Monday, 14 May 2012
Hercules (4½ Stars)
It's hard to believe that when I first watched this film I didn't like it. I think the problem is that I compared it with the Hercules tv series, which I absolutely love. But this 2005 made-for-television film has very little in common with the series produced by Sam Raimi. The television series is camp fun, full of comic anachronisms, with each episode leading up to battle scenes that have more in common with ballet than actual fighting. This film is a serious adaptation of the Greek legends of Hercules. The epic proportions of the story remind me of why I liked to read the Greek myths when I was younger.
The story is set against the background of a war between Zeus and his wife Hera. Communities decide which side they want to take, which God they prefer to worship. The division also goes through families. The soldier Amphytrion (Timothy Dalton) worships Zeus, while his wife Alcmene (Elisabeth Perkins) is a high priestess of Hera. During a storm a sailor, Antaeus, is possessed by Zeus and rapes Alcmene. The following day she makes love to her husband before telling him about the rape. She becomes pregnant with twins, and an oracle tells her that she will have two boys from two different fathers. The two boys are Hercules, son of Zeus, and Iphicles, son of Amphytrion,
Alcmene is the oldest child of King Theseus of Tyrins, but her younger brother Eurystheus is named as heir. She feels wronged and is determined to place her son Iphicles on the throne; as high priestess of Hera she hates her son Hercules because of his father.
Eurestheus is engaged to marry Megara, who is the daughter of King Creon of Thebes and also a priestess of Hera. During a harvest festival she gets drunk and seduces Hercules. Too ashamed of what she has done she accuses him of rape. She gives birth to triplets, three boys. At first Hercules is banished to the mountains for the rape, but he later finds favour by saving Creon's life, and Creon gives Megara to Hercules instead. Megara hates her husband, and Alcmene advises her to drug Hercules on the wedding night. This leads to Hercules mistaking his sons for demons and killing them. His marriage is annulled and Megara is given back to Eurestheus, who shortly afterwards succeeds his father as king.
Hercules is plagued with guilt and attempts to kill himself, but Zeus intervenes by striking him with a non-lethal lightning bolt to stop him. Hercules is treated for his wounds by the wood nymph Deianeira (Leelee Sobieski). While Hercules is barely conscious she seduces him and bears a son called Hyllus, not telling him till years later that the son is his.
The oracle tells Hercules that to atone for the crime of killing his children he must carry out six tasks, "labours", for Eurestheus. Egged on by Megara he attempts to give Hercules impossible tasks which will lead to his death. The list of tasks varies in the legends, and the ones shown in this film are:
1. Hercules must slay the Stymphalian birds, which turn out to be harpies.
2. Hercules must slay the Nemean lion, which lures warriors to their death by pretending to be a beautiful woman in distress.
3. Hercules must capture the Cretan bull alive, which turns out to be his "father" Antaeus wearing a helmet with bulls' horns.
4. Hercules must tame the mares of Lemnos. He first encounters them in the form of beautiful women. This seems to be a common theme.
5. Hercules has to defeat Eurestheus in an archery contest. The first to shoot the Ceryneian hind wins. This hind is the pet of his son Hyllus, so the plan is that if he succeeds his son will hate him.
6. Hercules has to go to the entrance to Hades and capture the three-headed dog Cerberus. When he arrives he is ambushed by Antaeus, who has been freed by Megara, so the oracle tells him he does not have to complete this final task.
In the meantime Eurestheus and Megara have a daughter called Iole. The oracle warns her father that if she marries her husband will kill him. Eurestheus gives up his hope of having an heir to his throne and begins a love affair with Iphicles, who he names as his heir. Megara prevents this by tricking Alcmene into killing him at the next harvest festival. But Hyllus falls in love with Iole, and the prophecy comes true.
How can so much be packed into such a short film, only 160 minutes long? It's an amazing tale of parents killing their children, rape, deceit, husbands and wives hating one another. The scale of this story is epic. Admittedly, it's been simplified from the legends. If it had been more accurate it would have lasted twice as long. Paul Telfer is a relatively unknown Scottish actor, but he dazzles in the role of Hercules. Sean Astin seems very much like a Hobbit in his role as Hercules' best friend, the poet Linus, who follows him on his tasks but never gets involved. Leelee Sobieski steals the attention whenever she graces the screen as Deianeira. Timothy Dalton is outstanding as Amphytrion. Unfortunately, the American DVD release of this film has been shortened to 120 minutes. The full version is only available in the German release, which includes the original English dialog. I have both versions and can see no logical reason for the cuts, mostly material taken out of the first half. If you're able to watch Region 2 PAL DVD's order the film from Amazon.de. You won't regret it.