Vintage Peplum

The French film poster for My Son, the Hero (1962)

Remember the Italian sword and sandal films (known as peplum in their native land) that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the U.S. from around 1958 to 1964? There was never any question about the appeal. What’s not to like about muscle-bound super heroes, beautiful, curvaceous slave girls, princesses and evil queens, despicable, hiss-worthy villains, amazing feats of strength, epic battle scenes, exotic dance sequences, bizarre tortures and stylized sadism, picturesque locations, atmospheric set design, and disaster film calamities (earthquakes, volcanoes, storms)?  

The quality of the films, on the other hand, was wildly variable, a factor that wasn’t helped by the poorly synched English dubbed dialogue, exaggerated sound design, questionable special effects and unintentional homoerotic overtones that became grist for parody. There were some movies that stood out from the countless imports for their impressive box-office prowess (Pietro Francisci’s Hercules (1958) and the 1959 sequel Hercules Unchained) or devoted cult following (Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World and Umberto Scarpelli’s The Giant of Metropolis, both released in 1961) but renowned film critics would be hard pressed to recognize ANY title as a masterpiece and don’t expect the Criterion Collection to enshrine one on Blu-Ray in the near future.   One of the few films that actually exploited a potential liability as a major asset was My Son, the Hero (1962, Italian title: Arrivano I Titani) which, as The New York Times stated in its review, was “dubbed into English in which the accents are far from classic or Cretan but decidedly Brooklynese. The results are sometimes farcically fascinating.” Could this have been an inspiration for Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).     The United Artists ad campaign for My Son, the Hero appears to support this self-mocking approach with a cartoon depiction of the characters and broken English exclamations like, “Who don’t like to see a gorgon? Who’s too sophisticated to enjoy a nice Cyclops?”

Giuliano Gemma tries to find the kidnapped princess Antiope in My Son, The Hero (1962).

Unfortunately, this version of My Son, the Hero no longer seems to exist. Within the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a more surprising discovery. Turner Classic Movies has a pristine print in their vaults. I know because I was lucky enough to see it when I worked there circa 2000-2012. Unlike the pan and scan version the network has aired, this one is a gorgeous Technicolor transfer in Italian with English subtitles and presented in the correct letterbox aspect ratio. Compared to most Italian sword and sandal films, My Son, the Hero is a lavishly mounted big-budget extravaganza with a  renowned cast, dazzling art direction and a fast-paced, episodic narrative approach from Duccio Tessari in his directorial debut. It should be as popular and as well known as Joseph E. Levine’s 1958 import blockbuster Hercules starring Steve Reeves but it somehow got lost along the way.

Giuliano Gemma (left) as Krios and Pedro Armendariz as the evil king Cadmus in My Son, The Hero (1962).

More surprisingly, My Son, the Hero (also known as Sons of Thunder in some territories) is not the expected slapstick comedy as depicted in the U.S. theatrical film poster. Although it certainly has lighthearted moments and a few sequences in the style of a Three Stooges slapstick short, the movie is a much classier genre hybrid that creatively blends fantasy, romance, action adventure, soap opera and buddy movie conventions. The original title, roughly translated as The Titans, is more accurate since the movie freely samples Greek/Roman mythology in its tale of Krios, the youngest member of the Titans.

Giuliano Gemma as Krios (center) and The Titans take on the king of Thebes in My Son, The Hero (1962).

In case you’re wondering, the Titans were the sons of Uranus and Ge. There were twelve of them and they were later defeated by their own children – the Olympians – and banished to the underworld. But in this retelling of the myth, Krios gets star billing over his Titan brothers. Due to his clever and agile nature, he is released by Jove from his imprisonment in Hades and sent to earth to outwit Cadmus, the evil king of Thebes, for offending the gods and return him to the underworld for eternity.

Giuliano Gemma and Jacqueline Sassard star in the big budget, sword and sandal fantasy, My Son, The Hero (1962), directed by Duccio Tessari.

Part of his mission includes rescuing Antoipe, the daughter of Cadmus, from a tomb-like existence where meeting men or getting married is an impossibility (Cadmus’s decision is based on a prophecy that Antoipe will meet and marry a man who will overthrow the king of Thebes). Other obstacles that stand in Krios’s way include Hermione, the treacherous wife of Cadmus, Rator, a formidable warrior who is pitted against him in a death duel, Medusa, the creature that turns men to stone with her stare and a battalion of invincible soldiers who spring back to life each time they are killed.

King Cadmus’s immortal soldiers battle The Titans in the fog shrouded underworld of My Son, The Hero (1962).

Greek mythology experts may take issue with the way My Son, the Hero plays fast and loose with the famous legends such as making Cadmus the despicable villain of the piece when he is actually one of the great heroes in mythology (He killed the fierce dragon of Ares and grew an army from the planted teeth which became the Spartoi.) But the freewheeling approach makes for a lively narrative that frequently dabbles in the fantastic such as showcasing lightning bolts from Zeus which are hurled like explosive devices or Pluto’s crown which renders the wearer invisible.

Giuliano Gemma display his gymnastic skills in this Douglas Fairbanks-inspired scene from My Son, The Hero (1962).

Part of the film’s appeal is due to the charismatic Giuliano Gemma in the role of Krios. Gemma is much better known for his spaghetti westerns, many of which are considered some of the best in the genre like A Pistol for Ringo (1965), The Return of Ringo (1965) and Day of Anger (1967). But in the early days of his film career, he starred in several peplum imports and he approaches the character of Krios like a composite of The Thief of Bagdad (as played by Douglas Fairbanks) and Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood.

Giuliano Gemma stars in the spaghetti western Day of Anger (1967), directed by Tonino Valerii.

In his youth Gemma was an all-round athlete and he performs many of his own stunts here, including swimming, running, fighting and an array of gymnastic feats (high jumping, swinging and flips). Unlike Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott or other bodybuilder icons of the sword and sandal films, Gemma is not the typical muscle-bound protagonist. He does have an imposing physique but it is his charm, cunning and self-deprecating sense of humor that makes Krios a much more animated and less stolid screen presence than the likes of a Steve Reeves or a Mark Forest. And if you are accustomed to seeing Gemma as a brunette, you’re in for a surprise. In My Son, the Hero he is completely blond – even his eyebrows are blond – and it is such an unnatural shade that he truly stands out from the other cast members. Krios is, after all, from another world and boy, does he look it!

Jacqueline Sassard nd Giuliano Gemma in My Son, The Hero (aka Arrivano i Titani).

As the lovely but imperiled Antiope, French actress Jacqueline Sassard is well cast in one of her earliest leading roles. Her film career was relatively brief with less than 20 films to her credit but she is mostly famous for her placid beauty and enigmatic sphinx-like characters in Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) and Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968). Unlike those later art film roles, however, Sassard is much more high spirited, sexy and less mannered here and makes you wonder why her film career went down a dead end path.

Pedro Armendariz and Antonella Lualdi (lower right) are tyrants you love to hate in the peplum epic, My Son, The Hero (1962).

The other major standout in My Son, the Hero is the great Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz in one of his final screen appearances as the egomaniacal Cadmus. One of the all time great villains in peplum cinema, Armendariz rants, raves and boasts in the over-the-top style of a deranged dictator and his narcissism knows no bounds. Take, for example, this self-promotional speech: “I, Cadmus, King of Crete, I, the one true God of Heaven and Earth do dedicate this ceremony to my glorious name.” Yet his volatile and threatening nature seem laughably overblown compared to his wife Hermione who, as played by the seductive Antonella Lualdi, is the more dangerous and deadly player in the royal court. She does the dirty work behind the scenes such as ordering the execution of irritating underlings while following her own secret agenda. My Son, the Hero marked the directorial debut for former screenwriter Duccio Tessari, who had previously co-authored such toga epics as Carthage in Flames (1960), Hercules and the Captive Women (1961) and Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World (1961). Tessari would go on to become an exceptionally gifted genre specialist, helming superior spaghetti westerns (The Return of Ringo, 1965), crime dramas (La Morte Resale a Ieri Sera, 1970), giallos (The Bloodstained Butterfly, 1971) and action-adventures (Safari Express, 1976). Yet Tessari’s knack for fast pacing and visually compelling narratives is already in evidence in My Son, the Hero.

Serge Nubret as Rator (left) and Giuliano Gemma as Krios put on a show for the king of Thebes in My Son, The Hero (1962).

Some of the more memorable sequences include the Krios-Rator duel and a fever dream depiction of Hades where we see Sisyphus forever rolling his stone up a hill while Tityus has his liver pecked by birds of prey and Tantalus reaches for fruit he can never reach. The sequence where Krios encounters bodies turned to stone while stalking the deadly Medusa on her island is highly atmospheric and an unusual bullfight in which the matador outwits the bull with his acrobatic skills is based on a famous Knossian bull-jumping fresco from Crete.

A lobbycard from My Son, The Hero (aka Sons of Thunder, 1962).

There are also homages to other films and movie serials such as The Perils of Pauline (the scene where Antiope is trapped in a cell with flood waters rising) and The Most Dangerous Game (a sequence where Cadmus and his men hunt Rator, Krios’s former gladiatorial rival played by French bodybuilder Serge Nubret). The character of Rator, in fact, introduces an interesting buddy movie element into My Son, the Hero and is one of the few times you’ll see a black actor receive significant screen time in a peplum epic.

The Cyclops in a scene from the film ‘My Son, The Hero’, 1962. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)

Tessari’s flair for offbeat humor and the odd detail is also evident in several key scenes such as the first appearance of the hairy, bearded Titans after they have been freed from Hades to accompany Krios; they all look like an inbred hillbilly clan from the backwoods. And the Cyclops, usually a figure of terror, is treated comically here, speaking gibberish in a crazy voice that is presented in subtitles with utterances like “Sico sico okeydoola.”

Jacqueline Sassard stars as Princess Antiope in the fantasy-adventure, My Son, The Hero (1962).

The end result is one of the most stylish and entertaining fantasy adventures from the peak years of the Italian peplums, thanks to Duccio Tessari, the cast and invaluable contributions from film composer Carlo Rustichelli, Alfio Contini’s cinematography and the imaginative production designs of Ottavio Scotti. Perhaps one day the original Italian version (with English subtitles) of My Son, the Hero will be restored and released on some format in the correct aspect ratio.

Giuliano Gemma and Jacqueline Sassard (far right) are featured in the climatic scene of My Son, The Hero (1962).

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