Historian at the Movies review: Hercules
As part of our Historian at the Movies series, Professor Paul Cartledge from the University of Cambridge reviews action movie Hercules. Played by Dwayne Johnson, Hercules has chosen to live as mortal and has become a mercenary. Alongside five companions he travels ancient Greece selling his services and using his reputation to intimidate enemies
**Please be aware that this review contains spoilers**
Q: Did you enjoy the film?
A: I enjoyed it enormously, though I’m possibly not absolutely the best person to review it, being a professional historian of the real fourth-century BC ancient Greece. But I was a bit-part adviser to the original 300, and I have co-edited a quite scholarly book on Oliver Stone’s Alexander movie, so I do have some critical form!
Thanks to its surprisingly witty script, co-written by the experienced Greek-American Evan Spiliotopoulos and delivered by an excellent multinational cast, the latest, revisionist Hercules is a gas almost from start to finish (for most of the time intentionally, and even knowingly so).
The audience I saw it with in Cambridge’s Cineworld joined in with a will, and at the right places too. The 3D effects were, thank the Olympian god(desse)s, kept well under control – unlike the numbingly repetitive barrage of weaponry and murderous mayhem we were subjected to recently in 300: Rise of an Empire.
The 12A classification, though, had me a bit baffled – ‘moderate sex’ was accurate enough, but ‘moderate violence’? Clearly, stylised CGI violence doesn’t count as ‘real’ violence, and can be as immoderate as the director (Brett Ratner) wants and the classifiers will permit.
Q: Is the film historically accurate?
A: ‘Hercules’ should of course be ‘Heracles’ – the film even starts with a rather laborious explanation of his Greek name and his relation to his ‘natural’ father Zeus’s sister-wife Hera (deadly enmity).
But the Latin spelling ‘Hercules’ has an unavoidable cinematic history – I saw bodybuilder Steve Reeves’ Hercules Unchained when it came out in 1959, and since then he’s made well over 1,000 appearances in comics (this film is based on Steve Moore’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars) and in spin-off movies and video games.
The script makes play with ideas of truth and legend, and has a running gag in the form of prophet Amphiaraus getting every prophecy all too right – except that of his own (ideally heroic) death. Instead, not only does he survive to the end, but the movie gives him the last, sententious word.
The film also offers a potential hostage to fortune by having a precise historical date of 358 BC, but it quickly turns out that that too is a spoof, since a lot of the fun derives from casting the semi-divine (by birth) and divine (by attainment and election) Hercules of ancient myth and legend as a mere angst-ridden lowlife mercenary, and dunking him in a sordid, all-too-human world of internecine warfare among the non-Greek but Hellenised tribal peoples of Thrace (roughly modern Bulgaria).
Actually, I’ve a hunch as to the source for the setting: coincidentally – or not – the entirely historical Athenian exile Xenophon led his bunch of ‘Ten Thousand’ mercenaries into the service of an east Thracian king in about 400 BC, and a descendant of that king called Cotys was murdered in or around 358.
But all that’s beside the point of the film, which otherwise plays fast and loose with Greek mythology as well as history (e.g. the King Eurystheus, who commanded the epic Twelve Labours was no more Athenian than was Hercules).
Q: What did the film get right?
A: The drama, especially by not taking itself too – and sometimes even at all – seriously. Given the hectic mish-mash of the human and the superhuman, the down-to-earth and the wildly phantasmagorical, any attempt at ‘straight’ dramatic narrative must inevitably have plumbed the depths of boredom and banality.
Instead, Hercules’s seer Amphiaraus and his agent and fixer Autolycus constantly interject just the right notes of sardonic deflationary humour, and sometimes broad farce, while his mute brother-in-arms berserker Tydeus, his charming nephew Iolaus and his right-hand bow-woman Atalanta offer neat variations on martial prowess.
**Spoiler alert** The plot also has a twist: Hercules’s employer, Lord Cotys, is not at all what he at first seems. Something much nastier lurks in his woodshed – and dungeon.
Q: What did it miss?
A: Given that it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, in any useful sense a ‘history’ film (how could it be?), it’s in a way otiose to point out that it gets fourth-century BC Greek armour and weapons quite seriously wrong.
Shields were not then made of steel (technically, ‘steel’ is a misnomer anyway), but basically of wood with bronze facings. The rectangular tower shield favoured as a tool by many characters was an ancient relic already in the plot of Homer’s Iliad (composed at least three centuries earlier and set half a millennium earlier still).
And the linothorax breastplate was not made of leather but of stiffened linen. Plus, the pikes wielded by the Thracians are far too thin and their blades far too short. And so on.
But who cares? That Thracians were tattooed is, however, authentic.
How many stars (out of five) would you award the film?
For enjoyment: ****
For historical accuracy: N/A (Not Applicable)
Professor Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.
To read more Historian at the Movies reviews, click here.
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