to become an A-list hero in his own right. (Incidentally, although I know of no actual mythological basis for Ulysses playing Robin to Hercules’s Batman, it is at least plausible on generational grounds. Among the minor figures whom the adult Ulysses would fight alongside in the Trojan War was “Tlepolemos the huge and mighty” [as Homer puts it in Richmond Lattimore’s translation], one of the sons of Hercules.)
It’s the material aspects of the production that offer the biggest surprises, though. Simply put, I can barely believe that Hercules and the Princess of Troy was made on a 1965 TV budget. The sets are noticeably more credible than I’m used to seeing in even the era’s best examples of televised fantasy and science fiction, and the prop arms and armor put their counterparts in many of Hollywood’s period epics to shame. The first-act sea battle between the Olympia and the pirate ship is extremely impressive, with plenty of sword-swinging extras, nicely chaotic fight choreography, and even some display of authentic ancient Greek naval tactics. (The pirates’ galley even has a catapult built into the forecastle!) Better still is the climactic clash between Hercules and the sea monster. Looking like a cross between a mantis shrimp and a marine iguana, the creature is admirably well designed, and the full-sized puppet works smoothly both on land and in the water. In imagination and functionality alike, it recalls the rat-bat-spider beast in The Angry Red Planet, and by the standard of its day, it manages not to look completely phony while grappling with Gordon Scott. Most TV producers splurge on their pilots, of course, so it’s likely that regular episodes of “Hercules” wouldn’t have looked quite so good, but Hercules and the Princess of Troy is competitive, visually speaking, with all but the most lavish Italian sword-and-sandal pictures of the preceding several years. I can only assume that the relatively few dollars Levine and Band had to spend on this project went a long way indeed in Italy.
This review is part of the B-Masters Cabal’s roundtable on TV pilots masquerading as movies— generally because nobody saw any merit in the series they were meant to introduce. Click the banner below to see what the rest of the Cabal has to say on the subject.