Back in the early 1960s, the cheesy but enjoyable low-budget Italian “sword and sandal” epics were particularly popular among young moviegoers. One of the main reasons the various television swashbuckler series produced by Sam Raimi, including Xena, Warrior Princess, The Legend of the Seeker and Spartacus: Blood and Sand, are so much fun is the way they invoke those old films (albeit with much more visual style and a post-modern sense of humor).
Ironically, the Citizen Kane of “sword and sandal” flicks, special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent Jason and the Argonauts, failed to reach a wider audience because many people confused it with its cut-rate Italian brethren. Raimi’s Hercules, The Legendary Journeys paid homage to Harryhausen’s masterpiece with the episode Once a Hero (originally broadcast on Jan. 29, 1996) which was a de-facto sequel to Jason and the Argonauts (with a touch of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians thrown in for good measure).
Directed by Robert Tapert and scripted by Robert Bialak and John Schulian from a story by all three of them, Once a Hero finds Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) and Iolaus (Michael Hurst) arriving in Argos for a reunion of the Argonauts. Among the other Argonauts gathered there are gentle giant Otus (Mark Nua), scribe Archivus (Tim Raby), acrobatic Castor (Peter Feeney), archer Valerus (Anthony Ray Parker), ruthless Artemus (Edward Campbell), innkeeper Domesticles (John Sumner) and an honorary Argonaut, Phoebe (Willa O’Neil), daughter of recently deceased Lycenus. (Supposedly he was killed in an accident, but she insists he was murdered.)
Putting a damper on the festivities is King Jason (Jeffrey Thomas) who has become an emotional wreck haunted by the death of his sons and wife and by visions of an avenging demon. He is in such bad shape that his Chief Region Marcus (Lathan Gaines) threatens to seize the throne. At Domesticles’ tavern, the Argonauts are trying to comfort Jason when a group of crazed Hera-worshipping cultists known as Bloodeyes break in. As the Argonauts fight them off, the “demon” steals The Golden Fleece and Jason sees an opportunity to redeem himself. “I brought the fleece back once; I can do it again,” he says.
The next day, they set to sea on the Argo. Up ahead of them, they spot the Bloodeyes’ ship which appears as just a speck in the far distance.
Phoebe: There are twenty black-clad warriors wearing the red peacock eye, nine at the bow, eleven at the stern. One of them walks with a limp. I think he has a gammy left leg. There may be more below deck. The boat’s running low in the water.
Hercules: Your father had the eyes of an eagle as well.
Phoebe: I’ve got more than good eyes. I’ve got a fighting heart.
Hercules: Well, let’s hope you don’t have to prove it. Ah, the wind’s switching. Maybe we can get back some of the distance they have on us.
Iolaus: Can you really see that?
Phoebe: I made up the part about the limp.
As the Argonauts pursue the Bloodeyes’ ship, they hear a horrendous crash down below. At the bottom of the steps, Otus lies dead, his neck broken. The body is first discovered by Artemus who was quarreling with Otus a few hours earlier. Questioned by Hercules and Iolaus, Artemus denies any involvement in Otus’ death. There is further bad news when the Argonauts arrive at the island the Bloodeyes were headed for: it’s the home of an active volcano that’s about to erupt at any minute.
From this point on, there are several battles and cliffhangers (some literal), the identity of the “demon” is revealed and, of course, as a grand finale, the Argonauts are once again forced to do battle with an army of living skeletons. (Although these CGI skeletons are nowhere near as impressive as Harryhausen’s stop-action animation equivalents, they are still a nice tip of the hat to the master.)
End credits disclaimer: We gratefully acknowledge the lifelong inspiration Ray Harryhausen has provided on our journey through Filmland.
Hercules, the Legendary Journeys: Once a Hero can be viewed on-line at Netflix’s Watch Instantly service and is available for rental.