“Hercules” (1983)

by A.J. Hakari

"Hercules" 1983 poster


There’s a reason why the story of Hercules is one of the greatest of all myths. His tale is one of might and monsters, of a hero who possesses the power of the gods and the emotions of a man learning the art of compromise. There’s a wealth of material to fire up the imagination here, so forgive me for thinking it baffling that for those who’ve endeavored to depict Herc’s adventures on the big screen, this just wasn’t enough. For decades, filmmakers have had a field day with adding their own flourishes to the escapades of the world’s strongest hombre, no matter how ludicrous they might be. Take 1983’s Hercules, a flick that’s ten times as insane as its humble title and low-budget exploitation roots might otherwise suggest. Here we have a movie with one eye on Conan the Barbarian, the other on Star Wars, and enough visions of dollar signs rooting it on to try imitating both at the same time. To put it mildly, Hercules is really busy, and it could’ve even been maddeningly so, were it not for its barrage of head-tiltingly bizarre plot developments actually being part of the overall charm.

Long ago in the cosmos, darkness gave birth to light, and the gods followed soon after. These supreme beings bore witness as creation took hold throughout the galaxy, with the planets taking shape before their very eyes. But concerned about evil running rampant on Earth and wanting us mortals to have a fighting chance, the gods embedded powers of immense strength within one single person: Hercules (Lou Ferrigno). The son of a murdered king, Hercules would experience a Moses-like journey and become adopted by a loving family, until horrible circumstances inspired him to set out and seek his fortune. Many an epic adventure would come his way, but after his love, the princess Cassiopea (Ingrid Anderson), is spirited away, our hero embarks upon his most perilous quest yet. Herc’s travels bring him face to face with sorcery, mechanical monsters, and countless disposable thugs, but with his lady’s life on the line, there’s no force that can deter him from his destiny of becoming the world’s greatest champion.

The first thing you should know about Hercules is that nothing makes any goddamned sense. Not the story, not the characters, and especially not anyone’s motivations. You can certainly try to connect the dots as our omnipresent narrator heaps on scoop after scoop of bewildering exposition, but it’s a fool’s errand that you’ll tire of soon after starting. All you can do is sit back, let the movie’s nuttiness wash over you, and be dumbfounded at the notion of a script in which giant robots tear up Ancient Greece while Zeus chills out on the moon getting bankrolled. It’s also not the first of its kind, since cinema history is filled with titles that didn’t think twice before wanting to cash in on a hot trend and just made a bunch of bullshit up as they went along. But few are the times where this approach has been as strangely successful as with Hercules, which finds itself with an awful lot of crazy to process, yet half the fun is watching it all pile up. It can feel like a seemingly random mishmash of ideas and concepts, but it’s at the very least a distinct mishmash. Being half cosmic space opera and half swords-‘n’-sandals period adventure, it has a look similar to what the Masters of the Universe movie (also produced by the notorious Golan/Globus team) would accomplish with a bigger budget. But even though the changes it makes to the traditional legend boggle the mind, the film comes off with a genuinely unpredictable vibe, leaving you with no idea of what’s coming next; all you know is that it’s going to be wild, chintzy as hell, and awesome.

Also, when you have a flick called Hercules, it helps to have your star looking like he’s plenty worthy of assuming the titular mantle. This project came Ferrigno’s way right after “The Incredible Hulk” wrapped up airing, so he was in as prime of shape as he ever would be. Herc is called upon to do battle with sinister sea snakes and literally move mountains, and due to Ferrigno’s physique, you can buy him doing it all. It’s hard to comment on his acting, since he’s dubbed like most everyone in the cast (which is weird, considering the abundance of Italian actors would give the movie an increased Mediterranean feel if their real voices were allowed, but I digress). But you can’t argue with the dude’s swagger, which is surprisingly serious and devoid of self-aware winks to the camera, a tall order to fill when your feats involve chucking bears into outer space. The remaining actors unfortunately aren’t left with much to do; Anderson gets the typical damsel duties, William Berger’s King Minos is a pretty feeble and ineffective villain, and Sybil Danning is just around to show how ahead of the curve the Greeks apparently were in their bustier technology. But in the end, everyone seems in good spirits, not even close to treating the story like high drama but not resigning themselves to eye-rolling their way through all the camp either.

If Hercules were boring, it truly would be one of the most inept motion pictures ever conceived. But this is the kind of bad that I can live with, for it’s so imaginative, joyous, and restless as it thumbs its nose at the usual self-important toga party, it’s nigh impossible to despise. Goofy, over-the-top, and utterly ridiculous, Hercules is just enough of too much.