Hercules battles Hercules this year, with Kellan Lutz playing the demigod in Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” which opens today, and Dwayne Johnson taking on the Greek hero in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules: The Thracian Wars,” based on the Radical Comics miniseries, on July 25.
Of course, Hercules has been immortalized on film for more than 50 years, with similar characters hitting the screen since silent-movie days.
Yet, whether accomplishing the 12 Labors or leading villagers into rebellion, whether fighting anachronistically in the gladiatorial arena or voyaging with the Argonauts, Hercules is a hero for the ages. Or at least for the past several decades.
“If you want something visual/that’s not too abysmal/We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie.” So sang the pansexual Dr. Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” alluding to the campy appeal of “Hercules” (1958) and “Hercules Unchained” (1959), starring bodybuilder Reeves. The 1947 Mr. America and 1950 Mr. Universe became a gay icon playing the bare-chested hero in these two Italian-made epics, each released in the U.S. a year after their European debuts.
Italian studios and American distributors released more follow-up films than Hercules had Labors. Called “sword-and-sandal” – dozens of such films battled it out at the U.S. box office into the mid-1960s. At least 19 starred Hercules, played variously by bodybuilders including Mickey Hargitay, Reg Park, “Mission: Impossible’s” Peter Lupus (credited as Rock Stevens) and Kirk Morris (nee Adriano Bellini).
In Walt Disney’s “Hercules” (1997), its title character voiced by Tate Donovan, the young demigod must become “a true hero” in order to join his brethren on Mount Olympus – and even has time to belt out a few songs.
Movies Hercules would rather forget
•“The Three Stooges Meet Hercules” (1962). So you don’t believe Moe, Larry and Curly Joe time-traveled to ancient Ithaca to help Hercules (Canadian bodybuilder Samuel “Samson” Burke) depose an evil king? Why, I oughta!
•“Hercules Against the Moon Men” (1964). This “Mystery Science Theater 3000” staple actually stars the Italian hero Maciste (Sergio Ciani, aka Alan Steel), dubbed and retitled here to star Herc.
• “Hercules in New York” (1969). Billed as Arnold Strong, a 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first film gets his voice dubbed by another actor.
The incredible Herc
Lou Ferrigno: In between “The Incredible Hulk” TV series and TV movies, the two-time Mr. Universe starred in the 1983 Italian picture “Hercules” and its 1985 sequel, “The Adventures of Hercules.”
Sorbo, sweet chariot
“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” (syndicated 1995 to 1999) – A Hercules for the millennial generation, the hero as portrayed by Kevin Sorbo was lean ’n’ green, not a bacchanalian bodybuilder, and as concerned about social equality and the preservation of Mother Earth as he was about protecting villagers from monsters and capricious gods.