Some of the same elements appear in this story as in the Samson saga in the Book of Judges. Samson’s birth was foretold by an angel of the Lord, and the boy was to never have strong drink, or eat anything unclean, or cut his hair because he was born to be his country’s deliverer. Hercules’ birth was also supposed to contain divine participation: the union of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene (no, we aren’t going to compare that to the birth of Jesus). And Hercules, as well, became the mighty warrior capable of delivering his country from oppression. The trouble is, in this film, he first gets it wrong about who’s doing the oppressing.
But Samson gets it wrong a couple of times himself: in the curious story of the riddle involving the lion he killed after the bees made honey in the carcass, and, of course, in his infamous misjudgment about Delilah, his would-be girlfriend who betrays him to his enemies.
Hercules, also, is known for majestic feats of strength, one also involving a lion. And in this film, Hercules is played by Dwayne Johnson, who does, in fact, look strong enough to tear open the mouth of a lion with his bare hands. Fortunately for the conduct of this toga-and-sandals epic, Dwayne Johnson is a better, more experienced actor than most any other muscle-bound screen hero you can name (though admittedly, this does not exactly put him in the company of thespian immortals).
Nor is he exactly immortal in this film. He has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when the bard sings of his legendary Twelve Labors, a look duplicated by my attorney friend who sometimes comments upon returning from trial work that he feels like the Philistines before Samson: slain by the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:15). Samson, of course, also managed to escape imprisonment at the hands of the Philistines; our Hercules also escapes imprisonment at the hands of his tormentors and even manages, at the end, Samson-like, to pull down the pillars of the temple to slaughter great numbers of his enemies at once.
The main difference, of course, is that this Hercules doesn’t have the “Achilles heel” of the short haircut. Here, he not only manages to survive the final confrontation with his enemies, but even watch them bow in obeisance to him after their evil ruler is killed.
The other difference is that Samson is such a loner, while here, Hercules has a band of soldier-warriors who watch his back and look with bemusement on all this talk about being a demigod. They figure it’s good publicity to strike fear in the hearts of their rivals. Well, that’s not exactly how the Greek mythology goes, but this “Hercules” is more approachable than that. He even can show some tenderness toward women and children, but we really don’t have time for romance in this film. We’re too busy slaying piles of hapless heathens.
No, it’s not great cinematic art. But it is a 3-D extravaganza of “action” scenes, lightly dusted with dialogue and seasoned with just a faint whiff of irony. For the die-hard testosterone film junkie, it could be a lot worse.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.