Sunday, May 25, 2008

The History of Drama (Part Two): When Hercules Met Jesus

The first movie I ever saw on a big screen was “Viva Las Vegas”. I was about five years old at the time and my aunt (who was an Elvis fanatic) took my sister and me to see it without my parents’ knowledge. All I remember about the experience is that when Ann-Margaret did her big dance number, I got so excited, I felt dizzy and had to put my head between my knees. My parents (who were very religious people) were upset when they found out and issued a “no more movies” decree. But a year or so later, something happened that changed the equation. The Kentucky Theater downtown started showing Saturday afternoon “Kids' Matinees.” This was the mid-1960's and it was a small town, so the idea of dumping your kids off unsupervised for a couple of hours while you did your shopping wasn’t so scary. And the admission was super cheap.

One Saturday afternoon when I was about seven, my father couldn’t go downtown with my mother for their weekly shopping trip so she was stuck having to wrangle me on her own. I was an antsy kid who tended to wander off, so she relented and let me to go to the kids' matinee. The movie that day was “Hercules” starring bodybuilder and former “Mr. Universe,” Steve Reeves. It had been filmed in Italy in the late 1950’s, but was only now arriving in eastern Kentucky. My mother gave me the money to get in and instructed me to wait for her in the lobby after the show. The movie started and I was in Heaven. I loved every second of it. It had action and comedy and romance and adventure. And it had a lot of guys wearing very little clothing which I found (for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time) strangely appealing. I exited the movie a changed person. I felt intoxicated. It was like I’d downed six glasses of Kool-Aid with extra sugar. As I waited for my mother in the theater lobby, I saw a poster for next Saturday’s attraction, “Jason and the Argonauts.” I had no idea what an “Argonaut” was, but I had every intention of finding out.

I was still high from the experience when I climbed into the backseat of our family’s battered station wagon. When my mother casually asked about the movie, all the details came gushing out of me -- The battles, the beheadings, the cloven-hoofed beasts, the pretty slave girls peeling off their veils for the King! Then, somewhere in mid-story, I happened to catch my mother’s expression in the rear view mirror. She didn’t look happy. I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. Even at seven, I had some awareness that there were certain things that we as good Christians should avoid looking at; things that would warp our minds and make us worship Satan. I also knew “that look”. It was that horrible “I’m a bad mother” look she got whenever she thought she’d done something wrong. It was an awful moment. Part of me wanted to apologize, but a bigger part of me really wanted to come back and see “Jason and the Argonauts.” I panicked and did what any overly-creative, desperate child would have done in my shoes: I rewrote the movie.

In what struck me as a brilliant move, I quickly slipped a sequence into the film where Hercules (wandering in the woods) happened to run into our Savior, Jesus Christ. Although I'd never seen a fig in my life, I had a vague memory that people in the Bible liked them, so I threw in a scene where Hercules and Jesus sat under a tree and ate figs. Knowing that Jesus was always telling people to do good, I added that to the mix as well. I stole a glance at my mother who did not look convinced. Clearly, if I was ever going to see the inside of the Kentucky Theater again, I needed to finish big. Mustering all my seven year-old acting ability, I managed to squeeze out a few tears as I recalled that the best part of the movie was how great Jesus had been to everybody and that maybe (I wasn’t entirely sure about this part) he might have also healed a passing cripple.

There was a stunned silence. Not exactly sure what to do next, I gazed out the car window and started to hum the only hymn I could remember (a hymn that I would later learn was entitled “Bringing in the Sheaves.” At the time, I thought it was called “Bringing in the Cheese.”) Nobody said anything for a few minutes. When I glanced at my mother’s face again, I saw that her expression had relaxed and she seemed to be blinking back tears. I had hit pay dirt. All my mother ever really wanted out of life was for her children to be safe in the arms of Jesus. She knew I was a somewhat “imaginative” child. I don't think she believed for a minute that Jesus had actually appeared in the movie, but I think she believed I thought I had seen him.

Oddly, I never felt guilty about having retooled the plot of “Hercules” that afternoon. I knew I wasn’t supposed to lie, but I honestly didn’t feel like I had. In my mind, I'd been telling my mother a terrific story and when she started to become frightened by the plot, I had simply changed it. Even at that age, I sensed my Mom's life wasn’t easy and that she worried about our fragile futures. In my heart, I knew that watching “Hercules” had not hurt me in any way. In fact, in it I had found a kind of life raft. I was not a particularly popular kid and already spent most of my time trying to be invisible. Although it was never discussed, the “no movie” rule sort of evaporated (at least for me) and I was quietly allowed to attend whenever we could afford it. I think a silent understanding formed between my mom and me. Just like the stories in the Bible offered comfort to her, the stories in movies and TV shows would, in the years to come, allow me to filter and frame my experiences, offering me hope for a life I could distantly see and might someday achieve.

A few weeks later, I sat next to my mother on the piano bench during church (she was the regular pianist). I had, by then, gotten to see “Jason and the Argonauts” and boy did I love it! Next weekend, “Son of Hercules” was coming to the theater and I could hardly wait. Life was good. Hercules could lift boulders. Love could bend rules. Now, it was my turn. Straightening my clip-on tie, I sat up straight the way she liked me to, and decided to make my Mom proud by proving that I knew all the words to the hymn she was playing. I wanted all her church friends to see what a good job she was doing raising me, so I sang it as loud as I could. "Bringing in the Cheese! Bringing in the Cheese! We shall come rejoicing! Bringing in the Cheese!”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment

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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being discreetly middle-class in Hollywood at

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