Hercules (2014, dir. Brett Ratner, based on the comic series Hercules: The Thracian Wars) continues the recent trend in sword-and-sandal films that started a couple years ago with 300. Dwayne Johnson plays Hercules, an apparently mortal man (there is some ambiguity about his father) who leads a company of mercenaries in 4th century BC Greece. His reputation as a demigod is based on his team’s ability to assist him in performing seemingly superhuman feats of martial prowess. His team includes a number of second-string characters from Greek mythology including Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), Atalanta (Ingrid Berdal) and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie).
Early in the film they are hired by Cotys (John Hurt) to protect his Thracian kingdom from the sorcerer Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann), who is believed to control a band of centaurs that no human warrior can defeat. Cotys and his daughter hope that Hercules, being a demigod, can defeat these supernatural forces the way he defeated the monsters of his famed 12 Labors, but the mercenary team, knowing that they are all part of a fraud, are less confident that they can pull this off. Nevertheless they accept the offer and set the film’s plot in motion.
There’s very little in this film that is particularly new or original. Hercules is given a backstory loaded with manpain over the death of his wife Megara and their children, because he believes that he murdered them in a drunken rage. So much of the film’s tension comes from a by-the-numbers “the hero finds his confidence” story. The film’s plot twists are mostly fairly predictable because they’re not particularly original. There’s a young moppet who serves as a substitute son for Hercules and also conveniently gets taken hostage, much to the surprise of no one. The mercenaries are a motley band of mostly one-note characters who are improbably skilled at killing; Atalanta is particularly poorly written, having little to do but run around in a leather sports bra and miniskirt with a quiver that always seems to have three arrows in it, no matter how many she’s loosed, but at least the film avoids any overtly sexual leering at her.
But the film moves along at a brisk pace, rarely pausing to give you time to realize you’ve seen this all before. The mercenaries are well-played, particular McShane as Amphiaraus, a prophet who knows how he’s going to die and keeps expecting it in every battle. He and Sewell manage to distract the viewer from Johnson’s distinctly limited acting skills. And the best moments in the film are the way it plays with the tension between the myth of Hercules and his reality. (The credits show you how the mercenaries pulled off several of the Labors.) The film does actually try to work in many elements from Greek mythology, most interestingly in addressing Hercules’ murder of his family, which comes straight out of the original stories. He’s also shown using his club and lion-skin, something most cinematic Herculeses have ignored. So if all you’re looking for is some mindless action, you can do a lot worse than this film.
But You’re the Historian who goes to the movies, not the Film Critic who goes to the movies
Yeah, you’re right. I went to this film mostly because I figured it was expected of me, and because my students will ask if the film is historically accurate. But the nature of the film largely precludes a lot of my normal analysis; it is neither the traditional myth of Hercules or a historical film. But there are a few observations I can make.
First, despite being set in ancient Greece, the film chooses to use not his Greek name, Heracles, but the Roman form, Hercules. Presumably they did this because ‘Hercules’ is the more familiar form of his name, but it is a little dissonant to have a Roman-named main character running around interacting with a bunch of accurately Greek-named characters. But that’s a small quibble, especially since most people in the audience won’t be Classicists.
A bigger problem comes with the historical setting. Trying to date the events of Greek myth is a problem, not least because the events didn’t happen, at least not in the form they’ve come down to us. But the closest thing to a date we can point to in Greek myth is the Trojan War. The city of Troy was a real place and the period of the city associated with the Homeric stories (referred to by archaeologists as Troy VII) was destroyed sometime around 1190, during the collapse of Bronze Age civilization scholars today term the 12th Century Crisis. This crisis, which is still not entirely understood by scholars, overwhelmed the Mycenaean civilization of Greece and led to the collapse of most of its major population centers.
So the events of the mythical Trojan War and the generation of heroes who participated in that conflict are situated roughly around 1200 BC. In the myths, Heracles belongs to the generation of heroes that immediately preceded the generation of the Trojan War, making him a rough contemporary of the fathers of figures like Agamemnon and Odysseus and perhaps a contemporary of the aged King Priam. That would put Heracles being active sometime in the mid-13th century, perhaps around 1225 (at least, it would if Heracles were a historical figure, which he’s not).
The film, however, is set in 358 BC, as the Classical Period of Greek history was winding down. The 3rd Persian War, so poorly chronicled in 300 and 300 2: Rise of an Empire, took place in 480 BC, right after the birth of Athenian democracy, and is thus set more than century before this film. So the film takes a mythological character from the poorly-documented Mycenaean Period and drops him in the middle of the very well-documented Classical Period almost a thousand years later. This would be a little bit like making a movie about King Arthur and setting it in modern Britain, without bothering to explain why Britain is a medieval monarchy and not a Parliamentary Democracy. (Come to think of it, that would be an interesting film.)
In 358 BC, Athens was a declining democracy, and yet in this film it is ruled by the weasley King Eurystheus, with no hint of democracy; the real Athens abandoned its monarchy more than half a millennium earlier. In 358, the forces that threatened Greece were not some Thracian sorcerer but Philip of Macedon, who was just beginning his rise to power in which he would gradually conquer all of mainland Greece except Sparta. The film makes an explicit reference to the destruction of Thebes, which was done by Alexander in 335 BC. So the film is, to say the least, confused about historical chronology.
But then this film isn’t particularly attempting to be historical. Its Greece is really an ahistorical fantasyland that freely mixes whatever bits of technology and culture it wants to use or make up (a bit like your old high school D&D campaign). The characters drive and fight from chariots, which is consistent with Mycenaean culture but sort of out of place in Classical Greece (when chariots were a status symbol but not a war tool). At one point Iolaus proudly declares a particular piece of armor a linothorax, as if this is some sort of novelty, when in fact linothoraxes had been used in the Mycenaean Period and would have been somewhat old-fashioned by the Classical Period; the film also seems to think that a linothorax was a leather breastplate, when in fact it was, as the name suggests, made of many layers of linen. Most of the women in the film are given generic Olde Tyme Greeke Dresses, which bear no resemblance to any dresses worn by actual Greek women, while Atalanta’s outfit looks like a leather version of 21st century workout gear.
Cotys’ troops inexplicably use Roman scutum shields (the rectangular legionnaire shield) instead of the large round bronze hoplon of the Classical Period, although some of them occasionally have round shields. As a result, the film entirely mis-handles hoplite warfare, although it does at least take a stab at depicting men fighting in formation. Rather inexplicably, Cotys’ troops take up formation and then the mercenaries fight individually in front of that formation, which pretty much nullifies the purpose of fighting in formation.
Many of my objections to the film stem from its decision to shift Hercules out of his cultural context by a thousand years. The reasons for this decision aren’t clear. It never attempts to make use of its 4th century setting, so it could just as easily have set the film in the 13th century; the intended audience would have been none the wiser and I would have been a little happier. But I guess they weren’t making this film with me in mind.
Want to Know More?
Hercules (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)is available on Amazon. There’s also an extended cut, if you’re really a fan of Dwayne Johnson’s acting choices.
There are literally dozens of decent books on Greek mythology. Here’s one: The Complete World of Greek Mythology. Everyone ought to have a basic knowledge of Greek myth, because these stories have been influencing Western literature for 2500 years. Once you know the Odyssey, you’ll notice it in every film about going home ever made: Cold Mountain, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Arn the Knight Templar…