Arnie's First Moovie
Scoping Hercules in New York
Until t’other night, I’d never seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first movie Hercules in New York. And it's easy to see why it hasn’t been aired more on TV. This low-budget 1969 B movie, now available on Amazon Prime, is epically awful. Especially the bits where ‘Arnold Strong’, as he’s billed, speaks. Or moves. Or reacts. Or breathes.
But his 22-year-old body, which of course is the main event, is undeniably stupendous. The captain of the cargo ship travelling to New York that fishes him out of the Atlantic (and no, the film doesn’t really explain why he’s in the Atlantic - save to get him wet and naked) can’t believe his luck.
Note how ‘full’ and voluptuous physique at its Mr Olympia/Universe peak, compared to today’s ‘shredded’ look. Which I’m sure had nothing to do with the popularity of ‘aromatising’ PEDs like dianbol in the 1960s.
The version I watched uses Schwarzenegger’s original, heavy-strudeled voice track – which was deemed so impenetrable it was dubbed over by an unnamed actor for the theatrical release. It’s much more interesting now of course to hear Mr Strong’s actual, lumbering (pre-voice coach and accent-reduction) dialogue in his first movie than some unknown actor’s – but is easy to see where the later idea of casting him as an android came from.
The chariot chase scenes in Manhattan, with Arnie in a stringer lashing a pair of clapped-out nags through Times Square, are genuinely hilarious. (Due to severe budget limitations, they were shot without a permit, on the hoof.) The fight scenes are so ineptly directed as to be quite charming, particularly the scene where Arnie, styled in a sweetly tailored merchant seaman outfit (complete with sweater tied daintily and doll-like around his neck and over his cleavage) fights off several dockers with an exceedingly long plank and lots of extreme close-up huffing, puffing, and grimacing.
It has to be said though, for a demi-god, Hercules has more trouble trouncing mere mortals and overturning cars than you might hope. The director seems to have expected his super muscles to have super-powers.
There is also an embarrassing, barely sublimated romance between Hercules and co-star, the goofy comic actor Arnold Stang, playing skinny, short-sighted street-vendor 'Pretzie' who befriends the errant god: 'That someone like HIM should be interested in a half pint like ME!'
I’m not familiar with Mr Stang’s other work, but in this movie he works selflessly to distract from Mr Strong’s terrible acting - with his own terrible acting.
Perhaps the best part of the movie if we were treating this as a movie, rather than as a heavily muscled train-wreck, is where Pluto, god of the Underworld, played with a certain sly campness by Michael Lipton, is persuaded by jealous Juno, jealous wife of Zeus, to go to New York to nobble Hercules. The lights of Manhattan go out as he arrives via a subway exit (this special effect probably cost half the budget). Things go downhill however when he has to do a scene with Arnie.
Naturally, my bitchiness just makes it even more impressive that Mr Schwarzenegger – by dint of sheer willpower – managed to become such a successful Hollywood star in the 80s-90s. Hercules in New York isn't really the story of a demi-god's time amongst mortals, it's the story of a mortal's desperate desire to be a celluloid god.
It seems symbolic of something that in his first movie a 22-year-old Arnie plays a superhero – the original one, in fact. Hercules/Heracles, son of Zeus and the mortal Alcamene, is the most famous demigod – Arnie’s hero Steve Reeves had also played Hercules more than once a decade earlier. Superheroes - in the form of secular/Marvel demi-gods - are of course what all Hollywood movies are about nowadays, thanks to CGI, 'supplements' and sado-PTs.
But, and I may be wrong, I don't think Arnie ever played another superhero. Barbarians, cyborgs, commandos, cops, secret agents, a pregnant (non-trans) man, ‘governator’ – but never again a superhero.