Some of our younger readers might not be aware that Arnold Schwarzenegger, famed governor of California and impregnator of maids, was once a movie star. Yes! It may be hard to believe, given his tricky name and indecipherable accent, but he used to appear in Hollywood action films on a regular basis. Some of his most popular characters were beefy men with beefy names like “The Terminator,” “Mr. Freeze,” “Conan,” and “Danny DeVito’s Twin Brother.”
His very first film role, however, was even more iconic. It was the part he was born to play: the lead in “Hercules in New York”! (He played Hercules.)
What a fragrant and savory hunk of cheese this is! Shot in 1969 on a budget of seventy-five dollars and a couple gift certificates, “Hercules in New York” was the 22-year-old Schwarzenegger’s big-screen debut. They credited him as “Arnold Strong,” because it was easier to spell and played up the fact that his primary skill was being able to lift heavy things. (You’ll notice they didn’t call him “Arnold Talented.”) They also had to re-dub his voice, as Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent was even thicker then than it is now, if such a thing is possible. Basically, Schwarzenegger’s actual contributions to the film were the same as a Muppet’s.
As you recall from the Bible, Hercules was a Greek semi-god, the son of divine Zeus and some mortal lady Zeus hooked up with. The movie takes us back to those ancient times — as the narrator says, “Far in the dim past, when myth and history merged into mystery.” (Note: that never happened.) Zeus, represented by a man in a bathrobe and a fake beard not unlike a shepherd in a Christmas pageant, sits on a throne on Mt. Olympus, listening to Hercules complain about being bored. Hercules, represented by a bullfrog-throated Austrian weightlifter, whines that he wants to go to Earth to see what the humans are up to. Zeus says no, he needs to stay put, as he would only get into trouble and possibly danger. Hercules is only half-immortal, after all, a fact that Zeus likes to throw in his face.
Another thing Zeus likes to throw in people’s faces is a bolt of lightning. He does this when he gets angry, i.e., regularly. He has a quiver full of bolts, made by the kids in Mt. Olympus High School’s metal shop class. Fed up with Hercules’ insolence, he chucks one at him, thereby accidentally zapping him straight to Earth, which is what Hercules wanted in the first place. Not exactly a MENSA convention up there on Mt. Olympus.
Hercules lands in the Atlantic Ocean (for some reason) and in the present day rather than when myth and history merged into mystery (for some reason), and gets picked up by a passing cargo ship. Zany misunderstandings ensue. Hercules, you see, is not accustomed to people not knowing who he is and revering him as a god (well, half-god; he rounds up). The humans, meanwhile, think Hercules is just a crazy person they found in the water. When they reach New York Harbor, Herc gets off the boat and has a fight with some dudes. No reason, really. Fighting just seemed like something Hercules ought to do. To defend himself against several attackers at once, Schwarzenegger wields a plank of wood, which is kind of like Betty White swinging a bag of dust.
What Hercules needs for his Big Apple adventures is a wacky sidekick. This is provided in the form of Pretzie (old-timey comedian Arnold Stang), a congenial, turtle-ish fellow with a comical Brooklyn accent who got his nickname because he sells pretzels. Herc tells him he’s Greek, and Pretzie says he used to know a Greek guy named Apollo, and Herc says he knows Apollo, but of course Herc is talking about the Greek god Apollo, while Pretzie is talking about a random guy who happened to be named Apollo. They go back and forth for a long time, having one of those “Three’s Company” conversations where the people think they’re talking about the same thing when really they’re not, and it’s like a vaudeville comedy routine, except that it makes you want to kill yourself.
Neither man has any money to pay their cab fare, so Hercules tosses the driver in the bushes and turns the taxi over, which makes sense coming from a guy whose dad expresses frustration by throwing lightning. Hercules sees some college track-and-field athletes practicing in Central Park and offers to show them how to REALLY throw a discus, by which he means he will throw it very far and they will wonder how he did it. This catches the attention of one Professor Camden (James Karen) and his lovely daughter, Helen (Deborah Loomis). The professor invites Hercules and Pretzie over for tea the next day, then isn’t there, because apparently he really just wanted to set up Hercules with Helen, and I guess he figured Pretzie is Hercules’ handler/trainer. But one of the college athletes is at tea, too, and Hercules, being short-fused and small-brained, gets into a brawl with him that essentially involves just picking the poor guy up and holding him in the air. Helen is terrified of Herc’s brute strength and belligerence.
But then it’s the next scene, and Helen and Hercules are on a date. She had a change of heart while we weren’t looking and now thinks Hercules is charming. Then a bear escapes from the Central Park Zoo, giving Hercules an opportunity to demonstrate once again that he is both very strong and slightly cleverer than an animal. I enjoy this part of the movie because they’ve clearly made no effort to hide the fact that the bear is just a guy in a costume. I don’t think it’s even a bear costume. It might just be three or four brown bathroom rugs tied to a guy. Anyway, Hercules saves the day and impresses Helen, whose feelings about him manage to stay the same for several consecutive scenes thereafter.
Meanwhile, Hercules is becoming a famous wrestler, with Pretzie as his manager and some mobsters trying to cash in on him. Herc cools it on the whole “I’m a Greek god from Mt. Olympus!” business, having gradually discovered that people don’t believe him and think he is crazy. “A Greek peasant with delusions of mythological divinity” is one character’s assessment of him, though he could also be talking about Arianna Huffington.
Back on Mt. Olympus in the myth+mystery=history days, Zeus sends Mercury to tell Hercules that he’d better get his butt home NOW or he’ll be grounded. Hercules ignores Mercury, as is his custom. Then Zeus’ wife, Juno, who hates Hercules because he’s her husband’s bastard son, waits until Zeus’ term as governor is up and divorces him. No, sorry, I was thinking of something else. Juno gets Pluto (the god of the underworld, not the dog) to slip Hercules a drug that will make him mortal. “A drug that makes me LESS strong? What’s the point of that?!” says Schwarzenegger, in his head.
Hercules gets drugged and loses a televised weightlifting contest, which I guess was probably a big draw before cable, and this angers the mobsters, who were counting on him to win. Hercules could be killed now that he’s mortal, but Zeus finally intervenes and brings him home, and Pretzie is sad because Hercules was pretty much his only friend. But then somehow Hercules talks to Pretzie through the radio (?) and says he’ll always be with him in his heart, which won’t be very useful if Pretzie needs help moving a bookcase.