Today I’d like to talk about a crappy movie I just saw, but before I do, I want to share a little bit more about a recent flap over Nazis and fringe history.
Nazis in South America
As you will undoubtedly recall, a little while back Hans Griffhorn and Warren Church got mad at me for suggesting that Griffhorn’s claim that elite Carthaginians escaped the destruction of their civilization at the hands of Rome and escaped to South America, where they occupied a remote village and interbred with the Natives, was structurally similar to longstanding conspiracies about Nazis escaping the destruction of their empire at the hands of the Allies and escaping to South America, where they occupied a remote village and interbred with the Natives. Making the rounds this week are FBI documents that supposedly document Hitler’s dramatic escape from Germany in the last days of the Reich, supposedly by submarine. (The FBI investigated many such tips in the postwar years.) He allegedly traveled by submarine to Argentina, where he and other leading Nazis retreated to a remote village. A separate account published in Brazil earlier this year also claims that Hitler moved eventually to Brazil where he shacked up with a “black girlfriend.” In short: I told you so.
The Legend of Hercules
This week I watched the recent Greek mythological movie The Legend of Hercules (2014), which lived down to its reputation for unmitigated awfulness. Although it contained a few very expensive CGI scenes obviously designed to be excerpted for the trailer to fool audiences into thinking the film is the second coming of 300, the rest of the film was closer in production value to 1960s sword-and-sandals films—and not the good ones. Except for the two or three set piece scenes, most of the movie looked cheap, like a Syfy original movie with a slightly inflated sense of importance. Even the BBC’s Atlantis looked better most of the time. The movie’s anachronisms—amphitheaters in Mycenaean Sicily?—were outrageous and a big chunk of its plot cribbed from Gladiator, but the mechanics of the story aren’t what interested me.
What interested me is the way the film systematically replaced the actual legend of Hercules (or, more properly, Heracles, since this is supposedly Greek, not Roman, mythology) with anything and everything except Heracles—particularly biblical material. In fact, the impression I got was that this movie was actual a Bible lesson in disguise. I have no problem with making movies about Bible legends, but to corrupt Greek mythology for that purpose bothers me greatly.
I’m not the only one who saw the parallels. At least one Christian movie reviewer saw them, too, though I discovered this only after seeing the film.
In Greek myth, Heracles was conceived when Zeus took the form of his mother’s husband and tricked her into sex (Apollodorus 2.4.8, Ps.-Hesiod, Shield of Heracles 27-56, Diodorus 4.9, Hyginus Fabula 29, etc.). But in the movie, the writer and director have replaced this an invisible (and consensual) coupling with a beam of light seemingly drawn from the conception of Perseus when Zeus bedded Danae when “Zeus had intercourse with her in the shape of a stream of gold which poured through the roof into Danae’s lap” (Apollodorus 2.4.1, trans. J. G. Frazer). But I’m betting that the angelic Hera who proclaims the coming of Zeus to Hercules’ mother and the light that ravishes her are closely modelled on the annunciation of Samson’s birth by the Lord in flaming angelic form (Judges 13:1-24), with an assist from the Annunciation to Mary in the Gospels, from which the theme of the cuckolded husband is in the film inverted from acceptance to anger.
There is some business that confuses the lion of Cithaeron with the Nemean lion, but the whole scene is unlike the Heracles myth, where the hero hunts these lions purposefully. Instead, this lion chances upon them, and Hercules kills him with his bare hands—exactly as happened to Samson when he was en route to be married (Judges 14:5-7). Strikingly, in both narratives the hero pretends that he was not the killer of the lion as he plans his engagement.
In the film, Hercules carries on a love affair with Hebe, here given as the daughter of the king of Crete. In myth, Hebe was the goddess of youth who married Hercules only after his apotheosis (Apolodorus 2.7.7). In mortal life, his wife was Megara, a daughter of the king of Thebes whom he slew in his madness. The marriage to a Cretan king’s daughter appears to have been taken from Theseus’ romance with Ariadne, the daughter of Crete’s King Minos. But the fact that Hercules’ stepfather does not want him to marry Hebe smacks of the Samson narrative again, where the Biblical hero’s own engagement is opposed by his parents (Judges 14:3). Again, where Hebe is the Cretan king’s intended bride for Hercules’ half-brother, this must be parallel to Judges 15:2, where Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife to his companion.
Hercules is made a prisoner and tortured and eventually gets his vengeance on the mercenaries the king had hired to do the deed, just as Samson in Judges 15 takes vengeance on the Philistines who imprisoned him. A late scene in which Hercules wields Zeus’ lightning seems to be inspired (albeit out of context) by Samson’s lighting of the foxes’ tails to devastate the Philistines (Judges 15:3-5).
But all of this pales before the climax of the film, in which Hercules’ evil stepfather and simpering half-brother chain him between two pillars and taunt him like the soldiers taunting Christ. Although the framing of the scene implies that Hercules takes the part of Jesus on the cross—beaten, lashed, and calling out to his father in heaven—the film subverts Jesus’ redemptive acquiescence to his fate and instead draws on Samson again, particularly when in the temple of Dagon the blinded hero calls out to the Lord: “God, strengthen me just once more…” (Judges 16:28). In the film, Zeus gives Hercules strength and he pulls down the pillars, signaling the impending fall of the evil powers. In the Samson narrative, God restores Samson’s strength just before he pulls down the two pillars of the temple of Dagon, ending the royal house and all the Philistine elite.
The parallels between Jesus and Samson on one hand and Samson and Heracles on the other are interesting on their own, but this movie has very little to say about this aspect of Biblical lore.
In short, The Legend of Hercules seems to be a biblical narrative in disguise, Samson dressed in Classical drag. The specific details are simply too close to be coincidental, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the film actually originated in a script about Samson.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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