1950s Hercules falls far from the tree

By Hermes

The 1958 film Hercules is hardly a faithful adaptation of the original Greco-Roman myth.

For starters, there’s no backstory. Our titular hero is a misogynistic muscleman without a past. We hear nothing of his storied birth and upbringing. The movie simply begins in media res as Hercules is attempting a miraculous feat, saving the Princess Iole from driving her chariot off of a cliff.

Additionally, the original myth is altered to fit the needs of the film’s re-birthed plot in some areas but not others. Yes, Hercules still strangles the Nemean lion with his bare hands, but he no longer kills the Amazonian queen. It gives for a poor retelling of the demigod’s epic saga.

The film also introduces characters who, canonically speaking, shouldn’t exist in the same time period. The anachronisms are apparent with Jason, who never interacted with Hercules in Greek legend. Further, Hercules never set foot on the Argo, let alone with Ulysses and Laertes, and he never helped Jason claim the throne of Iolcus.

Production-wise, this makes sense: It’s easier to fit pre-existing tales to your limited run-time than attempt a comprehensive telling of the entire Herculean myth. It’s also quicker to completely discard historical validity in favor of factual frivolity.

While well-known figures were added to the film, others were ignored for similar reasons. Hercules’ wives Megara and Deianira are never mentioned, and the film implies our hero is a bachelor. This streamlines the story, keeping the focus on Hercules, himself.

However, as I point out the film’s flaws in terms of fidelity to the original plot, there are some concessions that need to be made. Unlike its contemporaries The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), Hercules did not have the financial backing of a large American movie studio, making some of these omissions and alterations from the original lore partially excusable. Hercules had a budget of only $120,000 (roughly $1 million in 2017 USD). The chariot scene in Ben-Hur alone cost $1 million ($8.35 million in 2017 USD). It is also worth noting both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments were the costliest films of their time. These films were intended to be cinematic masterpieces that would be successful at the box office and receive critical acclaim.

But Hercules was a different beast. It’s purpose was to entertain and produce a quick buck rather than instill itself amongst the pantheon of cinematic masterpieces. Producing a historically honest film would have been costly to make and boring to watch — after all, there is nothing visually appealing about watching Hercules clean the Augean stables. Better to skate over the boring aspects, and change those in need of a sprucing up, than attempt the hard work of honoring your source material. In this, the film succeeded, releasing to wide financial success.

This rendition of the Herculean myth remains faithful to the original tale only to the extent necessary to justify its title. In dealing with the constraints of a shoestring budget, the film was more than up to the task, producing a box-office winner that is, admittedly, an entertaining jaunt in its own right. ■

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