Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arnold Stang, Deborah Loomis, Ernest Graves
Plot: When Hercules (Schwarzenegger) disobeys his father, Zeus (Graves), he is sent to New York, where he tries to settle into mortal life.
Perhaps buried somewhere in this 1969 mess was the beginnings of a good movie. Maybe. It opens in Olympus where the Greek Gods roam freely and happy. But demi-god, Hercules, is restless, dreaming of visiting the mortal world as his father did many years ago. Zeus, tired of Hercules’ restlessness and disobedience, banishes Hercules to New York (great idea: let’s punish him by giving him exactly what he wants!). The movie then proceeds to be a smattering of sketches where Hercules, incredibly muscular but with no social skills in the slightest, makes a nuisance of himself, getting into fights with sailors who apparently disrespect him, taking on giant bears in the zoo and becoming a professional weight-lifter. The movie wants to be an amusing story about a fish out of water thrust into the world of bickering taxi drivers, romance and mobsters. However, almost every aspect of the making of this movie is so shoddy that it is inevitable that it crumbles in on itself, becoming one of the more known disaster stories in cinematic history.
Let’s start with Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he is the easiest place to start when tearing apart what went wrong with this movie. Much like the titular character, it is hard not to feel sorry about how Arnold is so out of his place in the lead role here. Perhaps, in that aspect, his performance is actually a clever piece of Stanislavski method acting. Arnold, at this time, was 22 and had no acting experience to his name. He was known as Mr. Universe, one of the icons in the bodybuilding industry. His addition in this film is the equivalent to a modern day producer writing up a ‘by-the-numbers’ action, throwing a popular WWE star into the mix and trying to cash in on that popularity. But Arnold was in no way ready for the lead role in a film. We have always mocked his less than ideal acting in some of this other films, his wooden delivery being the curse of his career. However, watching Hercules in New York puts into perspective how much he has grown as a performer since 1969. In his later releases, he uses his thick Austrian accent to his advantage, treating it as a part of the Arnie charm. Much like his bodybuilding ethos, he has learned to use his body as both a weapon and a tool to further his career. There is so such experience to be mined here. Arnie is clearly dumped onto a set, given a few lines to remember (some he probably did not even understand, being in a foreign language), and asked to hold a movie. It simply does not work, Arnie feeling horribly uncomfortable. The entire performance creates a squirming sensation, truly feeling sorry for the poor Austrian trying his hardest to make the lines land (“Food for the gods,” he quips, when offered a pretzel). As with most sportsmen asked to take up acting, you would feel that this film would come alive when it embraced action. Arnie, after all, was a weight-lifting champion and any scene that asks him to do exactly that, should at least land. But the direction is so poor that any time Arnie is asked to use his muscles to make the most out of a scene, it never comes across as heroic as you want it to. He pulls out all the stops, from the embarrassing jiggling of his chest muscles to the light-hearted approach to fending off several men with a wooden plank. You feel like these scenes are meant to be enjoyable, but really they only serve to make you sink that little bit deeper into your sofa, praying that the furniture swallows you up.
But enough about Arnie. The truth is, hardly anyone else dazzles. The supporting cast are just as bad as Arnie, sadly lacking the cult following to save face after this career. Arnold Stang (fun fact: the voice of the original Top Cat), is asked to react with a gormless expression to everything and Deborah Loomis has all the grace of a female lead in a 60s movie about a man with muscles. Her character is hardly scripted too well to begin with, ranging from horrified at this stranger beating up her friends to being irresistibly attracted to him, but you wish a performance could at least be snuck out from underneath the train-crash of a script. The cinematography, on the other hand, is just as hopeless. We are gifted with some truly remarkable pieces of cinema, that sometimes we forget the basics on how to recreate a film. Even the bad films these days know how to work a camera. I cannot say as much for Hercules in New York. Some integral shots are out of focus, Arnie blurred while the wall behind him is in perfect focus. The framing can range from poor to downright appalling. One moment sees Arnie’s head cutting off the guy talking, so no one knows what is going on. It is all obvious stuff and when the filming fails on that simple level, it is hard to take this movie even the slightest bit seriously. On the other hand, when a film is this abysmal, it does have its plus points. I have not laughed this hard at a movie in so long. Genuine, rib-hurting, tears rolling down the face laughter. The moment where I physically lost the power to breathe: when Hercules fights a bear (a man dressed in a black rug), and the bear actually throws a punch. Oh my god! Why the hell do I watch these things?
Final Verdict: Hercules in New York is a cross between the worst thing to ever happen to cinema and the best way to spend a Friday night.