The film Hercules Conquers Atlantis poses a complex question. We have to deal with the "rescue" of a paganistic story under the cover of a transparent parable that wants to "demystify" one of the few myths entirely belonging to the 20th century.
I would like to make myself clear: Plato did not invent the myth of Atlantis out of the blue. In contrast to what the "broad public" and many "naives" - more or less interested in his work - think, Plato was the one who shaped and humanised the older and undefined outlines of the myth. Some of these are a reminiscence of the last prehistoric catastrophes, a confusion between the name of Titan Atlas and the name of a mountain that roamed almost everywhere before stabilising in North Africa, legends about the ancient owners of the Mediterranean and their "orphic" lifestyle; the whole, beautified by an eccentric choice from the body of the mythical nomenclature. However, all these together would not be sufficient to form the allegory Plato wanted, if it were not for "Egypt" (known as the "wonderland" of ancient times) and the relative luxury of the fanciful "precision", which flourished by the salon - explorers and the invincible divers (without having the least idea of Platonic philosophy).
We took pains to find all the places where the later geographers located Atlantis; these places cover the whole planet, including Spitzburg and Oceania. Even "magic" participated in the story: some American sects trying to find a Gospel purified of any Judaic elements and, later, the Nazis, commenced an insane trend for the search of the citizens of Atlantis. Was this nostalgia for the lost paradise and the nation of the chosen ones? On the eve of the Second World War, the myth of Atlantis dominated and had spread, like a contagious disease, over this civilisation; a civilisation supporting progress and excessive modernism. The only thing the myth did was to discover some laughable archaeological scrolls.
Hercules in Conquest is even more spectacular than the one of Revenge as he destroys everything.1 He may not care for the fight in the tavern but he, his son and his friend, the King of Thebes, fight over a dancer. However, Hercules arrested together with the King, stands alone in front of the red light threatening to destroy life. He continues to sleep until the momentΙ I will not to refer to all the beautiful scenes comprising this Atlantis; an Atlantis of much higher quality than the one George Pal haphazardly put together 2 or the one Edgar Ulmer 3 ostentatiously tried to modernise. The denunciation of the "blond superhuman" race, the fascist robots without eyes and the denunciation of the slave crowds who only know to attack their masters, without a strategic plan, and end up slaughtered - these two observations, although utterly pessimistic, shatter the crypto-Hitlerite Atlantis (that of the film Morning of the Magicians) which is later annihilated by beautiful images of volcanoes, scenes borrowed from Haroun Tazieff's documentaries. The masochistic Atlantis by Pierre Benoît has nothing to say to defend itself. Antinea (Fay Spain) who trafficks drugs and secret nuclear weapons will be defeated by her daughter (the wonderful Laura Altan) and Hercules, who, having defeated Proteus, in a Nietzschean tone says: "We, the other Greeks, love nature as it was delivered to us by Gods: benevolent and frightening at the same, harsh and very sweet."
According to its creator, Hercules Conquers Atlantis is the result of a liberal spirit based on the philosophy of comics. This film is the most balanced and elegant, in terms of the writing, peplum I know. It is an extremely beautiful film although one cannot clearly find many surprising elements, typical of the director's earlier "little films". One may wonder if Cottafavi lost some of his inspiration when demystifying the hero fighting injustice and the lost continent. I refuse to believe that we can possibly be so clever any longer. However, perhaps, in this case, the real culprit is the rhythm of the "chronicle"; a genre that does not favour difficult situations.
Gérard Legrand, "Positif", issue no. 50-52, March 1963.
1 Reference to Cottafavi's previous film The Revenge of Hercules (1960)
2 Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961)
3 L'Atlantide (1960), modern remake of Pabst's film (1932) which was also a remake of a Jacques Feyder's film (1921) - all based on Pierre Benoît's exotic novel.