Recently, the Warner Archive Collection debuted two of the more enjoyable Pepla I’ve seen in their manufactured-on-demand (MOD) line of DVDs, the epic Italian features Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963) and Damon and Pythias (1962). Although it may be obvious to you by the titles alone, these Sword-and-Sandal pictures draw heavily from Greek mythology, as did so many of the films that fall under the banner of Peplum. And while the latter of these two pictures constitutes a fairly straightforward adaptation of a Greek myth, the former is up to something different entirely and it’s there that I’d like to begin.
Crossover battles have long been a staple of the horror genre. From Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) to Freddy vs. Jason (2003), filmmakers have jammed previously disparate characters and franchises together under some pretense or another that they might trade blows for the delight of we bloodthirsty film-goers. And despite the profitability and franchise-restoring potential of such pictures, battle mash-ups rarely occur outside of horror films. For this reason perhaps, the possibility of a religion-themed, battle mash-up film never occurred to me.
In fact, even as I dove into Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, which indeed pits the two titular strongmen of legend against one another in battle, I found the prospect of the whole thing so absurd that I sat before my television almost wholly uninterested. That is, until Hercules, Ulysses, and their crew found themselves shipwrecked in Judea. Then, and only then, did it actually dawn on me how truly glorious, how deliciously sacrilegious, this notion of battling religious icons truly was. I mean, forcing religious figures to pummel one another into the ground for viewers’ entertainment must constitute one of the purest forms of iconoclasm I have ever witnessed. Sure, you’ve got plenty of cinematic battles between characters drawn from single mythologies, such as Clash of the Titans, but rarely do filmmakers cross theological boundaries to construct their battle mash-ups. And rarer still are those occasions in which figures from current, major world religions are brought into the fray. In fact, I can’t think of any others that do this at all. And that’s what makes Hercules, Samson and Ulysses such an incredibly unique experience.
What’s more, it’s a hell of a good time at that! What this tragically-overlooked film promises (which is an epic battle between two scantily-clad, muscle-bound men of lore), it faithfully delivers… and then some. What more could a film possibly offer, you ask? Sea monsters, maybe? What about a dude choking a lion to death with his bare, freakin’ hands? And how about if one of the two main characters got his superpowers from a mullet? Absolutely! You’ll find all these incredible things (and more) in this surely soon-to-be camp classic! Just don’t expect Uysses to contribute anything to the proceedings, and there’s virtually no way you could be disappointed.
As with any other MOD release, the transfer of Hercules is sourced from the highest quality existing elements, without necessarily undergoing the same sort of total remastering a film might when released on Blu-ray. As such, the film exhibits a fair amount of debris and damage. But it’s never overwhelming and, in fact, looks and sounds quite nice, all told. The DVD also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer as a bonus feature, something you don’t often get on these releases, and rightly so given the rarity of most of the pictures offered in MOD lines.
While certainly nowhere near as novel or exciting as Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, the second of these Greek myth-inspired films, Damon and Pythias, relates a surprisingly moving tale about the strength of the titular pair’s unlikely friendship. The film features television stars Guy Williams of Lost in Space and Zorro as Damon and Don Burnett of Northwest Passage as Pythias. Adapted from the Greek myth of the same name, this Sword-and-Sandal bromance opens in 400 B.C. with the philosophical persecution of the people of Syracuse by the city’s tyrannical ruler, Dionysius. The tyrant and his forces work day and night to quell the rise of the Pythagorean philosophies of mathematics and the brotherhood of man throughout the city. After all, the notion of human equality espoused by the Pythagoreans directly challenges the Dionysian philosophy of a hierarchical, war-oriented society. In this troubled political climate, the Pythagorean Pythias enlists the aid of the rogue Damon in tracking down one of Athens’ preeminent Pythagorean philosophers, embroiled in the Syracuse underground. And in spite of their conflicting ideologies, the men form a legendary bond that threatens to unseat Dionysius himself.
Some terrifically cheesy action sequences highlight what is a wholly solid, if somewhat unremarkable, picture here. I found myself growing increasingly more invested in the narrative, however, as the characters’ friendship blossomed. And I actually got a little choked up during some of the later scenes in which the men’s friendship inspires the people of Syracuse to unite under the philosophies of Pythagoras. The transfer here is on par with that of Hercules, Samson and Ulysses with the exception of two consecutive shots in the middle of the picture that suffer from some serious stabilization issues. During said shots, the picture floats around the screen for some thirty nauseating seconds, before cutting away. Fortunately, this issue resolves itself thereafter and does not return.
But honestly, I’ve been more impressed with the presentation of each subsequent Warner Archive release I’ve encountered, in terms of both the content and the packaging. Indeed, the line has come a long way from the cookie-cutter packaging of its earliest releases. Some time ago, Warner moved on from the standard blue front cover art highlighted by small, representational images to wonderful, full-cover pieces typically drawn from vintage poster art. What’s more, I find that the discs themselves now feature images from said cover art as well as full-blown menus with individualized artwork! Soon, you won’t be able to tell an MOD release from a standard DVD release.