Friday, May 17, 2013
HERCULES (1983), THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1985)
MYTHICITY: *fair* (sort of...)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
In this review of SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JACK THE GIANT KILLER, I contrasted the films in terms of how well they'd chosen to fill their fantasy-narratives with "impossible things," saying that one had done so in "the right way" while the other had followed "the not-so-right way."
However, the fault I found in JACK THE GIANT KILLER-- that of following the example of SINBAD too mechanically-- doesn't even begin to describe the problems with these two Italian-lensed Golan-Globus productions. Neither of these mythic misconceptions prove quite as stunningly awful as the current reigning champ for "Best Worst Movie." Nevertheless, both movies, written and directed by Luigi Cozzi, have the feel of someone taking a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology and tossing it into a blender.
I've frequently found gems of mythic significance in some really goofy films, but it's hard to rate the symbolism of these two daffy flicks. I can see some definite myth-motifs in Cozzi's two films, and I have to believe that he had some inklings about some of the meanings behind the archaic myths he invokes. And yet even when Cozzi explicitly points to some of these meanings-- like the idea of Hercules as a force of order in the universe, both on the cosmic and human levels-- he puts these myth-meanings across with a strange combination of incoherence and leaden obviousness.
To be sure, an awful lot of Italian fantasy and SF films tend to wander from one oddball phenomenon to another with little sense of continuity, so Cozzi's nothing special in this regard. But because there is so little continuity, it seems pointless to attempt plot summations. Both films take roughly the same approach: the evil king Minos-- not a foe of Hercules in archaic myth-- somehow imperils the metaphysical balance between "order" and "chaos." Some or all of the Greek gods send Hercules to fight Minos, but various secondary foes or problems delay the demigod until he finally manages to lock horns with his enemy and defeat him.
In narrative terms, the 1983 HERCULES is the weaker story. It starts out with a partial "origin-story" for the hero, but it quickly, and rather incoherently, puts him on the trail of Minos. The evil king, who worships "science" rather than the gods, must be pursued to his island sanctum on the isle of Thera, a genuine Mediterranean island famous for a volcanic eruption during what we now call the "Minoan civilization." In Hercules' wandering course, the following things occur:
*Creation itself begins with some vague demiurgic forces, which may give rise to the Jar of Pandora, which in turn begets the earth, the gods, and mankind. This is at least a novel use of Pandora, who was sometimes figured as "the first woman" but was never considered a creatrix of the universe. One might hazard that Cozzi wanted Pandora, or just her womb-like jar, as a stand-in for the archaic goddess "Gaea."
*Zeus creates Hercules not by sleeping with his mother, but by sending down divine light to infuse the child of two nobles with super-powers. When the forces of Minos kill Hercules' parents, the infant is sent floating down a river by a loyal maid in patent imitation of Moses and other waterlogged infant-heroes. Zeus' wife Hera for some reason hates Hercules even though he's not the product of Zeus sleeping around, so she sends water-serpents to kill the infant. Baby Herc kills the snakes pretty much the same way his archaic model does.
*Hera and Minos then ignore Hercules for the next 20 years. Then Hera sends a bear to kill Hercules. The hero kills the beast, but not before the animal kills his adoptive father. At this point Minos becomes aware of the threat, and decides to invoke the help of his weapon-maker Daedalus (who is both female and an incarnation of the "chaos" Cozzi associates with scientific innovation). Minos sends a mechanical moth-creature to attack Hercules, but with numbing monotony, the monster only succeeds in killing Herc's mother. At this point Herc decides he needs to learn why he's so strong and causes so much suffering. His solution to this existential crisis is the same as every other *peplum,* to go to town and fight in a gladiatorial game.
*After another Herculean labor, Hercules romances the king's daughter Cassiopeia, who will function as the true love for whom the hero forsakes all the other tasty morsels who throw themselves at him. Minos' daughter Arianna captures both the hero and the princess. Arianna keeps the princess for a later sacrificial ritual and tosses Hercules to feed the fishes. Despite this submarine fate the hero manages to swim to a nearby island.
*Hercules meets an old woman who will help him pursue Minos if he lets her drink some of his "powerful blood." The young hero's blood restores the old crone to the youthful persona of Circe, who then takes Hercules on a long and winding trek to recover a special talisman. On the way Hercules fights another of Daedalos' tinkertoy monsters, and manages to secure the talisman, which gets them off the island but not to Thera.
*Hercules separates the African continent from Europe. Don't ask. This labor earns him to gain the use of the chariot of Prometheus, whom Cozzi has apparently confused with Phaeton. At this point, even though Zeus is trying to help his symbolic son when possible, the high god yields to Hera's nagging and allows Circe to be infected by the spell of Aprhodite. This causes Circe to fall in love with the hero, and to lose her sorcerous powers.
*Finally on Thera, Hercules meets and beats another giant tinkertoy, though Circe perishes in the battle. Arianna plans to seduce Hercules with drugs so as to beget a super-race, while Minos explains to Cassiopeia that she's going to be sacrificed in the volcano, where he's confined a people-eating Phoenix. Hercules fights free of captivity, kills a lot of guard-ass and eventually duels Minos to the death. Oddly he gets to use a sword which Minos filched from the Temple of Hera early in the film, and because Herc draws the sword from its place, the Phoenix (never seen) escapes its confinement and the volcano goes off, though not before Minos is killed and Hercules escapes with Cassiopeia.
The film weirdly ends with Hercules-- apparently bedazzled by all the females who've thrown himself at him-- asking Cassiopeia whether or not she's the real thing, or whether she might be either Arianna or Circe in masquerade. The princess lets him have his cake and eat it too by claiming that "I'm all of them and none of them."
As anyone can see there's a lot of good potential myth-fodder here. What I've left out are most of the things that undermine the awesomeness of the fantasy-motifs-- crude sets, inept dialogue, and of course Lou Ferrigno's total lack of acting-ability. Frankly, while HERCULES isn't the worst film ever, Ferrigno may be the "worst Herc ever."
Compared to this mixmaster mashup, Cozzi's second and last outing is coherent by comparison. The only reason is that for this story he chooses a motif I call the "jigsaw quest." In this kind of myth-narrative, some precious object gets divided into multiple pieces, and the hero has to run around in quest of the parts. Again Cozzi's basic scheme derives from genuine archaic myth, specifically the myth of Typhon, the evil deity who temporarily defeats Zeus and steals what one text calls Zeus' "sinews." In ADVENTURES, Cozzi has Zeus' seven thunderbolts stolen by four rebellious gods: Poseidon, Hera, Aprhodite, and "Flora, Goddess of Spring." To keep Zeus from recovering the thunderbolts, the rebel gods hide the weapons in the bodies of monsters on Earth-- though it's never clear as to how this maneuver helps them overthrow Zeus.
*Though the thunderbolt-monsters are scattered hither and yon, Cozzi starts with one monster, a big fire-creature called Anteaus, to whom virgins are sacrificed. The victims of Anteaus belong to a local tribe, and two young women of that tribe, Urania and Glaucia, seek to appeal to the "Little People" for oracular counsel. The oracles (later given the names of two of the Fates, "Clotho" and "Lachesis") instruct the two women that they will be able to gain assistance from Hercules, as his father Zeus has just sent him to Earth. Even though we're still in archaic Greece, Urania strangely claims that Hercules hasn't been seen "for ages."
*The rebel gods respond to Zeus' action by calling forth their own champion. Flora hoaxes an ambitious warrior into opening the tomb of Minos for her. Then she kills the warrior and uses his blood to resurrect Minos. Minos, however, is even more of a fanatic for "science" than before, and plans to extinguish all of the gods.
*Hercules, Glaucia and Urania fight various monsters, such as "Slime People," a roadshow Medusa, and a warrior named "Tartarus," releasing a thunderbolt with each decisive victory. Tartarus is interesting in that though he inhabits an earthly forest, he keeps the souls of "demigods" imprisoned in the form of white dolls that he hangs from the forest's trees. This is one of the few visuals that seems to resonate with authentic myth, rather than owing its inspiration to American films like STAR WARS and SUPERMAN.
*Hercules and his gal-pals take a side-trip to visit Thetis, nereid of the sea, because the only way the hero can fight the fire-monster Anteaus is by applying a special "balm" to his bare skin. This may owe something to a roughly similar motif used for the hero Jason in the ARGONAUTICA. Herc successfully beats the fire-beast and releases another thunderbolt.
*Just so the hero won't be deprived of the requiste evil-queen seduction-scene, he is captured by "the Amazons of Scythia" with their new-and-improved "magnetic net." Not sure if the net was a creation of Daedalos or not, though it certainly works better than the tinkertoys from the previous film. The Queen of Spiders (called "Arachne" in the credits) tries to overpower the captive hero. Urania calls upon her psychic powers and sends the "powers of light" to Hercules, enabling him to kill Arachne and unleash another thunderbolt.
*Minos kills Flora with his "sword of ice," and then turns on the other gods, killing both Poseidon and Aphrodite. He lets Hera live to get info from her, because he doesn't know where one of the thunderbolts is located, but he doesn't seem to do anything to coerce the reluctant goddess. Hercules is reunited with Urania and Glaucia, but Minos overtakes them. Glaucia betrays Urania, and Minos reveals that he had the original Glaucia killed days ago, so that he Minos could use his phony Glaucia to monitor Hercules' movements (not that it seemed to help him much). To prove his power Minos has the false Glaucia kill herself.
*Because of the chaos running riot, the moon is about to collide with the Earth. Minos and Hercules both become astral beings and fight each other in space, sometimes taking the form of animated sketches based on KING KONG. Hera ironically ends up helping her old foe Hercules, giving him a magic sword with which he slays Minos for the second time.
*Urania is revealed to be a pure creation of light by the hand of Hera, made to be the vessel of the thunderbolt. Hera has a sudden moment of maternal feeling, but Urania wants the world to be stabilized, so she pleads to be killed. Hera gives her "the kiss of death," so Zeus gets all his thunderbolts in a row. Both Hercules and Urania are translated into constellations, but separately, whereas at the end of HERCULES it was implied that Hercules got to "be with" Cassiopeia even in star-form.
There's no doubt that both films are virtual catalogues of fantasy-content-- far more than one finds in even the most ambitious of the *peplum* films of the 1950s and 1960s. But Cozzi has no appreciation as to when "less is more." Even had he been given a more competent star than Lou Ferrigno, Cozzi unleashes so much myth-content that the effect is more like an avalanche than a sublime experience-- with the effect that almost everything that's potentially sublime becomes, instead, "ridiculous." I will note that ADVENTURES doesn't have as many anachronistic machines in it, and that a few scenes capture a little sense of wonder if one turns down the dialogue. Urania and Glaucia are both more interesting characters than Hercules, and seem to be among the most kickass female characters ever to arise from an Italian fantasy-film.