Mark Forest (Brooklyn bodybuilder Lou Degni) stars as Hercules in the 1964 sword-and-sandal film, "Magnificent Gladiator." With his broad shoulders; huge, bulging pecs; and perfectly tanned skin, there is no mistake that Forest has a magnificent physique. Unfortunately, it is not utilized to its fullest in "Magnificent Gladiator." Throughout the film, he wears a leather harness, which forms a distracting "X" across his massive chest. This, however, may appeal to fans of leathermen.
The plot is slightly above average. Hercules is captured by the Roman soldiers of Emperor Caesar Galienus and forced to fight in the arena. The emperor's gorgeous daughter, Velida, is smitten by his handsome face, muscular physique and physical prowess. The wise, good-natured emperor seems to be fine with his daughter falling in love with Hercules. However, the emperor's evil counsel, Zullo, is infuriated; he plots to kill Hercules, marry Velida and become emperor. There is one twist involving switched identities that distinguishes this peplum from some of the others.
The production values scream, "Low budget!" The sets are small in size and minimal in quantity. However, the romance is sweet and Hercules and Velida are an extremely attractive couple. Comic relief is provided by a shepherd and his love of sheep. This may shed some light on the origin of syphilis. There is some suspenseful violence. However, it would have helped if Hercules had been more vicious in the arena.
The restoration of this film is very inferior compared to other peplum films released by Retromedia, an imprint of Image Entertainment. It is presented in a widescreen format with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1; however, there are numerous vertical and horizontal lines and splotches throughout the film. The added bonus feature of "Revolt of the Barbarians" on the flip side of the disc was humdrum. I never did finish watching it.
Overall, the magnificent torso of Mark Forest doesn't save "Magnificent Gladiator" from being another mediocre sword-and-sandal film. It is only recommended for diehard fans of the genre, specifically fans of physique model/actor Mark Forest.
I highly recommend the Retromedia releases of "Son of Samson" (Son of Samson/Son of Cleopatra) and "Goliath and the Sins of Babylon" (Goliath and the Sins of Babylon/Colossus and the Amazon Queen). Both features star Mark Forest in all of his magnificent, bare-chested glory, especially the latter which is a beefcake bonanza of Italian musclemen. Both films have been given a superb restoration compared to "Magnificent Gladiator."
Nevertheless, my favorite Mark Forest film is "Hercules Against the Mongols" (Hercules Double Feature: Hercules Against The Mongols (1964) / Hercules & The Masked Rider (1960)). I only wish Retromedia would give it a proper restoration. In this film, Hercules fights three other muscle hunks, performs impossible feats of incredible strength, is the center of a tragic love triangle, and is barely clothed throughout most of the storyline.
Joseph B. Hoyos