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Hercules on the silver screen in 2014

Kellan Lutz and Dwayne Johnson as HerculesThis year’s been a productive one for big-budget hack-and-slash films set in the ancient world.  Besides a disastrous (so to speak) Pompeii and the 300 sequel focused on Themistocles and Artemisia, theatergoers have had the opportunity (some might say the misfortune) to see two movies about Hercules: The Legendary Hercules, starring Kellan Lutz, released in January, and Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, released this month.  (For convenience, and for love of portmanteaux, I’ll refer to the latter as Rockules and the former as Herculutz.  Also for convenience, I’m ignoring the mockbuster Hercules Reborn, also released this year.)  I watched and enjoyed them both — your mileage may vary — and noticed overlapping themes in the way each movie characterizes its protagonist as grappling not only with his foes but also with his destiny as a mythic hero.

Needless to say, spoiler alert for both movies, and for the comic book on which Rockules is based (on which, see Gellar-Goad & Bedingham, forthcoming in Electra volume 3).

Kellan Lutz caught his big break through the Twilight movie series, and it wouldn’t be wrong to call Herculutz “Twilight Hercules.”  It’s got a sappy, angsty love story and peddles plenty of flesh.  Dwayne Johnson, on the other hand, is riding a long-running wave of acting success, and picked his Herculean project himself.  In fact, Hercules was the first role he ever wanted to do as a movie actor.  Rockules thus represents a sort of pinnacle for him — one perhaps marked by a moment near the end of the film where Hercules stands triumphantly atop an enemy’s palace promontory as soldiers and subjects acquiesce to his victory, in a visual echo of the conclusion of his first big Hollywood role, the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Scorpion King (2002).  Rockules, to its credit, has no love story to speak of.

Kellan Lutz as Hercules

Despite the numerous differences, these two Hercules have much besides their subject in common, particularly their classics-movie clichés and their thematic characterization of the hero.  Herculutz is a pretty bland instantiation of the sword-and-sandal genre, with Hercules cast as a gladiator-cum-rebel leader in a generic hybrid of Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus and Russell Crowe’s Maximus.  In Rockules we get a predictable soldier-training montage, set-piece battle scenes, the screaming inspirational speech before a fight, and scythed chariots.  Both offer the requisite white marble columns and ruins by which the American pop-culture imagination defines ancient Greece.  Both follow the pattern for Hercules movies (from the genre-founding 1958 Steve Reeve flick onward) of telling a story outside or between the Labors, with the defeat of the Nemean Lion looming large as background or prologue.  And both participate in the en-vogue demystification of myths in American cinema, preferring unseen or possibly-nonexistent gods and unpreternatural explanations for mythic creatures: thus in Herculutz, though Hercules’ relationship to his father is paramount, Zeus himself is invisible, and in Rockules, the Lernaean Hydra turns out to be bandits wearing serpent’s-head masks and centaurs turn out to be what cavalry look like when seen in the right shadow or fog (the narrator of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura would be proud).

Dwayne Johnson as HerculesMore interesting to me is how similar the characterization is of these two otherwise very different Herculeses.  Lutz’ Hercules is short-haired, scruffy, hairy-chested, immaculate, and very Nordic-looking, while Johnson’s is long-locked, fully bearded (made with real yak hair!), scarred, and (besides the depilated torso) looks a lot like an actual ancient Greek warrior/bodybuilder might have.  But each is more tactician than he is brute, as loyal as he is fierce, and less the murderous lonester demigod from myth than the standard action-adventure hero and battle-leader of American cinema.  Moreover, both Herculutz and Rockules dramatize the hero’s identity crisis.  In each movie — and in contrast to the 1958 Hercules and the 1997 Disney Hercules, where the title character give up divine status for mortal romance — the protagonist must struggle with, and ultimately accept, his fate to be a legend and a leader.  Especially striking is that in both Herculutz and Rockules, the climactic moment where Hercules embraces this heroic identity has him using his supernatural strength to break free from stone columns to which he has been chained, swinging his chains to smash enemy soldiers.  (And Lutz later receives a lightning bolt from the sky/dad to aid him in battle, something that The Rock will do in the sequel, if the sequel follows the comic books.)  In each instance, we have a powerful man forced by his circumstances to accept the role of leader and helper of the weak (a modern analogue to his ancient role as alexikakos), despite the personal costs that role brings.

In part, I think that this motif has a generational undercurrent to it, similar to a pattern in recent onscreen treatments of the Titanomachy.  Just as in those Titanomachy stories, the protagonists here have lost-family issues (in Herculutz, Zeus is invisible, and Alcmene is murdered by Amphitryon, the movie’s archvillain, while in Rockules, Hercules is an orphan and his wife and kids were murdered by King Eurystheus).  Similarly, in the Hercules movies just as in the Titanomachies, the character development centers on the half-mortal protagonist’s need to accept his role as heir to power.  Possibly there’s a message for these movies’ target demographic of young adults, that their transition to political dominance in American society will bring with it burdens of obligation and self-doubt?  (Emma Stafford, author of the definitive monograph on Herakles/Hercules, also sees political uncertainty as part of The Rock’s Hercules.)  Possibly, also, the Herculeses’ anxiety over becoming leader and protector reflect concerns about the United States’ role in a world where non-intervention seems to be as dangerous and catastrophic as military intervention.  Reclaiming Hercules — the paragon of the lone wolf — as leader of adventuring parties and of armies could likewise symbolize a repudiation of the libertarian individualism and anti-collectivist egoism that have grown in voice in American political debate over the past decade.

In September’s column, I explore the relationship between Rockules and the Steve Moore Hercules: The Thracian Wars comics on which it’s based.

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad's picture

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Assistant Professor of Classical Languages at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He's also one of "those gaming people" in Classics pedagogy. He can be contacted at thmgg@wfu.edu.

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