Dec 17, 2012

Sword and Sandal

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.



  But the plots didn't worry about historical accuracy.  Hercules fought the Mongols; Maciste found his way to the 16th century Aztec Empire; another Hercules (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.









Kirk Morris (left), discovered while working as a gondalier in Venice, played Hercules, Maciste, and Anthar.  His villains included headhunters and the Tzar of Russia.










The peplum hero was a man-mountain, able to destroy entire enemy armies by flexing his superheroic biceps.  He was usually tied up and tortured two or three times, so he could struggle, his muscles glistening in the firelight of the Tzar's dungeon.  Sometimes other parts were clearly visible, as when Gordon Scott, a future Tarzan, played Maciste.

But buddy-bonding was conspicuously absent.  Men were sometimes comrades, but more usually competitors and back-stabbers.  Plots rarely involved rescuing men or sailing into the sunset with men.  Instead, there were always two women: an evil brunette (whom the hero spurned) and a virtuous blonde (whom he fell in love with).

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.