Let’s talk about Italy’s staggeringly popular “peplum” film genre, a.k.a “sword-and-sandal” and “sword-and-sinew” cinema or, as Peter Graves described them in Airplane, “gladiator movies.”
The word refers to the simple Greek-style tunic common in the costuming of everything from biblical tales to down and dirty monster-vs.-muscleman late-show/drive-in fare. The first era of peplum in Italian cinema saw brawny folk hero Machiste battle evil warlords and supernatural creatures in a string of over two dozen hugely popular silent-era fantasies from 1914 to 1927. That strongman made a comeback in the 1950s, coinciding with Hollywood’s biblical epic boom, but it was another hero, drawn from classical mythology, who came to define Italian peplum: Hercules.
Kirk Douglas in Ulysses
Italy didn’t do period films best, but they did do them most. Rome’s movie moguls made their fortunes exploiting Hollywood hits like strip miners, identifying a hit film’s core genre components and replicating them ad nauseam. The 1954 Kirk Douglas vehicle Ulysses would serve as such a model for success: find a story from mythology or folklore that you don’t have to pay royalties for; import a foreign star (preferably American) for the marquee; load up on special effects, weird creatures, damsels in distress and femme fatales; and do it all as inexpensively as possible.
The 1959 breakout film Hercules, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves, was the result. Twenty and or so sequels followed, starring a variety of shirtless and oiled-up heroes: from former Tarzans like Gordon Scott and Mickey Hargitay (husband of Jayne Mansfield and father to Law & Order’s Mariska Hargitay) to Peter Lupus of Mission: Impossible fame. They played Hercules or any of his myriad spawn—like Ursus—as well as other warriors of myth and legend like Samson, Atlas and Goliath.
It also didn’t hurt to have a monster in the title of the movie, as evidenced by hits like Hercules vs. the Moon Men, Hercules vs. the Hydra, Goliath and the Dragon, Mole Men vs. the Son of Hercules, Colossus and the Headhunters, and so many more wherein the likes of Medusa and the Cyclops fall victim to hurled styrofoam boulders and broken paper-mâché chains.
But in 1964, sword-and-sandal cinema was slain almost overnight by a single man, a man with no name—more specifically, Clint Eastwood, the unnamed hero of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The explosive success of that film turned Rome’s studios and producers like a school of fish. Over the next decade, hundreds of “spaghetti westerns” were churned out, filmed in the same locations that just before had been dressed as the ancient world.
Westerns would dominate Italy’s film industry until the next big exploitation wave: Godfather-inspired gangster films, followed in the 1980s by a genre fragmentation that was a product of the home video revolution. Cheap Italian knock-offs of The Road Warrior and Dawn of the Dead filled grindhouse theaters and video store shelves with viral-like rapidity, but these genres were all dwarfed by the huge output of new fantasy flicks driven by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic portrayal of Conan the Barbarian and the John Boorman epic Excalibur. Films like Ator the Fighting Eagle, Conquest, Ironmaster and Yor: Hunter from the Future all used recycled props, sets and locations dusted off from the peplum craze of decades previous. There was even a Hercules reboot with TV’s Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno battling Star Wars-inspired robotic monsters.
And peplum has returned again recently, through Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and even two new Hercules films that came out as recently as last year: The Legend of Hercules, with Twilight’s Kellan Lutz, and Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Hercules and his ilk are truly immortal.
In addition to working a dozen years in graphic design for LA Opera, lifelong “Monster Kid” Keith J. Rainville is the publisher of pioneering lucha libre and Mexican cinema magazine From Parts Unknown, the author of Zombi Mexicano, screenwriter of the Fox-Azteca feature Los Campeones de la Lucha Libre and designer of the Rondo Award-nominated book The Outer Limits at 50. He hasn’t had this much fun at the opera since The Fly.
A scene from Zack Snyder's 300