Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Kevin Sorbo = Hercules “Herc”
Michael Hurst = Iolaus
Ares = Kevin Smith
Autolycus = Bruce Campbell
Salmoneus = Robert Trebor
Zeus (Roy Dotrice, Peter Vere-Jones, Charles Keating, & Anthony Quinn)
Created by: Christian Williams
Producers/Directors: Robert Tapert, Sam Raimi, & Bernadette Joyce
Part 1 – Hercules: The Legacy
“All men think they’re fascinating- in my case, it’s justified.” -Autolycus
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is a joyous tragedy in that, it is brilliant, comedic, action-packed and an essential one-of-a-kind production that is only tragic in that it can never be repeated.
What is it about this show that is so damn engaging?
In a look back like this, Hercules is not going to be winning any awards for special effects–boulders look like styrofoam and when facing giants, it’s akin to the precursor, Jason & the Argonauts. Acting-wise, the show fluctuates drastically, from over-the-top performances, to hams, to genuine moments of uncompromising clarity. So, what sticks out; what makes it survive the throes television programs?
At the end of the day, it’s simple: it’s fun!
Everyone on this show is having a damn good time–and they’re not afraid to show it. Several times, throughout the show’s run (Yes, Virgina, There is a Hercules & For Those of You Just Joining Us), they’ll place episodes in modern day, with Bruce Campbell playing director/producer Robert Tapert, and the rest of the cast playing stereotypical, inept Hollywood producers & divas, and Kevin Sorbo playing… well, Hercules pretending to be Kevin Sorbo.
There is no doubt in my mind that, had these type of episodes been pitched “today,” they would’ve been laughed out of the studio’s office. But the fact is they were allowed to take risks, to play with the Greek mythos (Aphrodite windsurfing on the clam shell), and make something genuinely heartwarming. You have fun watching the show.
Part 2 – No Map, No Politics, No Problem.
“These chains were forged by Odin himself. No god of Asgard can break them.”
“Well, looks like a half-god from Greece can.” -Thor/Hercules
One of the brilliant aspects of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (HTLJ), is that it was filmed on location with real sets and astoundingly well-crafted costumes. What this does is establish continuity in clothing, craftsmanship, and villages.
There are no episodes that feel out of place. You’re in New Zealand the whole way through and costumes all have a theme to them. Additionally, the sets are real and likely rearranged for different episodes. While this is done to conserve expenses, it is also what makes this show feel right. Every set has the same pieces and therefore fits thematically.
Because Hercules and Iolaus travel the globe, this grounds technology’s limits with what people can make. This is necessary because throwing in a new set piece could be the only distinction between one town and another. It also helps the audience to feel as though they’re in familiar territory as they see the same towns again and again–even though they’re supposed to be different. This familiarity is critical because distance becomes irrelevant.
Basically, episodes can travel from village to volcano, from village to snowy alps, from village to desert and characters can arrive in the nick of time to save the day without it feeling contrived.
The other, significant advantage of the time period is not having any rules. No one ruler is in charge of everyone, so this allows stories to play with monotheism, polytheism, dictators, monarchs, democracy, piracy, etc. This can easily change from village to village and it doesn’t feel out of place because it’s a sign of the times.
Part 3 – The Story
“Herc, have you ever been wrong?”
“I thought so once, but I was wrong.”
The story of Hercules follows the actual myths pretty well in that, despite the less catchy name, Heracles, he is the bastard son of Zeus. Hera despises Herc and tries to kill him, serving as the main antagonist. This makes Herc hate his father for cheating on Hera and cheating on Hercules’ own mother. Hercules blames Zeus for his living situation and, being that Zeus is in charge of all the gods, Herc takes it upon himself to teach people that they don’t need gods, they need actual role models–the gods are more flawed than the people they demand respect from.
Now Zeus is the focal point of the first season of Hercules, but that’s also because the first season is a series of films that were then syndicated into a television show. I’m not gonna lie, the films aren’t great, but I have the utmost respect for them because it gave birth to the series. Each season has a pretty strong character arc for Hercules that happens either in the beginning, middle, or end.
The second season begins where the last film ended. Herc is married with three kids–so he’s gotta be in his 30s. But in all likelihood, they married Herc off with three kids because that was to be the last movie… when it became a television series, they knew it’d be hard to maintain those relationships if Hercules was to be a nomad. So Season 2 begins with Hera burning his family alive. Hercules kind of dates along the way, but really doesn’t stick with anything because he’s a broken man.
Season 3 features the resolution to Season 2’s character arc, where Hercules meets the Golden Hind. He falls in love, and get this, feels guilty for loving someone else, so he travels to Tartarus to see his dead wife to ask permission to marry someone else. The result is he cannot visit his ex or the kids anymore, but he resolves that they’re in good hands and he cannot continue living in the past. He marries the Hind (Kevin Sorbo’s real life, wife, Sam Jenkins), but she’s killed, so he makes a deal with Hades to resurrect her, but he can take their love; in short, it’s as if they never met.
Season 4 involves Herc becoming a full-blown god (complete with new duds: see pic) and he lives the lifestyle for a bit but eventually vanquishes Hera and eliminates his godhood to serve on Earth.
Season 5 has the final death (he dies a lot) of Iolaus and Herc becomes lost and broken. He must relearn the strength of the hero to overcome his grief–and he gets super speed for a bit.
Now season 6 was only 8 episodes, which perhaps amounts to the movies from season 1, but it deserves mention because the creators must’ve known all along how the series would end. The final episode, Full Circle, is the myth almost everyone is aware of, when Hercules switches places with Atlas–the Titan who holds the world up. I won’t give away their interpretation of this myth–which is certainly original–but rather talk about why it succeeds in wrapping up the show.
Hercules and Iolaus (did I mention he comes back?) have a typical adventure involving Ares and the Titans, but running parallel to this is Zeus and Hera rekindling their love through their nephew. The nephew, Evander, learns that all things must die or come to an end, which is a fitting message to sign off with. Hera comes to terms with Herc, seeing as their fighting never gets them anywhere, and Hercules approves of his father–for the first time in a long time. These were two points that needed to be reconciled in the series and they do so.
When Ares is foiled (yet again), Herc and Iolaus mock his “revenge” before he gets a chance to, so he wanders off pouting. However, Iolaus recalls a line Hercules uttered when their battle began, “After this, I’m done,” to which Iolaus asks, “Were you serious about retirement?”
To which Herc surprisingly affirms this and together they squat on some rocks for about 30 seconds (running time) only to get up saying, “That’s about enough of retirement.” And the two walk off into the sunset (cowboy style), ready for more.
What makes this ending so fitting is it reimagines the quintessential Hercules story while still purporting that there are more adventures and stories to be told. The jokey ending wraps up the whole series’ light-heartedness and makes it feel like we (the audience) are leaving, not Herc and Iolaus. And this is how you end a series, with grace, respect, and a nod to the audience that kept it alive. We imagine the next tale(s); we’ve been the listener for long enough, and it’s time to take it up as bards.
Part 4 – Kevin Sorbo: The Legendary Hercules
“I can’t believe you have these mortals convinced that you’re this Kevin Sorbo character.” -Ares
I cannot sing enough praises of Kevin Sorbo. While the whole cast and crew play a part, the real reason there will never be another show quite like Hercules is due to Sorbo. He is Hercules.
It’s not just in his 80s rock god locks, his deep blue eyes, or dark-haired/skinned manliness, but Sorbo’s very voice is iconic (see God of War III). Even when Hercules is ill-tempered or depressed, Sorbo masterfully plays the half-god/half-man in a way that makes sense. Hercules is naturally calm, but while he does fall victim to human foibles, he never loses clarity. He is always clear-headed, so he talks and works through his problems.
Hercules is the rock–the anchor–of the show, and we are never against him because he is wholly good. His biggest flaw is his trusting nature. This is where all conflicts arise, when he trusts in villains who don’t seek redemption, but rather, his confidence so that they’ll find an opening or weak spot. This is brilliant as it leads to internal conflict: person vs. self.
Person vs. Person won’t do as Hercules is unmatched–it wouldn’t be tension filled and the producers know this. This is why all the fights are relatively light-hearted with very comic–almost cartoony–fight scenes. It’s a joke that anyone attempts to stand up against Hercules.
A battle against Hercules is no match, so all the Person vs. Person conflicts are converted to Person vs. Self, when Herc trusts people he shouldn’t. This is a formula that works exceedingly well and it’s the best way to do a super-human (super-hero) genre.
The fact that most problems are Person vs. Self is only a deeper reflection of Hercules’ nature. He is half-god and half-man. The gods do as they please, seeing humans as toys and Herc hates them for it. And humans are too misguided by gods to be good and Herc seldom wins over people (initially) because he’s not a god.
Herc wants people to be self-reliant and think for themselves, so he stands as a medium. However, if he is to practice what he preaches, then he too needs to trust in people who would seem altogether otherwise incompetent or incapable–this is most apparent in two recurring side-kicks: Salmoneus and Autolycus.
Salmoneus is always out to make a buck, so he swindles people out of their money, this is a perfect reflection of Hercules’ over-trusting nature. Salmoneus’ taking advantage of peoples’ trust is what Hercules doesn’t want for people or else they will never learn to work together and trust in others. Herc’s ongoing devotion to change Salmoneus’ ways is all the more meaningful in this regard.
Similarly, Autolycus steals from people and is the most egotistical human ever presented. However, as Bruce Campbell is so apt at playing, this is what makes him an every man. We all think we’re the greatest at “something,” Getting Autolycus to share and confide in others is always a struggle and he’ll never admit to needing help, but he does and we’re proud when he makes progress.
So where does this place Iolaus, essentially the co-star and firmly established, long-time side-kick? Iolaus is a perfect mirror of Hercules in his entirety.
Iolaus knows he’s a talented fighter–likely second only to Hercules. His strength and skills rival most, if not all, humans. Indeed, Iolaus has even challenged the gods as Hercules does… but there’s always a feeling of futility.
Iolaus is not Hercules, and it is not always ego that gets him down, but the feeling that he can’t get any better. Hercules, being half-god, shares in this futility since he cannot defeat the gods and despite his gifts, there are still hundreds upon thousands of people that have life lessons to learn. There is always an ongoing feeling of futility.
However, Iolaus often overcomes this feeling with Hercules’ words of wisdom: becoming comfortable in one’s own skin and being proud of what you do accomplish, is all the gratification necessary. It is that eternal mantra of “if I can change just one person’s life… then it’s all worth while.”
With that said, let’s talk about Kevin Sorbo.
Sorbo is a true hero, so to paint him as a Hercules isn’t a stretch of the imagination. He’s a celebrity, but without all the crap that goes along with it. In fact, Sorbo had quite the opposite celebrity affair. Around the fourth season of Hercules, he suffered an aneurism in his shoulder that required repeat visits to a chiropractor. When he would endure these sessions, it would release the blog clots from his shoulder and actually caused 3 strokes throughout the year. This is why there are episodes that center around supporting cast members and even one that revolves around Hercules becoming a pig (Porkules).
However, during filming, the cast and crew kept this a secret from the public. He didn’t want the image of Hercules to be tainted by mortal weakness. That’s not ego, that’s devotion. Kevin Sorbo believed in the show. In the commentaries, when the moral comes about, he states, “See, it’s those hidden messages that make it really worth while.” And, to be frank with Sorbo, they’re not hidden, they’re pretty overt, but who cares, he’s right! That is what makes the show so powerful and so memorable.
Kevin Sorbo made it okay for kids to idolize actors. The only rehab he had to endure was in the form of physical therapy. Sorbo didn’t smoke, do drugs, have sex scandals, no. If there is a half-god, half-mortal, it is Kevin Sorbo. Hell, there are even two meta-episodes that state Kevin Sorbo is Hercules–as a joke, but there’s a great deal of truth in that.
And I’d highly recommend his memoir, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal–and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life. I haven’t read it yet, but I trust Sorbo enough to believe it’s worth reading–it’s on my list.
Part 5 – Ode to Ares
“You’d be surprised by the change you can inspire in a man…or a god.”
“I’ve been hanged, swung over a fire, and nearly shish-kabobed over razor-sharp spikes, yeah. How do you mortals get from day to day, ya know?!“” -Ares
Kevin Smith is a phenomenal actor and unfortunately, he met the same fate as Brandon Lee and Heath Ledger. It’s hard when a good actor or musician dies young. You see their progress, their rise. You watch them pursue their dreams, reaching their goals. They are artists who love what they do and are–shockingly–paid handsomely for it.
Kevin Smith possessed a wide array of talents. Yes, when the scene called for an over-the-top Ares, indulging in war and battles like it fulfilled his deepest carnal desires, he hammed it up. But–and more so in Xena–when the world got dark, he proved to be the villain the series needed.
More than anything, Smith is a delight to watch; his stage presence is remarkable and he can captivate the audience with a darting glare alone.
Perhaps the most tragic part about Smith’s death is how close he was to “Ledger-like” acclaim. He finally landed a role in a big Hollywood production, Tears of the Sun, opposite Bruce Willis, but he died before shooting.
There’s nothing wrong with holding actors as role models and icons, especially in the case of Kevin Smith and Kevin Sorbo. Making it as an actor or, making it as an actor who gets to shoot in New Zealand, is a wondrous venture. And acting, like it or not, is an art form. And, whereas other art mediums can lay dormant, when you’re on television or in a film, it’s hard to ignore because the act of watching is such a passive one. That passivity is also what makes great actors great, they captivate you; they make you observe their facial expressions and movements; they are magnetic on screen; they shift your soft focus into a narrow, focal point. Kevin Smith had this ability and it’s tragic that the world didn’t get more of it while he was alive.
Conclusion – “Once you have harpies, you can’t get rid of them.”
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is a terrific action/adventure, fantasy television series. It’s original, fascinating and fun that hasn’t been matched in decades. Creating a television series is a network of artists working together, and time and again, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys proves this to be the case.
When watching this show, you’re invested in the journeys and you partake in small victories. In the end, you’re glad you were a part of it.
Many thanks to all the cast & crew that helped create this icon of American (and Greco-Roman) culture, in many ways, the show lives up to what it purports late in the series with, Hercules on Trial.
Hercules is put on trial for the death of a man (Kazankus), who tried to emulate Herc’s heroism (and actually later in Season 5 this happens as well). Ultimately, Hercules is put on trial because the question arises, “Should Hercules stand as an example to people, when he possesses inhuman capabilities?” And his response is the same as with Iolaus’ character. That people should always aspire to be something greater, that’s what heroes are for.
“I have resisted the gods, because instead of helping us, they interfere with us. And I have bent the law when my heart tells me it’s unjust, because justice is not about the letter of the law, but the spirit. And I do try to inspire others to be everything they are capable of being. If this is sedition, then I am guilty.
But there is something more on trial here. The hero. A hero is a person who’s not afraid to risk his life for another. And sometimes, like Kazankus, it means losing that life. It’s what separates us from the animals and from the gods who would like us to believe we are less than we are. And that is why we all need heroes, to set a higher standard that others can aspire to. If I’m guilty of this, then I’m proud of it. If this is sedition, then I’m proud of that too and you might as well sentence me, because I won’t stop trying to do what’s right. My heart won’t allow it. If this is wrong, take me now.”
It’s that “secret” message that the series delivers; that reminds us to be constantly self-improving because we can all afford to be better. Especially in the case with Kevin Sorbo, who didn’t just act it, he believed it, and his life alone is a testament to that. Thank you, Kevin Sorbo; thank you, Hercules.
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