We’re quite fond of Dwayne Johnson in our house. He’s got good form on historical-ish fantasy films (see The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King), plus he played a tooth fairy opposite Julie Andrews – what’s not to like? So we were looking forward to the new Hercules – Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as Autolycus and John Hurt as Lord Cotys basically have far too much fun chewing the scenery, which is in and of itself utterly glorious. It’s a film that’s having fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which immediately makes it more enjoyable to watch. But I’ve watched plenty of atrocious cinema in the name of classical reception in my time – so why did this not only feel like a more fun viewing experience than Immortals, but also a more successful one from the classical reception perspective?
One thing strongly in its favour is its choice of theme. Some recent films have got, frankly, a bit overawed with the idea of Family as a unifying concept for classical reception films, normally in terms of sorting out questions of Male Identity and Man’s Place In This World, and it gets a bit superficial after a while. (I wrote about this a bit in terms of the Clash of the Titans remake if you’re interested – link to PDF.) Hercules couldn’t care less – we’re not dealing with an identity crisis here, or at least, not one that springs out of a contested identity. What the movie is far more interested in are questions of deception and appearance – how do we know what is true? How do we know what really happened?
This attitude first reveals itself in a wonderful meta-awareness of how ancient myth actually worked, and allows the movie to wear that heritage lightly. Hercules, it turns out, isn’t a one-man show – he comes with a team. One of that team is his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), whose job is to sing the tales of Hercules and thus put fear into his enemies. Except the tales he sings are, shall we say, massaged. They are explicitly not the truth. In them, Hercules becomes the son of Zeus rather than an orphan; he alone slays fantastic enemies, without the help of his team; his skin becomes invulnerable and his lion skin becomes impenetrable. We see the creation of a myth happen in front of us, but as a deliberate choice on the part of the characters who are mainly interested in getting the next paid commission – which is easier if you have good PR. Sure, Hercules is strong and performs feats of strength, but isn’t it more sellable if he’s also a son of Zeus? That lightness of touch means the ‘myth is all created, innit’ feels freer than, for instance, Immortals‘ rather clunky True Origins of the Minotaur story.
Yet the film’s interest in story-spinning goes deeper than this – Hercules does not only tell stories, he is also told them. For instance, when he and his team are signed up by Lord Cotys, Cotys presents himself as the good guy who is besieged by marauding tribes and only wishes to keep his rightful kingdom. Hercules lives with the belief that he killed his wife and children a few years ago in Athens, able to remember the events only through a fever-dream that looks like a hallucination (the madness, according to myth, bought on by Hera). That nobody knows the truth of this second story, and how to judge what did or didn’t happen, is actually the subject of a conversation between Cotys’ daughter Ergenia and the team around the campfire. However, as the movie continues, these tales unravel, and turn out to have been told solely to mislead and confuse Hercules – functioning ultimately in the same way as his own PR.
The interest in knowing what is true thus stops the episode of Hercules killing his wife and children becoming one of those trite moments of identity confusion (am I really a hero? What is life? and so on). Hercules is a hero, with fantastic strength, regardless of additional mythic embellishments. What turns out to be at stake is the question of how reality is manipulated and presented (an interesting query given the amount of CGI on display). Who is in control of the story? Is it Hercules and his team, or is it somebody else? The vulnerability of that fact, the issue of how much authority we ever have in our own lives and telling our own tales, is a far richer seam to mine in a film thinking about myth and its creation.
This dovetails with the movie’s wider concern with the question of destiny and man’s control over his fate. Amphiaraus the prophet-warrior has, allegedly, been told that the gods will let him know when he is to die; that moment comes to him during the film, and so he waits for his death to occur. Just as he thinks that this, this is the moment of his death as foretold… Hercules saves him. The cinematography and dialogue of the thwarted death moment is wonderfully comic, but comes back to that same issue of how much autonomy humans have in their lives. Amphiarus thought that his destiny was about to get him, yet it didn’t. Incidentally, this is an interesting contribution to the ‘how do we do gods in classical reception?’ debate. In Hercules, there clearly are gods about – Amphiaraus gets visions from them which do, in the main, turn out to be accurate if irritatingly vague. However, the gods do not appear on screen, except as statues. They are prayed to, talked about and given their due, but never actually interfere with the plot. This allows them to form part of the authentically ‘ancient’ world the film builds, offering a refreshing change from the trend towards theomachy that several recent mythically-inspired films have gone towards.
A small note on gender. The scene in which Ergenia and the gang discuss the death of Hercules’ wife and children provides a nice counterpoint to something I mentioned in my recent conference paper on the Roman Britain movies. There’s a convention, or so it appears, of conversations between male soldiers which are used to express bonding, and in which the subject of the conversation is a woman. There’s normally also some joking about at least one of the men’s sexual prowess or otherwise, but the landscape upon which homosocial activity takes place is the absent or mute female body. I was delighted to see that the campfire scene in Hercules bucked this trend quite cheerfully – there was a bonding conversation in which sexual prowess was mentioned, but the joshing took place between Autolycus and the Amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). She gave as good as she got, both in terms of raucousness and smut level – and no female body became the negotiating tool for navigating the relationship between them. This may sound incredibly tangential, but it strikes me as a rather important sign of the way in which Hercules decided to avoid several of the irritating tropes which have become set pieces in some of these classically-inspired films. (Of course, this may in part be due to the comic book source material, but I’m not familiar with that so can’t comment.)
A final question to ask about this film is why Hercules, and why now? What it is about this myth that speaks to us and makes this a resonant myth to retell not once, not twice but thrice this year? The last big patch of interest in the myth, according to an unscientific skim of IMDB, appears to have been in the mid-1990s, with the Disney film and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I’m not sure I have the answer. From this particular film, the questions of control and authority seem particular poignant, particularly in a world where we argue so much about the ‘true’ nature of reporting on conflict, who gives us the ‘right’ explanation, and the problems we have when our desires for a clear goodie and a clear baddie become confounded by the complex nature of the actual circumstances. I also see the attraction of the tension between the Great Man Hero and the individual within a team – the Hercules myth privileges the one over the reality of the other, yet it’s a decision that the entire team is happy with because of the positive outcomes it has for everyone involved (i.e. more work and thus more money). Without seeing the other two versions, I can’t comment on wider trends, but I’d be very interested to hear what the folks over at the Leeds Hercules project think – and hopefully the next stage of their project will provide some possible answers.