December 9, 2012

Legendary Blogging #1: "Hercules and the Amazon Women"


As part of my continuing reviews of science fiction and fantasy television, I figured I may as well jot down some notes about Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This syndicated drama originated as a series of TV movies, which I've been re-watching lately.

On the eve of his friend Iolaus’ wedding, both Hercules and Iolaus embark on a quest to rescue a distant town from a horde of ravenous beasts – only to find that the townsfolk haven’t been entirely honest with them. Before long Hercules is prisoner of the Amazons, and their leader Hippolyta.

First broadcast in April 1994, Hercules and the Amazon Women was a made-for-television movie starring Kevin Sorbo as the titular Hercules. It formed part of “the Action Pack”, a package of TV movies produced by Universal Pictures and sold into syndication.  Hercules was one of several franchises launched as part of Universal’s package. Other films included William Shatner’s Tekwar and spin-offs of the films Smokey and the Bandit and Midnight Run.
Kevin Sorbo is a naturally charismatic lead actor, and his casting as Hercules came after a lengthy period of almost getting cast in US television. He lost out to David Duchovny to play Fox Mulder, and to Dean Cain to play Clark Kent, and even to David Caruso on NYPD Blue. Hercules may not have been as strong a gig as The X Files or NYPD Blue, but it’s one Sorbo plays extremely well. He has a naturalistic, laconic style that smooths over a lot of the more clichéd and stereotypical elements in the film.

Michael Hurst is an excellent foil for Hercules as Iolaus. He has a much smaller build than Sorbo, which gives a good visual contrast. He presents an appealing bravado, again in contrast to Hercules. Both Hurst and Sorbo share a good chemistry which pretty much carries the first half of the story.

Anthony Quinn makes for an unusual Zeus: clean-shaven rather than bearded, and old and frail rather than muscular and godlike. He’s unexpected, but also Greek, which I suppose makes him more authentic a Zeus than Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson. (EDIT: Okay so it turns out I've been wrong all my life and Quinn is Mexican. Go figure. Not even this bit's authentic.) It’s little more than a flashy cameo for Quinn, basically to give the film a little star power and publicity.

While the lead cast give the film a broad appeal, the actual plot is harder to digest. There’s a nasty misogynist edge to the film. It deals in awful clichés of women and power, and patriarchal depictions of matriarchal culture. The misogyny extends to the characters as well: ‘This is what happens when you give a woman too much power,’ Hercules sneers at one point. At another, Hercules’ mother forces Iolaus out of the kitchen because men apparently aren’t allowed there. It could be argued that some of the attitudes are accurate to a historical period, but when the rest of the film plays so fast, loose and vague with history it isn’t an argument that holds water. I also refer you to Tansy Rayner Roberts' very excellent article on this very subject. This TV movie was produced in 1994, and I expected a better treatment of female characters than this – something audiences would soon get with spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess. This film, however, plays out like a 1950s Battle of the Sexes. The day is won by male rational plotting, which overcomes silly female emotions – or something along those lines. By the end it’s hard to pay attention.

Roma Downey is a surprising Hippolyta, mainly because I identify her so strongly with the dreadful Touched by an Angel. She’s functional here without being particularly interesting. A bigger impact is made by Lucy Lawless as Hippolyta’s lieutenant Lysia. It’s a small role, but one that she makes the most of with a tremendous intensity. Lawless’ efforts pay off down the line, of course, when she gets cast as Xena, Warrior Princess.

Hercules and the Amazon Women shows promise in terms of character and humour, but fails utterly in terms of actual content. It’s not an auspicious opening to Hercules’ adventures, but there is enough here to make me want to watch the next film in the series.

4 comments:

  1. I am ridiculously excited about you reviewing these. I have been half thinking about going back to them all after my Xenathon but I don't think that's going to be any time soon.

    The TV movies are mostly awful but redeemed in my eyes because of things like the cast choices and their role in the history of the shows. It's just plain fun to see Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor etc. in other roles.

    But Hercules had a pretty steep improvement curve over the first two season proper. & there are enough continuity problems (particularly with Iolaus) that I sometimes think of the movies as being like something akin to the Peter Cushing movies for Doctor Who. Or five very long pilots...

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  2. I loved the TV movies when I was a student. They're so wonderfully cheesy.

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  3. Drive-by pedantry: Zorba notwithstanding, Anthony Quinn was actually Mexican.

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  4. Really? I had no idea. I always thought he was Greek because of all the Greek characters he kept playing.

    I'm distraught.

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