Culture And Criticism

Swords And Sandals: The New Sons Of Hercules

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Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Richard Coyle in Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time.

Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Richard Coyle in Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Andrew Cooper, SMPSP/Walt Disney Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Cooper, SMPSP/Walt Disney Pictures
Cover image for the 1957 film 'Hercules'

Former Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe Steve Reeves starred in the 1957 Hercules (Le Fatiche di Ercole), which kicked off a long string of campy Italian sequels. hide caption

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For much of this spring, Hollywood has been weirdly intent on throwing a toga party at your local multiplex.

"Release the Kraken!" bellowed Liam Neeson's Zeus in Clash of the Titans.

"Dad?" gasped a high-schooler to the aquatic god Poseidon in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

"This is no ordinary dagger," marveled Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

And so it went: Swords and sandals everywhere. But why? Well, although these pictures may seem a throwback to the age of such Hollywood epics as Ben-Hur and Spartacus, their real, not-terribly-ancient ancestors are the cheap Italian Hercules and gladiator flicks that filled grind houses and drive-ins in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Where the major Hollywood studios headed for Mesopotamia mostly to tell biblical stories, these quickie, exploitation pictures were more often about Greek and Roman mythology and mythical beasts. Populated mostly by bodybuilders, belly-dancers and 50-foot scorpions, they bore titles like Kindar the Invulnerable, and because they were made for a song, were often quite profitable. (Otherwise there'd never have been 19 Hercules movies produced in nine years.)

What they weren't was very good, though in fairness, no one ever claimed they were. Designed as campy fun, they were laughed at even in their heyday. When Hollywood tried to bring classier production values to the genre in films like Jason and the Argonauts (Ray Harryhausen’s painstaking stop-motion effects didn’t come cheap), the campy fun got expensive. And these days, campy fun requires a special-effects budget that would likely seem daunting even to the Olympians.

Still, it's not as if these films have been losing money this time around. The new Clash of the Titans has made almost half a billion dollars worldwide, and Prince of Persia had taken in about half that much in its first 13 days in release.

All of which means this latest Swords and Sandal cycle will continue. Well, the swords part anyway. In Centurion, which arrives in August, Roman soldiers will be fighting in Scotland. In the snow. I’m gonna guess, no sandals.




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