Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Fury of Hercules (Italy/France, 1962)

One of the things I love about the bustling Italian film industry of the 1960s is how its constant demand for onscreen talent made it a stopping point for such a wide array of characters from across the pop cultural landscape. Body builders, beauty queens, and stars both down-trending and slumming from around the globe all made their way to Rome at one time or another to get a piece of the action, as well as did performers and artists from other disciplines who just needed the extra cash. It is for this reason that today we can look upon such surreal spectacles as that of Southern California born muscle/stuntman Brad Harris locked in mortal battle with iconic French pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg.

The Fury of Hercules was the second of two peplums that Gainsbourg appeared in for director Gianfranco Parolini during 1961, both of which were filmed in Zagreb and starred Harris (an apparent favorite of Parolini’s who would later star in the director’s Kommisar X eurospy series.) These followed close on the heels of Gainsbourg’s Italian screen debut in another sword and sandal adventure, Nunzio Malasomma’s Revolt of the Slaves, in which he also played a heavy. The singer was well into his career as a songwriter-for-hire and cabaret performer by this time, but was a few years off from the pop success that would lead to the legendary status he holds today, so it can be assumed that these were acting gigs taken to keep food on the table. It was an arguable boon, then, for Gainsbourg that his distinctive look –- which the recent biopic Gainsbourg, A Heroic Life explicitly paralleled to the caricatures of “the evil Jew” found in Nazi propaganda from the 40s -- made him an apparent strong candidate for playing villain roles in the Italian genre films of the day.

Fury finds Harris’s Hercules arriving in the city of Arkad, hoping to pay a visit on its king, a friend of his from previous adventures. Instead, Hercules finds that the King has died, and that his daughter, Queen Canidia (Mara Berni), who has risen to the throne in his stead, has fallen under the sway of her power hungry advisor Menistus (Gainsbourg). Under Menistus’ guidance she has turned Arkad into something of a national security state, following his directive to build an enormous wall around the city at the expense of many slaves’ lives. In response, a rebel movement has sprung up within the kingdom, one on which Menistus hopes to pin the blame for his planned murder of Canidia, after which he intends to seize power. After a number of failed attempts on the part of Menistus and his cronies to get Hercules out of the way, the hero joins up with the rebel forces and leads an attack that will end his malevolent reign once and for all.

Given the flat, American-accented dubbing of his character in the English version of the film that I saw, it’s difficult to gauge Gainsbourg’s performance in The Fury of Hercules. I will say, though, that it stands out against the typical scenery chewing of Italian genre movie villains of its day for its very low key nature. Rather than furiously projecting menace, Gainsbourg instead relies upon what seems to be his natural ability to exude an air of casually sinister, feline decadence. Menistus seldom shouts or declaims, but instead quietly insinuates his menace, like the hushed narrator of one of Gainsbourg-the-singer’s more debauched lounge numbers.

As for The Fury of Hercules as a whole, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill peplum, one that would likely rate little more than a dismissive footnote for any chronicler of Gainsbourg’s career. Even so, its classic B movie trappings -- styrofoam boulders, inopportunely blinking corpses, mangy gorilla suits -- might make it an irresistible anecdote to include in the tale of a figure ultimately destined for greater things. As for the man himself, I sincerely doubt that the film would rank very highly in the hierarchy of memory for one who counted bedding Brigitte Bardot among his many accomplishments, but I would nonetheless be curious to know what Gainsbourg made of the whole adventure. He was, after all, a man with both an artistic soul and a keen knack for pop exploitation (this is, don’t forget, the guy who once promoted himself by tricking a teen starlet into singing a song about a blowjob) and here he was, not just commenting on, but actually collaborating in the very trash cultural “Pop! Bang! Whizzz!” that he would later ironically celebrate in the song “Comic Strip”.

At the end of The Fury of Hercules, Menistus dies an ignominious death at the hands of his oppressed subjects, which I have to admit was an outcome I found a little disappointing. Perhaps made greedy by the many possibilities suggested by the film’s odd confluence of talent, I was really hoping to see Hercules toss Serge Gainsbourg into a volcano or something -- not the least so that I could have the pleasure of typing that sentence. Of course, the producers very well may have thought that having the hulking Harris square off physically against the slight crooner would have undermined their hero’s sportsmanlike image, and I don’t blame them. Still I am grateful that, for a brief moment, such a possibility even existed. And for that, Italian cinema, I thank you.

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