One of cinema’s most enduring characters is Hercules, the lovable Greek strongman who was the son of Zeus and had the special power of being able to lift heavy things and unscrew stubborn lids. He has appeared in dozens of movies over the years, sometimes as a supporting character, sometimes as the focus of the story. Why is this mythological musclehead so popular? Because he’s more than just a superhero. He’s a superhero who isn’t protected by copyright.
That’s how we got “Hercules,” a 1983 cheesefest starring Lou Ferrigno as the man himself. You may well ask: With dozens of other Hercules-based films already in existence, most of them terrible, why make another one? What does the 1983 “Hercules” bring to the table that its predecessors did not? The answer is simple. Nothing. It brings nothing. But Hercules movies are inexpensive to make. The characters are scantily clad, which reduces the costume budget, and the scripts can be produced by pulling words out of your butt, which reduces the writing budget. That’s pretty much it. I believe Ferrigno even provided his own chest oil.
The film begins by telling us how the universe was created. Not many films start this ambitiously. Usually the fact of the universe’s creation is accepted as a given. As it’s explained here, first there were the basic “elements”: night, day, matter, and air. (The ancient Greeks didn’t really believe “night” and “day” were elements, but the movie thinks they did, and we are not going to argue.) From these elements came Pandora’s jar, which is sometimes mistakenly called a box, and which the movie represents as a jug, floating in space. In Pandora’s space jug were all the “essences,” good and evil, but then it blew up, and planets formed from those fragments, and somehow the gods got created. You already know all this stuff from the Bible. But the movie spends three minutes going through it, trying to bore us into submission before we get to the REALLY boring parts, i.e., the parts with Hercules.
Then Zeus and Athena and another goddess whose name isn’t mentioned but we figured out it’s Hera are standing around on the moon. Yes, the moon. This is where the Greek gods are headquartered, perhaps temporarily while Mount Olympus is being fumigated. With Pandora’s jar having let loose all manner of wickedness, fake-bearded Zeus and looks-like-bimbo-celebrity-on-bottom-row-of-“Match-Game”-panel Athena are worried that mankind will fall prey to it. “Evil is dark and strong!” Athena says. Good point, sweetie! Zeus’ solution — the Zeusolution, if you will — is to make one human really, really strong so he can help the other humans fight the powers of darkness. While pontificating dully, Zeus sends a ball of light into the body of a newborn baby named Hercules, the prince of Thebes, and now Hercules is a super-baby.
So far, none of this matches the Greek myths you learned about in high school. In fact, it’s way off the mark. When the film was released, ancient Greeks protested outside the theaters, angry at how their religion was being misrepresented. This was their “Life of Brian.”
Anyway, no sooner does baby Prince Hercules power up than his royal parents are murdered by usurpers. Herc is narrowly rescued by a nurse, who puts him in a canoe on the river, whereupon Hera — who is on the side of evil in this story — sends snakes to bite him. But Hercules crushes those snakes like worms, Bamm-Bamm-style, and is safely adopted by a childless couple who always wanted a supernaturally powerful infant but didn’t want to call upon the forces of darkness to create one. Oh, and I guess baby Hercules was wearing a name tag or something, because his foster parents call him that.
He grows up to be Lou Ferrigno, the grotesquely muscled bodybuilder best known for playing the Incredible Hulk on TV. (No, we are not going to call him Hulkules. We are better than that.) Ferrigno is by all accounts a very nice man, but he’s no actor, or at least he wasn’t in 1983. His version of Hercules is a bearded guy who stares blankly a lot. About half the shots in the film are of Ferrigno looking dumbfounded. The other half are of him doing things like punching a bear in the face. He does this — not that you need a reason — because the bear was attacking his adoptive father. After Hercules has beaten up the bear, he picks it up and tosses it into space, where it becomes a constellation. Seriously, that’s what happens. That’s not the way I learned about the formation of the cosmos in school, but hey, teach the controversy.
There is eventually a story here, though that doesn’t seem to have been very high on the movie’s list of priorities. Bear-punching, yes. Storytelling, no. Remember how Hera is evil and wants Hercules to fail? Well, so does Minos, the usurper who killed baby Herc’s real parents. He consorts with a goddess (?) named Daedalus who’s in charge of science, which in this case means she creates mechanical creatures that fight with Hercules for a few minutes before being easily destroyed by him. One of them kills Herc’s mom. Now Hercules is on a quest to find out why the gods have given him super-strength, and why both his natural and adoptive parents have been killed right in front of him. You start to take that sort of thing personally after a while.
While on his quest, Hercules meets Cassiopea, the beautiful daughter of King Somebody. To prove his heroism, Hercules cleans out their horse stables by redirecting a river through it, which seems like more work than just cleaning them out the normal way, and besides, wouldn’t the horses drown? Then Cassiopea gets abducted by Minos’ busty daughter, Adriana, and Hercules is chained up and thrown into the sea. He’s rescued by a witch who lives alone on an island and turns out to be a beautiful young woman who was cursed with witchiness by Minos, or Hera, or gypsies, or someone. The witch, named Circe, makes Hercules take her to hell to retrieve her magic talisman, which she says will help him rescue Cassiopea, but this turns out to be a lie and she just wanted her talisman back. Hercules is a big sucker.
You may rest assured that Hercules saves Cassiopea anyway and is hailed as a mighty hero, but not before he faces more giant mechanical creatures — “It spits cosmic rays of deadly fire!” Daedalus says of one of them — and some really awful special effects. Just terrible effects. Even the basic stuff, trick shots like they used on “Bewitched,” are badly done here. The only place I’ve seen cheaper-looking visual effects is on Joan Rivers. Still, it’s better than the 3-D in the new “Clash of the Titans.”
This film and its sequel, “The Adventures of Hercules,” were pretty much the end of Lou Ferrigno’s movie career. Kind of sad, really. Now you see him only occasionally, appearing at a county fair to cover himself in green body paint or hurl a bear into space. That’s no way for a bastard child of Zeus to wind up. Curse you and your space jug, Pandora!