With two Hercules movies out this year, we look back at the legendary hero’s screen appearances over the years.
HERCULES battles Hercules this year, with Kellan Lutz playing the demigod in Renny Harlin’s now-in-theatres The Legend Of Hercules and Dwayne Johnson taking on the Greek hero in Brett Ratner’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars, based on the Radical Comics miniseries, on July 25.
Of course, Hercules – the Roman name for the Greek hero Heracles – has been immortalised on film for more than 50 years, with similar characters hitting the screen since silent-movie days.
In one guise or another, he’s fought ancient-world despots and sorcerers, mythological beasts and the attractions of femmes fatale. He’s ridden chariots into battle, horses through treacherous passes and ships to high adventure – often on budgets that wouldn’t pay for a minute of Clash Of The Titans.
Yet, whether accomplishing the 12 Labours or leading villagers into rebellion, whether fighting anachronistically in the gladiatorial arena or voyaging with the Argonauts, Hercules on-screen is a hero for the ages. Or at least for the past several decades.
“If you want something visual/that’s not too abysmal/We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie.” So sang the pansexual Dr Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, alluding to the campy appeal of Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), starring bodybuilder Reeves. The 1947 Mr America and 1950 Mr Universe became a gay icon playing the bare-chested hero in these two Italian-made epics, each released in the United States a year after their European debuts.
In the former, Hercules joins the Argonauts to retrieve the Golden Fleece, and wins the love of Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina). In the latter, he is mystically mesmerised by Omphale, Queen of Lydia (Sylvia Lopez), but eventually regains his memory and saves his captive wife.
Reeves would go on to do a slew of such mythological mishmashes, playing Goliath in Goliath And The Barbarians (1959), Phillipides in The Giant Of Marathon (1959), Aeneas in The Trojan Horse (1961) and Romulus in Duel Of The Titans (1961), among others. But it was his Herculean labours that launched a fantasy-epic subgenre colloquially called ...
After the Hercules movies became hits, Italian studios and American distributors released more follow-up films than Hercules had Labours.
Called “sword-and-sandal” or “peplum” films – after the short tunics/overskirts men wore in them – dozens of such films battled it out at the US box office into the mid-1960s. At least 19 starred Hercules, played variously by bodybuilders including Mickey Hargitay, Reg Park, Mission: Impossible’s Peter Lupus (credited as Rock Stevens) and Kirk Morris (nee Adriano Bellini).
Like Godzilla in that era’s giant-monster movies, Hercules sometimes teamed with others of his ilk, such as Samson, Goliath, Ursus and Italy’s homegrown Hercules, Maciste. In fact, a few Hercules movies actually starred one of those interchangeable others – and were retitled and dubbed here to star Herc.
Hercules And The Black Pirate (1963) was the Samson movie Sansone contro il corsaro nero, for instance, while Hercules And The Masked Rider (1964) was the Goliath picture Golia e il cavaliere mascherato.
In Walt Disney’s Hercules (1997), its title character voiced by Tate Donovan, the young demigod must become “a true hero” in order to join his brethren on Mount Olympus.
The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962). So you don’t believe Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe time-travelled to ancient Ithaca to help Hercules (Canadian bodybuilder Samuel “Samson” Burke) depose an evil king? Why, I oughtta ...!
Hercules Against The Moon Men (1964). This Mystery Science Theater 3000 staple actually stars the Italian hero Maciste (Sergio Ciani, aka Alan Steel), dubbed and retitled here to star Herc. Whatever his name, he battles alien invaders in ancient Greece. Talk about Chariots Of The Gods.
Hercules In New York (1969). Billed as Arnold Strong, a 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first film teams up with a pretzel vendor, rides a chariot through Times Square, buys lunch at the Automat and gets his voice dubbed by another actor.
The Incredible Herc
In between The Incredible Hulk TV series and TV movies, the two-time Mr Universe Lou Ferrigno starred in the 1983 Italian picture Hercules and its 1985 sequel, The Adventures Of Hercules.
Sorbo the Lean
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (syndicated TV, 1995-1999) was a Hercules for the millennial generation. The hero as portrayed by Kevin Sorbo was lean and green, not a bacchanalian bodybuilder, and as concerned about social equality and the preservation of Mother Earth as he was about protecting villagers from monsters and capricious gods.
With his most frequent sidekick, Iolaus (Michael Hurst), he often encountered the warrior princes Xena (Lucy Lawless), who would spin off into her own syndicated hit. Leading up to Sorbo’s series were five 1994 TV movies – all co-starring Anthony Quinn, by Zeus! — Newsday/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services