Steve Reeves didn't invent the genre of Italian peplum ("toga") or sword-and-sandal, about a toga-clad demigod fighting oppression in a vaguely ancient Greek or Roman setting. But he introduced it to the world. Between 1957 and 1967, peplum was the most popular Italian movie export, even more popular than the artistic masterworks of Fellini and Antonioni.
The hero was always a legendary muscleman: Goliath and Samson from the Bible, Hercules from Greek myth; Maciste from ancient Rome; Ursus from the movie Quo Vadis (1951). Alan Steel (right) played both Samson and Hercules. Samson Burke was a rare bodybuilder who played mostly villains.
Giuliano Gemma) visited the Incas; an Arabian Nights setting involved Samson, who was born 1500 years before Mohammed. There were even science fiction and horror movies; the hero fought vampires and moon men.
Many Mr. Universes (such as Ed Fury, right) were hired to play the mythic hero, giving bodybuilders their first roles other than self-absorbed beach-bunnies, and giving millions of gay boys their first crushes.
The heroes were nice to look at, but they offered no glimpse of a "good place."
The very informative Peplum blog gives a rundown of many of the movies.