Hercules Against the Mongols (1963)
Today I will be reviewing another Italian sword and sandal epic, this one Hercules Against the Mongols from 1963. This is a big glitzy production, full of costumed extras doing dangerous stunts and overpaid ex-pat actors mailing in lackluster performances under the hot Italian sun. Good stuff.
And now on to our show...
Ok, so this is a Hercules movie, right? Well, it's technically a "Maciste" movie, though it's understood that the two are one and the same. Maciste is one of Hercules' surnames, from way back when, but I will use Hercules for my reviews. There are maybe six people outside of Italy that have heard the name Maciste, so it's not that big a deal.
Our Hercules is played by 30-year old American-born Mark Forest, pride of Brooklyn. He would play the Maciste/Hercules role in a total of nine Italian sword and sandal movies between 1960 and 1964, churning them out in rapid order. He parlayed the stacks of lira he made doing these into opera lessons (!). Unlike Steve Reeves (Hercules Unchained), Mark Forest can actually act, though he just chooses not to. Most of the time he seems to be smugly aware that he's going to get paid ten times what the other, better actors in the production will make and will end up going home with all the single catering service girls each night whether or not he puts any effort into his role or not (very Shatner-like, if I do say so myself). His outfit for this movie consists of a way-too-short loincloth, bondage-style sandals and this Roman-style tort around his neck.
We first meet Hercules as he's out in some forest somewhere helping the woodland creatures find a home. Some Oriental peasants are here, also, and one of them (a fairly pretty young mom) offers to repay him by reading the future. It seems she's some sort of diviner, and through the use of a wet river rock (!) and a glassy-eyed stare, she can see into the future. It's through this nifty psychic voice-over that we get a chunk of useful exposition about the plot of our movie to come.
Ok, we quickly learn that we're not in ancient Greece back in the first millennium BC, but in Central Asia in the thirteenth century AD! As the Hercules movies gained in popularity across Europe in the 1960s, the producers realized that they could shift the timeframe from the ancient classical world to any timeframe and they could still pull in the audiences, who were more interested in the action than the dicey temporal shenanigans. Besides, Hercules was an immortal demigod, right, so you could always say he has been alive all this time, wandering around the world doing good deeds and wooing women.
Anyway, it's 1227 AD and Genghis Khan, ruler of the feared Mongols, has just died a happy death. Khan's three sons (each a leader of his own powerful tribe) now share the throne (which is never a good thing, power sharing agreements in tribal societies rarely end well). The setting is the wide open steppes of Central Asia, a land of stark beauty and vast emptiness.
The Mongol Empire!
The Mongols! Hide the women!
We meet these three warriors now, all played by white men with heavy make-up, "Oriental-ish" facial hair, and long wigs. Their names are Karikan, Sayan, and Susdal. They look just like 1960s Klingons. In fact, I'll just go ahead and call them Klingons. Lets see, how about we use three of my favorite Klingons, General Chang, Kang, and Koloth.
Karikan is played by twentysomething Renato Terra (star of The Usual Unidentified Thieves, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die, and The Man Who Wagged His Tail). He looks pretty goofy with a fake beard and goatee and these girly pigtails on each side of his head. His name means "Hurricane" and his "strength is incredible". Since he's clearly the toughest of the brothers (despite the hair), he might as well be General Chang, the ultra-cool, bloodthristy, Shakespeare-quoting Klingon warrior from Star Trek VI.
Sayan is played by 36-year old American-born Ken Clark (star of Tarzana the Wild Girl and Operation Lady Chaplin, and was also Steve Benton in 1959's Attack of the Giant Leeches, which is just awesome). The tallest of the two, and the most Oriental looking with his trim beard and mullet hair, his weapon is the bow and "his arrows never miss". He might as well be Kang, the venerable Klingon captain from the Day of the Dove episode of The Original Series.
And lastly, Susdal is played by 25-year old Renato Rossini (star of Sex Life in a Convent, Naked Werewolf Woman, Naked Girl Killed in the Park, and When Women Played Ding Dong). He's a stocky guy with his head shaved bald with a lame-ass clip-on ponytail hanging down the back. His weapon of choice is the whip, which he uses with "incomparable skill". He might as well be Koloth, that wily Klingon captain from The Trouble With Tribbles episode of The Original Series.
These three brothers will engage in a movie-long quest to one-up the others and gain the sole throne. They conspire, backstab and fake brotherhood at the drop of a hat to gain advantages and to undercut each other. This is what Genghis gets, though, for not naming a clear heir to his throne before he died. Many an empire has suffered the same internal conflict after the death of a megalomaniac autocratic leader.
Anyway, it seems that Genghis Khan on his death bed, for some reason, also decreed that peace be made with the Christian white folk to the west (in the area of modern western Russia, I assume). Now peace with the whiteys is not what these three warrior-sons have in mind for the summer's activities. Still, they have to respect their insanely popular father's wishes, at least in public. They need a loophole, a good valid reason for them to go to war against the white folk.
So they stage an assassination of one of their father's closest advisors and a favorite of the tribesmen. An arrow through the heart (an arrow "colored" white) is enough to convince the people that the white folk are to blame. Enraged, the tribes of the Mongols are ready to form up the horde and go to war again (in reality, probably few of the warrior tribes really wanted anything else, they are built for conquest and victory and not much else. Bloodthirsty cavalry troops do not make good farmers and weavers).
So they ride on the capital city of the whiteys and burn it down. This place is named "Tudela", or something, the audio sucks and there are no subtitles. I'm going to guess it's in Russia as the royal court is all dressed like Orthodox Christians and their names are Slavic. The attack is full of rushing men and galloping horses, but not much else. We don't see any real combat scenes, nor even any white defenders under arms, perhaps due to budget constraints, and the sets look either like the plywood cut-outs they are or the streets of a 1960s Italian village that agreed to let a bunch of horses trot down their main street as long as the movie company cleaned up the poop afterwards.
The whole street for 100 lira an hour...
The goal here is to kill the ruling family, pruning the tree at the roots so to speak. The King is killed off-screen and now they have to break into the palace, which is still under siege, to get to his children. General Chang himself takes the battering ram in his hands and pounds down the door.
Inside the palace, the King's daughter (I'll just call her the "Princess") and her consorts rush around gathering up the royal silver place settings and planning their escape. But, much like my wife trying to get ready for a movie, they leave too late and are caught by the Mongols. The girls screech and howl, and move in to protect their Princess.
Just when it looks ugly, in walks a fine Mongolian woman in a fancy dress. This will prove to be Lee-Wan, General Chang's wife! She glides in and with silken tongue, convinces General Chang to give these women to her as slaves. General Chang is weak-kneed in the presence of his beautiful wife and you can see that this alluring woman could have the throne if she just asked the right way.
The whole interplay between General Chang and Lee-Wan reminds me of Thandie Newton and Karl Urban in The Chronicles of Riddick, which was an otherwise unwatchable waste of CPU processing power and hair gel. Newton's Dame Vaako had the same captivating power over Urban's Lord Vaako, her sensuality masking an undercurrent of Machiavellian machinations. Christ, I can't believe I just wasted thirty seconds of my life typing this paragraph on that insipid crappy movie.
"I own you."
Lee-Wan is played by 27-year old Maria Grazia Spina (star of The Return of Casanova, Violent Naples, Me Me Me... and the Others). She's hot by any terms, with enormous breasts that bounce with every step and a hard manipulative edge that gives her that extra something sexy.
Lee-Wan (my goodness, such glorious hooters...)
The authority in the kingdom now falls to the Princess, though real kingship can only reside with a male, and her younger brother Alexander is the only legitimate male left. Alexander has escaped, and with him the threat of the white folk regaining power one day. This can't be allowed to happen, so the Mongols fan out to find the boy.
The young prince is currently in a large gaggle of white folk, all force marching along a road through the forests to escape. They look ragged and exhausted, having clearly fled on short notice and at great peril from the flaming city. Here we meet young Alexander, the boy prince and sole heir to the throne. Alexander (or "Alessio" in the Italian version) is played by 6-year old Loris Loddi (soon to be star of The Knights Who Made the Enterprise and Excellent Cadavers).
Alexander sneaks away from the column and for some reason goes into the woods (maybe he had to pee and he's shy). There he comes upon Hercules! The big man is reclining and napping out here in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by his squirrel and woodchuck friends. Alexander and Hercules become fast friends, despite the curious circumstances of their meeting, and will remain so for the rest of the movie. If there is one thing that all demigods like, it's small precocious children.
The prince's female guardian now enters, having finally realized the boy was missing and gone looking for him. Looking at the blocking of the shot above, it seems inconceivable that the boy could have left the road, in front of maybe a hundred people, and run across into the woods without anyone seeing him. He's the heir to the throne, after all, you'd think they'd kinda keep an eye on him.
Just then the Mongols attack! A small group of horsemen have caught up to the fleeing column and ride in to assault them. We don't see anything violent here, probably because they couldn't afford to pay these extras a bonus for stunt work.
Hercules strides out into a patch of open scrub to confront the riders. There are just seven Mongols against him, including Kang (the archer). Seeing an easy target (so he thinks) Kang starts tossing arrows at Hercules, who deflects them with a hunk of log he picks up. Pissed, Kang jumps off his horse and attempts hand-to-hand combat with this strange white man. Hercules pounds him down, of course, and leaves him hurting in the dirt.
Hercules then runs back into the woods and emerges with this big-ass tree trunk! Using this fifteen-foot long and three-foot in diameter spray-painted carved styrofoam prop, he proceeds to thrash the other six Mongol riders while Kang watches in amazement. Hercules laughs merrily as the Mongols limp off and Kang promises that they "will meet again".
Seriously, that's cool!
Hercules goes back to the boy prince and asks what the heck is going on. Alexander tells him about the Mongols, the attack on the city and all that rot. None of this makes Hercules very happy. It seems that he was a friend of the now-dead King and a supporter of his kingdom. We later learn that as war clouds were gathering before the Mongol storm, the King sent several men to fetch Hercules to his aid, but none of them made it through to Hercules.
Now, the Princess and her lady consorts were captured before. To find out who the real Princess is (none of the women will admit to who the Princess is and the Mongols can't tell one white woman from another) a prisoner is tortured in front of them. The Princess can't take it and steps forward, "I am the Princess!". In a heartbeat, her lady consorts all step forward and shout as well, "I am Spartacus...er, I mean, I am Princess!". But the jig is up, the real Princess is busted and is hauled off to a dungeon (in the city they captured).
The Princess is named Bianca and is played by 23-year old Jose Greci (star of Bury Them Deep and Death on the Fourposter). She's a big-boned reddish brunette with a fiery eyes and full chest, though prone to overacting and pouting through her lines.
Out of sequence here, but the Princess and the ladies are led to the dungeon and locked inside. Also, the man who was being tortured is also led in there (you instantly wonder why he's still alive). This man is named Adolphus and is played by Tullio Altamura (star of Death Has No Sex, Danger!! Death Ray, and Adultery Italian Style). He turns out to be a formerly high-placed official in the kingdom's court, and a confidant of the King and Princess (I guess the King had no wife).
Adolphus talks with the Princess, saying that he believes that the scattered remains of the King's army can be rallied if they had the money to re-equip and re-arm. It seems that the King was sitting on a vast gold stash that only he knew the location of (despite the Mongols tearing up the city looking for it). The Princess, however, now confides in Adolphus that she knows where the fortune is hidden! It seems it's kept secret under a large stone grist mill in the center of the city.
Later, we see that Adolphus has been working for some time for the Mongols! Well, specifically he's working for Kang. Now that he knows where the gold is hidden, Kang has to make a decision. If he goes and gets it now, he might have to share it with his brothers, but if he waits for a more opportune moment, he might get it all for himself. Keep this in mind.
Adolphus (on the left) conspiring.
So, the Mongols have moved into the white King's former palace and are busy squatting on bearskin rugs and messily eating hunks of meat like in all Mongol movies. Kang is busy telling his brothers about Hercules and the fight. It seems that everyone knows about this legendary figure, though clearly none of the Mongols have ever met him in person. They just can't believe his story about Hercules' massive strength.
And then, in strolls Hercules! He has come to offer peace (so he says). General Chang orders his men to arrest Hercules, but the soldiers are very reluctant to try (word of Hercules' prowess in battle has spread through the camp). Even Kang and Koloth stay put, showing a wise cowardice. Seeing an opportunity to show himself the strongest of the three, General Chang himself attempts to subdue Hercules, who most strangely allows this to happen easily (!).
Ah, I see now, Hercules was deliberately allowing himself to be captured so he could be put into the dungeon with the Princess so he could talk to her. They end up in adjoining cells and have a chat through the barred window. We see the first signs of love between these two.
Their talk is interrupted by Koloth! The warrior comes into the cell and takes Hercules out and into his tent. There Koloth works some of his own court intrigue, acting like he's impressed with Hercules' strength and power. He offers Hercules a share of the riches once he is leader of the Mongols. To make this happen, he needs Hercules to thump his brothers in an upcoming tournament (see below) so that Koloth would be the undisputed leader. Hercules isn't so happy about this, but is aware that to refuse would endanger the Princess more, so he agrees.
Alright, laws in the Mongol Empire are made and adjudicated by a panel of Elders, wise old men who have the final say in most important matters of the Empire. They have decided that the three brothers bickering about who is the best has got to stop for the good of the Empire. To settle it, they will have a "tournament" where the three will fight each other (though not kill each other, just decide who is the strongest warrior). The prize will be the white Princess, who comes with all her lands and her treasures. General Chang's wife isn't so happy about this, but she understands it would be more of a political arrangement than an actual conjugal marriage.
Damn, I'm cute.
So the day of the tournament comes, and all the Mongols gather around a smallish clearing surrounded by a crude wooden fence. Into this step our three warrior brothers, here to fight each other for the honor of having the Princess as his own (and with her all her lands and gold).
But first, a group of white servants (captured in the attack on the city) are herded into the circle. They will be given a chance to fight for their Princess, and if they best the brothers, win her freedom. Predictably, even though they are given weapons, the poor servants are outmatched from the first step. Oddly, only one is killed, and the rest allowed to limp out of the circle.
Ah, but who should enter now? Hercules! Stepping into the circle (how'd he get here anyway? I assume that Koloth arranged it), he calls out the brothers, offering to fight for the freedom of the Princess. If he wins, he will take her place as their captive. The Mongol Elders talk it over and agree, this is how the game is played in this empire. Hercules kicks Kang's ass. Then he kicks General Chang's ass. Then he kicks Koloth's ass! Koloth has to be pissed right now, he thought he had a deal worked out with Hercules, but apparently Hercules had something else in mind.
Hercules demands the Princess's freedom. The Mongol Elders consult with each other and agree to honor their original offer. The Princess will go free and Hercules will be tossed in chains. Koloth then steps up and haughtily offers to buy Hercules as his own personal servant. The Elders agree to that also.
Koloth is really mad, and makes Hercules do all sorts of slavish things, like lift really big styrofoam and stretched-canvas over wooden frame things that look like marble pillars and big rocks. Hercules strains and puffs but completes the tasks. Certainly he could escape whenever he wants, but he swore "by his god" to be Koloth's slave, so he has to stay. Isn't Hercules' god Zeus?
Really annoyed now, Koloth tosses a big-ass lion into Hercules' cell! The lion seems more concerned with lying down in the sunlight and sleeping, but a stuntman dressed like Hercules and wearing a Hercules wig keeps poking at him with metal poles. The lion still seems like he just wants a nap, but he gets sedated off-screen and then Hercules jumps on him and chokes him until he passes out. It's hard to be a lion in these sorts of movies.
Hercules has a hard life...
Meanwhile, the Princess has been given her freedom. She's not sold on Hercules' motivation anymore, having been told that maybe he just took her place to get the treasure. Her lack of faith in him is disconcerting, but she's been through a lot, so I'll cut her some slack. She leaves the city alone on horseback, headed west for Bratislava, where the young prince Alexander has been a guest of the King of Bratislava.
Kang sees in this an opportunity to kill Alexander, so he "arranges" the escape of Aldolphus, his secret traitor, with orders to kill the boy. Aldophus catches up to the Princess and the two of them ride west together. But General Chang (without consulting his brothers) changes his mind, and has his horsemen ride out and bring back the Princess before she gets very far. Aldolphus rides on west to Bratislava.
The Princess is taken back to the city and there runs into Lee-Wan (Chang's wife), who is not happy at all that this foreign beauty is back. Lee-Wan goes to confront General Chang about his lusting after the Princess, but the drunken Mongol warrior just stabs her (I think) and orders her out.
The mortally injured Lee-Wan, now mad as hell, heads for Hercules, who by now has been yoked in a nearby grotto to die. She tells him that since the Mongols broke their word by reclaiming the Princess, then Hercules has no obligation to continue to be a slave. Hercules breaks his chains with ease and heads back to the city to save the Princess.
"Hey, sweetie, I know you're dying and all, but could you maybe find me a glass of Fresca, I can't reach my mouth."
While that was happening, the King of Bratislava has gathered up his army, and with the boy prince Alexander, has marched east to lay siege to the Mongol city (the one they captured at the beginning of the movie). His army consists of a large group of mounted knights and pikemen, with some pretty cool catapults and siege towers to boot.
The coming battle is lengthy and badly filmed, with little or no thought given to tactics or logical military maneuvers. Basically, a lot of poorly-paid extras run around waving tinfoil swords and wooden sticks near each other and try very hard not to get hurt, while horses run around in circles and smoke pots burn artfully on the edges of the shot. This movie makes the Mongols look like hapless ignorant backwoods hicks, and not the juggernaut that nearly overran all of the civilized world with fire and sword. Of course, the Christian soldiers aren't much better here, they just have nicer clothes.
Christian soldiers' uniforms by Gap.
It's Hercules' sudden appearance on the battlefield that turns the tide in favor of the Christians. He seeks out General Chang, tosses his horse, and then kills him by crushing his chest with a big piece of wood. Hercules then singlehandedly traps Koloth's cavalry in a combination of forest fire and raging floodwaters (really) and that brother dies in the swirling mud. That last bit was a total waste of ten minutes of screen time, but it did save them the expense of a protracted cavalry battle to decide the victory.
While all that silliness is going on, the traitor Aldophus has snuck the boy prince into the city and given him to Kang, who is still in the city. The Princess is condemned to die in the dungeon and the Mongols recover the treasure from the grist mill and things look pretty bad for a while. I guess Kang is planning on taking the treasure and escaping east to reform an army and rule the Mongols as the sole leader.
Hercules shows up now and kills Kang with his own dagger after a prolonged fight full of arrows, sweaty bodies and broken furniture. All three brothers are now dead and accounted for, yea! Aldolphus then falls to arrows from the attacking force and the boy prince is saved to be manipulated and controlled by a power-hungry regent who will rule in his name with an iron fist and drain the kingdom's treasury for his own aggrandizement. Hercules rescues the Princess from the dungeon and they apologize for doubting each other and fall in love on the spot!
The movie ends with everyone cheering as Hercules and the Princess riding off together to make babies the Greek way. Sequels abound.
Bonus! Some handy statistics for you:
0: Number of cigarettes smoked (tobacco not yet discovered).
0: Reasons to believe that all of Europe would have been conquered if not for Genghis Khan's untimely death forcing the recall of his army in 1227 AD, giving the Christians a chance to regroup.
1: Times Mongols are called "dirty savages".
1: Attempted rapes of the Princess.
2: Fish eaten by Hercules.
11: Arrows shot by Kang.
5: People killed by Kang's arrows.
Written in March 2007 by Nathan Decker
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