Conquerors of Atlantis was among the last peplum movies made as Italian exploitation was beginning to shift focus onto spaghetti westerns. The peplum genre, named after the short classical garment worn by its muscular mythological heroes, proliferated in the wake of Pietro Francisci’s trendsetting Hercules (1957) starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves. Here, shipwrecked strongman Hercules (Kirk Morris, a genre stalwart like Reeves) is smitten with his rescuer, Arabic princess Virna (Luciana Gilli) who departs leaving behind a jewelled ring. On a journey to return this ring, Hercules pauses to save a band of tribesmen from a bandit attack. These tribesmen lead him to Prince Karr (Andrea Scotti), their affable ruler who claims the bandits work for none other than Virna’s father, Assur (Mahmoud El-Sabaa), described as “a cruel and pitiless man” and “the undisputed master of the desert.”
However, on his travels Hercules learns both tribes have been ransacked by mysterious phantoms whom Assur wrongly believes are in league with Karr. Eerie science fiction bleeping noises herald a surprise attack from strange golden men, wherein Virna is kidnapped and the good guys left for dead. Together with Karr, the revived Hercules trails the evildoers to the subterranean kingdom of Atlantis where immortal Queen Ming (Hélène Chanel, another peplum regular) and her army of beautiful, silver-haired warrior women believe Virna to be the reincarnation of their ancient ruler. Aided by campy mad scientist Ramir (Pierro Lulli), who dresses like Liberace and transforms human captives into gold-skinned robots in blue body stockings, the Atlanteans have their sights set on conquering the world.
By the mid-Sixties the peplum was mutating into sorts of weird hybrids, merging with the horror film, jungle adventures, sexploitation, but also the science fiction genre. Conquerors of Atlantis is part of a select group of sci-fi peplums including such appealing oddities as The Giant of Metropolis and Hercules Against the Moon Men. These strange movies prefigure genre buff Luigi Cozzi’s later attempt to remould the entire peplum genre along science fiction lines with his Hercules (1983). However, Conquerors of Atlantis marks an early credit for another figure associated with trashy Italian science fiction: Alfonso Brescia.
Brescia started out as another of those hacks-of-all-trades common to Italian exploitation, dabbling in popular genres from westerns to historical epics, giallo thrillers etc., but remains infamous for the five tenth-rate space operas he churned out in the wake of Star Wars (1977). These films War in Space (1977) (not to be confused with the Japanese movie of the same name, released the same year!), War of the Robots (1978), Battle of the Stars (1978), The Beast in Space (1979) (a sexploitation variant that remains the best of a bad bunch with footage stolen from Walerian Borowcyk’s The Beast (1974)), and Star Odyssey (1981) were largely tedious and incompetent. Which makes it all the more surprising how lively and engaging Conquerors of Atlantis is by contrast. The action is well choreographed and nicely staged by Brescia, imbuing the cut-rate Saturday matinee plot with a certain swashbuckling flair.
Parts of the film remain awkwardly paced as Brescia stages long, picturesque journeys across white desert sands, that suggest he was also cashing in on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and wastes time on pointless interludes with booty-shaking dancing girls. The plot admittedly adheres to the standard “escape-capture-escape again” structure found in so many lost civilisation movies, but the first act mystery is woven compellingly and the surprise leap into Marvel Comics style super-science delights with eye-catching art direction and pop art visuals. One interesting touch is having the Atlanteans’ build their futuristic city atop an active volcano, resulting in a proto-nuclear energy source. Rather more confused is their idea that abstinence will enable them to rebuild their civilisation.