In 1982, Arnold Schwarzenegger hit the big screen in a pec-flexing way with the incredibly silly Conan the Barbarian. A year later, his Pumping Iron counterpart, Lou Ferrigno, made it to cinemas as another legendary strongman. In fact, it was as perhaps the most famous strongman in historical fiction: Hercules. And while Ferrigno certainly had the physique – the veiny, lumpy physique – to play the Greek god, he didn’t have much else, certainly not from the production around him. Produced by Cannon Films honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and written and directed by Lewis Coates (nee Luigi Cozzi), the man behind my favorite insane Italian space opera, Starcrash (which I promise to talk about one day), Hercules combined two of the filmmakers’ favorite genres: sword-and-sandal adventures and science fiction. Put ‘em together and you get a huge pile of insanity in a bowlful of weirdness. Put it this way: it makes Conan look realistic and logical.
For whatever reason, Italian moviegoers loved Greek and Roman mythology in their movies. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were dozens of titles where some muscle-bound American actor, like Steve Reeves or Brad Harris, would play the famous strength-haver, to varying degrees of success. This was well-trod territory when Cozzi decided to make his own version, employing the visual tropes of the sci-fi space film with which he’d previously had success(?), Starcrash. In that film, Cozzi used the stop-motion puppet work his hero Ray Harryhausen used in Jason and the Argonauts; in this film, he does the same thing, but the irony is that it’s far less effective. He also adds a lot of science fiction stuff like laser noises and shots of space that are actually pretty competent, aside from the whole thing where they don’t fit into this movie at all. Oh, poor Luigi.
The film rewrites Greek mythology to give Hercules a different origin story. Instead of Zeus getting it on with a mortal woman, producing a demigod offspring, he now bestows godlike powers to a human boy, the son of the king and queen of Crete, no less. Before Herc has even gotten out of diapers, the treacherous King Minos (William Berger), who is the king of somewhere else, and his well-endowed daughter Ariadne (Austrian actress/model Sybil Danning) stage a coup and kill the royal family, with Hercules escaping by being placed in a boat. Poisonous asps attack, but luckily, the little child they got to play baby Herc finds rubber snakes super funny and strangles them to death. Herc then ends up with a poor but loving couple of farmers and grows up to be a big, strong Brooklyner with his voice dubbed over. His new dad is on screen just long enough to get killed by a bear, or rather by footage of a bear cut together with a guy in a bear suit. This scene is to prove Hercules can fight a bear. Accomplished.
Minos can’t leave well-enough alone, and he has Dedalos (the androgynous scientist who builds his monsters) create some wind-up toys that he can make large enough to attack Hercules. He’s basically the Greek Rita Repulsa. Hercules’ new mom gets killed, too, and in a fit of despair, he decides to go be a roving adventurer. That’s what I’d do. He makes his way to the court of King Augias (the aforementioned former Hercules, Brad Harris), where he is looking for a hero to accompany his beautiful daughter, Cassiopea (Ingrid Anderson), to meet her betrothed. Hercules must perform various feats of strength, including having a sword fight that sounds like a laser fight, jumping over chariots (really superimposing a shot of him standing above a shot of the chariots), and shoving a huge tree trunk into ten guys standing against a wall and then throwing said log into outer space. He also does the Augean stables thing (cleaning them by diverting a river), which causes Cassiopea to completely forget her betrothal and fall for him. Zeus intervenes before they can kiss. Cock-blocked by a god. Harsh.
This lasts all of one second before Ariadne shows up, kidnaps Cassiopea, and throws Hercules into the ocean to drown… or just swim ashore. Hercules finds the witch Circe (who also happens to be hot, go figure), who offers to help him IF he can help her retrieve her special amulet. Are you sensing a theme here? Most of the movie is Hercules having to perform all kinds of tasks before he can finally free his true love after a 20 second sword fight with King Minos. All of these side missions are interesting enough but they don’t seem to go anywhere. It’s literally just thing, next thing, next thing, next thing until he eventually gets to where he’s going. And, not that I’m a huge stickler for literary accuracy, but only a few of these tasks are actually from the myth of Hercules. It’s not like there wasn’t lots there to work from.
Maybe the most disappointing things for me were the space/sci-fi elements — not because they were there, but because they weren’t there enough. Part of why I love Starcrash is the sheer whack-a-doo nature of the special effects. Yes, they were inept and looked patently fake, but there’s a real homespun, adorable quaintness to them. Here, Cozzi doesn’t go far enough. He has Zeus, Hera, and Athena living on the MOON in crazy, silvery Star Trek outfits, but almost nothing else even has a sci-fi vibe like what was promised. He uses it like a backdrop, but still everything else takes place on Earth. As far as production, Hercules is a slightly better-made movie, but with that, it’s also less fun to watch.
Hercules was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards and won two, for worst supporting actress (Danning) and worst new star (Ferrigno). Poor Lou. It didn’t stop him or Luigi Cozzi from coming back in 1985 to make a sequel, entitled The Adventures of Hercules, which basically throws much of the storyline of the first movie out the window and starts again with largely the same cast. I’ll give you two guesses how good a movie that was. Hercules isn’t the worst thing you could possibly watch, but it also lacks the stupid fun I was hoping for. If you’re going to watch a dichotomous mish-mash of genres and images in an Italian filmmaking style, I think you know which film I’d recommend instead.