This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Like him or not, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the biggest stars of the silver screen we’ve ever seen. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s highly interesting to see exactly how Arnie’s first starring role (despite the protestations of the Conan The Barbarian DVD box) fares against his later work. The answer happens to be that it’s utterly awful, but somehow has a charm and undeniable historical value for the Arnie fan that makes it a compulsive watch, although perhaps ‘horrified fascination’ is a better term.
From the introduction it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to be a cinematic masterpiece, as some very obvious and low-quality model shots are used to illustrate the ancient world of the gods and Mount Olympus, as a voiceover takes great pains to point out that this is a legend, a mere story, lest ye be expecting a documentary or something. Having had our intelligence insulted in this manner it soon becomes clear that the rest of the film is going to be shot with the same stupidity as the opening. This is normally a cue to reach for the off button but should you persevere you’ll find it has a certain inept charm that makes it difficult to truly detest, like an Ed Wood film. If you’d rather watch a film that’s, y’know, good, then body swerving this is a good option.
Anyhow, a motley collection of Greek deities hang about near Zeus’s throne and it’s clear that most of them have been chosen for looking good in a toga rather than on their ability to act. Zeus himself is the exception, although only because he doesn’t look good in a toga. His fake beard is an astonishing sight, and I hope a real god would have the necessary sense of self-depreciation to wear such a beard. I’d certainly worship him. Zeus calls Hercules to his side, forbidding him from his current plan of heading down to earth to relieve his boredom. He rather petulantly refuses, and at this point you notice something unusual.
It’s not Arnie speaking. His lips are moving. That we can see. But our very ears heareth not the familiar drone of The Ah-Nold. This film came a good six years before his next major role, bar a few bit part cameos. Maybe his English improved in the intervening time but I guess it was deemed unacceptable here, and he’s voiced by some uncreditied and strangely elusive name. There are a few different versions kicking around, one of which restores Arnie’s original soundtrack but by all accounts it’s not much of any improvement. He’s occasionally credited in them as Arnold Strong (!), and the movie is also known is some regions as Hercules Goes Bananas, rather charmingly I think.
Zeus banishes Hercules, allowing an opportunity for him to freak out an old woman on a plane. Scenery chewing ensues. Horrendous overacting is a common trait of the film, so get used to it. Hercules is rescued from the briny by a passing cargo ship bound for New York, and his insolence to the ships’ captain is written off as a combination of a language barrier and after effects of immersion. When they sail into harbour, Hercules strolls off casually beating up the sailors trying to stop him and at this point you notice something unusual.
It’s not Arnie fighting. Well it is in a physical sense but this isn’t the all-action ass-kicker we know and love. This guy’s awful. How much of this we have to blame on the direction is open to debate, but it’s clear there’s been no Woo-Ping style fight choreography as punches miss by a country mile and his favourite finishing move seems to be the dreaded double noggin’ knocker, which fits with the cartooney feel of the piece at least. I can’t be sure whether this was intended for children or if it’s just astonishingly and insultingly stupid. I’m feeling generous so I’ll go with the latter.
Herc easily panels the guys and is then rushed into a taxi by onlooker Pretzie (Arnold Stang), so called because of his job selling pretzels to the offloading sailors. Sampling his wears, Herc declares them food fit for the gods. Ho ho. After some supposedly comic misinterpretations establishes a common acquaintance, the two decide to pal about together. Pretzie being a weedy, geeky kind of guy provides the necessary comic contrast to the be muscled lunkhead of Hercules for all kinds of Comic Misadventures™!
Essentially the film reduces to a stranger in a foreign land affair, with the added complication that Hercules has the strength of a demi god to play with. Being New York, going about claiming yourself to be an ancient Demigod isn’t grounds to be locked up in a nicely padded cell, it just makes it easier to be a minor celebrity. Some of the running jokes introduced are actually pretty competent, especially Herc’s insistence that he has no need to pay for anything, as the vendors has been honoured by the presence of Hercules, which is surely enough? It also pulls out one of the best ‘confused foreigner’ lines I’ve heard, “Bucks? Dough? What is this zoological talk of male and female animals?”.
All in all, it seems that Aubrey Wisberg has put in a comparatively decent script for this sort of low-rent cinema market, but has had it utterly hamstrung by a budget that wouldn’t cover one of Arnold’s cigars these days. Case in point – it’s proud of the fact that it’s shot entirely in New York (mainly Central Park) which is nice, but it’s difficult to find convincing locations for Mount Olympus and the Gates of the Underworld in New York. So they used a small hill with a throne on it and a non-descript length of fence respectively. this film is rather like a Russian Doll of incompetence, each huge layer of inaccuracy hiding smaller but no less daft discrepancy.
Through a series of barely explained contrivances he ends up dating a Professor of Greek Antiquities daughter, and getting a job as a pro wrestler after the newspapers cover him beating up an escaped bear from the zoo (a man in a flea-bitten bear costume, quite hilariously. No attempt is made to have his act like an enraged bear would, even to the point of throwing jabs and hooks. Quite what drugs the director was on is a question open to the ages). He embarrasses a university athletics team, despite his obvious lack of technique. To be fair, the ‘elite’ athletics team are equally inept, especially the supposedly crack long-jumper who happily does a weedy jump landing with both feet together remaining upright rather than sully his tracksuit by doing the proper ass-landing used by most long-jumpers.
While all this chaos is unfolding, Zeus grows displeased with Hercules and sends his distributor of justice, Nemesis to send him to the Underworld for a hundred years or so. Zeus’ jealous wife Juno throws a spanner in the works, instead convincing Nemesis to strip Herc of his powers. This means that Herc can fall from grace a little, losing a weight lifting contest which the local Mob had a good sum of money riding on. The resultant chase scenes provide a suitably silly way to round off this less-than-serious film, with a little misdirection meaning the mob end up chasing Herc’s girl, Herc and Pretzie chasing the mob in a stolen horse drawn chariot, the owner of the chariot chasing Herc and a hot dog seller chasing that guy. Benny Hill would seem to be an inspiration here.
At least being full of Gods gives the film a valid excuse to have stuff happen randomly without any real explanation, such as once Herc seems to be in a tight spot with the mafia goons, Atlas and Samson suddenly appear and start doling out an equally unconvincing beating as we’ve seen in the rest of it. The ending is suitable Deus Ex Machina, Zeus deciding to give Herc his powers back, much to his wife’s chagrin, and Herc returning to Mount Olympus suitable humbled in front of his father.
Perhaps lambasting Hercules in New York for being daft isn’t too valid a criticism as despite it’s PG rating it seems to be mainly directed at young kids, with Arnie’s fighting falling into the physical comedy category rather than gritty realism. Certainly it has a shaky grasp of theology, as to my recollection Juno is a Roman goddess, and here Zeus’ wife ought to be Hera. Samson had nothing to do with Greek mythology, as far as I know. Still, this is hardly a reference tome, but it’s pretty inexcusable to get facts as basic as these wrong.
Special mention must be made of the editing, which seems to have been done more or less on a random basis with a rusty butter knife. This has some of the least slick cuts I’ve seen, occasionally joining scenes in the middle of sentences. It would seem that around 11 minutes has been cut from the version I’ve seen, and I’m not sure it’s an 11 minutes I’d want to see.
The gross incompetence and ineptitude on display here would generally have seen it heading for theOneliner bucket of zero star terrors, but there’s a certain charm on display here that stops me from busting out the Vitriol Cannon. At a mere 79 minutes it’s too short to get overly grating, and it’s almost worth picking up cheap just to see the start point of Arnie’s rise to superstardom. Arguably the only way was up, but even as a mere historical oddity it deserves more than being consigned to obscurity.