Top 10 Greek Mythological Figures in Film

by Warren Cantrell on July 22, 2014

in Top 10s

You got to give it to the Greeks: they know good entertainment. These people were writing and staging plays more than two thousand years ago that are still performed today, for their themes and the characterization of their heroes and villains still serve as the foundation for many artistic endeavors throughout the Western world. Yet as is the case with any good story or character, if there’s something out there that’s demonstrated an ability to turn a profit, Hollywood will re-imagine, repackage, and re-release the thing under the guise of a reboot. Greek mythology is no different in this regard, for as long as there have been motion pictures, there have been representations of some of humanity’s oldest stories on the silver screen. This cycle is being repeated even as you read this, for Paramount is gearing up for this Friday’s release of Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (admittedly, the movie looks kind of fun).

Today’s list celebrates the best of these legends in their cinematic form, and ranked them based on their powers and perceived usefulness in the featured films. While some of the movies listed today weren’t that good (some were downright dreadful), it was the quality and impact of the mythic representation that was taken into account, for Greek gods (and demigods) deserve only the best in terms of cinematic portrayals. Thus, while a movie might have been awful, if the presentation of the mythical Greek figure did justice to the legend, then it got a serious look. To make the cut, the character in question had to be a part of some established Greek mythical trope without any verifiable basis in reality. Thus, while much of what was seen in 2007’s 300 was hyper-violent, the characters of Leonidas and Xerxes were indeed real people, thus their exclusion was necessary. Also, to keep things balanced, only one figure from Greek mythology was permitted in the ranking. This kept the conversation from turning into a one or two god race (there have been some magnificent Zeus portrayals, after all: almost enough to fill ten slots). Thus, only one Zeus, one Poseidon, one Hercules (etc.) was featured below. As is always the case with these sorts of rankings, if you feel an especially magnificent portrayal of a Greek Mythical figure was left off (or was a better choice than the one selected below) feel free to leave a comment explaining how the list screwed up. Until then…

10. Michael Forest as Atlas from Atlas (1961)  

Oh yeah: a Titan! Yes, in Greek mythology, Atlas was a primordial being that pre-dated Zeus and his godly brood, and was such a relevant figure within Greek culture that his etymological reverberations can still be felt today (Atlantic Ocean, a road atlas, etc.). In Greek myth, Zeus punished Atlas for his defiance following the war against the Olympians, where Atlas and his fellow Titans lost control of the universe. Although most of the Titans were confined to Tartarus (a sort of Beta version of Hell) after the Olympians took over, Atlas was granted special punishment, and was forced to stand on the western edge of the world and hold Uranus on his shoulders, thereby keeping the universe in balance. The 1961 Roger Corman film, Atlas, disregarded much of this mythology. In fact, there’s a big dispute about whether the Atlas character in this film, played by Michael Forest, was even the proper Atlas of Greek myth. Corman’s film didn’t deal with any of the drama surrounding the Titan revolt or Atlas’ eventual punishment, and instead told a different story about a city under siege and a Thunderdome-style fight to settle the issue. Thing of it is, even though Michael Forest was a terrible actor, and the low-budget production values were laughable, the Atlas character in this film was an ass-kicking, courageous, well-loved figure who eventually won the day for the good guys. Perhaps this was something of a prequel showing what life was like before the Olympian revolt: when the Titans did their own thing, and fought their own small-scale battles. In any event, that’s what this author would like to believe, and if only for that, this notoriously so-bad-it’s-funny flick from 1961 snuck in at #10.

9. Breno Mello as Orfeu from Black Orpheus (1959) 

Black Orpheus was set it in late-1950s Brazil, and was a reboot of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film won a gaggle of awards following its release, including the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and the Best Foreign Language Oscar and Golden Globe: and for good reason! This 20th century take on a familiar Greek legend hit all the proper marks and remained faithful to the source material’s basic foundation. It followed a trolley driver and musician named Orfeu (Breno Mello), a man who fell in love with a beautiful stranger named Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) despite his betrothal to another woman. Nothing so trivial as an engagement was going to stand in the way of their romance, though, so a scheme was concocted to disguise Eurydice so that she and Orfeu could be together at Carnival. Everything came undone, however, and through an unfortunate set of circumstances Eurydice was electrocuted, leaving Orfeu heartbroken. The film kept with the modern theme, and instead of going to the underworld to try and rescue his beloved (as was the case in the original myth), Orfeu went underground, into the morgue, to try and resurrect her via song (again, just like the Greek myth). The ploy worked, yet as those familiar with the original story know, Orfeu/Orpheus wasn’t able to contain himself, and despite warnings not to do so, he looked upon his love (which broke the spell and banished her back into the underworld for good). Black Orpheus was an imaginative and thoughtful take on a very popular Greek myth, hence its spot at #9, just behind…

8. Pierce Brosnan as Chriron from Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) 

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief had a number of great candidates for today’s list, which made the selection of Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) over some of the other featured gods a somewhat torturous one. The film featured Uma Thurman as Medusa (bad-ass), Steve Coogan as Hades (surprisingly good), and Sean Bean as Zeus (perfect), after all. Yet Brosnan’s turn as Chiron, the mythical centaur famous for his intelligence and mentorship, really stole the show. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief had Chiron disguised as a teacher early on, one presumably on earth to watch over Poseidon’s son, Percy (Logan Lerman). This supervision came in handy when all hell broke loose, and Percy had to contend with all manner of godly vengeance that started raining down on him because of a stolen thunderbolt.

Chiron was there to guide Percy on, however, and even supplied the kid with a magic pen, and some spectacular demigod training at his sweet-ass training facility: Camp Half-Blood. It didn’t stop with righteous toys and high-level training, either, no. Chiron was a great advisor, and tried to keep Percy out of the shit, which, combined with the fact that he was played by James fucking Bond, kind of put him over the awesome-hump. In Greek mythology, Chiron was known as the kindest, most helpful centaur, and was famous for his scholarly talents. His role in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was therefore a very appropriate representation of this lesser-known Grecian mythological figure. Hey, speaking of entirely appropriate representations…

7. Dionysus from Fantasia (1940) 

A classic rendering of a popular figure, Dionysus’ appearance in Walt Disney’s Fantasia captured the spirit of the Greek god of drinking and debauchery perfectly. During the section that featured Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the animated vignette showcased a festival in Dionysus’ honor, and portrayed the character in his more classic Roman form, as “Bacchus.” In Fantasia, Bacchus was a jovial, gregarious, party-loving figure who delighted in alcoholic excess and revelry. He was shown wearing a wreath of grapes on his head, red cheeks in full bloom, surrounded by cheery centaurs and fauns, and with a goblet of wine more or less glued to his hand. And really, this is about the most you could ask of a portrayal of Greek mythology’s patron saint of debauchery. The Greeks, like so many other cultures throughout the ages, had a mythic figure to represent many of life’s ordeals and occasions. There was a god of war (Ares), a god of the sea (Poseidon), a god of the harvest (Demeter) and yes, even a god of drinking and screwing around (Dionysus). Disney’s version of Dionysus in Fantasia, brief though the appearance may have been, nailed the fun-loving swagger of Greece’s most entertaining deity. For that, he drank his way to #7.

6. Kelly LeBrock as Lisa from Weird Science (1985) 

Wait a minute: you didn’t know that one of John Hughes’ best films was just a thinly veiled reboot of the Greek story of Pygmalion? You betcha! This one goes back to Ovid, whose narrative spoke of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who carved a beautiful woman out of a block of ivory. The artist fell in love with his creation, and prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to make her real: a wish that was granted! John Hughes re-imagined this concept in 1985 when he wrote and directed Weird Science, a cheeky little movie about two high school dorks that created a smoking hot babe on a computer (a Memotech MTX512), only to then hack into the government’s power supply and some lightening to make her real. Hughes’ movie did a brave thing, however: it showed a somewhat realistic portrayal of how two sexually inexperienced teenagers might act around a straight up 10. Terrified of doing anything as risqué as taking off their pants, Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) had to be encouraged to act with a little reckless abandon, and to spread their wings using the confidence only the magical Lisa (Kelly LeBrock…who was indeed a 10 back in the day) could provide. It was a great take on a classic tale, and even showcased the magnificent Bill Paxton in one of his earliest and most memorable roles. What’s not to love?

5. Kellan Lutz as Poseidon from Immortals (2011) 

Well, what can one say about Immortals except that it was filled with great visuals, over-the-top action, and a script that wasn’t too terribly offensive; that’s not so bad, right? It followed a mortal man, Theseus (a pre-Superman Henry Cavill), who got caught up in a power struggle between the gods and a lovesick king, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). Hyperion was trying to reclaim a mythic bow so he could unleash the imprisoned Titans and start a war between the gods. Yet because Zeus didn’t want to interfere in human affairs unless absolutely necessary (and because the film’s massive plot hole would have swallowed the production whole if this wasn’t addressed), the gods elected to let the humans deal with Hyperion.

Thus, Theseus had to step up and take on a murderous king and his entire army pretty much all on his own. Fucking Zeus, man: what a jerk. Luckily for Theseus, there were a few gods willing to nudge their way into the fight, one of whom included Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), god of the sea. At one point, when Theseus was in trouble and was badly in need of an assist, Poseidon “fell” from the sky and into the sea, an act that caused more than a little chop that just so happened to drown many of Theseus’ foes. Later, when the gods squared off against the Titans, Poseidon was one of only two gods left standing. Sure, the movie might have been a bit uneven, and something of a retread of what was seen in 2010’s Clash of the Titans, but the portrayal of Poseidon was entirely appropriate, thus its ranking at #5.

4. Todd Armstrong as Jason from Jason and the Argonauts (1963) 

This Jason guy, the title character from Jason and the Argonauts, really was a special kind of badass. In the 1963 version of the classic Greek tale, the nefarious Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) led a coup to dethrone the king of Thessaly, whose son was prophesized to one day avenge and overthrow Pelias. Indeed, this son, Jason (Todd Armstrong), was every inch the fighter and hero the gods had hoped he’d be. Although he was only an infant when his kingly father was slain by Pelias, by the time he was 20, Jason was ready to go on a classic Greek hero’s quest. Jason didn’t just take up any old challenge, though; no, Jason went on a mission to find the mythical Golden Fleece, a dangerous quest that Pelias encouraged so that the kid foretold to bring him down might die in the undertaking. And danger wasn’t even the half of it!

Jason had to recruit his own soldiers via the organization of an Olympic contest, and even had to supply his own ships for the voyage. Once at sea, Jason and his crew ran into all sorts of trouble, which included having to contend with and/or battle a reanimated statue of Talos, angry harpies, skeleton infantry, and angry-as-fuck rock cliffs. Warrior that he was, Jason fought through it all, and survived using a combination of courage, wits, and divine assistance. All that awesome shit aside, Jason and the Argonauts was/is a straight-up classic, and showcased cutting-edge stop-motion special f/x techniques that influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. If that’s not doing honorable justice to a cherished Greek myth, this author doesn’t know how such a thing might be proffered.

3. Brad Pitt as Achilles from Troy (2004) 

There’s actors who have nailed a role, and then there’s Brad Pitt in Troy. So chiseled and bronzed out that inanimate statues of actual Greek demigods were said to be jealous, Pitt’s turn as one of history’s most famous and talented warriors was the very definition of on-point casting. In Greek literature, Achilles was supposed to be the most formidable warrior in all of creation, but also a beloved figure whose mere presence on the battlefield was said to be worth at least one hundred men in terms of morale. That the producers of Troy got an actor who is arguably the most fawned over individual in creation to play the most beloved and formidable character in Greek literature was one hell of a “get,” and Pitt’s performance validated this casting choice in spades.

The first scene of the film showed him lazily rising from what appeared to be a marathon fuck-session just to single-handedly win an entire battle for his side with one decisive strike. Later, during the Greek landing on the beaches of Troy, Achilles’ skill was put on full display as he sliced through determined defenders like he was carving up a goddamned cake. And let’s not even go into the Hector vs. Achilles showdown, which this author holds as one of the most outstanding hand-to-hand combat scenes in movie history, for this entire article could easily devolve into a love-fest about that vignette. No, when it comes right down to it, there just aren’t that many examples of demigods kicking more ass than Achilles did in Troy. Surely, there wasn’t anyone who looked as good in the performance of their duties as Pitt did in this one. Still, Achilles did die at the end of the siege of Troy, a fate this next half-man/half-god didn’t suffer…

2. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hercules from Hercules in New York (1969) 

While there have been numerous portrayals of the mythic Greek demigod, it is hard to argue against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout turn in Hercules in New York. Arnold was a mere 22 years old when the movie was filmed, and was just one year removed from winning the first of his seven Mr. Olympia titles. And while The Rock appears to have put in all the appropriate work to do honorable justice to the mighty Greek figure, his Hercules couldn’t possibly stun the world like Arnold’s portrayal did. Audiences are already pretty familiar with The Rock, after all, while a young, fresh-faced Schwarzenegger was an entirely unknown entity to most audiences back in 1969. Sure, there had been movie muscle men before (Steve Reeves, Johnny Weissmuller, etc.), but the mass and definition of the 22 year old Austrian knocked people on their asses.

Back in 1969, most people didn’t even know a human being could get that yoked, yet when Schwarzenegger appeared on-screen, perceptions of what was possible both for a man and a movie star changed forever. Considering the fact that this was a film about Greek mythology’s most imposing physical specimen, it’s hard to imagine how the producers of the shoddy and wretchedly made Hercules in New York could have done any better. Yes, Schwarzenegger’s unveiling was, without a doubt, the most noteworthy thing about this picture, one even the good-natured and affable Schwarzenegger admits was a piece of shit. Say, speaking of lousy movies with outstanding portrayals of Greek myths, we might as well finish this puppy off right…

1. Liam Neeson as Zeus from Clash of the Titans (2010) 

Come on, now! Liam Neeson! Clash of the Titans had Zeus as played by Liam-I-am-the-new-21st-century-badass-Neeson! What else is there to say, really, except that he did indeed wield thunderbolts in this franchise (although the less that’s said about Wrath of the Titans, the better), and carried enough weight in the universe to quash all of mankind if he felt they weren’t being subservient enough. Now that’s a Greek god, people, and a mythical figure that will endure long after the world runs out of bad debt and feta. Zeus ruled with an iron fist, and had a battle record that demanded respect (the guy overthrew the Titans, after all). Now, this isn’t to say that Clash or Wrath of the Titans were good movies, because they weren’t, yet Neeson’s portrayal of the bull moose king-shit god of gods in Greek mythology was spot-on.

He bellowed decrees and commands with a booming, authoritative voice, showered merciless wrath down on the heads of his enemies, and generally ran the fucking show. A full-blown god with unholy monsters at his disposal, and dozens of lesser deities in his pocket for coordinated allied operations on the ground, Zeus was the real deal, and got an honorable portrayal in the Titans series. Sure, there were better movies mentioned today, yet nobody commanded the full weight of Greek mythology as did Zeus, and Liam Neeson did honorable justice to that. Respect.

 

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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