Kung-fu in the ancient world

A brief look at

Hercules and Xena


When Channel 5 first hit our screens (assuming you could get it, which usually wasn't the case) a couple of years ago, I was initially disappointed with the fare on offer: big movies that soon mutated into made-for-TV specials, histrionic soap, etc. Then one afternoon at the mother-in-law's we were flicking through the Saturday teatime programmes and came across a commercial break: Hercules: the Legendary Journeys. Once the ads were over we were treated to a cross between a kung-fu western and the old Water Margin series, with good guys fighting baddies not with guns or arrows but with fists, feet and moral armament. After that 6.00 on Saturday evening was a regular 50-minute fixture for all of us.

Although Hercules is a modern production, it does indeed stand in the tradition of the lone gunfighter/kung-fu master who must oppose numerically superior odds to establish justice and free the oppressed. In this case the hero is Hercules, mortal son of Zeus, who was conceived when the amorous god slept with Hercules' mother. Understandably his ill-tempered wife Hera, queen of the gods, waited until Hercules was full-grown and then destroyed his wife and children in a fit of jealous rage. After that Hercules became a sort of freelance troubleshooter, travelling around and helping people in distress, especially where Hera or her minions were involved. In most episodes Hercules was assisted by his impulsive but brave-hearted friend Aeolus and to a lesser degree (and often hampered) by the by the would-be-wide-boy merchant Salmoneus, whose get-rich-quick schemes often unintentionally get him and his friends into trouble. "King of the Thieves" Autolycus also turns up occasionally, although usually ends up without the loot he planned to steal while aiding the son of Zeus. The baddies are usually the more troublesome gods on Olympus: Hera herself, whose worship seems to be based on "might is right - sacrifice or die", the war-mad Aries whose aim seems to be to introduce a sort of fascism on earth, and occasionally others such as Hades or the beautiful but vain Aphrodite.

The production

As with most teatime viewing and good moral stories, this series could so easily cross the line between a good story and sentimental tosh or embarrassing nonsense. That it doesn't is largely due to factors. First, the idea itself was fairly novel: although films such as Jason and the Argonauts had been around for years, nobody seems to have thought of making a series based on the Greek heroes and legends. Secondly, the actors themselves are not the usual soap-fodder but can actually play their parts quite well: Kevin Sorbo is superb as the reluctant fighter but is also ably supported by Michael Hurst (Aeolus) and Robert Trebor (Salmoneus), plus several stalwarts who often play minor but important roles. The stunt team collectively known as "The Action Pack" are also excellent in their field, which seems to consist mainly of getting duffed up each week in fist fights with the son of Zeus. Finally, the series has obviously been given a decent budget to supply it with fantastic outdoor locations in New Zealand and non-wobbling scenery for the indoor shoots.

Xena, Warrior Princess

Xena first appeared in an episode of Hercules as a manipulative and evil warrior leader, seducing men to gain what she could not get by violence, and enticing Aeolus to turn against Hercules (albeit temporarily). Someone seems to have realised the potential for a spin-off, for in the next episode she appeared in she revolted against the evil excesses of some of her followers, only to be beaten almost to death and abandoned by her army. Hercules persuades her to go straight/become good/leave the dark side (however you care to term it) and she joins with him and Aeolus to defeat the usurper who is now leading her army. Then to Hercules' sorrow (after their brief but torrid affair) Xena announces that she has to find her own way, and consequently strikes out on her own (and gets her own series).

Subsequent episodes saw Xena trying to overcome her old reputation (and her old ways) by going around doing good in the same way as Hercules. The differences were that Xena's enemies tended to be mainly warlords who knew her as the old Xena and who were intent on sucking the locals dry through tribute, enforcement, etc. Aries, who seems to have regarded Xena as a sort of bride, also is a regular, usually trying to persuade her to return to him and be part of his crusade for a new order on Earth. Xena's nemesis was Callisto, a psychopathic female warrior who had been orphaned by Xena's army years before and who came to nurture an undying hatred for her. There were plenty of other enemies too, and Xena found herself variously in the Trojan War, helping Saul and David against the Philistines and her old friend Goliath, and being betrayed and left for dead by a young Julius Caesar. Needless to say, this last point illustrates the fact that history is somewhat compressed in Xena, since many of the historical events portrayed in the programme are hundreds of years apart. Once you accept that historical realism isn't the name of the game here, it becomes quite enjoyable. The other prime ingredient of Xena is Gabrielle, Xena's clever and artistically-inclined travelling companion who shuns violence but enjoys talking her way out of trouble and telling stories based on their adventures together. (In one episode, Gabrielle entered a competition and found herself competing with Homer and Euripides!). Interestingly, despite Xena's undoubted physical attractions and the fact that she wears leather most of the time, it seems many male viewers actually preferred the more girl-next-door image of Gabrielle. Salmoneus also crops up every few episodes, and later the comic figure of Joxer, the hapless wannabe warrior who talks big but has trouble in any fight, was introduced.

The production

As this was the same team, more or less, that produced Hercules, the same production values apply. The series has also benefited from drawing on the same pool of actors, including the Action Pack and the New Zealand locations. Lucy Lawless (aka Lucy Ryan) is impressive as the weapon-wielding, horse-riding all-action princess, but she can also act and is quite versatile, although to be fair I don't recall seeing her in anything else. Renee O'Connor is also excellent as Gabrielle, while Ted Raimi is extremely funny as Joxer.

Good wholesome fare

Apart from the entertainment value and capable production of Hercules and Xena, one thing about it appeals to me: it always carries an underlying theme of goodness. Although there is plenty of violent action, with people being thrown through straw roofs, killed by monsters or being walloped in a fight, the violence is never gratuitous and most of the wrongdoers are knocked out with a fist rather than slain with the sword. Hercules himself usually abjures violence and often starts off with "This isn't really necessary" before being thrown through the air by a giant/mad boxer/goon of Hera, after which he then proceeds to punch his way to victory for the good side. Also, the violence is never there for the sheer sake of it: the stories are usually about good vs. evil. However, even the bad mortals are usually portrayed sympathetically, often being given a reason to act why they do, and at the end many are pardoned or let off lightly. In fact several episodes show our heros and heroines trying to avert war between two groups of mortals who are actually being spurred on by Hera or Aries, gods with their own agendas. In many of the story endings, individuals or whole communities (eg Amazons and Centaurs) are reconciled and learn to live in peace. Even the monsters are sometimes found to be less culpable than first believed, and in one episode the villain turns out to be not the young dragon who has slain warriors but the warlord and his mendacious female sidekick who were enticing him to do so.

This might sound like rather too wholesome entertainment, an unrelenting feelgood teen soap, but the darker side of life is also portrayed, although it is never allowed to be the dominant theme. In one of the most poignant endings to a Xena episode, Xena has to leave her son behind in a village, unable to reveal her identity to him. Callisto kills the newly-wed husband of Gabrielle simply to strike back at Xena, and later Xena suffers pangs of guilt as she wonders whether she did indeed abandon Callisto to die in the quicksand. Both Hercules and Xena have to struggle with their own pasts: Xena for what she did before she turned from evil, and Hercules because he is the son of an illicit union by his father, a fact that has turned Hera relentlessly against him. In one sense, every story has a moral question behind it.

This being primetime entertainment, however, a certain amount of comic relief is necessary (don't mock: Shakespeare often uses the same in his tragedies). Apart from playing the part of loyal friends, Aeolus and Gabrielle are also there to amuse us with their wisecracks, impulsiveness and foibles (usually getting into fights or opening their mouths too wide). Some of the episodes knowingly mock modern-day culture, such as the travelling fast food merchant Felalleel, or Salimonus with his zeal for selling Hercules-branded bags, etc. The dialogue is often witty, even if portraying a serious point, as when a resurrected Aries proclaims enthusiastically "I've heard there's a new guy on the block, Adolf Hitler... he's going to make a lot of important changes".

Is it pagan?

Some conscientious folk might be wondering by now if this isn't all part of some sinister Hollywood conspiracy to bring in a sort of New Age paganism. In fact the old gods of Olympus are portrayed as weak, tetchy, egocentric or power-crazed, making them somewhat less than appealing to ordinary people. The opening credits of Hercules proclaim that "the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with sufferings.... only one man dared to stand in their path..." - hardly an advert for returning to the worship of the Greeks and Romans. In fact at some points I've found myself wondering whether there isn't an underlying Christian agenda in the series. I would be interested in any feedback from other viewers and fans.

Links to Hercules and Xena sites:

MCA's site is pretty good and provides links to other interesting fantasy-related stuff as well, but the many images make it somewhat slow unless you're using a high-powered PC.

Episode Guides does just what it says, ie gives you a synopsis of each episode. This link goes straight to the Hercules page, but you can access the Xena page from there too.

Finally, click here to link to some other pages which I rounded up but haven't had time to look at yet.

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