I’ve seen most of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies. I’ve been a big fan since The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian, and sort of lost interest when Eraser came out. Do you know his first film appearance? Hercules in New York is a very low-budget sword-and-sandal movie from 1970. He was credited as Arnold Strong, in case his name scared people off, which seems odd since it was obviously a beefcake flick and there had to be fans who knew him from bodybuilding mags.
The movie begins with some hilarious narration as the camera pans over some mountains, and zooms in to bring us to Mount Olympus. The set is a public park somewhere; you can hear cars going by in the original audio track, which I highly recommend. Arnold’s accent was so thick that he was dubbed for the theatrical release, and while it’s amusing to hear a generic voice come out of his mouth, the movie is much funnier with the restored dialogue. If you thought he was hard to understand in Conan or Pumping Iron, this will sound like crazy moon-man language.
The movie is pretty horrible, but that didn’t stop us from watching it in its entirety. Take one of those Italian Hercules movies starring Steeve Reeves, one of Arnie’s heroes, and mix it with Midnight Cowboy, and there you have it. It has plenty of moments of unintentional hilarity and copious cheesiness, and you get to see young Arnold with a bad haircut delivering lines that make you wonder if his nickname “The Austrian Oak” came from his acting instead of his amazing physique.
Far in the dim past, when myth and history merged into mystery, and the gods of fable and the primitive beliefs of man dwelt on ancient mount Olympus in antique Greece, a legendary hero walked godlike upon the Earth, sometimes…
Hercules is bored on Olympus and wants to go to Earth and “browse around a bit.” Zeus is having none of it. He’s as grumpy as always, and if you thought Lawrence Olivier was chewing the scenery in Clash of the Titans, this guy must have died with scenery lodged in his colon. He gets sick of Herc’s insolence and hurls a lightning bolt, made loving out of silver rebar by some forgotten prop designer, which sends his son tumbling to Earth to teach him a lesson.
Two little old ladies see Arnold falling past their Pan Am jetliner and are overcome with the vapors over seeing so much beefcake tucked in a toga. Then he’s picked up by a ship full of sailors, and ends up getting in a shirtless wrestling match with the first mate because he refuses to take orders. I began to wonder who this movie was supposed to cater to… not really. I think the reason Arnie disowns this one is not because it’s terrible, but because it’s a campy beefcake movie.
Wait, it gets better. When he jumps ship, he’s rescued by Catfish from Jabberjaw. I’m not kidding- Arnold Stang, who also voiced Top Cat, plays “Pretzie,” a bespectacled New York nebbish peddling– you guessed it– pretzels by the shipyard. They nab a cab uptown, not before Hercules grabs a forklift and tries to ride it.
As the camp increased to a fever pitch, it became clear that Arnie’s first movie was not really a Hercules movie like the Italian ones, or meant to capitalize on his status as Mr. Universe, but was probably crafted on the cheap to play in Greenwich Village theaters. My uncle, who ran gay bars for the mob back in his day, told me Midnight Cowboy was so popular that they were showing stolen prints for years. Pretzie sounds a lot like Ratzo Rizzo, but I was surprised to learn that Dustin Hoffman’s legendary performance was partly based on Arnold Stang’s stage persona- probably best seen in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as the gas station attendant with the Coke-bottle glasses. Instead of Jonathan Winters tearing things up, this time he has to deal with Mr. Universe.
Instead of pimping his new pal like Rizzo tried to, he gets him involved in mob-sponsored wrestling matches. They’re pretty sad to watch- Arnold is no wrestler, but he gives a good flex here and there. According to IMDb, Arnie got the part because his agent said he had a lot of “stage experience,” meaning posing on stage for bodybuilding competitions, which was mistook for work in theater. This is twelve years before Conan, and seven years before Pumping Iron, where he mostly played himself. He improved exponentially in those years. If you thought his alternate under and over-acting was funny in Conan the Destroyer, just wait until a skinny little sailor tries to strangle him here.
The plot thickens as Zeus realizes that Herc likes it down there and won’t come home. He sends Mercury to get him, who gets rebuffed. I have no idea what Hercules likes so much down here; he spends most of his time talking to a mousy girl in a sweater, the daughter of a professor played by James Karen, most famous for being “The Pathmark Guy” in commercials, and the boss who built houses on a graveyard in Poltergeist. Zeus sends Nemesis down, who slips Herc a mickey that denies him his godlike strength. This makes him lose a strongman competition vs. Monstro, played by “Mr. World” Tony Carroll, another bodybuilder.
Pluto even comes on down to try to lure him back, but he seems a lot more like Satan in his dapper suit. There are a few other goddesses in togas up in Olympus, but the filmmakers seem to know their audience was here for Austrian beef. When mobsters shows up to clobber the now-vulnerable Herc, we get Atlas and Samson– on loan from the Bible– to help save him.
The best part of the movie for us was the car chase around Central Park, put to frantic zither music. Milky and I accompanied them on the conga drum and ipu gourd. With enough beer and random percussion, the movie is quite tolerable. It’s from another time, when myth and history merged into…Z movies that you went to see because the theater had popcorn and air conditioning.