Today’s feature is a low-budget 1969 comedy by the name of “Hercules in New York”: a film most famous for featuring the first on-screen role for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Hercules in New York” was the last film written by Aubrey Wisberg, whose career featured included 1950s and 1960s science fiction films, as well as a handful or propaganda productions during World War II. Unsurprisingly, this film definitely seems misplaced in time. Even for 1969, the story and comedic style feels significantly dated. For contrast, “Hercules in New York” also saw the first directing job for Arthur Allan Seidelman, who has now had a significant career directing television movies and series. The mix of a wet-behind-the-ears director and an outdated, behind-the-times writer proved to be a bit of a perfect storm of awfulness for “Hercules in New York.”
Adding to the mix of inexperience and incompetence on the “Hercules in New York” crew was a cinematographer with no previous credits, and a musical composer with no listed credits before or since the movie. It honestly feels like the entire crew was pulled out of a hat, which I’m sure was done in an effort to keep the costs far below the radar.
The story of “Hercules in New York” follows the angsty demigod as he decides to explore the modern world, to the intense displeasure of his father, Zeus. He quickly becomes unwittingly involved in mafioso-run sports gambling in New York City, and manages to make headlines for his feats of strength. Enraged with his meddling, Zeus decides to punish Hercules, which leads to further shenanigans in the mortal world.
Worried about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unwieldy last name, the producers on “Hercules in New York” decided to credit him as “Arnold Strong, ‘Mr. Universe.'” The name “Arnold Strong” was chosen as a sort of gag, playing off of his co-star’s name “Arnold Stang.” Mr. Universe was used, of course, because that was the title that Arnold was most known for at the time, as he won the famous bodybuilding competition at the age of 20 (just 2 years prior to “Hercules in New York”). His next film role wouldn’t be for another 4 years, when he essentially played an extra in the fantastic Robert Altman movie, “The Long Goodbye.”
One of the most infamous and memorable aspects of “Hercules in New York is the dubbing that was done early versions of the feature. Because of Arnold’s thick accent, it was decided that his lines should be dubbed over, which makes for entertaining watching in retrospect. Even in the versions with Arnold’s audio track re-inserted, you can hear the dubbed voice during a closing sequence where Hercules speaks through a radio to Arnold Stang’s character. It is honestly a toss-up as to which audio track is more entertaining: Arnold’s natural voice with the worst acting performance of his career, or the bizarre voice-over that doesn’t fit Arnold’s body in the slightest.
Some years ago, the rights for “Hercules in New York” were auctioned off on e-bay, accruing bids for just over half a million dollars by the auction’s end. Given poor reception and general infamy of the flick, it is possible that the winner significantly overpaid for the product. The movie currently holds a well-deserved 17% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 29% audience score.
The character of Hercules has a long cinematic tradition: he has featured in big budget flicks, animated movies, cheap Italian films, and epic television series. Apart from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the character has been portrayed over the years by notables such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo, Ryan Gosling, Sergio Ciani, and Kirk Morris, among many, many others.
I haven’t been able to find budget information for “Hercules in New York,” but you have to assume that this was an incredibly cheap production just judging from the film quality. It is hard to say if it made any money, just because there isn’t exactly a wealth of information out there about it. The rights to the film have changed hands a few times over the years, and it is currently distributed by Trimark. However, I doubt that it makes any significant money on home video sales.
Strangely, I actually think that there is some promise in the concept for “Hercules in New York.” The Greek gods are constantly meddling in the mortal world in mythology, so why not have a fish out of water tale where a god comes down to do it again in the modern world? Of course, this film does just about everything wrong, but I think that this could have been a serviceable enough film in more capable hands at every level. Essentially, this is not a film that was damned from conception.
The biggest issue for “Hercules in New York” is its use of outdated (even for 1969) humor. The jokes are all incredibly weak and infantile, and a lot of the humor seems like it is supposed to come from Arnold Stang’s character, whose comic relief style was suited better for the comedy world prior to the JFK assassination. All of the comic portrayals in the film are overly-expressive, frenetic, and basically cartoonish: a style that can go wrong all too easily, and certainly does so here.
One other serious problem with “Hercules in New York” is that the hero, Hercules, is an absolute asshat throughout the movie. A few characters acknowledge this fact, but inexplicably forgive him and begin to like him for reasons that are never made clear on screen (which is a whole different issue with the writing in the film). The audience is clearly supposed to sympathize with the demigod, but I couldn’t help but identify with the put-out and exasperated Zeus, who has clearly had it with Hercules’s constant shit.
I would be remiss to not mention the amazingly awful Central Park bear fight in this film. The sequence almost rivals the bear fight from the Lou Ferrigno’s “Hercules” film, though I shockingly think that that one (a scene where a bear is thrown into space, mind you) is more believable that Arnold’s bear wrestling in this flick. Take a look for yourself:
At one point in the film, Mercury decides to intervene in the plot to help Hercules out of a bind. He does this by bafflingly summoning Samson and Atlas out of absolutely nowhere, exactly where they need to be to help Hercules. This might have been an interesting side plot (Mercury defying Zeus to help Hercules) if it had been developed earlier, but as it exists in the film, it feels like an improvised element used to patch a plot hole. It comes completely unprecedented and out of left field, and winds up being just another example of the mass ineptitude behind this movie.
All of the acting is this movie is honestly beyond awful. From the leads to the accessory players to the extras: not one person turns in a decent performance. At that point, you have to assume that the problem is not with the actors, but with the direction and the script: because honestly, what are the odds that you cast an entire production’s worth of duds? This isn’t “The Producers” as far as I know.
“Hercules in New York” is clearly trying to be a fish out of water comedy, but a good deal of it doesn’t make sense. Hercules should be treated as a man out of his own time, not like a creature from another planet. Is the audience supposed to believe that the Greek gods do not understand tact or basic social graces? Sure they live remotely, but they do have a sort of society on Olympus. There is the potential for this movie to be entertaining, but the writing never quite takes it in the right direction (at least not for long).
Overall, I think “Hercules in New York” sits right on the boundary between being an entertainingly awful movie and a dull, nearly-unwatchable one. If you ask me, it does land on the right side of that line, but only barely. I can recommend this for bad movie lovers for the sake of a few select highlights, and because of just how awful Arnold is in this early role. However, it is a pretty weak recommendation: there are definitely more worthwhile bad movies to spend your time on.