There is perhaps nothing so tragic in the history of cinema as when a career of promising new talent is cut short in their prime. People see the works of such bright talents as James Dean, River Phoenix, and Heath Ledger, and wonder where their careers might have taken them if only they had lived. But in those cases, there is at least the closure of knowing exactly what fate befell them, and the hope that today’s young stars can take lessons from the past. With the mysterious disappearance of Arnold Strong, however, there is no such closure.
Arnold Strong came out of nowhere to star in director Arthur Allan Seidelman’s Hercules in New York. The film was released in 1969, and Strong’s performance in the title role immediately wowed both critics and the public with his exceptional vocal delivery and his impressive physique. He had a build that was previously unseen in action stars, yet spoke like a Shakespearean thespian, with great comic timing. And then he disappeared, never to be seen again. His fate has ever since been one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries. I am neither a sleuth nor a historian, so I am unable to shed any new light on a subject that has been pored over by so many before me. As a movie blogger, all I can do is pay my own small tribute to the legendary actor by watching and reviewing his classic performance.
The gods of Olympus have never before or since been portrayed with such eloquence and simple dignity.
The story begins, as it must, on Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods. And the Roman gods. Writer Aubrey Wisberg clearly knew that most of her audience would be unable to distinguish between the two nearly identical pantheons, but that some audience members would prefer the Greek names and some the Roman. Thus she struck a compromise, using some Greek names and some Roman names for the different characters. This isn’t the only change to Mount Olympus; with the film shot entirely on-location in New York, Seidelman took advantage of his location to modernize the home of the gods just a bit, with present-day brickwork and the sounds of motor vehicles coming in over the walls. While this update may offend some purists, I find that it helps to center the adventure in the present day, and remind the audience that although they may have long appeared absent, the Olympians are nevertheless still connected and relevant to the world of 1969.
This relevance is apparent from the very first lines of dialogue. 1969 was full of youthful rebellion against the previous generation, and that is what Wisberg and Seidelman give us here as well. Hercules has grown bored with his life on Olympus, and seeks permission from his father Zeus (Ernest Graves) to visit Earth for a few centuries of vacation and adventure. Zeus refuses, and in the course of their argument, flings a lightning bolt at Hercules, which knocks him out of the sky and into Earth. Thus, like a school boy suspended for cutting class, his punishment is exactly what he wanted all along. This is just the beginning of the insightful social commentary this film provides.
It also addresses the unruly nature of city ports in one of the finest examples of the ancient art of board-fighting ever filmed.
After securing a berth on a ship that takes him to New York, and acquiring some modern clothes along the way, Hercules makes the acquaintance of a man named Pretzie. Pretzie, played by Arnold Stang (not to be confused with the star, Arnold Strong) is a small, scrawny pretzel seller, and immediately befriends the much larger newcomer. Pretzie begins to show Hercules around New York City, which allows for several witticisms such as referring to the slang terms “bucks” and “dough” (New Yorker terms for cash) as “zoological references”, a gag which no doubt had the audiences across the country rolling in the aisles. Stang and Strong make a solid comedy duo, with Stang providing wide-eyed wild takes at Strong’s feats of strength, and Strong — with excellent comic timing — comedically misunderstanding Stang’s idiosyncratic patois. But Strong also demonstrates a genius for physical comedy when Hercules comes across a group of college athletes practicing track and field events, and proceeds to show them up with his greater physical ability. A less charitable man might assume that the changes in camera angles indicate trick photography to enhance the appearance of Strong’s feats, but any such attempt would be utterly unconvincing; no, this is very likely Strong’s own stunt work in action. It’s impressive not just for the audience in the real world, but for the audience in the film as well, as it gets the attention of Professor Camden and his daughter Helen.
The professor is played by James Karen, who viewers may recognize as the versatile actor who played one character in Return of the Living Dead and a completely different character in Return of the Living Dead Part II. He’s a bit under-used here, as his role is essentially just a cameo to set up the introduction of Helen, played by Deborah Loomis. A romance naturally strikes up between Helen and Hercules, as she explains New York City to him and he impresses her with feats of strength and his charming demeanor. This romantic subplot forms much of the heart of the film, but it shouldn’t be taken as a saccharine romantic comedy. Just as the viewer may begin to wonder when the movie will get back to the action, Seidelman obliges by having Hercules wrestle a bear.
I believe I can state, with no equivocation and no fear of contradiction, that there has never been a bear-wrestling scene like this anywhere else in the history of cinema. This was, of course, long before the days of CGI, and frankly, even today CGI would have difficulty producing a believable bear on screen. And due to the fact that Arnold Strong was doing his own stunts, it is questionable that the American Humane Association would have permitted them to use an actual 600 pound bear due to the risk of injury both to the bear and to Strong. So Seidelman hit upon the ingenious solution of putting an actor in a bear costume for the scene, which not only allowed them to shoot the scene in the first place, but allowed them to have a “bear” that could follow instructions and fight intelligently, to truly make this a contest for the cinematic ages.
Sadly, the actor who played the bear was cheated out of his proper credit.
Naturally, no epic tale is complete without some drama. While Zeus has sent both Mercury (Dan Hamilton) and Nemesis (Taina Elg) to retrieve Hercules, both have been unsuccessful. But unbeknownst to Zeus, this is because Nemesis has betrayed his wishes, at the urging of Zeus’s jealous wife Juno (Tanny McDonald), who has instructed her to instead poison Hercules so that his divinity will be temporarily stripped of him so that he may be delivered to Pluto, the ruler of Hell. Pluto, incidentally, is played by Michael Lipton, who manages to make the god of the underworld seem like a true force to be reckoned with even as he does nothing more than place a bet against Hercules in his upcoming strong man competition. See, “Monstro the Magnificent”, a strong-man played by fellow critical darling Tony Carroll (also known for his role as Beast Man in Masters of the Universe), has taken offense to Hercules’s claims of being the strongest man in the world. So the two have a competition on national television, in a tremendously exciting sequence as the two repeatedly lift barbells. But the poison does its work, and Hercules is unable to match Monstro, which endangers him further when the mafia men who have been betting on him decide to take their losses out on him.
With Hercules stripped of his powers, the audience has plenty to be concerned about in the outcome of this film. We all know about Greek tragedies, after all. But Arthur Allan Seidelman also knows his Greek legends, and what better place to employ a classical deus ex-machina than in a film about the Greek gods themselves? Mercury comes to the rescue of his friend by sending a pair of gods to aid Hercules in his hour of need, and while the audience might have expected someone like Atlas to come in and help, Seidelman maintains the element of surprise by also including Samson, who no audience member could have predicted since he has no connection to the Greek gods whatsoever. It’s a brilliant move, and Seidelman doesn’t assume his viewers are morons or need to have their hands held with little things like sense or narrative consistency. It’s a bold decision, and it really works for this film.
I should note here that there are a few different versions of this film floating around out there, with some different editing jobs. The version I watched was the excised-music version of the film, in which certain scenes that had music playing in them have been altered for effect. Some sound editors would simply strip out the music if that was their goal, but here the editor took the very avant-garde step of completely silencing those scenes, perhaps realizing that no music could live up to what the audience would imagine in their own heads. Thus some of the most exciting scenes in the film are displayed without the distractions of music, sound effects, or incidental dialogue. It’s a daring way to edit the film, and one that is seldom attempted.
The “boom” sound of an explosion is a childish crutch that mature movie makers and film goers should not need to rely upon.
We may never know what happened to Arnold Strong after his film debut. Perhaps he quietly retired, feeling that he could never repeat the magnificence of his performance here. Perhaps a more tragic fate befell him, maybe even being murdered by a jealous actor. Internet conspiracy theorists, always looking for some new crazy theory to latch onto, have sometimes speculated that maybe he has simply changed his name, citing the uncanny physical resemblance of the more recent action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Personally, I rank this theory as being somewhat less likely than even the preposterous “eaten by lizard people” theory. If Arnold Strong wished to start anew, without the obligation of having to live up to his earlier work, why would he only change his surname, and to such a ridiculous name as that? More importantly, while the two do indeed look greatly alike, they do not sound even remotely like one another. As accomplished as the junior Arnold has become, his thick Austrian accent yet prevents him from hitting the heights of eloquence in English that Arnold Strong achieved. No, sadly, I think we must conclude that this great actor is no longer with us, and only gave the world one film. Fortunately, that film was an undisputed masterpiece.
Now, I realize that today is the first of April, and it is customary on this day for internet personalities of all sorts to play some sort of “April Fool’s” prank on their readers. My personal feeling is that it would be highly irresponsible of me to subvert the sacred trust my readers put in me by giving a false review — let alone how difficult it would be to actually write denigrating remarks about such a great film or such a superb actor. However, in the spirit of the day, I’m going to pull a small joke on that section of the readership that skips to the ratings first. Those of you who have read the article faithfully know that, as with all other critics, I hold this to be an easy five-star film. But those scoundrels who skip ahead will see a falsely low rating in its place, which no doubt will enrage those who rightfully view this as one of the all-time greatest films. Let’s see how much they howl in the comments section, shall we?