It is a good sign when Hercules is depicted in film draped in a lion skin and wielding a club. It means the writers were paying attention to the ancient Greek hero’s original iconography. It is also a good sign when the writers and director do not take the Hercules legend too seriously. There are other dramatic and artistic choices that make the latest Hercules movie which opened in theaters on July 25, directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne Johnson, very enjoyable to watch from a classicist’s point of view. Here is a review of the movie Hercules from the perspective of a Classics professor and film buff.
Hercules (Herakles in Greek) is the single most popular hero in all of western history. No other legendary character, apart from Jesus, has been depicted in western art and literature more than the iconic Greek hero. The first literary production of Hercules, Herakles Mainomenos, or The Madness of Hercules by the Greek playwright Euripides, occurred in the 5th century BCE. Ever since, Hercules revivals in art and literature dot every major artistic period into the modern age. In the last 50 years, there have been, quite literally, hundreds of Hercules TV shows, films and animated features. The character of Hercules reigns as the quintessential dramatic hero in the western tradition.
The dramatic popularity of the Hercules legend is due to the character’s tragic nature and his ability to overcome adversity. At its core, the Hercules legend is a story about a person gifted at birth with prodigious ability but who is eternally beat down by events not of his own design, represented by the gods. Despite great talents, he is thwarted from happiness and forced to serve a king who wants him to die. He is assigned 12 impossible tasks, the famous labors. (Canonically, there are 12, but the Hercules tradition contains many major and minor labors). What is true about Hercules’ labors is quintessentially true of every person who struggles. The task ahead looks impossible at first. The skin of the Nemean Lion is impenetrable. But the person finds a way using their own talents. Instead of piercing the lion with arrows, Hercules wrestles the beast to the ground. The legend of Hercules and his labors express the very core of the human struggle.
The madness of Heracles is a motif almost as old as the earliest legends of the character. Its dramatic potential was first exploited by Euripides. Hercules’ nemesis is the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus, who pursues him out of jealous rage. In the canonical story, Hera incites the hero to madness, forcing him to kill his wife Megara and their children. In tragic grief, the hero exiles himself and seeks the Pythian Oracle for guidance. He is told by the oracle that he must serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for 12 years after which he will become immortal. Eurystheus, jealous of the hero’s divine origins and abilities, sends Hercules out to complete the 12 labors, one every year. The completion of the final task, the defeat of the guardian of Hades, the three-headed hound Cerberos, signifies the final atonement for the death of his wife. The dramatic arc of tragedy, struggle and redemption inherent in the Hercules legend remains a cornerstone of western storytelling.
Thankfully, the movie is not about Hercules swinging his big club, but rather about the nature of storytelling and legend itself. What makes the movie memorable in a sea of yawn-inducing Hercules films is Dwayne Johnson. The actor brings a human frailty and strength to the role that fit the Hercules legend perfectly. There is a moment before a great battle when the character defiantly asks the general Rhesus if he looks afraid, and, yes, Hercules actually does look at a little scared at that moment, despite his strength and bravado. Johnson is able to bring a complexity to the character that immediately brings out Hercules’ tragic nature. It is a welcome sight to the endless parade of stiff Conan the Barbarian look-a-likes, wielding impossibly huge medieval swords while grunting something about Sparta or Greece. Yawn. Even better is the attention not on sweeping vistas and epic monsters, but on the story of Hercules’ transformation into a legend. The corner of the world where the action-packed battles take place is barely recognizable as Greece. No matter. The focus is on where the camera should be: the characters.
More review kudos are given by this Classics professor to the writers and director for portraying Hercules’ companions in a way faithful to their individual legends. There is Amphiarus, the warrior and seer of Argos (Ian McShane), who, according to legend, prophesied the doomed Theban expedition, the cunning brigand Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Iolaus, Hercules’ charioteer (Reece Ritchie), Tydeus, the mad, exiled hero of Thebes (Aksel Hennie) who, according to legend, ate the brains of his defeated enemy and disgusted Athena. The only exception among the companions is the amazon Atalanta, played by the stunning Ingrid Bolsø Berdal. In Greek legend, Atalanta is the swiftest mortal ever, able to outrace any man on foot. Her name literally means “equal by measure.” Unfortunately, Atalanta is not able to shine in the movie, except as a beautiful archer.
As with all myth and legend, the portrayal of the hero reflects the interests of the culture that repeats the legend, rather than the interests of the original Greeks, who had very different reasons for beginning the legend in the first place. The latest Hercules movie reflects the modern skepticism of ancient legends, and the desire to see ancient heroes as vulnerable human beings, rather than impenetrable and invincible statues. In the end, Hercules does seem larger than life, but the audience, this time, has become a willing participant in his transformation from mortal to demi-god. It is refreshing to see Hollywood able to convey the core aspects of Greek legend in an entertaining way. However the movie might be reviewed by film buff or Classics professor, Dwayne Johnson’s human portrayal of Hercules is certain to stand out.
By Steve Killings