“A retelling of the legend of Perseus and the Medusa, in which the hero is defending the besieged kingdom of Seriphos. Its people are near starvation, under siege by the army of Argus on one side, a huge dragon on another side, and the hideous Medusa on another. The king is about to give his daughter, Andromeda (Anna Ranalli), to the evil Galinor, king of Argus, as a bride for his son, in order to open up a route for trade. Perseus (Richard Harrison), the son of the murdered king of Argus, vows to avenge his father's death, stop the usurper Galinor's subjugation of Seriphos, and free both kingdoms. To do this, he must slay the dragon and then destroy the Medusa, which will restore her victims -- Seriphos' best soldiers -- who have been transformed into stone in her valley, to flesh-and-blood, so that they can defeat the army of Argus. First, however, he must defeat the evil son of Galinor in a tournament and win the trust of Andromeda's father.” – AllMovie Guide
We don’t get a whole lot of gladiator movies in theaters these days, do we? Sure, there’s the occasional big budget flop like Pompeii, but that’s nothing compared to how it used to be. Back in 1958, after the international success of Hercules starring Steve Reeves, sword and sandal movies, a.k.a. peplums, became all the rage. In Italy alone, between the years 1960 and 1965, at least 130 peplums were cranked out and dumped into theaters. To put that into perspective, that amounted to one-seventh of the country’s total film output. That’s a whole lot of oiled-up guys in togas.
Which, by the way, is what caused the films came to be known as peplums in the first place. The togas, that is, not the oiled-up guys. Originally a word used to refer to an actual style of colorful dresses worn by women, peplum came to be applied to gladiator films by film critics who saw the genre as an offshoot of the historical costume dramas which had been popular in Italy since the silent movie days. What set peplums apart from their predecessors, however, was a very noticeable focus on beefcake. And it wasn’t just because people liked ogling oiled up pecs, though I suppose that didn’t hurt with certain audiences. As Louis Bayman noted in his book, Popular Italian Cinema, “The peplum foregrounded the muscular male body as an instrument of self-reliance, liberation, and moral authority. This celebration of male physical strength struck a chord with both Italian and international audiences, not least because the peplum reaffirmed the worth of individual male power – and potency – at a time when radical social, economic, and political transformation, in Italy and elsewhere, was generating a sense of instability and corresponding anxiety.” So, the peplums possibly served a sociological function beyond just providing some visceral thrills.
But whatever the reason, peplums were super popular, as were their heroes, many of whom appeared in multiple standalone films. Including Reeves’ seminal outing, there were a total of 19 Hercules movies made in Italy in the late 50s and early 60s. These were joined by 5 films featuring Samson, 8 starring Goliath, and 9 with Ursus as the lead. The undisputed champion, though, was Maciste, one of the longest running characters in Italian cinema. In addition to his already impressive 24 silent films, Maciste went on to appear in 25 more movies during the peplum craze.
The only thing was, monikers like Maciste weren’t very meaningful to audiences in the U.S., so when it came time to redub peplums for American consumption, names were often changed to something with a bit more brand recognition. That’s why, when Embassy Pictures put together a package of 14 peplums for syndication on American television, they decided to tie all of them to Hercules. The problem was, if they renamed all of the characters Hercules, they would have to pay to redub the films a second time, which would sort of defeat the point of buying a bunch of cheapo peplums to begin with. Their solution was simplicity itself, just insert a narration identifying the main character in each film as one of Hercules’ kids. It didn’t even matter how many there were because everybody knows how those Greek gods got around. And so, The Sons of Hercules, complete with a catchy theme song, made its debut.
The Medusa Vs. The Son of Hercules, as noted above, is really just another take on the legend of Perseus, the most famous version of which was, of course, Ray Harryhausen’s Clash Of The Titans. Well, Harryhausen this ain’t. Still, the early work by special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi (Close Encounters, E.T.) featured in this flick has its own low budget charms. In fact, Rambaldi’s Medusa, which eshews the traditional serpent-haired femme fatale in favor of a one-eyed tree-like creature with floppy snake branches, is downright creepy the first time it appears lumbering out of the fog. On the other hand, the life sized, nearly immobile dragon our hero has to fight… not so much. It’s still fun whenever it shows up, though. Add these creatures to the other changes in the story, such as the trap-laden tournament of champions Perseus partakes in, and the whole affair is a fairly enjoyable way to kill some time.
Be that as it may, The Medusa Vs. The Son of Hercules is still the story of Perseus who, as anyone who ever browsed Bullfinch as a child can tell you, was only connected to Hercules by the fact that they were both illegimate offspring of Zeus (you know how those Greek gods got around). I suppose they could have called the show The Half-Brothers of Hercules, but then the theme song probably wouldn’t have been as catchy. Embassy adroitly sidestepped this obstacle by having its opening narration explain that not all of the “sons” of Hercules were actually sired by the big guy. Rather, the demigod declared them his sons in name and spirit due to their dedication to upholding Herc’s heroic virtues. Basically, if you were willing to go out and fight hideous bone-crunching flesh-rending monsters, you stood a pretty good chance of becoming a son of Hercules.
Fortunately, we don’t have quite the same requirements to become sons and daughters of our God. As noted in The Council of Trent’s Sixth Session Decree on Justification, God allows us the opportunity to pass “from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” Or to put it less technically, anyone who has been baptized, either physically or through the desire of their heart, is a child of God. Period.
And not only is becoming a child of God a bit easier than becoming a son of Hercules, the benefits are a little bit better as well. As the Catechism tells us, “as an ‘adopted son’ he can henceforth call God ‘Father,’ in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.” So while the sons of Hercules first had to demonstrate such virtues as self-reliance, liberation, and moral authority before being named his children, our God actually claims us as his own children first and then “breathes” into us the power necessary to attain such virtues. Monster fighting and wearing togas optional. Overall that’s a pretty good deal.
Oddly enough, while the moster fighting and togas are optional for God’s children, the oiling up isn’t. Ancient athletes often rubbed oil onto their bodies under the belief that it kept muscles limber and protected the skin from the elements. Likewise, during baptism, the priest annoints those about to receive the sacrament with The Oil of Catechumens as a form of exorcism to help break the hold of the evil one and to strengthen the spirit. Lovers of weird analogies rejoice!