Call him Hercules or call him Heracles; under either name, you just can’t keep a good demi-god down. This week WWE superstar-turned-Hollywood action hero Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hits theaters in the title role of the fantasy/adventure Hercules, the latest in a long line of big- and small-screen appearances for the mythological muscleman whose exploits have been thrilling audiences for millennia. Some of these efforts were serious dramas, some were intentional (or unintentional) comedies, and some…well, some were just plain weird.
Oddly enough, the heroic Hercules of ancient times only turned up in a couple of movies throughout the first half of the 20th Century. He was a character (played by one Leone Papa) in the film-within-a-film Italian tale Marvelous Maciste (1915), part of a long-running Maciste series; Brooklyn-born bodybuilder Joe Bonomo portrayed him in Vamping Venus, a 1928 silent comedy short; and everyone’s favorite cartoon “sailor man” competed in Ancient Greece against a Herc who looked a lot like his old foe, Bluto, in Paramount’s Popeye Meets Hercules (1948). But that would pretty much be it for the next decade, until Italian filmmakers decided to take a crack at reviving the costume action sagas that had been a staple of the country’s silent era (and that Hollywood had appropriated with such fare as Quo Vadis and The Robe).
The story goes that writer/director Pietro Francissi was having trouble finding the right guy to play Hercules in his latest project, until his daughter suggested a muscular guy she saw alongside Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds in the 1954 MGM musical comedy Athena. And so it was that American bodybuilder and Mr. Universe of 1950 Steve Reeves–whose biggest role to date had been in the Ed Wood (!) crime drama Jail Bait–got the chance to flex his prodigious pecs in the seminal “sword-and-sandal” flick Hercules. The script relied heavily on the story of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece (in which Heracles had been a relatively minor character) with a few of Herc’s famed labors tossed in for good measure. And while the film itself did not rely too heavily on Reeves’ thespian abilities, he certainly made an impressively-physiqued protagonist. After it debuted with great success in Europe, producer Joseph E. Levine paid $120,000 for the U.S. distribution rights and released a dubbed-in English version stateside the following year, pulling in over $4 million at the box office.
By the time Hercules reached this country, Francisi, Reeves and company were wrapping up the inevitable follow-up, Hercules Unchained. The 1959 film, which found Reeves’ Hercules put under a spell by seductive Queen Omphale (Sylvia Lopez) and forgetting that he married Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) at the end of the previous adventure, once again did great business on both sides of the Atlantic and guaranteed that Italian studios would be pumping out the so-called “peplum” features steadily for the next decade or so. For Reeves, however, his second stint as Hercules would prove to be his last. He would go on to play various similarly statuesque studs in other movies, until health problems from on-the-set injuries forced him to retire from acting in the late 1960s.
Reeves may have been gone, but Hercules lived on. Throughout the 1960s a pumped-up parade of beefcake talent–among them Jayne Mansfield’s husband, Mickey Hargitay; former screen Tarzan Gordon Scott; future Mission: Impossible co-star Peter Lupus; and such not-quite-so-well-remembered he-men as Mark Forest, Reg Park, Brad Harris, Dan Vadis and Kirk Morris, to name a few–would battle evil rulers, slay dragons, fight moon men and withstand sandstorms (Thanks, MST3K!), and wrestle one lion-suited stuntman after another in an array of colorful genre entries. The Loves of Hercules, Hercules in the Haunted World (which at least had the bonus of Christopher Lee as the antagonist), Hercules Against the Barbarians…the titles of these crowd-pleasing favorites could be monotonous, anachronistic and sometimes confusing: what was Perseus the Invincible in Italy, with no connection to Hercules, became Medusa Against the Son of Hercules here. And sometimes the character they played was originally named Samson or Goliath or even Maciste in their native country, only to become “Hercules” in America. By whatever moniker, however, the films remained popular until they began to be eclipsed by the more complex (and violent) “Spaghetti Westerns.”
Back in the U.S., the genre got spoofed by knuckleheads Moe, Larry and Curly Joe in the 1962 time-travel comedy The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (with Samson Burke as the strongman), while on the small screen youngsters could watch the animated exploits of Hercules and his centaur sidekick Newton as they foiled the schemes of the evil wizard Daedalus and other foes in The Mighty Hercules. This 1963-66 syndicated series of cartoon shorts was best known for the magic ring that Mt. Olympus-based Herc would don to gain his strength of Earth, and for the memorable title theme sung by a then-unknown Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now’). Another, more serious, depiction of the hero around this time came from Nigel Green’s portrayal of a more mature Hercules, briefly a member of the crew of the Argo, in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, which also offered the wonderful stop-motion creatures of Ray Harryhausen.
In 1969, just as the “sword-and-sandal” craze was dying out, someone decided to drive the final nail in the coffin with a fish-out-of-water comedy that placed Herc in the 20th Century. An exhaustive talent search led the producers to yet another Mr. Universe contestant with dreams of becoming a movie star, this time a 22-year-old Austrian native who’d just arrived in America the year before…and whose accent was so thick that his voice would need to be dubbed over by another actor.
And that, film fans, is how Arnold Schwarzenegger, billed in the credits as “Arnold Strong,” made his big-screen debut in Hercules in New York, which (as you no doubt inferred from the title) found the demi-god brawling it up in the Big Apple. What’s more, he becomes a pro wrestler, tangles with mobsters, drives a chariot through the streets of Manhattan, and pals around with a pretzel vendor named–wait for it!–Pretzie (the voice of Top Cat himself, Arnold Stang). And yes, you can now get a DVD of the movie featuring Schwarzenegger’s own 1960s voice on the soundtrack.
The next 25 years or so were quiet times for our hero. The one company to break the silence was the infamous Cannon Films, run by noted Israeli schlockmavens Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (read more about the duo and Cannon here), who put Schwarzenegger’s ’70s bodybuilding rival and TV’s The Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, in a toga for two features that mixed the loose mythology of the Reeves pictures with shameless attempts to cash in on the Star Wars craze. Thus, in Hercules (1983) and its 1985 follow-up, The Adventures of Hercules, Ferrigno battled a mechanical Hydra; tossed a bear into outer space, where it became the constellation Ursa Major (okay, that part did come from an ancient legend, but…come on!); and outdid his old buddy Arnold by throwing a rock tied to his chariot into the sky, propelling both the vehicle and Lou across the cosmos.
The 1990s saw a revival in matters Herculean. First, Kevin Sorbo brought a light-charmed charm to his portrayal of a more down-to-Earth (no pun intended) Herc–wandering the world with his friends Iolaus (Michael Hurst) and Salmoneus (Michael Trebor), defending the helpless from evil–in a string of made-for TV movies which led to the popular 1995-99 syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Along with introducing the world to Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (who would go on to appear in her own program), the show also had a 1998-99 kid-oriented spin-off, Young Hercules, starring a then-unknown Ryan Gosling in the title role. Not to be outdone, Walt Disney Pictures offered their own animated take on Greek mythology with 1997’s Hercules, a breezy, song-filled adventure which offered some sly satirical pokes at modern-day pop culture. In it, a boastful Hercules’s (voiced by Tate Donovan) deeds make him a celebrity and a marketing phenomenon before he must learn the true meaning of heroism by saving the Olympian gods and his love interest Megara from the foul schemes of the lord of the Underworld, Hades (voiced by James Woods).
The strongman would turn up as both lead and supporting player in several more TV projects over the next several years, played by Brian Thompson in a 2000 remake of Jason and the Argonauts; by Paul Telfer in the NBC miniseries Hercules (2005); and by Mark Addy in the current BBC series Atlantis. On the big screen, Heracles (Steve Byers) was a relatively minor character in the fantasy epic misfire Immortals (2011), while that film’s Poseidon, Twilight series hunk Kellan Lutz, was seen in theaters earlier this year–albeit not for very long–as Herc in The Legend of Hercules, a 300-influenced actioner from Die Hard director Renny Harlin which currently ranks as one of 2014’s bigger box-office losers.
As an acting challenge, playing Herc may not seem as formidable a task as, say, cleaning the Augean Stables or capturing Cerberus the three-headed dog were to the Ancient Greek original. But over the years there’s been a wide array of would-be heroes who have risen–and sometimes failed–to meet it. Audiences now have the opportunity to decide if “The Rock” is a worthy successor to the mighty screen legacy of Hercules.