When I first heard of the 1963 film Hercules, Samson, & Ulysses, I had hoped it would be about the classical Greek hero teaming up with the Old Testament strongman to tackle James Joyce’s dense modernist novel, but that turns out not to be the case. Instead, it’s one of the last films in the Italian sword-and-sandal epic cycle, which began with Pietro Francisci’s 1958 Hercules film starring Steve Reeves.
If this story had existed in the classical world, it would have been the equivalent of the Superman and Spider-Man team-ups that DC and Marvel did back in the ’70s, but instead of major comics publishers, you have major religions. And like those comics stories, this film takes pains to make such a team-up plausible in the established continuities of each of the three heroes. Hercules is hanging out in Ithaca with King Laertes some time after the Argonauts adventure, and young Ulysses is looking for some heroic training from the big man. Later, the two heroes, along with some Greek sailors, get stranded in Judea, where they ultimately team up with Samson to fight the Philistines. Now, I’m no expert on Greek or Judeo-Christian mythology, but that seems to be some airtight continuity right there.
The movie opens with Laertes holding court over a goat dispute when the king is distracted by some strange noises outside. He looks out the window to see Hercules (Kirk Morris) tossing a discus, while Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico) tries to shoot it with an arrow. All of this is being done to impress the young Penelope, who, as we all know, will later become a fan of Ulysses’s archery skills.
To the audience’s disappointment, we never get a resolution to the goat issue, as a group of Greek fishermen enter Laertes’ hall with a desperate plea: a sea monster is killing local fishermen, and they need Hercules to help defeat it. Hercules is, of course, up for the task, though his family isn’t really happy with the decision, as they know the adventure will take longer than the one day he promises. Ulysses decides to go along as well, and he promises to wed Penelope upon his return.
Out at sea, Hercules and his men soon confront the sea monster, which looks like a giant seal. Actually, it just looks like a regular seal, as we don’t get any shots with either Hercules or the ship in the same shot as the seal to get a sense of proportion. This could just be a really mean but normally-sized seal that likes killing fishermen.
While Hercules tries to harpoon the seal, a storm breaks out, and the combination of wind, rain, and angry seal causes the ship to wreck. Hercules, Ulysses, and a few surviving men are left floating on a piece of wreckage until they finally come across land. The men are soon attacked by some kind of bull or water buffalo or something, and Hercules beats the shit out of it and prepares a meal. Much of this movie, in fact, involves Hercules beating the shit out of various animals.
After the meal, Hercules and his men set off to figure out where they are, and they come across a village. Hercules deduces that they are in Judea, with their strange religion and customs. The village leaders explain that they are the Danites, and that if Hercules wants to return to Greece, he must travel to Gaza and catch a ship back home.
Of course, the fact that, you know, the SON OF ZEUS shows up in a Jewish village and does not totally throw the culture’s belief system out of wack creates a verisimilitude problem from which this movie never really recovers.
Coincidentally, Samson (Richard Lloyd, whose real name is Ilooshe Khoshabe) is hiding out in the Danite village, on the run from the Philistines. He suspects that Hercules and his men are not Greeks as they claim, but really Philistine spies sent to draw Samson out. This suspicion leads to lots of mistaken identities, from which hilarity, and some murder, ensues.
Because, as Samson thinks Hercules is a Philistine, everyone else thinks Hercules is Samson, especially after the Greek hero kills a lion with his bare hands. The strangled lion leads the Philistine army to raid the Danite village looking for the Jewish strongman. When the Danites clam up, the Philistines go to town, spearing, stabbing, burning, and crucifying the villagers they don’t otherwise enslave. The costume designers for this movie used repurposed Nazi helmets for the Philistine headgear, which has to qualify as some unintentional irony here. Although Samson does not arrive in time to save the villagers, he does manage to free the slaves by throwing a shit-ton of spears at the Philistine soldiers.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, the Philistine king is enjoying a sexy dance performance from Delilah (Liana Orfei), who is accompanied by a dude with a whip who whips off her clothes. We quickly discover, however, that it is the Philistine king who is whipped, as Delilah challenges him to capture Samson. The king accidentally captures Hercules and his men, who are still just looking for a way home. Herc keeps denying that he’s Samson, so the king offers him a chance to prove himself: if he isn’t Samson, he can go get the real Samson in order to prove his identity and free his captured men.
Delilah decides to go with Herc on this journey because she has heard about his reputation from some gossipy Greek ladies who have made their way to Gaza. While she is totally hot for him, he is just not that into her, but he does use her as bait to draw out Samson. Samson takes the bait, and a shirtless wrestling match ensues between the two heroes that is not at all homoerotic.
While fighting, Hercules explains is situation, and the two decide to join forces before they do too much damage. After a series of double-crosses from Delilah and the Philistine king, Herc and Samson are surrounded by the king’s soldiers. In a move that can only be described as awesome, the two heroes lift an entire temple and drop it on the soldiers. Then, Laertes shows up in the Argos, Herc throws a spear through the Philistine king, and everything seems to work out just fine. Samson returns to help his people, and Herc offers a warning about Delilah, but, obviously, Samson doesn’t bother to heed it.
Ulysses gets the short end of the stick in this film–as a titular character, he doesn’t get much to do, and he spends most of the action scenes as a prisoner along with the other Greek sailors. Kirk Morris, who played the Greek hero and his son in a bunch of movies at the time, makes for a charismatic Hercules, especially when he’s rebuffing Delilah’s advances. Though this movie has all the problems of other sword and sandal epics from this period–terrible special effects, obvious dubbing, etc.–it’s still a blast, with a fairly clever plot and a scene where a couple of heroes drop an entire temple on some bad guys.