I think that my relationship with Dara Singh is one of those that maintains its longevity by acting out its own demise at regular, cyclical intervals. The passion’s not always there, and there are times when I walk away in frustration. But I always come back. And one of the reasons that I do is that, despite the relationship being sustained by its fair share of compromise and lowered expectations, there are also those times when Dara unexpectedly comes home with a nice bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates. Hercules is that box of chocolates.
One of the reasons that I chose Hercules to begin this latest chapter in Dara’s and my journey through life together is that –- like the previously reviewed favorites The Thief of Baghdad and Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 –- it is the product of the Bohra Brothers, this time with brother Shreeram Bohra directing and Ramkumar Bohra producing. As I have come to expect from these aspiring kingpins of the 1960s stunt film, the end product is cheap but exceedingly colorful, and shows a real enthusiasm for being as entertaining as possible within its means.
Hercules, like Samson, is also one of those Dara Singh films that shows most clearly the influence of the Italian peplums. Such influence is to be expected, since the popularity of Italian sword and sandal films in India goes back to the silent era, when the original Maciste films starring former dockworker Bartolomeo Pagano drew crowds in Bombay’s theaters, and in fact had a formative influence on the Indian stunt genre as a whole. (That information from Valentina Vitali's Hindi Action Cinema: Industries, Narratives, Bodies) So strong is that influence in Hercules that it could almost be mistaken for one of the Steve Reeves or Brad Harris joints of its era, with all of the boulder hurling, leopard print sarong wearing, and dinosaur punching that that implies. That is, of course, except for all of the singing, and, this being a Dara Singh movie, the inordinate amount of wrestling.
As with many of Dara’s movies, Hercules begins with a nation’s throne being unlawfully seized, though this time, for once, not from Dara. Nevertheless, Dara’s Hercules promises his old ma that he will fight to restore that throne to its rightful heir, a blandly handsome entity by the name of Jesson. Now in that seat is the evil Maliz, who is played by B.M. Vyas, an actor who, in the 1960s, seemed to play all of those types of roles that would be played by Jeevan in the 1970s.
Of course, this being Hercules, the task of restoring Jesson to the throne involves a series of grueling and increasingly outlandish physical trials, the first of which involves Herc battling a Hydra that is at once both rubbery and conspicuously inflexible.
That done, Hercules and his loyal crew -- who seem a little heavily skewed toward the useless comic relief end -- set sail on a quest to find some kind of magical whose-a-ma-whatsit. It is at this point that things really kick into high gear, starting with the group getting shipwrecked on an island where the men all find themselves enchanted by a tribe of amazons lead by Helen. It is then up to Hercules’ lady love -- who, confusingly, is also named Helen, but is actually played by the actress Nishi (thanks, Memsaab!) -- to break the spell and get the guys back on point.
That done, Hercules and his men continue in pursuit of their true target: Medusa! Unfortunately, as fun as it would be to see how the filmmakers might realize a character whose hair is made of live snakes, the Bohras here cop out by making Medusa merely a gray wigged old crone with a creepy little gnome for a sidekick. Fortunately, Medusa later makes up for her lameness by turning into a giant Cyclops.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Because, before he can take on Medusa, Hercules must first battle a giant ape person and a pair of green and red painted guys who laugh in the extremely loud and forced manner that you would only if told the world’s least funny joke by a man who had your scrotum trapped in a drill press.
And then our hero must face the worst monster of all, Dara Singh arch ring nemesis and world’s least fit athlete, Hungarian wrestler Emile Czaja, aka King Kong!
Happily, once Medusa, King Kong and the Cyclops, et al. have been vanquished, the viewer need not fear that the mad monster party is over. For -- just as they did with The Thief of Baghdad -- the Bohras and cinematographer/special effects man B. Gupta have worked overtime to insure that Hercules is a creature-fest of the most generous order. Thus, once back in Greece, Hercules must do battle with yet another largely immobile example of cryptozoology in the form of a salamander-like dragon who needs a conspicuous amount of help from his opponent in order to maintain his threatening demeanor.
Finally, Hercules ends up chained to what looks like a giant bust of Sigmund Freud, at which point Helen shows up again to do a dagger dance very much like the one she did in The Thief of Baghdad, about which I have no complaints whatsoever.
And then Dara breaks loose to perform the requisite climactic act of pillar pulling, not to mention an awful lot of wrestling. And, yes, I am indeed giving you a very shorthand version of Hercules. For instance, as she so often does in Dara’s movies, Mumtaz makes an appearance, albeit in an uncharacteristically tiny role as a dancing oracle named Diana. Also, Dara manages at one point or another to strangle almost every male cast member in the film.
But why should I do all of the work for you, when doing it yourself is so much fun? Granted, the VCD I watched it on made the film look like it was shot inside a septic tank (a title card before the start of the movie read “This is an old film, so please cooperate with us”), but only in the land of Greek mythology could we ask for a miracle such as an obscure old Indian B movie being presented to us in a format that didn’t make it look like complete shit. Simply consider this the trial you must endure in order to reap the many rich rewards that Hercules has to offer. Go forward, heroes!