Hercules muscles his way back to the big screen


Newsday

Hercules battles Hercules this year, with Kellan Lutz playing the demigod this Friday in Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules” and Dwayne Johnson taking on the Greek hero in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules: The Thracian Wars,” based on the Radical Comics miniseries, on July 25.

Of course, Hercules — the Roman name for the Greek hero Heracles — has been immortalized on film for more than 50 years, with similar characters hitting the screen since silent-movie days. In one guise or another, he’s fought ancient-world despots and sorcerers, mythological beasts and the attractions of femmes fatales. He’s ridden chariots into battle, horses through treacherous passes and ships to high adventure — often on budgets that wouldn’t pay for a minute of “Clash of the Titans.”

Yet, whether accomplishing the 12 Labors or leading villagers into rebellion, whether fighting anachronistically in the gladiatorial arena or voyaging with the Argonauts, Hercules on-screen is a hero for the ages. Or at least for the past several decades.

STEVE REEVES

“If you want something visual/that’s not too abysmal/We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie.” So sang the pansexual Dr. Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” alluding to the campy appeal of “Hercules” (1958) and “Hercules Unchained” (1959), starring bodybuilder Reeves. The 1947 Mr. America and 1950 Mr. Universe became a gay icon playing the bare-chested hero in these two Italian-made epics, each released in the U.S. a year after their European debuts.

In the former, Hercules joins the Argonauts to retrieve the Golden Fleece, and wins the love of Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina). In the latter, he is mystically mesmerized by Omphale, Queen of Lydia (Sylvia Lopez), but eventually regains his memory and saves his captive wife.

Reeves would go on to do a slew of such mythological mishmashes, playing Goliath in “Goliath and the Barbarians” (1959), Phillipides in “The Giant of Marathon” (1959), Aeneas in “The Trojan Horse” (1961) and Romulus in “Duel of the Titans” (1961), among others. But it was his Herculean labors that launched a fantasy-epic subgenre colloquially called …

SWORD-AND-SANDAL FILMS

After the Hercules movies became hits, Italian studios and American distributors released more follow-up films than Hercules had Labors. Called “sword-and-sandal” or “peplum” films — after the short tunics / overskirts men wore in them — dozens such films battled it out at the U.S. box office into the mid-1960s. At least 19 starred Hercules, played variously by bodybuilders including Mickey Hargitay, Reg Park, “Mission: Impossible’s” Peter Lupus (credited as Rock Stevens) and Kirk Morris (nee Adriano Bellini).

Like Godzilla in that era’s giant-monster movies, Hercules sometimes teamed with others of his ilk, such as Samson, Goliath, Ursus and Italy’s homegrown Hercules, Maciste. In fact, a few Hercules movies actually starred one of those interchangeable others — and were retitled and dubbed here to star Herc. “Hercules and the Black Pirate” (1963) was the Samson movie “Sansone contro il corsaro nero,” for instance, while “Hercules and the Masked Rider” (1964) was the Goliath picture “Golia e il cavaliere mascherato.”

ANIMATED HERCULES

In Walt Disney’s “Hercules” (1997), its title character voiced by Tate Donovan, the young demigod must become “a true hero” in order to join his brethren on Mount Olympus. Trained by the satyr Phil (Danny DeVito), vexed by the evil Hades (James Woods, who steals the show) and beloved by the conflicted Megara (Susan Egan), he battles the Titans, a hydra and other menaces — and even has time to belt out a few songs.

MOVIES HERCULES WOULD RATHER FORGET

“The Three Stooges Meet Hercules” (1962). So you don’t believe Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe time-traveled to ancient Ithaca to help Hercules (Canadian bodybuilder Samuel “Samson” Burke) depose an evil king? Why, I oughta!

“Hercules Against the Moon Men” (1964). This “Mystery Science Theater 3000” staple actually stars the Italian hero Maciste (Sergio Ciani, aka Alan Steel), dubbed and retitled here to star Herc. Whatever his name, he battles alien invaders in ancient Greece. Talk about “Chariots of the Gods.”

“Hercules in New York” (1969). Billed as Arnold Strong, a 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first film teams up with a pretzel vendor, rides a chariot through Times Square, buys lunch at the Automat and gets his voice dubbed by another actor.

THE INCREDIBLE HERC

Lou Ferrigno: In between “The Incredible Hulk” TV series and TV movies, the two-time Mr. Universe starred in the 1983 Italian picture “Hercules” and its 1985 sequel, “The Adventures of Hercules.”

SORBO, SWEET CHARIOT

“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” (Syndicated 1995-1999) A Hercules for the millennial generation, the hero as portrayed by Kevin Sorbo was lean ‘n’ green, not a bacchanalian bodybuilder, and as concerned about social equality and the preservation of Mother Earth as he was about protecting villagers from monsters and capricious gods. With his most frequent sidekick, Iolaus (Michael Hurst), he often encountered the warrior princes Xena (Lucy Lawless), who’d spin off into her own syndicated hit. Leading up to Sorbo’s series were five 1994 TV movies — all co-starring Anthony Quinn, by Zeus!

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