Greek myths operate on evolutionary themes. First came the primordial gods who emerged out of the chaos of creation. Their offspring were a rebellious lot called the Titans, who fought the old order in a war called the Titanomachy. The next generation, equally contrary, were the Olympian gods, superhuman but all too fallible in the conduct of their affairs. From various abductions and colorful couplings, the next generation of demigods and heroes was produced. Finally, we come to the mortals. They are ourselves in that early time when we were just beginning to reflect on the consequences of our actions. Movie treatments of the earliest Greek mythological themes hang on the stories of the four best-known heroes: Theseus, Perseus, Jason, and Hercules. Here are some highlights of the most successful films about these heroes.
This is as close as Hollywood has come thus far to the depiction of Greek creation myths. A prologue to the film places the action in the surprisingly recent year of 1228 BC. The Trojan War is thought to have been fought in that same century. The background for this film is the mythical battle between the earliest gods, called the Immortals, and the Titans. Time frames and evolutionary themes are condensed here. In the foreground are the Olympian gods and their mortal progeny. Theseus, son of Zeus, is the hero of this tale. He will fight the Minotaur and make love to Phaedra. An epic battle is brewing on all levels of the hierarchy, from immortal to mortal, each one seeking to control the fate of life on earth. Zeus has chosen this time to withhold the intervention of the gods. It becomes a war of good against evil and is a blood spattering ballet. When some of the gods come to the aid of Theseus, an anemic Zeus is angered at their disobedience. Cooler heads counsel Theseus that the gods are only metaphors and need not be heeded. In the end, the young son of Phaedra and Theseus learns the legends of his father and prepares to carry on the legacy. The film advertised itself as “from the producers of 300.” Clearly, it is a familiar formula.
Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete (1960)
There are two movies derived from the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, though neither demonstrates much allegiance to the original sources. In Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete, the characters in the story are at least recognizable. Queen Pasiphae (say Pass-if-fay) reveals to her husband, King Minos, that he has a second daughter, Ariadne (say Ari-ad-knee), who is a twin to Princess Phaedra. This Phaedra is not the adorable partner to Theseus as seen in Immortals, but a covetous and cunning woman who wants her twin, Ariadne, immediately dead. The young prince, Theseus, Hero of Athens, stumbles on an attempt to murder Ariadne by agents of Phaedra and saves her. Already the details differ widely from the ancient prototype. Theseus deposits Ariadne safely at the palace in Athens and sails for Crête to set things right. He falls into more trouble than expected and ends up in the labyrinth where he must face the Minotaur. Ariadne meanwhile has sailed to Crête to offer herself in his place. Theseus will do battle with a fairly ridiculous-looking Minotaur and fall into the arms of his beloved Ariadne. There is no mention of the traditional continuation to the story, where he abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. As it is with most of the myths, there are several conflicting accounts of these events.
The horror film called Minotaur (2006) makes the distortions of the 1960 film look like minor oversights. The monster of the labyrinth is suitably horrific but certainly not half human. There are other movies in which a classic hero faces the Minotaur, and they stray far from the origins of the legend. They can be googled. Search “minotaur movies.”
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Classified as a British-American film, this production sustains the 20th Century casting trend where British actors are used to bring substance to classical roles while American actors are added for quirky humanity and contemporary sex appeal. American actor Harry Hamlin plays Perseus, the hero-founder of Mycenae. Perseus is aided in his preparations for the role of hero by a-down-to-earth Greek playwright, played by American actor, Burgess Meredith. Laurence Olivier plays Zeus, heading a cast of notable British performers as Olympian gods. Zeus had fathered Perseus when he appeared to Danaë as a virile shower of gold. Like other films in this post, this one overlaps the time of the Olympians with the age of the Titans on one hand, and the age of heroes and mortals on the other. Perseus bridges the gap as the son of Zeus and the mortal, Danaë. The dramatic conclusion to the story comes when Perseus must rescue the woman he loves, Andromeda, from the sea monster called the Kraken, last of the Titans.
Because this was early in the time when Zeus had begun to populate the world with illegitimate demigods, he was not yet inclined to refrain from playing with their destinies. Early in the film, there is a scene where Zeus stands over a model of an ancient theater and manipulates clay figurines in the playing area. As he does this, he narrates a scenario in which the earthly characters represented by the figures must do as he directs. Here is the king of the gods contemplating human fate as if it is a puppet show. One day, generations later, he will bestow upon the world the gift of theaters, carved into Greek hillsides, where citizens of a democracy can study their own actions and decide their own destinies. A similar metaphor is employed in Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
There are some who feel that the classical acting style of Olivier and his contemporaries tilted toward too much artificiality, posturing and bravado. But this analysis, I think, fails to appreciate the necessities of the times. The classical acting style owes its origins to the Greeks, who were the first to put on masks and play scripted roles of gods and mortals for the edification of spectators sitting in rows of seats. In the theater, and later in the movies, the audience watches the unfolding dramas of simulated humans in fabricated situations. It is a formula that has served the identification needs of the human race for two and a half millennia. As I write this today, it seems to me that the mainstream Hollywood application of the reflecting mirror has become hackneyed and begins to smell of obsolescence.
The Greeks and their dramatized myths have given the West a baseline from which to measure its progress toward self-awareness. A mere 2500 years ago, human society was governed primarily by the male urge for conflict. Women were relegated largely to supporting roles, or forced into the male arena. Much of our world is still living in that reality. An epic film made in the late 20th century must take account of that foundational era and at the same time provide alternatives for citizens of the new world. The 1981 Clash of the Titans accomplishes this most significantly with the role of Thetis (Maggie Smith), known elsewhere as the mother of Achilles. Here she is mother to the deformed Calibos, who was once a handsome king but is now transformed into a monster by an angry Zeus. In this movie, the gods are still in possession of their magical powers to transform the world, never having to explain.
The 2010 remake of the 1981 movie on the legend of Perseus is framed with the rejection of the gods by mortals and the anger it inspires on Olympus. In this version, the Kracken is released to terrify the mortals back into submission. The 2012 sequel, Wrath of the Titans, finds Zeus in reduced circumstances, humiliated by rival Olympians. Perseus must save his father and set the world on a new course. It is the twilight of the gods. The gravitas of the subject is undermined by an excess of special effects.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
A full account of this film is included here because it follows, in abbreviated form, the outlines of the Argonautica, written by Apollonius of Rhodius of the 3rd century BCE.
No actor made a reputation from this work, but it is a good old-fashioned Greek action movie. A soothsayer prophesies that the infant Jason will one day win back the usurped throne of his father. The usurper kills Jason’s young mother, but the baby is protected by Hera, wife of Zeus. The scene shifts to the palace on Olympus where Zeus and Hera wrangle over the fate of Jason. Jason grows to young manhood and seeks out the usurping king. He learns that if he is to prevail, he must go to the ends of the earth in search of the Golden Fleece, which will give him the power he needs. Hermes transports Jason to Olympus where Zeus and Hera are playing chess with mortal lives. Hera offers her protection and directs him to Colchis (Cole-kiss). Jason resolves to hold a great round of games, out of which he will choose the heroes who will sail with him. First among them is Hercules. Also on the crew are Perseus and Theseus. The gods enjoy the contests from a marble windowsill on Olympus.
After Jason acquires his ship, the Argo, which has a life-like figurehead of Hera watching over it from the stern, the heroes set off on their arduous voyage. The crew is somewhat headstrong, especially Hercules. They put in at an Island of Bronze where they find the Titans frozen as statues. Hercules violates a taboo, and one of the Titans comes semi-alive and smashes the Argo like a toy boat. Hera provides constant but often cryptic guidance. Jason discovers a weak spot in the heel of the metallic Titan. He pulls the plug and the life fluids of the Titan flow into the sand. The ship is rebuilt. Hercules is left behind owing to bad behavior.
They must sail northward and pass through the Clashing Rocks, then east to Colchis. As they sail up the channel, they see another ship destroyed by an avalanche. Jason is disconcerted and renounces the gods, declaring that one day men will learn to live without them. Happily, Hera sends Poseidon to help them make the passage. They find a beautiful woman in the wreckage of the other ship. She is Medea, priestess of the Goddess Hecate (Heh-ca-tay). Jason fights off a mutiny, and then puts ashore at Colchis. Medea takes him to the temple of Hecate, where he must watch her and her sister dancers perform a 50s movie dance number in honor of the Goddess. There is feasting and revelry to welcome the Argonauts to this Asian realm.
Jason is betrayed by one of his crew, and his plan to steal the Fleece is revealed. He is taken prisoner. Medea engineers the escape of the Argonauts and they set out to find the Golden Fleece. Jason gets there alone, and is attacked by the Hydra, a huge multi-headed serpent. He slays the creature with a sword thrust to the heart and claims the Fleece (a large sparkling ram’s pelt with head still attached). The angry high priest arrives and collects the Hydra’s teeth. As the escapees flee to the boat, Medea is shot with an arrow. Jason covers her with the Fleece and she is restored to life. The high priest overtakes them and scatters the dragon teeth before them. Each tooth gives rise to a skeleton warrior. Jason escapes by jumping off a cliff into the sea and is reunited with Medea and the Fleece on the Argo. Zeus and Hera, looking down from above, conclude that the gods have done enough damage for the present, and wish the Argo a good voyage back to Thessaly.
Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for this film and would go on to cap his career with Clash of the Titans in 1981. In these years, he became legendary.
A TV movie called Jason and the Argonauts appeared in the year 2000. It plays very loosely with the traditional elements of the story and adds little to the legend except some updated effects. Hollywood has had its way with these unprotected myths. They have been pulled in every direction and often they are mixed and matched without regard for fidelity.
This is the Italian-made original of the Steve Reeves Hercules movies. Wikipedia gives a good list of the subsequent knock-offs of this movie myth, some of them truly ridiculous. It opens with the fine-looking Hercules encountering an equally fine-looking princess (Sylva Koscina) at the edge of the sea. They move and speak (dubbed) without subtlety, like living statues. A narration by Koscina establishes the plot, which has to do with the stealing of the Golden Fleece in the time of Jason. It all seems too complicated and silly to spend time comparing this material with mythical sources. It is obvious that the filmmakers have used only what they needed, and changed it without compunction, just as popular entertainers did in ancient times. Hercules goes with the princess to the palace and inspires a cult of physical strength and beauty. He wrestles a lion to death, just as Victor Mature did in Samson and Delilah.
Hercules visits an oracle to object to being trapped in the role of a god. “I can’t stand being superior.” He wants to have children and a normal life. The oracle pleads with him to remain immortal, but relents and makes him a man. Hercules thanks Jupiter (this telling is in the Roman tradition). Next he goes off to fight the Cretan Bull. It resembles an American buffalo. As the plot thickens, Hercules teams up with Jason and other heroes to make a sea journey to Colchis in quest of the Golden Fleece. Along the way, they stop for a pastoral idyll among the Amazon Women. They eat and swim and find love, and narrowly escape when they discover that the women mean to take their lives. On a deserted beach, Jason does battle with an amazingly cheesy T-Rex-style dragon. Back at the palace, he runs into some evil politics and does the Samson thing, pulling down a temple onto the heads of attacking soldiers. Hercules and his princess sail off into the sunset to live among the race of mortals.
Steve Reeves made only one more Hercules movie, Hercules Unchained (1959), and then moved on to other roles. Now that the ball was rolling, tales of Hercules created franchise opportunities, necessitating further departures from the original legends. In 1994, five made-for-TV movies appeared, beginning with Hercules and the Amazon Women. Hercules was played by Kevin Sorbo. Two movies appeared in 2014. The Legend of Hercules came first and bombed at the box office. Hercules followed and did better than expected.
Hercules (1997) – Disney
This animated film resides somewhere between travesty of the ancient traditions and lively postmodern irreverence for the past. Here’s a rundown. Think what you will.
It opens with a brief narration by Charlton Heston, which is rudely interrupted by the Muses (a black female group à la The Supremes), who complain that he is making this thing sound like a Greek tragedy. They urge him the “lighten up.” He responds, “You go girl.” They break into a musical treatment of the legend of the age of the Titans and the coming to power of Zeus. The scene shifts to Olympus, towering into the clouds, where Zeus (Rip Torn) and Hera proudly tend a new baby they have named Hercules. The rambunctious boy is given the flying horse, Pegasus, as a playmate (echoes of Fantasia). Hermes, the messenger, is played by Paul Shaffer. Hades (James Woods) plays the disrupter role, coming to Olympus, like Satan visiting Heaven, to view the babe who may be his undoing. It is a virtuoso performance. Back in the Underworld, he plots with two gross-out imps, Pain and Panic, to steal the boy from above and make him mortal. This is done and he is raised by an old farmer, named Amphitryon (Hal Holbrook), and his wife.
Zeus appears to the grown-up Hercules and tells him that he can become a god again if he will perform certain heroic labors. He is sent to find a New Yorkish satyr named Philoctetes, or Phil (Danny DeVito) for training and advice. There is a very brief Afternoon of the Faun sequence with Phil pursuing nymphs who transform to trees and flowers to avoid his attentions.
The first of Hercules’ labors happens spontaneously when he must rescue a damsel named Megara from the rapacious centaur, Nessus. Meg, a totally hip young woman who works for Hades, is a far more sexually aware heroine than we have normally seen in Disney films. She is dripping with irony. The next labor involves the killing of the dragon-like Hydra, with its multiplying heads. Hades is of course directing all of this from a high tech control center. The imps are always in hot water but never at a loss for lowbrow humor; likewise, Phil can be counted on for street corner commentary. After his victory over the Hydra, Hercules is given the hero treatment in something like a Greek theater. There are uncharacteristic elements of Disney self-parody with cynical references to theme parks, and several visual jokes on merchandising the hero. Hercules goes to Olympus to describe to his father the successful completion of many more labors. He is boastful and proud, even announcing, “I’m an action figure!” But Zeus says he is not ready to join the gods. He must look in his heart for the way.
Hades, still fuming, sends Meg to seduce “Herc” so she can win her freedom from the Underworld. The hero is completely smitten with the tough talking broad with a streak of sweetness. Hades appears to Hercules and makes him an offer. The hero will give up his powers for twenty-four hours and Meg will be free. He agrees. Hades unleashes all Hell on Olympus. Hercules is being manhandled by a Titan and cannot defend himself. In the struggle, a column is knocked over on Meg and she is killed. The deal with Hades is cancelled because he said she would not be hurt. His strength restored, Hercules drives Hades back to the Underworld. He demands that Hades bring Meg back to life, and offers his own life in exchange. There is some back and forth, and Hades is tumbled into the pit of death. Hercules brings Meg to Olympus where he is welcomed as a god. He opts to remain mortal and to stay with Meg. His parents give their blessings. The Muses sing, “A Star is Born.”
This film was not appreciated in Greece and it underperformed at the American box office. It received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Song.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
The Percy Jackson franchise held the promise of a refreshing update on Greek myths for young people today, but the movies were disappointing. They are based on the novels by Rick Riordan and directed by Chris Columbus. The primary deficit here is in a too zealous effort to be contemporary: smart aleck or nasty dialogue, an over abundance of special effects, and sexualized situations. It seems contrived and derivative. Several of the actors look like younger versions of Kevin Bacon. There are too many appropriations from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and many others. It opens on top of the Empire State Building with Zeus and Poseidon threatening war against one another. Zeus accuses his brother’s son, Percy (Perseus) of stealing his lightening bolt and demands its return within fourteen days. Meanwhile, Percy is on a junior high field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Pierce Brosnan is leading a tour of the newly opened Greek and Roman collection.
A time portal activates and for the rest of the movie Percy will be thrust back and forth between ancient Olympian encounters and modern settings. He fights the Minotaur. One scene takes place at the “Lotus Casino” in Las Vegas. Later, in an effort to rescue his kidnapped mother, Percy finds the entrance to the realm of Hades in Hollywood, fittingly enough. In the end, Percy meets his nemesis, a young man near his own age who declares that the old gods have ruled for long enough and its time for “our generation” to take control.
Parts of this movie were filmed at the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. It did not do well with the critics and made no significant showing on the awards circuit. It did, however, make a profit, and a sequel appeared in 2013, called Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. In this one, Percy and his friends are on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Along with the Disney Hercules, this is a postmodern romp through the fields of myth, without regard for authenticity or concern for whether the next generation deserves to inherit the earth.
Owing to their special fascination with the dividing line between human and animal, the Greeks imagined all twelve of the primary Olympian gods as superhuman. Unlike the gods of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, not one of them possessed any animal parts unless you count the little wings sometimes seen on the heels of Hermes. The Greeks also imagined a Dreamtime, called Arcadia, populated with various combinations of human and animal denizens. It was sometimes a placid place where satyrs and nymphs, fauns and centaurs lazed by sparkling streams free of clothing. But just as often, it was a place of ungoverned impulse where no nymph could feel safe.
Fantasia (1940) – Disney
This was only the third animated feature film made by Disney. Its a high concept project, which does everything in its power to satisfy popular taste. Each of its eight separate and distinct episodes is a cartoon fantasy set to a piece of classical music. The sixth episode, set to The Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, presents a child’s view of Arcadia. It is terribly cute and the nymphs and satyrs, centaurs and “centaurettes” look like Kewpie dolls suffused in baby pinks and blues. In the original release, there were some depictions of these characters that were considered blatantly racist. They were later removed. The most famous denizen of Arcadia is Pan, but he is not seen here. Much too rough, obscene and controversial, he has never been successfully filmed. The movie called Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is not about Pan at all. There is a related faun in the first of the Disney Narnia movies, but he is an invention of English literature.
For the Trojan War, history and myth, see Movies about the Trojan War.