Bright Lights Film Journal

Of Loincloths and Lamé: “Sons of Hercules” at the 1999 SFILGFF

These mincing musclequeens might as well be Hercules’ daughters!

Among the 1999 San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival’s dog-and-pony shows, Sons of Hercules promises to be one of the campiest. “Sons” is generic here; though there was a series of movies (and later, truncated TV shows) based on Hercules’ alleged progeny, this combination clip show and live commentary covers a wider range. Using bizarre scenes from the films themselves and interviews with legendary beauties like Richard Harrison, Gordon Mitchell, and Mickey Hargitay, it traces the sword-and-sandal epic from inception in 1914 to the final glory days of the early ’60s, when a mini-army of muscleboys paraded through cheap sets, imaginary histories, and mindless plots in loincloths and lamé.

Conceived by aficionado William Comstock and presented by MGM film archivist John Kirk, the program looks specifically at the genre’s camp and homoerotic elements. This approach shouldn’t surprise the many fans who’ve long been aware of the queer underpinnings of films like Hercules, The Giant of Marathon, and the 150-odd other mostly Italian entries. Many a budding queer in that era who wasn’t busy poring over the underwear ads in Sears catalogs, or watching Bonanza or My Three Sons for reasons other than a love of television, could be found glued to these mock-historical male beauty pageants. Suspicious parents could always be mollified by saying they were part of research for a paper on ancient Rome.

There are fascinating tidbits in this show. Who knew that Mussolini used the early actor/bodybuilder who played Maciste as a physical role model? Or that Steve Reeves studied method acting with Stella Adler? (She refunded his money after what must have been a harrowing week.) Or that the women in these movies – Jayne Mansfield, Moira Orfei, Chelo Alonso, the glorious Sylvia Lopez – are every bit as lurid and powerful as their male counterparts? As presenter John Kirk diplomatically says, “What they lack in muscles, they make up for in makeup.”

Of course, the real lure is seeing these muscleboys in various states of distress and undress. Kirk Morris (aka Adriano Bellini) was one of the genre’s most beautiful men, and in films like The Witch’s Curse he’s displayed to full advantage in a tiny loincloth in spite of the fact that, inexplicably, the setting is Scotland circa 1650. There are numerous scenes throughout of our sweaty, sinewy heroes being attacked by stuffed bulls, or chased by rear-projected monsters, or grabbed by walking trees, while the camera lovingly captures every popping vein and bulge.

No one ever accused these boys of being actors, a fact that the still hunky Richard Harrison admits. Of course, even if they could act – and arguably, a few, like Gordon Scott, could – the horrendous dubbing would capsize any performance. It’s amusing indeed to see the talent-free Steve Reeves in several clips where he has different voices in each.

These films are equal opportunity camp, with the women always as endearingly absurd as the men. Colossus and the Amazon Queen features Amazons doing an ensemble frug in a cave painted with glitter; their muscular male counterparts in the obligatory lame seem to be looking for a lost go-go cage. In the infamous The Loves of Hercules, with a fetching Mickey Hargitay and two Jayne Mansfields, poor Jayne is “attacked” by a talking tree monster that struggles to get its branches around her vast tits. That film is also noteworthy for its line of mincing musclemen wearing silver lamé boots and little pleated culottes – apparently all the rage in men’s fashions in ancient Rome.