James Bond and the Herculean menace in film and TV

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The actor Daniel Craig delivered a Bond for the 21st Century, but his character has its roots in Greek mythology. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

James Bond is a figure that has dominated world cinema for close to 60 years. Underneath the character’s surface charm was a killer with a steely edge. Sean Connery was a marvelous Bond, but his style seemed out of touch in the more jaded politics of our time. The more light-hearted approach of Roger Moore was never going to resonate with today’s audiences. In the latest movie of the series and Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond, No Time To Die, the creators have looked back to Greek mythology for inspiration – directly or indirectly  –  particularly the figure of Hercules.  After saving the world from yet another evil menace, Bond must decide if he returns to society or dies on the spot. If Bond does choose to return, he will almost certainly destroy his partner and their child.

This dilemma places him in the Greek mythological tradition. Hercules was an illegitimate son of Zeus and despised by Zeus’s wife: the Goddess Hera, who hated Zeus’s infidelities and did everything she could to destroy Hercules – who was a physical manifestation of them. According to one story, after victory in a war, Hercules’ return to his home was shattered by tragedy. Hercules’ wife Megara and their children were about to be murdered by Lycus. Defending his family, Hercules slew Lycus with an arrow. Hera then cursed Hercules to fall into a state of delusion and rage. Hercules shot his children with arrows, believing them to be his rival’s sons and not his own. As Hercules was about to kill his adopted father, Amphitryon, Zeus’s daughter Athena intervened and knocked Hercules unconscious. Upon awakening Hercules realised his crime and was suicidal.

For his misdeeds, Hercules was obliged to become the servant of Eurystheus who imposed the famous twelve labours: the slaying of the Nemean lion; the killing of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna; the capture of the  Arcadian stag; the capture of the wild Mount Erymanthus boar; the cleaning of the Augean stables; destroying the monstrous Stymphalian man-eating birds; the capture of the mad bull that terrorized the island of Crete; the capture of the man-eating mares; the taking of the girdle of Hippolyte from the queen of the Amazons; the seizing of the cattle of the giant Geryon; the bringing back of the golden apples kept at the world’s end by the Hesperides; and the fetching up from the underworld of the triple-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of its gates. Each of these labours was a monumental demonstration of the strength and cunning of Hercules, but none could erase his familial crimes.

Literary scholar Eugene Waith wrote: “[Hercules]… is a warrior of great stature who is guilty of striking departures from the morality of society in which he lives.” That is the fundamental dilemma of Hercules, and it has proved irresistible to a significant number of writers. In The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (1962), Wraith explored plays written in the16th and 17th Centuries that re-interpreted or reworked the Herculean myth for its time.[1] Wraith identified seven plays: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine;Chapman’s Busy D’Ambois; Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; and Coriolanus; and Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe and All for Love. Reworking the figure of Hercules is not restricted to these two centuries. Richard Rowland tracked depictions of the Demi-God through to the War on Terror initiated by United States President George W. Bush.[2]

The figure of Hercules remains a common one in popular film. Dating back to Marvelous Maciste in 1915, Bartolomeo Pagano is usually depicted as a Hercules-like figure, utilizing his massive strength to achieve heroic feats that ordinary men cannot. The idea can be seen in many films through to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he appeared in Hercules in New York (1970). In these films, Hercules is a super-muscular heroic figure. Most Hollywood or other cinematic depictions of Hercules highlighted his strength and heroism, downplaying the tragic roots of his feats – he was a straightforward hero. In recent times, a bleaker image of Hercules has emerged. In a 2014 version, Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson, is haunted by the death of his wife and children.

One of the first figures who presented the strength of Hercules, Marvelous Maciste, was a popular figure in world cinema from 1915. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

The critical elements of the Herculean figure are some tragedy or tragic event in his past, which he tries to seek redemption by heroic deeds. He is haunted by a past injustice and can never be reconciled to God or man. The western was the main stamping ground for films with this character: the haunted figure redeemed by violence. But one figure dominates over all the rest – it was the character developed for John Wayne in the John Ford film The Searchers. Ethan Edwards rides out of the desert to visit his brother on his Texan ranch. He had fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War and was unapologetic about his involvement at any level. He is menacing and antisocial, and his presence causes great unease at the Edwards farm. Several hints show that he has slept with his brother’s wife – or wanted to – and the passion lingers.

The tortured vision of Hercules is evident in many Westerns, but it is clearest in John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

While staying at the farm, the Comanche Indians pull a ruse to get the area’s men to chase them for cattle theft. While they are out hunting the thieves out in the desert, the main body or tribe attacks the ranch. Killing all in the household, aside from the two young women who the Comanche keep as future brides, the raiders escape into the broad lands of the desert. The men follow them, but they are brushed off by the vastly superior numbers of the Indians. Edwards and Martin Pauley agree that they will continue to follow them to bring back the young women. As the trip continues, they track down the older girl Lucy who has presumedly been raped and possibly murdered by the Comanche Indians. Edwards is distraught: “I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands, I thought it best to keep it from ya.”[3] Some critics note that Wayne repeatedly pushes his knife into the ground while speaking. These actions represent how you clean a knife after a hunting kill. There is a subtle hint that Edwards may have killed Lucy, possibly out of mercy, or perhaps to cover her shame as being violated by the Comanche. If so, we have the Herculean figure in full flight.

As the search continues, Edwards develops a pathological rage against Debbie – who may or may not be his daughter – vowing to kill her. Edwards seems to be furious that his niece – or daughter – could have had sex with the men from the Indian tribe. Edwards’s violent racism is on clear display, and in one scene, he looks at two white girls who are returned from a separate tribe to the community with a face of pathological hatred. His rage against Debbie, played by Natalie Wood, looks unstoppable.

At the same time, as a Herculean figure, Edwards is capable of incredible feats of strength and courage. He tells his companion Marty: “Injun [sic] will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then, he quits. Same way when he runs. It seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as a turnin’ of the earth.”[4] Yet, we also know that he plans to kill her when he finds her. This quote shows the dilemma of the Herculean figure, who is capable of great acts, but underpinning it, is a tremendous urge to destroy themselves and those close to them.

Yet Edwards does not kill Debbie. When he finds her, Edwards says she looks like her mother and holds her gently as he rides her home – apparently purged of his demons. The heavy black edges of a door enclose the film’s final shot. The audience looks out to the desert and sees the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house to gain entrance into society. Ethan Edwards stands momentarily at the door, considering his options. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards to the doorway. Upon arrival, Debbie is greeted warmly and walked through the door with the Jorgensen family to rejoin the community. After they have walked through the opening, Edwards takes a hesitant step but then halts when a couple, Martin Pawley and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway – and onto an inevitable marriage. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to the door. The door closes, and he is stopped from entering a community – he has rejected it in any event. The Herculean figure has no place in the community. [5]

At a point earlier in the film, Edwards had shot out the eyes of an Indian corpse, cursing him to walk between the winds for eternity. He tells the disapproving Reverend, who remonstrates that it means nothing to those practicing the Christian religion, “But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.”[6] As he walks away from the doorway, the wind picks up, and the wind picks up the dust that swirls around him.  It appears that the curse he had inflicted on the Indian had now returned to haunt him. Like James Bond in No Time to Die and the Herculean figures, he will destroy the community if he stays.

Several characters have followed in the path of Ethan Edwards, particularly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a war veteran who rescues a young woman from gangsters, while flirting with the idea of being a political assassin. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Searchers has influenced many films. Several characters have followed in the path of Ethan Edwards, particularly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a war veteran who rescues a young woman from gangsters while flirting with the idea of being a political assassin. Bickle totters between being a psychopath and a hero.

Ciro played by Marco D’Amore (Centre.)

The figure is not confined to the cinema. In the epic Italian TV series Gomorrah, Ciro, played by Marco D’Amore is a violent gangster who strangles his wife in a fit of rage. Yet Ciro is also capable of great heroism in freeing an Albanian woman from forced prostitution.

The figure is not confined to men. among several candidates, an exemplary one is in the TV series Marcella (2016 – 2021), where Marcella Backland, played by Anna Friel, is a former London Metropolitan Police Service detective.  She decides to return to work after her husband says he is ending the marriage. Marcella resumes her investigation into the cold case of three unsolved Grove Park murders from a decade earlier, as it appears the serial killer responsible has returned. [7]

A shattered image of a detective. Marcella continues the tradition of Herculean heroes who are destructive to those around them, and capable of massive feats of courage.

The audience finds that Marcella has blackouts for unknown reasons in the first season. She has a disastrous relationship with her husband, a poor one with her children, a drinking problem that often results in physical violence. Despite these dreadful interpersonal relationships, she is a brilliant detective who can solve an incredibly complex murder case.

Marcella is after a serial killer of children in the second season. One with links back to her own family, and she endangers her children in the course of the investigation. Marcella must deal with a wretchedly complex and demanding case. Her former husband Jason is now engaged, putting their children in the middle of a custody battle that quickly becomes ugly. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counselling to help her remember what happened during them,  discovering that she accidentally killed her newborn baby and blotted it out of her memory. At this point, the Herculean motif is repeated firmly. Marcella must face the simple fact that she is a more than capable detective but a poor parent. Accepting this sad reality, she eventually signs the papers allowing her husband and new wife to take care of their children.

At the end of the second series, Marcella thinks about suicide but then walks away from the police force. The Herculean hero has no place in any society and even her home. By the third series, she has disappeared from society. Picked up off the street, Marcella assumes a new identity as an undercover officer. Considered dead and with no links to the community, she appears perfect in this new role, where she can redeem herself for her destructive acts against her family.

The Herculean hero continues to fascinate writers in the 21st Century, and will do so as long as film, books and plays are written or performed.


[1] Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. United Kingdom: Columbia University Press, 1962.

[2] Rowland, Richard. Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2016.

[3] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[4] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[5] Some sections of this blog have appeared in https://cinemahistoryonline.com/2021/03/10/news-of-the-world-and-the-searchers/

[6] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[7] https://www.mysterytribune.com/anna-friel-returns-in-uk-noir-thriller-series-marcella-season-three/

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