7. Hercules: The Journey Begins, part 2

The movie that followed the first two, "Hercules and the Circle of Fire", gives us another story about sacrifice, combined with another important theme that will be often repeated: mortality. The story is chiefly preoccupied with the Prometheus myth, but its heart comes from chapter 126 of Graves' "Greek Myths". There, we learn that Hercules enticed his centaur host to open an ancient bottle of wine, made by Dionysus himself. Other centaurs grew jealous of it, and attacked them. Hercules fought back, and ended up permanently wounding his old mentor, Cheiron, who was forced to live in eternal pain as a result, since he was immortal. Prometheus, undergoing Zeus's punishment for giving fire to mankind, offered to take his immortality, allowing Cheiron a merciful death. What's interesting about this is that we're told in Weisbrot's book01 that Cheiron is depicted in the film as a satyr, not a centaur, to simplify the costume. I think, rather, that the producers were trying to simplify the explanation for his goat-like appearance, instead, because going back to ch. 126 of the "Greek Myths", we see in Graves' notes this comment: "The presence of Centaurs at Malea derives from a local tradition that Pholus's father Silenus was born there (Pausanisas: iii.25.2); Centaurs were often represented as half goat, rather than half horse." The description of satyrs, along with the appearance of Silenus in this myth, indicates we're back in Dionysus's territory again; specifically, Euripides' "The Cyclops". You'll recall in that play, old Silenus stranded his crew on the cyclops' island because he was searching for young Dionysus kidnapped by pirates, and whom he had tutored as a boy--just as Cheiron was tutor to Hercules! This is another example of splitting a character from the myths, and it occurs several more times with this character, all variations on this story.

Another Dionysiac image is Antaeus, whose tree-like appearance makes him part of the Bacchus pattern we'll see later on; its roots (no pun intended) come from Tapert and Raimi's first movie, "Evil Dead", and its tree monster. This connection with monstrous trees and "Evil Dead" will culminate in the series final, "A Friend In Need", based in part on "A Chinese Ghost Story", which was in turn inspired by "Evil Dead", both of which used tree demons trapping young women. By the way, the "circle of fire" of the title, will also make another appearance, in the final season of "Xena", in the very same episode as one of these "tree monsters".

This brings us to the movie that was originally conceived of as the final installment of the Action Pack: "Hercules in the Underworld". As you might guess, this version of Hercules' trip to underworld, to bring his wife back after she accidentally dies, comes directly from "Black Orpheus", and not the Greek myths. In the actual myth involving his wife, there's no love lost when she dies. Deianeira thinks she's killed Hercules by accident, instead, and kills herself in remorse; Hercules doesn't rescue her--in fact, he was notoriously unfaithful, and about to kill her himself, thinking her gift of a lethal shirt was intentional02. Hercules does make a trip to the underworld as part of his last labor (before he ever met Deianeira), to capture the three-headed dog, Cerebus. This is the revealing point in our search for the series' structure: this film was to be followed by the tv series, opening with the murder of Hercules' wife and children. In the myths, he murders them himself, in a fit of divinely-inspired madness, but he does so before the labors--that's why he performed them, to atone for his madness. We'll see later why this was likely done, but for now, all we need to know is where the idea of putting the labors first came from: Euripides' play, "Herakles", in which Hercules begins his journeys as a way of atoning for killing his family on return from his capture of Cerberus. This is an important connection between the final, fourth film and the beginning of the tv series, because it defines his character, and later on, the character of Xena.

In terms of defining future characters, however, we should not forget an interesting line that occurs twice in this film; the first time, it's delivered by a woman offering water to a warlord who can't talk, the second, by Hercules as he subdues Cerberus (a different type of brute), learning from the previous example an important lesson about making peace with your enemies: "Remember that sometimes a little kindness does the trick." The way it's dramatized is clearly reprised later on in "The Price", in season two of "Xena", and it's used to illustrate Gabrielle's solution to violence when confronted with the seemingly incoherent rage of her "barbaric" enemies. This will be one of many examples of how ideas that shaped "Xena" actually originated on "Hercules".

But something happened during the making of these four movies: one of the other filmmakers in Universal's Action Pack rotation fell short, and so Raimi and Tapert needed to supply one more Hercules movie before they could make the transition to the series. That would seem to throw off their plan to base their structure on Euripides' play, spoiling the segue by inserting another movie in between--but it didn't spoil it, because what they clearly did was make the fifth movie an intermediate step between the two, borrowing elements from both the last labor, and the madness of "Herakles".

"Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur" is often thought of as the first "clip show" of the series; in other words, it contains a good number of flashbacks within a shorter story to allow the producers to make a full-length film at a fraction of the cost. It also helps bring late-arrivals in the audience up to speed on the story so far. This is the least significant element of this movie, however. The new footage contains quite a lot of valuable foreshadowing. Again, it helps to compare to the original myths. The Minotaur is actually a story from the Theseus myth, but it's not an outright borrowing, because one of Hercules' labors was derived from an older tradition that also gave rise to the myth of the Minotaur. Hercules' seventh labor, killing the Cretan Bull, evolved from an old Dionysiac ritual involving a would-be king's combat with a man dressed as a bull (the bull symbolic of Dionysus)03. In the story of Theseus, the Minotaur lives in a labyrinth on the king's royal grounds; he's half-brother to Ariadne, whom Theseus kills the Minotaur for. Originally, though, the Minotaur was actually Dionysus in his bull form, and the rightful husband of Ariadne04.

What is the significance of combining these two myths? It has to do with the first episode of the "Hercules" series. It's based on the myth of Hercules killing his family in a fit of madness, but as mentioned before, it uses Euripides' version. That's important, because the character that figures heavily in Euripides' "Herakles" is Theseus, the loyal friend whom Hercules rescued from Tartarus along with Cerberus, and who in turn stands by him in his darkest hour. Just as that episode removes Theseus from the story (for reasons we'll discover later), "Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur" also removes Theseus, replacing him with Hercules. But a number of elements from "Herakles" can be found here: Hercules discovers the murdered victims of the Minotaur, and is mistaken by villagers as the perpetrator, since he's brandishing the murder weapon. They call him a butcher and chase him down, but at the last minute, his sidekick Iolaus is sucked underground. This is similar to a scene in the previous movie, where the actor who played Iolaus is sucked underground, to Tartarus. Here, he's taken down into the Minotaur's lair, where he, and other villagers, are placed in slimy egg-shaped cocoons. When "hatched" again, they'll serve the Minotaur as zombies ("Evil Dead"!) in his army to overthrow Olympus. We'll see these cocoons later, in season three of "Xena", when another Dionysiac villain also gathers an army to overthrow Olympus.

So, connecting the dots, we have a friend going to this film's equivalent of Tartarus, Hercules being identified as a murderer, then rescuing his friend from "Tartarus" (actually, the Minotaur's maze); all these elements, from both films, can be found in "Herakles". But they'll be missing in the episode that's actually based on "Herakles"! They're not wasted, though; they're kept close by, used here and elsewhere in a way that ties them all together.

Another element that connects these films with "Herakles" is Dionysus: The Minotaur himself is a Dionysiac figure: his bull-aspect compares him to the bacchic transformation that Dionysus undergoes in "The Bacchae". In this film, we learn from Zeus that the Minotaur is half-god, like Dionysus and Hercules, and that he shares a similar background to The Stranger from "The Bacchae", according to Zeus: "As a man, more handsome than Adonis. He had a lot of followers, tried to turn them against the gods, then against each other, Anyone who resisted, he murdered." The Minotaur's agenda is similar to the Dionysiac villain who hatches servants from cocoons in the third season of "Xena", but his bull-like transformation also recalls Hercules' own in "Herakles": when he murders his family, he transforms into a bacchic madman, as described by witnesses. The purpose of Hera making Hercules kill his own family is to destroy his reputation, and thereby neutralize his influence with mankind. We see this in "Maze of the Minotaur", when the villagers turn on Hercules, which the Minotaur has set in motion: he takes the place of Hera in this film, since he's also envious of this hero, his half-brother, and wishes to hurt his father by killing his favorite son. The Minotaur was cursed by Zeus, because of his evil deeds, and as a result, Zeus punished him: "I made him as ugly as his heart." Like the previous movie, this film also contains a revealing line, the last words of the Minotaur: "Please don't let me die this way." In the face of unalterable events, he wants to define his death, a motif that will play a big role in "Xena"; Sam Raimi would use it again on for his second Spiderman movie, when the villain Doc. Ock declares "I will not die a monster." Zeus shows pity on the Minotaur, and restores his beauty in death. This relationship between a parent and monstrous child will play a crucial role when this film's story of a Dionysiac villain overthrowing Olympus is reprised on "Xena," and elsewhere, but it begins here!

The final scene has Iolaus and Hercules returning from the maze (the symbolic Tartarus of this film), greeting his wife and children, and planning on retiring from the hero business to spend more time with his family. But the subtext is quite bittersweet, since this last scene is actually the first scene of Euripides' "Herakles"! Let's now take a look at the first season of "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys", which will develop these themes, and halfway through the season, find their completion with the arrival of guest star Xena, the Warrior Princess.



01Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, by Rob Weisbrot, p. 34
02The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, ch. 145
03The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, ch. 129, note 1
04The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, ch. 98, note 6
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