The release of the Italian movie Hercules, starring Steve Reeves, back in 1958, spawned a large number of sword-and-sandal would-be epics. Among these so-called peplum movies we find Perseo l’invincibile (1963), an Italian-Spanish coproduction directed by Alberto de Martino that features the hero Perseus.
In English territories, the movie was renamed Perseus Against the Monsters and marketed in the US as part of a series called The Sons of Hercules, obviously to coast on the popularity of the relatively recent Hercules movies and quite contrary the mythological tradition in which Perseus is Heracles’ great-grandfather!
The movie opens with a group of riders nearing a swamp where a monster can be found, while another group of men prepare an ambush. The latter are commanded by Galenor (Leo Anchóriz), who we later learn comes from Argos. The men wear clothes that easily allows us to distinguish them from each other: the riders all wear white cloaks (apart from the commanders, who wear red ones), while Galenor and his troops wear black cloaks.
There is a short battle sequence that is unintentionally – I think – brutal: from a higher elevation, Galenor’s men loose arrows and throw burning logs at the white riders, one of which actually hits a rider and horse and sets fire to the man’s cloak. A few moments later, another rider tumbles off his horse and appears to be stepped on.
The white riders flee towards the edge of the lake, where a reptilian monster rises from the depths. Considering the period and the obviously limited budget that the moviemakers had at their disposal, it’s fairly well done, though obviously a puppet with little in the way of articulation. The men flee and are pursued by Galenor and his troops. Most of the men get hemmed in, but the commanders with the red cloaks manage to escape and travel to a valley with petrified soldiers and horses, the ‘Kingdom of Medusa’, as one of the men explained.
We then get to see Medusa and it’s perhaps the most fanciful interpretation of the creature we have yet seen: she is essentially oblong, rising on stiff tentacles (snakes’ bodies?), with small snakes at the top, and has a single eye, like a cyclops, which glows. Again, the puppet is not very articulate and its unusual shape no doubt made it cheaper to make and easier to move around. She confronts the three men and quickly turns them into stone in an effect that is more than a little dodgy: the picture of the man in question fades out while a statue-version of him – looking different from the actor to a greater or lesser degree – is faded in.
The problem with this opening sequence is that we have no idea who these characters are and why we should care about any of this. It serves largely to introduce the monster. Only after everything is over does Galenor tell his men, ‘The King of Seriphos must learn he can’t disobey us.’ So apparently, the white/red-cloaked men were from the kingdom, which only means something if you’re familiar with the Perseus myth already.
We switch to Seriphos, where the King laments the death of his son, Alcaeus, who was turned to stone. Andromeda (Anna Ranalli) shows up – I know, I was as shocked as you were! – and explains that if Medusa is killed, all those she petrified will return to life, conveniently. As it turns out, this Seriphos is not an island, but actually located inland, and they try to gain access to the sea, which Argos is preventing them from having. It doesn’t make any sense and goes against both the established Perseus myth and actual Greek geography.
Another character enters the scene to spout more dialogue: all the taxes that Seriphos’ merchants have to pay is draining Seriphos and the people of the Kingdom are starving. A diplomat from Argos appears who says the situation can be easily remedied: if Andromeda were to marry Galenor, son of Acrisius, the ruler of Argos, the two kingdoms would be united and there would be no more need to tax the merchants of Seriphos. The king refuses, but Andromeda says she is in control of her life and wants to meet Galenor in Seriphos before making up her mind.
We cut to Argos, where it is soon revealed that Acrisius’ marriage is not a happy one. We see his wife (Elisa Cegani), Danaë (!), pray to Jupiter and it’s obvious that Acrisius murdered her husband in order to marry her. The son she had in her previous marriage has also been lost for twenty years and, of course, this son turns out to be Perseus (Richard Harrison). Galenor, fortunately, is not Danaë’s son, but only of Acrisius and apparently an earlier wife of his.
We next see Perseus catching fish with his hands and, it turns out, he’s already close friends with Andromeda, who he has taught how to shoot. But he doesn’t know who she is as she never told him her name. After she leaves, the strangest thing happens: Perseus sits on a short stool next to a deer and talks out loud to the animal about who she might be, before confessing his love for Andromeda. Back in Argos, Andromeda meets with Galenor and the two go hunting. During this hunt, Galenor kills Perseus’ deer with an arrow (which doesn’t seem a special effect, by the way).
Andromeda arranges a tournament between Perseus and Galenor and promises to wed the victor. The tournament takes the form of a medieval joust (!), but with burning (!) lances. The second stage sees Galenor and Perseus equipped with small bucklers while archers loose arrows against them. In the third stage, they switch roles and shoot arrows at the archers, who are now equipped with bucklers. Galenor succeeds using trickery, while Perseus only shoots the crest off of the helmet of his target. The final stage sees Perseus and Galenor fight each other on a narrow, elevated platform.
Galenor recognizes Perseus by the marks on his shoulder and he freezes. Perseus is declared winner of the tournament. But now that Perseus knows that Andromeda is a princess, he, as a common man, dare not marry her and refuses the marriage. Andromeda is next drugged and abducted by Galenor. Perseus and the guards pursue in an obvious day-for-night sequence, and Perseus manages to stop Galenor. War between Argos and Seriphos cannot be avoided now.
Perseus returns Galenor to Argos and sues for peace. Acrisius doesn’t seem very receptive, at which point Perseus proposes to solve everything with another duel between him and Galenor. In the meantime, Perseus is reunited with Danaë and learns the truth of his origins, and the fact that he is the rightful ruler of Argos (and since he’s no longer a ‘common man’ it would now obviously be okay for him to marry Andromeda). Unfortunately, their reunion ends quickly when Galenor plants a javelin in Danaë’s back. Perseus flees, but not before promising revenge.
Perseus’ plan is to fight Medusa, since her death will free the petrified soldiers. Things are made more complicated by Argive attacks (including an ambush similar to the one that kicked the movie off), but eventually Perseus faces both the monster from the lake and Medusa and kills them both. Argos is laying siege to Seriphos when Perseus returns with the army he’s freed from Medusa’s spell. With this army, Perseus manages to defeat the Argives. Acrisius is killed by an arrow while Perseus finishes off Galenor. The movie then ends quite abruptly with Perseus and Andromeda riding together in a chariot while the people cheer.
Overall, I thought the movie was quite enjoyable, even if it has almost nothing to do with the original Perseus myth. The character of Galenor, for example, is invented specifically for the movie, and most of the plot is likewise original. As always in cases like this, I wonder why the film makers even bothered to borrow some elements from something that is well established instead of simply creating something new instead. There’s no reason this wouldn’t have worked as some kind of straightforward sword-and-sorcery film.
As far as this movie’s costumes are concerned, they have little to do with history. We find the usual array of strange-looking helmets (complete with strange-looking crests) and pseudo-leather corslets. Some horses have saddles with stirrups, though there seems to have been some effort to obscure this fact at times; a few actors ride without stirrups, including Richard Harrison. The set design freely mix Classical elements with Bronze-Age elements; they generally look okay, if sometimes a bit cheap. Acrisius’ throne room in particular features some Mycenaean-inspired frescoes.
So, in short, an enjoyable movie, hampered a bit by its limited budget as far as creature effects are concerned, and not at all accurate as far as the plot is concerned or the costumes or many of the sets. Nevertheless, I do recommend you give this a try if you have an interest in movies inspired by the ancient world.