Special Episode – Hercules (1997)

This may be the best podcast episode you’ve ever heard, and that’s the gospel truth. We’re munching on protein bars and raw chicken as we discuss Disney’s Hercules (1997) with Professor Alastair Blanshard.

Statue of Hercules in Shrewsbury – a copy of the Farnese Hercules. Hercules leans wearily on his club, which is covered by his lionskin. Carrying out all these labours is hard work! Courtesy of Elliot Brown on Flickr.

Professor Blanshard literally wrote the book on Hercules, as well as several chapters on his representation in film. We are so lucky to have him on our show as he is not just a gigantic Hercules fanboy. He is currently the Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Queensland and one of the most hilarious historians you will ever meet.

The Birth of Hercules

Disney’s Hercules came out during one of the most successful animated movie streaks for the studio. However, the film was a little different to the Disney Princess films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. It was also pitched at a slightly older, male audience, and used the story of Hercules to explore the awkward journey from adolescence to manhood.  

As people have learnt about muscle development and nutrition has changed, Hercules has often been played by bodybuilders like Steeve Reeves and more recently Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Image of Steeve Reeves, courtesy of John Irving on Flickr.

Disney does not always provide the most faithful representation of Hercules’ story. How do you turn a myth about a serial murderer, a drunkard and a glutton into an exploration of what it means to be a true hero? Never you fear – Disney has all the answers!

This film blends stories of Hercules, such as his strangling of the snakes as a baby and the Twelve Labours, with so many other elements from contemporary American society. Whilst Hercules was not quite as successful as other Disney movies of this era, there is a lot to love about this representation.

The Greeks were not afraid to rework their own mythology, and it seems like Disney followed in their footsteps.

Hercules having a chat with his father in Zeus’ temple at Olympia in Disney’s Hercules (1997). Courtesy of Adam Hammond.

Join us for this fascinating conversation about the Disneyfication of a Greek hero. We delve into the characterisation of all your favourite characters: Meg, Phil, Hades, and of course, the man of the hour.

Special Episode – Disney’s Hercules (1997)

If you would like to read more from Professor Blanshard, you can find a list of publications on his university profile. You can also find his contributions on The Conversations here.

Sound Credits

Our music is courtesy of Bettina joy de Guzman,

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Join us at the Intelligent Speech Conference this year! The event will be held online on November 4. You can buy tickets here and watch the event live, or access the videos later. If you use the code PEICE at checkout, you get 10% off your tickets and they’ll know that we sent you.

Automated Transcript

Our automated transcript is provided by Otter AI.

Dr Rad 0:00
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Welcome to the partial historians.

Dr G 1:21
We explore all the details of ancient Rome.

Dr Rad 1:25
Everything from political scandals to love affairs, the battles waged and when citizens turn against each other. I’m Dr. Red.

Dr G 1:36
And I’m Dr. G. We consider Rome as the Roman saw it by reading different ancient authors and comparing their accounts.

Dr Rad 1:46
Join us as we trace the journey of Rome from the founding of the city.

Welcome to a special episode of the partial historians. I’m one of your hosts Dr Rad

Dr G 2:15
and I am Dr. G. And we’re pretty excited about the conversation that we’re about to have today. I mean, personally, I’m a big Hercules fan. And that might be a little bit of foreshadowing.

Dr Rad 2:28
Indeed, we are so lucky to be joined by I think it’s safe to say the world’s largest expert on Hercules, which is Alastair Blanshard. Alastair Blanshard is the Paul Eliadis professor of classics and ancient history, as well as the author of some amazing books that you might like to get your hands on, including classics on screen and Hercules a heroic life.

Dr G 2:52
Thank you so much for joining us, Alastair.

A Blanshard 2:54
Great to be here. And I’m not sure about the largest expert, but certainly the biggest fanboy for Hercules

Dr Rad 3:00
that makes you the expert in our book. So we’re gonna be talking about Disney’s Hercules in particular today, which is really great for us because we’ve been revisiting a lot of classic films, and so Hercules naturally fits right in. But before we dive straight into the Disney version of things, it’s probably good to give our listeners a bit of background on who Hercules actually is, or dare I say, Herakles.

Speaker 3 3:24
Yes, absolutely. So, Herakles, as he’s known amongst the Greeks, and Hercules, as he’s called by the Romans was probably the most popular of the ancient heroes. Certainly his worship is found throughout the Mediterranean from signs in the far corners of Spain all the way through to Southern France. Indeed, the modern Principality of Monaco is actually named after in fact, a temple dedicated to Hercules, Hercules monoikos, Hercules, the man who lives alone, and so monoikos becomes Monaco, but to his worship continues, obviously in Greece all the way through the Black Sea to all be our panic a pm no places where modern day Ukraine is. And of course, there are important sanctuary sites in Lebanon, North Africa. So throughout the Mediterranean, Hercules was a figure that was well known and well respected and worship.

Dr Rad 4:17
Absolutely. I seem to recall some Roman emperors letting to dress up like Hercules and run around arenas, and we were just actually talking about little NAS X and his music video for call me by your name and how he might be dressed up as Hercules but like a baby pink Hercules?

A Blanshard 4:35
Well, we’ll Look at don’t even get me started on that video clip because that is for a classicist, or one of the greatest clips ever. I mean, not only does it include all the coliseums type scenes, him dressed up as characters, but also a quotation in actual Greek from Plato’s Symposium as well, from Aristophanes speech about the nature of the soul and how it’s looking for its long lost partner. So So for a classicist that that is the film clip to end all film clips,

Dr G 5:03
it is basically catnip for classicists.

A Blanshard 5:08
Who knew that that was the market he was going for? It’s done

Dr G 5:11
really well, we now all talk about it. And we have a great time and all of us kind of like, we just want to meet him and sit down and have a good chat about it.

A Blanshard 5:19
Yes, I really want to know who chose that passage from the symposium because it’s so perfect in terms of the concept of the song. But also the decision to carve it onto the tree in in Greek is really, really striking.

Dr Rad 5:33
I know we were speaking to Yentl love about X, we’ve tried a special FSA just on that one particular clip. And we were asking her like, Where does this come from? Like, who is working on this? Is this all from him? Like, who are the people that he’s consulting with?

Dr G 5:46
And also, how do we get a job? But to drag it back to Hercules inherently, he’s thinking about the sort of how he’s positioned in the ancient world? What are some of the sort of key touchstones in the mythology that surrounds this figure so that we can set up a sort of a comparison between what the sort of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Mediterranean world thought about this figure and the stories they told and how that might end up comparing to what Disney presents us with?

A Blanshard 6:15
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a very, very good question. And it’s a really interesting question to ask for Heroclix because one of the things about Hara Cleves is because he’s worshipped in so many different places, there are so many different stories. And so we imagine really, that the mythology around Hercules was enormous, every place would have had its own little Hercules story, its own variation about how hurricanes came to their town often established, you know, an important institution or, or a right. And so really, in fact, the myths that we have about hurricanes that have come down to us are probably in the tip of a huge iceberg of stories that would have been circulating in in antiquity, I guess, in terms of thinking about the grand narratives to occupy Hercules as life that I think I guess there are, there are probably a couple of kind of key points. And obviously the 12 labours is a is a central point. And these were the 12 labours that Hercules had to perform as expiation for the murder of his wife and children. And that’s a topic I think, we’ll get into discussing, particularly when we come to the Herrick Lee’s film because it’s totally glossed over. But Hercules, the wife killer, the child killer, has to wash the blood from his hands. And He does this by performing a number of labours for King Eurystheus. That’s you. I guess one of the great central themes or stories that relates to Hercules would live there are a number of other other kinds of stories, there’s a story about his eventual death where he is poisoned effectively by a woman who loved him, dear Naira, who accidentally thinking that she’s going to make her clothes love her by applying a love potion to his clothes is in fact tricked into applying a kind of burning poison to his close. And so he dies in agony, and his eventual soul is sent to the heavens where it’s worshipped as the divine as a divine figure. I guess that’s one of the important stories. I guess the other sort of important story is the story about his birth, which again, was a kind of very important one. So again, it’s a story that the Disney film isn’t particularly keen on, on showing because it’s all a story about adultery and deceit, and involves Hercules being the product of Zeus or Jupiter, coming down to earth, falling in love with a woman by the name of Alcmene and then appearing to her while her husband’s away in the form of her husband. And he then sleeps with her, and she thinks she’s sleeping with them photo on her husband. Now, in modern days, this would be rape, right? This is a classic case of what lawyers would call rate by personation. And this is, you know, you consent achieved by deceit, but the ancient world didn’t see this as right. They saw this as just a very convenient ruse on the part on the part of Jupiter. And indeed, they even played it for comic effect. So for example, plotters in the play in vitro, has this as a kind of comic setup with their people going, are you in vitro? No, you’re in vitro and they play it for kind of laughs now. Now, you can play it for laughs The Greeks also played it for tragedy. So in fact, we know that there is a fragmentary tragedy, the Alcmene which takes a scenario and which has Amphitryon arriving back at home to discover that his wife has been sleeping with another man. He doesn’t believe her claims that she thought she was sleeping with her husband. And in fact, he puts on her pilot and is about to set fire to an incinerator alive when in fact that Zeus appears and sorts everything out. But this extraordinary birth story of Hercules who is the product of this rape by deceit could be played for both comic effects and tragic effects in the in the ancient world. but those are I think those are I think the three stories, the birth, the 12 Labours and the death, I think are probably the three key elements in the Hercules narrative.

Dr Rad 10:08
Yeah, and like most Greek myths, I think it doesn’t automatically scream made for children in this modern age, because there is just so much murder and violence and trickery and adultery and all sorts of issues that run all throughout Hercules.

A Blanshard 10:25
Yes, okay. Anyone who started to tell a Greek myth for children suddenly finds themselves having to gloss over over things. And the numbers of nightmares. I’ve given my poor nieces and nephews, as I’ve told them stories of the ancient world, it’s really, really too many to name.

Dr Rad 10:42
And yes, I suppose, where all the products are being told Greek myths.

Dr G 10:47
Yeah, it’s it’s really interesting that there is obviously so much violence at the centre of these stories. And I think that’s it’s definitely not uncommon for the ancient world to sort of have these sort of like lessons that are really sort of bruntly felt upon the body as much as upon the psyche. And yet, somehow, Disney has thought, you know, what would be a great tale to tell on the animated screen, the life of a hero? And who better to choose then Hercules?

A Blanshard 11:18
Yeah, it’s absolutely extraordinary, as you say, I mean, Hercules, Hercules is the figure that in fact, the ancient world does a lot of thinking about in terms of violence, right. So he’s the figure, in fact, who was so violent, so bloody in terms of his actions, that in fact, the Delphic Oracle refuses to wash his hands of blood. So he turns up having murdered a whole series of people again, and turns up to the Delphic Oracle and says, Look, you know, once again, sorry, kill have killed a lot of people, can you wash the blood of my hands? Can you make me once again, clean and the Delphic Oracle says, No, not this time, I’m just sick of you turning up here, completely covered in Gore, having just murdered a whole lot of people, we’re not going to do it this time. And Hercules is outraged. He grabs the tripod, on which the Oracle sits and he says, I’m gonna go establish my own oracle that will allow me to be cleansed whenever I need it, which is obviously a lot. And at this point, Apollo appears, and wrestles the tripod back from Hercules and we have this in a lot of ancient art. There are a lot of ancient artistic depictions of Apollo and heroically is wrestling over the Delphic tripod. Now, what’s interesting is that Zeus intervenes, and he sends a thunderbolt which splits the two and, and he says to Apollo, Look, it’s your job to purify those who commit crimes. So yes, you’re going to have to purify again. And so establishes the principle that in fact, you know, there’s no crime for which you shouldn’t be able to get purification from it’s important Greek principle. And, and it’s Hara Cleves, who becomes as it were the, the test case for this, that if you could, if you can cleanse Heroclix of blood, then basically you can cleanse anyone,

Dr G 13:10
goodness me, I felt like when you were talking about that kind of detail, it just put me in mind of like, where Roman Catholicism ends up. And I was like, Oh, that’s a fascinating sort of, anyway, I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. But nevertheless, this idea of Hercules like sitting in this really interesting nexus of putting limits to the test, whether they be physical endurance, whether it be the necessity to be cleansed. I think this leads us really nicely into thinking about the film and potentially how they’ve decided to characterise Hercules in the Disney version through his physicality.

A Blanshard 13:47
Yeah, Look, it was a really interesting choice for them to do a hurricane so that they canvassed a couple of other options. They were clearly very keen to do something in the ancient world, and two stories were greenlit. So there was a one a project based on Homer’s Odyssey, and a project based on Hercules. And in the end, they decided to go for Hercules. Now, they’re thinking about this was quite interesting, because they felt that the Odyssey was something too sacred that you couldn’t play about with, with the Odyssey in the way that you could do with Hercules and Hercules, you could have more fun with interesting concept, and also, that he was far more adaptable. And that second issue of adaptability. I think they’re onto something because as I said, there are a lot of Hercules stories. And so, you know, I think there was a bit more play in the, in the in the Herculesmyth in a way that there isn’t art with the Odyssey that said, no one would have recognised what they did to directly story in the ancient world. But, but certainly, I think the notion of the ability of Hara cleaves it visa vie the Odyssey is probably probably right. But but the extraordinary an extraordinary, extraordinary choice.

Dr Rad 14:56
Yeah, well, I suppose you’re giving us a bit of context for the film. So Hercules comes at the tail end of this real resurgence for the Disney Studio. So it was released I think in 1997. And Disney, of course has just had a string of mega hits like the Lion King Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin all these sorts of films. So Hercules is coming at sort of the tail end of this particular era. And I believe that they were kind of thinking that Hercules might be more for a preteen, particularly male audience.

A Blanshard 15:29
Yeah, absolutely. Right. So this is, you know, the IOC called Eisner era and Disney right. So, you know, after the disaster of Black Cauldron in 1985, which almost put an end to animation in Disney, the Disney Corporation decides that we need to really rejig things we need to rethink the whole programme in terms of animated films. And so Michael Eisner, and then Roy Disney together really rejig the animation studios. tremendous success, as you say, no kicks off with Little Mermaid beauty in the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King they inherently use and of course, they’ll go on to Pocahontas. So an extraordinary resurgence, and new Disney is just hitting it out of the park in terms of these in terms of these films, until it hits Hercules. And as you say, they’re trying to do something different, right? So Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin Lion King, primarily, the age group they’re looking for is the kind of six plus I mean, that’s the rough age it Hercules, they think, Well, Look, we’ve conquered that demographic, let’s do something different. And so it’s an 11 Plus audience, so slightly more mature, and also much more boys-y as well. And, and that’s really interesting for Disney. Because, I mean, it’s really interesting to think the way in which Disney dominates the female demographic, you know, the Disney Princess is, you know, the thing that kind of dominates female childhood in a way for many bad, very bad purposes. And indeed, is something that they’re kind of now rethinking, but there hasn’t been, as it were a kind of dominant Disney narrative, um, for boyhood, inherently, as was their attempt to do that. And as a result, hurricanes represents a slight tweaking in terms of the genre and in terms of the format of the film so so if you Look at things like as you say, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, you imagine right a ratio of comedy to drama about three to one. Now, in the Hercules film, what we see is a shift more towards dramas and slightly more drama, and also the nature of the comedy changes as well. So it’s less of the sort of physical comedy, but there’s still quite a lot of physical comedy, but much more kind of knowing, ironic, self reflexive kind of kind of comedy.

Dr Rad 17:45
So this might be a good moment to give a very brief overview of the plotline of this movie, particularly because we’ve told our listeners so much about you know, the murderer and Hercules his life and that sort of thing. So what have they done with the basic plotline? What have they told us about Hercules in this film,

A Blanshard 18:02
right. Okay. So what they what they’ve done is they’ve taken various elements of Greek myth and combined it together. So the overarching narrative is the narrative of the tight end Tamaki, right the the great fight between the Olympian gods and the Titans, and Tyson slash giants. And so what they’ve done is they’ve taken this narrative from myth, and they’ve reworked it in such a way that in order for the gods to succeed in a battle against the Titans, which are imagined in the Disney film was called elemental forces of chaos. In order for the gods to defeat the Titans, they need to have Heroclix on their side. And this really alarms the evil figure in the in the film, who is Hades, who is cast as the villain who wants to overthrow his brothers, Zeus, he really wants to, and he wants to overthrow the gods and he wants to align himself with the Titans. Now, in order to do this, he needs to get rid of Heroclix. And so he does that, first of all, by trying to poison him as a child. And unfortunately, this doesn’t succeed. But what he does do is he manages to poison Hercules so enough so that he becomes mortal, a very strong mortal, and so he is then fostered out to some mortal parents and this is Amphitryon and Alcmene, the figures of who are the traditionally the parents of Hercules and then Hercules grows up as this strong, you know, out of place awkward adolescent who doesn’t really fit into society, his his strength makes him always kind of unduly clumsy. So So in a sense, he’s kind of every awkward adolescent, right and he speaks to the awkwardness of adolescence. He discovers that in fact, he’s the son of Zeus and desperately wants to rejoin his real father as a god and so he does all sorts of actions to try and achieve godhood this is ultimately unsuccessful until he realises that it’s not the actions that make you a god. It’s in fact, what’s inside. And that’s what makes a true hero. And, and this only happens when he falls for a love interest by the name of mega who, unfortunately for him is a pawn of Hades, and she tricks him into sacrificing his life for her. And he does. He does that. And then eventually, the Titans are emerge. But because of the Soul Sacrifice at Hercules, made, he’s allowed to in fact become a great hero. He can then rejoin the battle turns the tide saves the Olympian gods. And then at the very end, when he’s just about to be welcomed into Olympus, which is imagined as the whole pearly gates of heaven. As of Olympus is vector kind of gated community. In this film, he decides actually, really, he wants to be on Earth with mega who’s had a change of heart who’s realised that deep down all along, she loved her athletes. And together, they kind of go off, happily live, it leads to the Disney World happily ever after.

Dr G 21:13
I mean, it’s the sort of thing where there’s so many small details that have been altered and changed along the way to make this incredibly interesting. And it puts you in mind of not just how Disney is attempting to sort of make Hercules sort of fit within their own sort of genre standards, but also the ways in which they’re trying to reshape how you might think about ancient heroism in terms of a modern hero.

A Blanshard 21:42
Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a real clash between a model of heroism which is derived from antiquity and the model of heroism, which is imbued with this very strong Judeo Christian ethos and, and you see it in the figure of Heroclix. Because in the ancient world, in order to be a hero, all you need to do is just be famous, right? heroes were just famous people they were, are often morally bankrupt. I mean, Hercules is a good example right now, not only is he a murderer, no, he’s a rapist. He’s a glutton prone to violent outbursts, who famously murders his music teacher as a child. I mean, he’s really just a terrible person. And so, you know, trying to kind of tidy him up, make him more moral. And again, it’s the same with Odysseus as well, deceit for really, again, violent, bloodthirsty figures. But but that doesn’t matter for the ancient world. As long as you’re famous, as long as you’re spectacular, as long as you’re blessed by the gods. That’s what makes you a hero rather than having any moral content. Now, Disney offers you a totally different version of heroism, right? I’m hearing this is what’s on the inside, right. And there’s a constant discourse throughout the film about what makes a true hero. Now this is distinction of the ancient world wouldn’t have recognised right new hero, true hero, there’s only I think you’re either a hero or you’re not a hero, right, the idea of being a true hero is something that they wouldn’t have recognised. And indeed, this comes to the fore in one of the great musical sequences in the film, which is the zero to hero sequence,

Dr Rad 23:10
my personal favourite.

A Blanshard 23:12
I just love it. It’s the one that gets me humming and tapping. I mean, I know we’re all supposed to love the Michael Bolton’s go to distance but, but for me, it’s zero to hero. And in this sequence, what we have is wonderful montage of Heroclix Hercules doing all the kinds of things that in the ancient world will make you a hero, he beats monsters, but more importantly, though, he gets cash, he gets fame, he’s got these fan girls that are totally obsessed by him. It’s this one. He’s doing endorsements for running shoes. It’s this wonderful sequence about kind of fame and importance and monetary wealth. Now, in the ancient world, this is all you needed to be a hero. But the end of this sequence involves Hercules going to Zeus and saying, Well, looking, I’ve done everything you need me to do, why aren’t I a hero, and he’s da, it’s a hero comes from inside. You didn’t know he’s done everything he needs to do make him a hero. But it’s a great sequence. Because in a sense, the the musical number is supposed to show you what he’s what doesn’t make a true hero. But actually, what it does is give you a very good example of what would have made a hero in the ancient world.

Dr Rad 24:20
Can you get that great line when I hear Hercules is talking to Zeus as well. Zeus is a statue that’s come to life. And he says, you know, Look over the action figure. And I think the ancient world would have been like, yeah, right.

A Blanshard 24:32
Absolutely. That sequence is lovely, because it plays with the very famous chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia, which has course come to life and, and that’s the thing that what everyone says about the, the content of the film visually, it’s extraordinary, right, Gerald Scarfe, one of the really great artists, you know, famous for doing Pink Floyd’s The wall as well as a really series of important players. Cartoons For punch and Sunday Times, you know, just it’s just a fantastic job with this film, it doesn’t Look like any other kind of Disney film and, but it’s just so visually clever. I mean, you know, he was obsessed by the line that you get in Greek vases. And so you see, you know, even the drops of water that fall kind of when they dropped a drop, like, in the shape of Greek, Pfizer’s the, the landscapes are extraordinary. It’s just the most beautiful, exciting visual film. And there are all these lovely little quotations of, of ancient sculpture of ancient VARs forms, time and time, again, a wonderful occasion of ancient architecture. So visually, the film is, is lush and wonderful.

Dr G 25:40
I think there’s a real visual richness to Hercules his body as well, the swirling lines that that sort of demarcate, like his chest and his ears and things like this, which is a real visual Echo to ancient Greek sort of artistry as well.

A Blanshard 25:55
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s very clear that that scarf has been entrusted by the by Greek vase painting, particularly in his depiction of Heroclix. And indeed, there’s a long tradition of artists, particularly Iliff line illustrated, being obsessed by Greek vase painting. So you can go back to something like Aubrey Beardsley, for example, who again, obsessed by Greek line painting. So animators line artists have always found a huge inspiration in Greek vase painting.

Dr Rad 26:25
So do you think as well that the appearance of Hercules in the animated version has been influenced by the representations of Hercules that have come before so famously, Hercules has been embodied by strong man or body builders, so people like Steve Reeves people like Eugene sand out, and more recently, since the Disney film, of course, we’ve had the rock. So do you think that that sort of physical appearance has characterised the animated version as well?

A Blanshard 26:51
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s worthwhile observing that there are two essentially bold body types in this format. There’s the young, kind of scrawny adolescent Hercules. And then there’s the Hara cleis, that emerges after Danny DeVito, otherwise known as Philip TTS, otherwise known as Phil takes him in hand and transforms him into this buff, gorgeous body. And both those bodies are really interesting. I’m struck by what Disney did with this kind of awkward adolescence, because I think that’s probably the critically most successful bit of a film is imagining this hero as this kind of awkward adolescence. And it’s striking that actually the most importance, I guess, spin off of the film was in fact the hair Achlys animated series that they did for television, which was a series of episodes of essentially, young Herrick leaves at school and his his friends, he’s got a fantastic Cassandra friend who’s always having these visions that no one understands. And Icarus figure has kind of been flying too close to the sun that’s kind of spaced out. And now that was a that was probably much more successful. I think critically, then the film itself, and it focused very much on that adolescent here at least. And I think that’s quite interesting. But as you say, when when he when he’s buff, and full bodied, he’s absolutely in line of the kind of standard peplum Heracles that we know from figures like Steve Reeves, whose 1960s heritage leaves films really defined, defined our notions of what Reeves has been, or should be. And indeed, I mean, there’s a, as you say, there’s a long tradition starts with Sandow, pretending to be the wiry Heracles and his famous stage show where he imitated life synthases famous statue of the weary Heracles, that body type of hurricanes is quite interesting, because it makes a hurricane, it’s very good at lifting things, breaking things, not so good at running. I mean, if you’ve ever seen a bodybuilder run, right, you know, their fires get in the way, right? There’s just a whole lot of chafing that’s happening there. And, and that’s interesting, because it was one of the labours of Hercules is in fact, him chasing down the sneaking Hind of Artemis. So one of the one of the very famous labours of Hercules involves him really running very fast. Yeah, it’s hard to imagine if these bodybuilders running fast, or indeed, you know, in a sense, Disney’s Hercules as well,

Dr Rad 29:13
you’ve actually highlighted that I think a bit in your work, the fact that the Hercules body that we’re perhaps familiar with as modern audiences kind of only became possible once we were able to feed ourselves, you know, so many particular you know, vitamins and nutrients to turn our bodies into something, whatever it is even possible or practical in an ancient world context.

A Blanshard 29:34
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s extraordinary. We live in this amazing moment, right. So there are two key key changes are the first one is the ability to isolate muscle group and train individual muscles. And that becomes possible around the turn of the 19th century with people like Sandow developing equipment for the isolation and training of individual muscle groups. The second thing as you say, is the tremendous change in diet right so you can go to the super market and you can now eat protein in a density impurity that is unparalleled. So we can do things with our bodies that we’ve never been able to do before. So we can get for Hercules Look, I mean, for me, it’s always very interesting because in the ancient world, you know, people don’t operate with that low amount of body fat, right, those Herculean bodies that we see, or indeed, even the kind of the slim tot no Greek gods style bodies that we see in gym, they would have fallen over the first famine or long winter, right, you know, unless you’ve got a decent amount of body fat, you’re not going to survive that winter, you’re not going to survive feminine. We know that every time we model the ancient economy, we have to figure in, you know, a probably one to two years every 10 years for for famine or for struggling to meet your daily calorific requirements. So, you know, those bodies wouldn’t have wouldn’t have survived a long winter, which, again, always interests me,

Dr G 30:56
yeah, it puts us in a situation where even for the ancient Greeks, their idolised body is risky, because it’s right on the edge of the limits of what might be possible in their context.

A Blanshard 31:06
Yeah, as I say, these are, these are bodies, which are actually, although they’re proclaiming health, they’re more importantly, proclaiming, well, that is, this is a body that doesn’t need to worry about where its foods coming from. This is a body that can run itself right on the edge, because it knows that actually, it’s it’s a very wealthy body for whom it’s always going to have access to resources. And so when we Look at those athletic bodies, we need to see them both as signs of kind of physicality, but also as signs of wealth, class and status.

Dr G 31:38
Yes, definitely. And thinking about the film, not just in it, sort of physicality of Hercules, but also thinking about how figures like the Olympian gods are coming into play. Certainly, there’s a sort of an extended elaboration of their physicality as well, but I’m actually potentially more interested in their characterization compared to how we understand them from Greek myth.

A Blanshard 32:05
Yes, I mean, what we see is a very reductive attitude towards the Greek gods. So the Greek gods stand for one thing and one thing only right so Aphrodite is a goddess of love, for example, but we know that in the ancient world, she was also a sea goddess, importantly, depicted always with a dolphin by her side, she is the person that you imply, prey to for safe voyages. Likewise, your Dionysus is represented there is the god of wine, but he’s also the godfather of theatre, the god of madness, has important role in the underworld as well through certain Dionysiac mysteries. So these multifaceted God that in the ancient world had all these various different dimensions to them, just effectively get reduced in the Disney Hercules to only standing for one for one thing. So you know, Poseidon is the god of the sea, but he’s not the God of horses, not the God of earthquakes, for example, and it goes on again, and again. There are some lovely jokes. I mean, there’s a wonderful joke about Narcissus, for example, he’s always looking in, in his mirror and, and that’s kind of right. I think, that’s this is really famous for being obsessed by his beauty, but but in all other respects, their depiction of the gods is very, very reductive. We see this, for example, perhaps most strikingly, in here, who you know, in this case is just becomes a sort of doting simpering mother rather than the extraordinary powerful God is in her own right, who is responsible, in fact for making her excuses life? Hell right. Now, if you go to Greek myths, it’s here that’s in fact the main cause of all his all his problems. And in fact, it’s here who’s responsible for perhaps the most tragic event in hairpieces life which of course is sending the goddess of madness Alyssa so that hurricanes goes mad and murders his wife Megara and all his children and this is the extraordinary tragic dark sequel to in fact the Heracles film because the heritage film ends with Hercules and make mega arm in arm together off to be this loving couple now if you know your Greek myth you’ll no well Look it’s looking fine now but yeah, give it a few years inherit here I should in theory be sending matters to ensure that hurricanes will be murdering poor old make and all the kids they have as well. So so this is kind of really dark kind of this that every time you see big on stage and you think, Oh, God, no, just just run from Him, you know? And there are all these kind of lovely things where Heroclix says, No, I’ll never hurt you make and you think, Oh, you are gonna hurt a big time don’t it’s, it’s it really there’s kind of dark ironies that run through the film.

Dr Rad 34:47
Yeah, I did think it was very interesting that given that hair, as you say, like from from the moment of his conception basically decides she’s going to play Hercules because of course he is. Living Proof of Zeus is on faith. fullness, the fact that he slept with this mortal woman and that kind of stuff. His name obviously even comes from from here as well. So it’s interesting that she’s not the villain that Hades is. And I think that says obviously a lot about how we understand the god of the underworld. Yeah, it must be something dark and evil something down there, whereas hair is often the light cloudy world of Olympus. But Megara has is definitely a character of fascination, partly because she’s obviously come into a lot of criticism because of her appearance. So the fact that I mean all the women but particularly Megara I think have this insane body shape, which may or may not be a Greek vase. But boy, that waist is tiny. And they have turned her into this, like, why is cracking female love interest? Which as you say, it’s such a weird choice, because yeah, if you know, your myth, she she’s going to get murdered by Hercules.

A Blanshard 35:47
Yes, and certainly, that depiction of Megara is something that that is very common, and aligns with a lot of the depictions that you’re seeing in the eyes near Disney, where there’s an attempt to have a slightly more sassy, slightly more independent kind of female figure. And, of course, you know, Hercules comes just before Pocahontas, which will be that and then of course, Mulan afterwards, which you know, so so you can sort of see a bit of a trend beginning with Megara going on to going on to Pocahontas and Mulan in Disney thinking. But you know, for all her independent agency, you know, it’s still hurricanes who saves the day. And then that is the key centre of the narrative.

Dr G 36:32
We also get this sort of complexity in the plot as well, whereas Meg comes across as being quite independent and having a strong sense of personal agency, only for that to be revealed to us in terms of the plot that she actually she’s in the grip of Hades is power.

A Blanshard 36:50
Yeah, although in her defence, you know, she did it because of her bad choice in men, right, she fell for the wrong guy and ended up you know, selling herself to Hades to save him only for him to abandon her and leave her as a slave as a slave to Hades. So, you know, for all her kind of sassy wisecracking nature. You know, ultimately, what really matters if you’re a woman is are you able to choose the right guy? That that’s what will lead to success or not, not your brains? Not your your ability? With a quick wit? Actually, it’s Can you establish a meaningful relationship with a man? That is, that is the success.

Dr G 37:32
Thanks a lot, Disney. Thanks a lot.

Dr Rad 37:35
As you ended up with the guy, he’s gonna murder her. Yeah,

A Blanshard 37:39
exactly. Well, at least you’d have to be a princess now. That’s the important thing.

Dr G 37:44
What a relief, small steps, small steps.

Dr Rad 37:47
So I’d love to very quickly talk about some of these other characters that we’ve mentioned in passing. So some of the other sort of major minor characters, the supporting cast are, of course, Hades and Phil, do you have any strong feelings about the portrayal of these people feel obviously not being based on a real God or something per se? Hadees definitely.

A Blanshard 38:08
Yeah. So I think Phil is really interesting, right? So Danny DeVito does a great job with with with the figure of Phil. He’s short for Philoctetes. So it’s playing on another figure from the Heracles cycle. So Philoctetes was famous in antiquity for having this pussy foot. That meant that he was abandoned by his companions, who sailed on the trip to Troy, left on the island of Lemnos. But importantly, Philoctetes was an associate of Heracles and had the bow of Heracles. And so eventually, they have to come back apologise for abandoning him on the island of Lemnos and he didn’t get reincorporated back into society so so that’s the story of Philoctetes is known in antiquity as a friend of Heracles the person who inherited his his dying gives the gives his bow to not his personal trainer, but not his personal trainer, and certainly not satyr either. That’s the other thing is that he has been turned into a Saturday in this in this film, but yes, yeah. And again, just a great figure you playing on a car cinematic tradition of the boxing trainer, the particularly the Jewish boxing trainer, and there’s, there’s a way in which Philippines picks up on particular trends in sort of cinematic New York Judaism and so so he’s he’s this trainer who turns hurricanes in from this kind of weakling into this wonderful buff here. Great role by Danny DeVito. And certainly a good roll by James Woods in Hades Look in played with wonderful, Suave sophistication a fantastically good line in delivery of in this kind of wonderful draw over to that he has done a good figure a complete villain very much in picking up on Judeo Christian ideas of of hell of the devil of the trickster who always always getting you to sign agreements for which you don’t see the, the secret clause in. So, again, grounded not so much in weaker in antiquity but very much in Judeo Christian views of the of the devil.

Dr G 40:14
But it does offer us this amazing kind of scene right near the end, where Hercules enters into the underworld and we get our moment of katabasis that is happening where the confrontation between Hades and Hercules happens on Hades territory, which I think I don’t know, I just really love that sort of moment. I don’t know. It’s not really I don’t know if I even have a question. Really, it was,

A Blanshard 40:40
as you say, it’s a lot as you say, it’s a lovely moment. And again, as you rightly point out, picks up on an important epic tradition, namely, the tradition of the descent to the underworld. But catappa says, you know, whether it’s Odysseus in The Odyssey, raising the dead, whether it’s a near sin in the near this idea of the descent into the underworld, and so again, very, very ancient in terms of an element within ancient narratives. The depiction, of course, is completely Judeo Christian, that the flames, the location, that it picks up on, you know, mediaeval traditions of hellscape. So there’s, it’s really that kind of Renaissance mediaeval tradition that scarf is, is working through in terms of the visual depictions, but as you say, an important element within ancient narrative traditions.

Dr Rad 41:30
And I’d love to also bring up one of my favourite elements of the movie, which is, of course, the Muses. What are your thoughts on the Muses?

A Blanshard 41:39
How have we taken so long to get to the muses that is the best bit by far and away the stars of this film, such a clever idea to have them as his kind of backup singers, they’re kind of sassy. They’re funny, it picks up on the idea of the Greek chorus. But what’s really wonderful about them is the way in which they kind of undercut so much kind of pomposity that runs through the film, if you if you remember that wonderful opening sequence, which begins with this voiceover,

Dr Rad 42:11
Charlton Heston

A Blanshard 42:16
giving this fantastic, how pompous voiceover, and then the Muses kind of step. So hang on, wait a minute, that’s not gonna be this kind of film. And then they launch straight into the jazzy number. And they are, they are clever. They’re funny, they, I think, inject a very different kind of tone to this film. They’re great. They’re absolutely great. I can’t get enough of them.

Dr G 42:41
I think they form a great counterpoint, as you say. And there’s that gospel tradition that is coming through in the way that the musical numbers operate as well, which I think is a really interesting way of tying the ancient Greek world to sort of more modern and contemporary American cultural elements for the audience.

A Blanshard 43:00
Absolutely. And that opening number of gospel truth really, you know, indicates you know, what trek kind of musical tradition they’re they’re working from. And again, it kind of is a lovely way of sort of undercutting a lot of the kind of potential whiteness that runs through the runs through the film as well. So it begins with these kind of white statues. And then suddenly, what we see is, in fact, this shot of a vase, or which the the muses are emerging, right, so So we’re getting colour in a way that we haven’t knew before. We’re getting different kinds of musical traditions emerging. This is going to be a very different kind of way of doing of doing Greek myth that is, at least within Disney World, envisaged as much more inclusive and a story that is available to all

Dr Rad 43:47
and of course, there’s one more character I have to mention. Pegasus. Pegasus, yes. Who has no place in Hercules? Not at all, not at all.

A Blanshard 43:58
But it’s kind of gorgeous. I mean, he’s he’s part flying horse but also part Labrador as well. He’s, he’s this kind of fantastic sort of companion for for for Hercules. You’re right, I mean, taken from the mythic sequence relating to Bellerophon and and kind of totally out of out of place, but but also also kind of wonderful for for the film.

Dr Rad 44:22
I didn’t have it. Now, obviously, I think we’ve hopefully told our listeners that Disney’s Hercules is actually an amazing blend of playing with epic film, Greek myth, American culture. I mean, there’s so many aspects that are come together in a Christian ideas soul in this film, but we always have to kind of finish up by thinking about well, what are we talking about when we’re talking about the historical accuracy? How important is it for film in general, animated film? I mean, what are your thoughts on trying to achieve historical accuracy in this sort of a film?

A Blanshard 44:56
Well, good luck. But I mean, first of all, you know, tried producing a film about her clothes and not having and doing it without doing the our rating. Right, you know, it’s impossible. So, you know, Look, some of the things that worry me about the film are the way in which, you know, Hercules becomes commodified into this very kind of middle class, aspirational, suburban kind of hero. And I think, you know, there’s a way in which, you know, Hercules could have been a more inclusive figure that speaks to a much wider demographic than I think, was was potential there. I mean, I think the fact that Olympia is really depicted as this kind of aspirational gated community is, I think, a problem. I think, also the fact that it fiddles around with the birth narrative in such a way that, you know, Hercules is not the product, right, but is in fact, a product of a very happy heteronormative. Couple. So again, I think the potential to to explore, you know, at least issues that were around adultery, or blended families, or even just if the issues of care, foster Hooda are really ignored in that. So I think, you know, there are, I think missed opportunities in the, in the film,

Dr Rad 46:18
I think that’s always a nice thing about Greek myth, it’s, I think it would have been acceptable to ancients that we play around with it. But as you say, it’s the impression that we give our own culture as well, that also has to be considered.

A Blanshard 46:29
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, there was tremendous, tremendous play in Greek with I mean, the classic example would be something like Euripides as Hercules right, which that as I say, the normal sequence, when we tell the story about the labours of Hercules is Hercules murders his wife and children, and then does the 12 labours to make up for it, your remedies, take turns on his head and has no Heroclix performing the 12 labours, and then murdering his wife and children. Because what he wanted was a tragedy, which had a man at his very highest point, when he thinks he’s conquered death, gone down to the underworld, brought back Cerberus, there’s nothing that can touch him, and then to be brought low, by, in fact, being caught up in the machinations of here, and the murder of his wife and children. So So even within the ancient world, it was very possible to do tremendously interventionist things with the Hercules storyline, so so that wouldn’t worry the ancient world. And I think then, given the amount of play that we have, with Hara cleaves, that then has a kind of interesting ethical obligation of ours. That is, if we’re going to play around that we need to think about, you know, what we are, what kinds of stories we tell,

Dr G 47:37
definitely, and I think this is the sort of place where it’s probably a good chance to wrap up and because I feel like we could just keep talking about this film and, and the connections to hearing please, for hours, and I know that you need to go and live your life and and I just want to thank you so much for coming and sitting down and chatting to us today.

A Blanshard 47:58
Yeah, absolutely. Great. Fun. Great fun. Always, always good to chat with you.

Dr Rad 48:03
Absolutely. So just a reminder that if you’d like to read up on some of the issues we’ve touched on today, if you’d like to delve more into the life of Hercules and the myths surrounding him, you definitely want to pick up Alastair’s book on Hercules, Hercules or heroic life. And if you’d like to learn more about film in general on screen, including Hercules and please pick up classics on screen which is a fantastic book, which has got chapters on lots of different movies, and Alastair is the co author of that.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Partial historians. We hope that you enjoy the episode and if you did, please consider becoming a Patreon. It is thanks to our marvellous patrons that we are able to make special episodes like this. We’d also like to once again thank Professor Alastair Blanshard the Paul Eliadis chair of classics in ancient history at the University of Queensland, for coming on the show and chatting to us all about Hercules. If you enjoyed listening to Alastair, he really does have a wide array of publications out there beyond his work on history on film, and he’s also a regular contributor to the conversation. Until next time, we are yours in ancient Rome

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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