Welcome to a new Xena Thursday! Today’s post begins an 11-week series that finds us officially venturing into the Hercverse, as we explore the show from which our beloved Xena: Warrior Princess was spawned. While these posts won’t be set up like the Opinionated Episode Guides with quotes and articles about the making of the show (since there’s much less written about Hercules; for those interested, the best places to go are Weisbrot’s books and the DVD releases), I will be covering my thoughts on every episode — some of which I’m watching for only the second or third time for these entries. Thus, they are designed as a starting point for Xena fans, like myself, who are interested in FINALLY taking the time to get into the “big brother” series, and I’d like to personally invite all my Xena readers to join me in this 11-week marathon! Most every episode is on Netflix, and for anyone who doesn’t have access to the series, contact me and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction. If a marathon is too much of a commitment, these posts can be used to help you choose which episodes to watch, because as a Xena fan, although I will do my best to appreciate Hercules: The Legendary Journeys for the unique show that it is, my allegiance is still to Xena — and I know what the Xenites (particularly this Xenite) like!
We start with the five 1994 90-minute telefilms that were commissioned by Universal (four first, and one added later) and did so well that Universal green lit the series as a mid-season replacement to premiere in January 1995. Note that they do NOT count as part of the actual series, but with many of the same actors (Sorbo and Hurst, in particular), they are vital in establishing the characters and introducing the show’s fun storytelling. There are a lot of monsters, a lot of Hera schemes, and a lot of beautiful cinematography…
01) Hercules And The Amazon Women (Aired: 04/25/94)
Hercules and the soon-to-be married Iolaus come to the aide of a village under attack by a group of vengeful Amazons.
Written by Jule Selbo and Andrew Dettmann & Daniel Truly | Directed by Bill L. Norton
The first adventure in the HTLJ cannon is based off of one of the legendary demigod’s 12 labors, in which he goes after the girdle of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. Well, the girdle beat is dropped here, and the premise is angled with a soon-to-be-familar set-up: Hercules is summoned by a villager who claims that a beast has stolen all of their women. Hercules and his best friend Iolaus, who is preparing to wed his beautiful (but ill-trained in the art of cooking) bride-to-be, go out to face whatever beast is plaguing the people — only to learn that the “beast” is the women themselves: Amazons. When Iolaus is killed in battle, Hercules is captured and taken to the Queen of the Amazons who banters with him and puts him in a cage. Hercules falls in love with Hippolyta and sets things right between the villagers and the Amazons — when the women “attack” for their annual roll in the eye, Hercules encourages them to treat the women with kindness and respect.
But Hera, who’s been after Hercules the entire film (and sent the hydra down to get him) inhabits Hippolyta’s body and goes after Hercules, who refuses to kill her. So Hera, knowing how much Hercules has come to care for Hippolyta, throws her over a cliff to her death. Hercules calls to Zeus, who reverts time so that the whole adventure never happened, restoring all the lives that were lost. It’s a cute story that works best in the moments of comedy, particularly in the interactions between the men and the women, but it’s hampered by some heavy-handed morals about equality among the sexes (much less subtle than Xena ever was). But, a saving grace and particularly notable for Xena fans, is Lucy Lawless’s turn as an Amazon who sleeps with Zeus. Her strong presence makes her an easy standout. Meanwhile, while Hercules’ bond with Iolaus and Zeus, played by the majestic Anthony Quinn, works, his relationship with Hippolyta, played by a miscast Roma Downey, falls flat. Furthermore, the deus ex machina of Zeus resetting the clock kills the momentum of the story, keeping it from ever being a truly commendable work.
02) Hercules And The Lost Kingdom (Aired: 05/02/94)
Hercules sets out to find the lost city of Troy in order to help its exiled citizens reclaim their home from the evil Blue Monks.
Written by Christian Williams | Directed by Harvey Cokeliss
The second film, and the only one written by creator Christian Williams, is much darker than the first. The story finds Hercules summoned to Troy by a dying man. On his way to retrieve a mystical compass that will direct him to Troy, Hercules saves a young woman, played by Renee O’Connor (you know who what is!), who is being sacrificed to save the crops. The girl is mad that Hercules is infringing on her destiny to the gods, so he tries to teach her about making her own fate. As Hercules gets himself sold into slavery to retrieve the compass from a queen, the young girl, Deianeira, befriends a slave (played by Robert Trebor, the future Salmoneus) and encourages him to stand up to a menacing bully. As their journey continues, the duo finds a group of people on the outskirts of Troy, where the former king is dying. He identifies Deianeira as the baby he refused to sacrifice to Hera. When he dies, Deianeira decides to lead her people back to Troy and reclaim the city from Hera’s minions.
As the former slave stands up and leads the Trojans against the ominous blue monks, Deianeira is convinced, by Hera’s priest, to sacrifice herself to save her people. Hercules steps in to defeat the priest and allow Deineira to fulfill her destiny as the Queen of Troy. Like the last film, there’s some moralizing about oppression and standing up against your fears, but it’s not as preachy and insulting as it was in the last film. Furthermore, the film benefits from a real sense of danger — there are several harrowing episodes (including a cool sequence inside the belly of a sea serpent) that climaxes into a deliciously dark fight between Hercules and the Blue Priest over Deianeira’s life. Once again, we have a great cast, particularly Renee O’Connor, who elicits a truthful performance that makes it clear why Tapert had her in mind for Gabrielle. Intended to be the first Hercules film, this is the one that convinced Universal to green light a series. It’s one of the strongest telemovies, and I think, though not without its faults, Lost Kingdom may be my favorite of the telefilms.
03) Hercules And The Circle Of Fire (Aired: 10/31/94)
Hercules teams up with the strong and beautiful Deianeira to save mankind when Hera denies fire to the people.
Written by Barry Pullman and Andrew Dettmann & Daniel Truly | Directed by Doug Lefler
The premise for the third Hercules film may remind Xena fans of “Prometheus,” a first season Xena episode in which Hercules and Iolaus actually crossover. The story is similar: Hera has imprisoned Prometheus (this time she captures his Eternal Torch and he is freezing to death) and humans are slowly losing fire (not the ability to heal themselves, as was the case in “Prometheus”). Hercules and a woman he rescues, Deianeira (no relation to the character from the previous film), who begins as a sparring partner and turns into a love interest, go off to find Prometheus and then reclaim the torch, which Hera has placed in a ring of fire. But Zeus fears that Hercules will be killed by the flames and tries to prevent his son from reaching the torch. As one might expect, however, Hercules is successful in retrieving the torch, unfreezing Prometheus, using the flame to help heal his injured satyr friend, and saving humanity. Plus he gets the girl. (Was there every any doubt?)
Although this film is blessed with a cool story and high stakes, the drama itself — and the conflicts that are presented — pale in comparison to those from the other films. So this picture doesn’t excite in the same way that the others do. However, there are a lot of wonderful elements that begin to take shape here. First and foremost, the relationship between Hercules and his father Zeus (still Tony Quinn) deepens, as the King of the Gods’ attempts to keep Hercules from danger ends up putting the two of them in conflict. It’s an interesting story beat, and helps to shade the shockingly complex presentation of Zeus. The other great thing about this film is the casting of Tawny Kitaen as the second Deianeira, the first leading lady with whom Sorbo’s Hercules has a great chemistry. Their relationship, even more so than the mission, drives the film. And with this hot duo, some fine action, and a wealth of overwhelming visuals, this film is an enjoyable watch.
04) Hercules In The Underworld (Aired: 11/07/94)
When a gaping hole to the underworld opens up, Hercules is summoned by beautiful young Iole to help save her people.
Written by Andrew Dettmann & Daniel Truly | Directed by Bill L. Norton
Several years have past between the start of The Underworld and the end of Circle Of Fire, as Hercules and Deianeira are now married with three children. But being a family man is put on hold when a young woman, Iole, summons Hercules to help when a hole to the underworld opens up in her village. After Hercules leaves with Iole, Deianeira learns that the young girl is a notorious Nurian maiden, known for seducing men and killing them. Deianeira goes to warn Hercules, but he sets her mind at ease. On her way back, Deianeira is attacked by Nessus, Hercules’ centaur friend who is working for Hera. Though Hercules kills Nessus, the centaur pretends to repent and gives Deianeira a magic cape to give to Herc, who eventually puts it on and starts to choke. Hercules gets it off, but hurls himself down the hole to the underworld. Hearing that Hercules is dead, Deianeira takes her own life. In the underworld, Hercules discovers the trouble: Cerberus is free. Upon learning that Deianeira is the Elysian Fields, Hercules makes a deal with Hades — if he captures Cereberus, then he and Deianeira can go back to Earth. Hercules is successful and he and his wife head back to the living.
The fourth film is the one most often cited as the best — it seems like this was the consensus of the cast and crew as well — and I would probably have to agree (even though I remain personally fond of Lost Kingdom). Not only is it the best photographed, but the script incorporates elements of Greek tragedy in a way that’s most effective (and foreshadows some of the best episodes of the actual series). Though the mission starts as a typical mythical adventure, the inclusion of Hercules’ wife gives him a vested personal interest, allowing both the actor and the character to expand our understanding of Hercules. Although he isn’t the sole driver of the film (like he was in the first three), Underworld makes the best use of Hercules. It’s the best made of the entire bunch, and along with the dramatically exhilarating Lost Kingdom, comes highly recommended to potential new Herc fans.
05) Hercules In The Maze Of The Minotaur (Aired: 11/14/94)
When a horrfying man-beast terrorizes the people of Alturia, Hercules is stunned to learn the creature’s true identity.
Written by Andrew Dettmann & Daniel Truly | Directed by Josh Becker
As mentioned above, this film was commissioned at the last minute when another project fell through. So, with preparations for the weekly series under way, the final of the five telefilms is crafted as a clip show (or, to make it sound better, “highlight reel”) of the past four films. It wisely brings back Iolaus, who, like Hercules, is itching to temporarily leave domestic bliss for another adventure. It soon comes to them when they are summoned to fight a monster. It turns out to be a minotaur, which Hercules soon learns is his half-brother (whom Zeus has been unable to kill). Hercules is eventually forced to kill the beast, to Zeus’ remorseful satisfaction. It’s clearly a much thinner story than in any of the other films, and it’s difficult to overlook that. However, there’s still a lot to recommend.
More than any of the other films, the smaller story helps make the script feel like an episode of the series, and the friendship between Hercules and Iolaus is a lot of fun. (Their interplay makes sitting through the extended clips a palatable experience.) But it’s clear to see that Hercules is ready to be a weekly series and that this team is going to be a recurring feature. In this regard, it makes for a nice comparison to the wooden and tonally uneven first telefilm. And although the adventure remains lackluster and the monster is campy, Maze Of The Minotaur is an entertaining watch — the funniest of the five films. It’s my least favorite because of it’s design, but the characters are all working much better than they did at the start.
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): Hercules And The Lost Kingdom and Hercules In The Underworld
Come back next Thursday for another Hercules post! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!