Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Beware of Greeks

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Beware of Greeks

Xena and Hercules

If you were watching TV in the late ‘90s, it was pretty hard to avoid Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules series and its spinoffs, even if you wanted to. Despite its modest budget, unambitious stories, and mostly indifferent acting, this likable family-friendly series nonetheless found an audience devoted enough to sustain it through six TV seasons.

There was clearly a hunger for solid fantasy adventures, and Hercules fed that demand. In fact, the Herc series revealed so much demand for fantasy that to meet it, it generated the vastly superior Xena: Warrior Princess show, which is so good that we can forgive the much weaker Hercules show almost anything. Ki-yi-yi-yi-yi!

Hercules 1: Hercules and the Amazon Women

Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1994
Director: Bill L. Norton
Source: Universal DVD

This is the first of the five 1994 TV movies that would lead into the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series the following year. Set in a mythic time of non-specific ancient Mediterranean cultures, it features Kevin Sorbo as a genial and easy-going Hercules, with Michael Hurst as Iolaus, his genial and easy-going archer sidekick.

It starts out pretty low-key, with Herc arriving at Iolaus’ generic ancient market town for his friend’s wedding, and as they head out to visit Herc’s mother and Iolaus’ fiancée, they could be any two surfer dudes going to a bachelor party. They do have to fight a random Lernaean hydra that Herc’s evil stepmother Hera puts in their path, but they make such short work of it that Herc barely breaks a sweat.

At his mother’s house Herc’s father Zeus (Anthony Quinn) pops in for a good-natured leer at Herc’s still-lovely mother, and it’s sobering to compare the strutting alpha-male villain Quinn played in Ulysses (1954) with the aging roué he plays here, not so much the father of the gods as their tired grandpa. But he never tires of sleeping with mortals — that’s the one thing Zeus can’t get enough of.

Herc learns of a village threatened by “monsters” from a man who escaped the place and in no time he’s off on a quest to save it, with Iolaus in tow, wedding or no wedding. Soon Hercules learns the truth: the village is inhabited entirely by men and boys, and the monsters are Amazons, warriors from a parallel village of women and girls who have been taught by Hera to hate and fear all men. Films about Amazons always deal with two themes: the problem of endemic sexism in the ancient (and by extension, the modern) world, and the ever-popular male fantasy of domineering women who insist that you have sex with them. Despite the obvious thematic contradiction, this film (as usual) offers the viewer both.

As Hercules, Sorbo is pleasant and large, but seems to lack any other attributes that would suit him to the role. In fact, except for Queen Hippolyta (Roma Downey), who is determinedly fierce, none of the cast are working very hard here. (Lucy Lawless, the future Xena, has a bit part as the queen’s commander Lysia, but it’s too brief to make much of an impression.)

The direction and production values are mediocre, but surprisingly what this film does have going for it is a solid story; the writers are earnest about offering a solution for the male/female conflict, but just as Hercules is moving the game toward a non-violent conclusion, Hera sweeps the pieces off the table, fighting breaks out, people are killed, and the amiable demigod is in a heck of a fix. Where can the son of Zeus turn to straighten things out without breaking necks? You’ve probably figured that out already.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Season 1

Rating: ** / ***
Origin: USA, 1995
Director: Bruce Seth Green, et al.
Source: Universal DVDs

This regular series picks up where the five 1994 TV movies left off — and then immediately changes gears, as the previously established family of Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) is brutally burned to death by the goddess Hera, freeing up Herc to become a traveling hero opposing the evil works of Hera, Ares, and the other gods who use mortals as tools.

The first episode, “The Wrong Path,” seems to point toward darker and more violent stories, with much improved fight direction by Peter Bell. But from the second episode on the tone changes again, with Herc portrayed as a genial good guy who would rather persuade everyone to settle their problems without fighting — once he defeats the mythical monster of the week, of course.

There’s usually also a babe of the week, a female guest star who nearly gets Herc interested in romance, and a comic sidekick of the week, some insufferable twit plying a weak recurring joke whom Herc must repeatedly save from the monster of the week and his own folly. The most tedious of these comic sidekicks is a greedy Greek trader, Salmoneus (Robert Trebor) — so naturally he’s the one who becomes almost a regular. On top of that you have to swallow stories clotted with an After School Special level of platitudes about peace and tolerance. Gah.

This first season is abbreviated, only 13 episodes, and the first 8 are worth watching only for WETA Workshop’s low-budget but imaginative critter antagonists. Then suddenly, shockingly, with episode 9, Hercules’ Journeys gets, well, pretty good.

What’s behind this change for the better? Two things, really. First, the stories switch from morality fables about gods and monsters to tales about real people being terrible to each other, which gives them a depth and significance that was lacking before. Second, episode 9 introduces Lucy Lawless as the warrior leader Xena, and Lawless simply has more charisma and screen presence than the rest of the cast combined, Sorbo included.

Xena is first portrayed as a straight-up villain who seduces Herc’s best friend Iolaus (Michael Hurst) and turns him against the big guy, but though she fails she escapes at the end, returning in the last two episodes for a fairly convincing redemption arc and change of heart.

Of course, this change is all about setting up the subsequent Xena: Warrior Princess spin-off series, but if it gives us Herc episodes that are actually worth watching, who can complain? Besides the Xena stories (9, 12, and 13), episode 10, “Gladiator,” is also worth your time, once again because it’s all about people instead of monsters.

Admittedly, everything in it, situation, plot, and characters, is recycled from early-‘60s gladiator movies, but it enthusiastically embraces those tropes, successfully introducing them to a new generation of viewers. (By the way, skip episode 11, “The Vanishing Dead,” a throwback to the earlier episodes that’s mainly notable for containing the worst acting in the entire first season, which is one really low bar to limbo under.)

Xena: Warrior Princess, Season 1

Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1995
Director: T.J. Scott, et al.
Source: Universal DVDs

Xena is a spin-off from the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series that quickly surpassed Hercules in both quality and popularity. Though set in the same vaguely Greek ancient fantasy world as Hercules, with character crossovers from that series, Xena has both more edge and more humanity to it, and the result is that its stories are richer and more engaging.

A lot of this is down to the depth of the protagonist characters, Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). Unlike Kevin Sorbo’s bland boy scout portrayal of Hercules, Xena is capable of doing terrible things, and moreover, she’s done them, and now fights to atone for her former sins. The good-hearted bard and storyteller Gabrielle is the badass Xena’s polar opposite, an ideal foil for the ever-simmering warrior princess, and a restraint when Xena is on the verge of going too far, a regular occurrence.

However, don’t expect much in the way of compelling performances from the rest of the cast, as they’re mostly meh at best. The stories pretty much fall into two categories: one of the gods is messing with some mortals, or some mortals are messing with other mortals — usually in a brewing conflict between two well-meaning but misguided factions, with trouble fomented by an obvious villain who must be exposed or whacked upside the head. These mortals vs. mortals stories are nearly always better than the godly episodes because they’re about people instead of low-budget SFX. There are often romantic subplots involving Xena or Gabrielle or both, but they’re not always as successful or convincing. Xena’s intermittent love affair with Hercules is particularly tepid, as Sorbo just doesn’t seem interested.

The series is entirely shot in New Zealand and the scenery is splendid, which helps make up for the often cheap costumes and second-rate sets. The bandits and raiders have a distinctly Mad Max vibe to them, and Ancient Greekness is pretty thin on the ground. The combat, choreographed by Peter Bell, owes more to the exaggerated wuxia kung fu of Jet Li than to European historical swordplay — and that’s fine. Super warriors need super abilities.

In addition to the threat-of-the-week, there’s a definite continuity to the season’s stories as the characters and their relationships develop. There are also recurring characters who, like the weekly sidekicks in Hercules, are sometimes more tedious than humorous, excepting the occasional fun guest role like that of Autolycus (Bruce Campbell), the self-proclaimed King of Thieves.

There are 24 episodes in the first season, and only a few of them are stinkers. If you just want to browse the high points, watch “Sins of the Past,” the premiere episode, “A Fistful of Dinars” (#14), a classic treasure hunt, and then jump to episodes 22 and 23, which back-to-back make a sort of origin story for Xena. However, by far the best episode of the season is the last, “Is There a Doctor in the House?”, which deals forthrightly with the horrific repercussions of death and grievous injury caused by warfare conducted with edged weaponry. It’s outstanding.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

The Barbarian Boom, Part 7
Avenging Women
Mondo Mifune
Near Misses in the Near East
Zatoichi at Large
Invitation to a Keelhauling
Sequel Debacle
Deuces Wild

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is busily promoting the Cinema of Swords compilation from Applause Books that was born right here at Black Gate! The volume out now covers swordplay movies up through the ‘80s, but Ellsworth is continuing with new material for a Volume Two and is now working his way up through the 1990s. These later reviews are being published weekly on his new Cinema of Swords Substack blog, at cinemaofswords.substack.com

Meanwhile, Ellsworth soldiers on in his mega-project of editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the sixth volume, Court of Daggers, is available now as an ebook or trade paperback from Amazon, while the seventh, Devil’s Dance, is being published in weekly installments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

(Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, and is Principal Narrative Designer for the Dungeons & Dragons videogame Baldur’s Gate 3.)

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Joe H.

I admit that when these were first airing, they never quite grabbed me. Still, someday I need to start watching Xena, at least.

Eugene R.

My favorite episodes of either Xena or Hercules were the “goofy” ones, where they went off into musicals or broke the 4th wall or moved the characters into modern-day circumstances. Kevin Sorbo playing Hercules playing “Kevin Sorbo” in a series called Hercules was meta enough to make me cheer. And it did not hurt to have Bruce Campbell playing “Sam Raimi” (the actual series producer). Although, in the regular series, I did love the episodes with Callisto (Heidi Hudson Leick) who was a wonderful nemesis/replacement for Xena.

Last edited 8 months ago by Eugene R.

I recently had a random urge to watch something like Hercules/Xena — a sword and sorcery-esque show set in the ancient world with gods, monsters, etc. I don’t know why this genre isn’t more popular in books, films, and TV. I wish there was more out there, especially since it doesn’t look like these shows are currently on any streaming service.

Arthur Drake

I remember these from when I was younger. Meant to get around to watching them. I remember them being cheesy but enjoying the setting. Wish there was more like it.

John E. Boyle

Cheesy, yes, but both series are well worth at least one look if only because of the gorgeous women.

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