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The terms "peplum" (referring to the tunic-style Greek and Roman garment often worn by characters in the films) and "sword-and-sandal" were used in a condescending way by film critics. Later, the terms were embraced by fans of the films, similar to the terms "spaghetti western" or "shoot-'em-ups". Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi called the genre "Neo-Mythology".
While Hollywood filmmakers, such as D. W. Griffith with his 1916 Intolerance, peopled their historical epics with dramatic conflicts and realistic protagonists, many of the pepla merely took a real historical or Biblical event and used it as a backdrop for a simple heroic adventure tale, on a comic book level. The pepla are a specific class of Italian adventure or fantasy films that have subjects set in Biblical, medieval or classical antiquity, often with contrived plots based loosely on mythology, legendaryGreco-Roman history, or the other contemporary cultures of the time, such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Etruscans.
Most pepla featured a superhumanly strong man as the protagonist, such as Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Ursus or Italy's own popular folk hero Maciste. These supermen often rescued captive princesses from tyrannical despots and fought mythological creatures. In the cases where a superhuman protagonist was not involved, the main character would still possess uncanny fighting abilities and a razor sharp wit.
Not all the films were fantasy-based, however. Many featured actual historical personalities such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Hannibal, although great liberties were taken with the storylines. Gladiators, pirates, knights, Vikings, and slaves rebelling against tyrannical kings were also popular subjects. But, similar to the American serials of the 1940s, the peplum always focuses on the hero's narrow escapes from the most preposterous dangers throughout the course of the film.
A 100 minute documentary on the history of Italy's peplum genre was produced and directed by Antonio Avati in 1977 entitled Kolossal: i magnifici Maciste.
The Maciste silent film series (1914-1927)
Italian filmmakers led the way in the peplum genre with some of the earliest silent films dealing with the subject, including The Sack of Rome (1905), The Fall of Troy (1911) and the sensational silent version of Quo Vadis? (1913).
The 1914 Italian silent film Cabiria was one of the first peplum films to make use of a massively muscled character, Maciste (played by actor Bartolomeo Pagano) who served in this premiere film as the hero's slavishly loyal sidekick. Maciste became the public's favorite character in the film however, and Pagano was called back many times to reprise the role. The Maciste character appeared in at least two dozen Italian silent films from 1914 through 1926, all of which featured a protagonist named Maciste although the films were set in many different time periods and geographical locations. Here is a complete list of the silent Maciste films in chronological order:
Maciste poliziotto ("Maciste the Detective", 1917)
Maciste turista ("Maciste the Tourist", 1917)
Maciste sonnambulo ("Maciste the Sleepwalker", 1918)
La Rivincita di Maciste ("The Revenge of Maciste", 1919)
Il Testamento di Maciste ("Maciste's Will", 1919)
Il Viaggio di Maciste ("Maciste's Journey", 1919)
Maciste I ("Maciste the First", 1919)
Maciste contro la morte ("Maciste vs Death", 1919)
Maciste innamorato ("Maciste in Love", 1919)
Maciste in vacanza ("Maciste on Vacation", 1920)
Maciste salvato dalle acque ("Maciste, Rescued from the Waters", 1920)
Maciste e la figlia del re della plata ("Maciste and the Silver King's Daughter", 1922)
Maciste und die Japanerin ("Maciste and the Japanese", 1922)
Maciste contro Maciste ("Maciste vs Maciste", 1923)
Maciste und die chinesische truhe ("Maciste and the Chinese Trunk", 1923)
Maciste e il nipote di America ("Maciste's American Nephew", 1924)
Maciste imperatore ("Emperor Maciste", 1924)
Maciste contro lo sceicco ("Maciste vs the Sheik", 1925)
Maciste all'inferno ("Maciste in Hell", 1926)
Maciste nella gabbia dei leoni ("Maciste in the Lions' Den", 1926)
il Gigante delle Dolemite ("The Giant From the Dolomite", 1927)
Sound film era
The Italian film industry released several historical films in the early sound era, such as the big-budget Scipione l'Africano (Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal) in 1937. In 1949, the postwar Italian film industry remade Fabiola (which had been previously filmed twice in the silent era). The film was released in the United Kingdom and in the United States in 1951 in an edited, English-dubbed version.
During the 1950s, a number of American historical epics shot in Italy were released. In 1951, MGM producer Sam Zimbalist cleverly used the lower production costs, use of frozen funds and the expertise of the Italian film industry to shoot the large-scale epic Quo Vadis in Rome. In addition to its fictional account linking the Great Fire of Rome, the Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and Emperor Nero, the film - following the novel "Quo vadis" by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz - featured also a mighty protagonist named Ursus (Italian filmmakers later made several pepla in the 1960s exploiting the Ursus character). MGM also planned Ben Hur to be filmed in Italy as early as 1952.
To cash in on the success of the Kirk Douglas film Ulysses, Pietro Francisci planned to make a film about Hercules, but searched unsuccessfully for years for a physcially convincing yet experienced actor. His daughter spotted AmericanbodybuilderSteve Reeves in the American film Athena and he was hired to play the mighty demigod when the film was made in 1957.
The genre's instantaneous growth began with the U.S. theatrical release of Hercules in 1959. American producer Joseph E. Levine acquired the U.S. distribution rights for $120,000, spent $1 million promoting the film and made more than $5 million profit. This spawned the 1959 Steve Reeves sequel Hercules Unchained, the 1959 re-release of Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), and literally dozens of imitations that followed in their wake. Italian filmmakers resurrected their 1920s Maciste character in a brand new 1960s sound film series (1960-1964), followed rapidly by Ursus, Samson, Goliath, Sandokan and various other mighty-muscled heroes. These films all featured similar bodybuilder stars such as Reg Park, Gordon Scott, Mark Forest, Brad Harris, Dan Vadis, and Alan Steel. European audiences tended to prefer an Anglo-American in the lead, so Italian bodybuilders would adopt English pseudonyms for the screen (Sergio Ciani became Alan Steel, Lou Degni became Mark Forest, etc.).
In the formulaic plots common to many of the films, two women vied for the affection of the bodybuilder hero: the good love interest (a damsel in distress needing rescue), and an evil femme fatale queen who sought to dominate the hero. The films often featured an ambitious ruler who would ascend the throne by murdering whomever stood in his path, and often it was only the muscular hero who could depose him. Most of the films involved an impending clash between two warring populations, one civilized and the other evilly barbaric. Thus many pepla begin with the scene of a peaceful, defenseless village being burned to the ground by a wild barbarian horde. For their musical content, most films contained a well-choreographed belly-dancing sequence or a colorful ballet, meant to underline the pagan decadence of the villains. The contrived plots, poorly overdubbeddialogue, novice acting skills of the bodybuilder leads, and primitive special effects that were often inadequate to depict the mythological creatures on screen all conspire to give these films a certain camp appeal now.
To be sure, however, many of the films enjoyed widespread popularity among general audiences, and had production values that were typical for popular films of their day. Some films included frequent reuse of the impressive film sets that had been created for Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. Although many of the bigger budget pepla were released theatrically in the USA, fourteen of them were released directly to Embassy Picturestelevision in a syndicated TV package called The Sons of Hercules. The movies were made into a series of sorts by splicing on the same opening and closing theme song and newly designed voice-over narration that desperately attempted to link the protagonist of each film to the Hercules mythos, since few American viewers had a familiarity with Italian film heroes such as Maciste or Ursus. These films ran on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s. Often ridiculed for their low budgets and bad English dubbing, several of them have been subjects for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
The films are listed below by their American release titles, and the titles in parentheses are their original Italian titles with an approximate English translation. Dates shown are the original Italian theatrical release dates, not necessarily the U.S. release dates (which were years later in many cases).
Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole / The Labors of Hercules, 1958) starring Steve Reeves
Hercules Unchained (Ercole e la regina di Lidia / Hercules and the Queen of Lydia, 1959) starring Steve Reeves
Goliath and the Dragon (La vendetta di Ercole / The Revenge of Hercules, 1960) starring Mark Forest (this Hercules film had its title changed to Goliath when it was distributed in the U.S.)
Hercules Vs The Hydra (Gli amori di Ercole / The Loves of Hercules, 1960) co-starring Mickey Hargitay & Jayne Mansfield
Hercules and the Captive Women (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide / Hercules at the Conquest of Atlantis, 1961) starring Reg Park (alternate U.S. title: Hercules and the Haunted Women)
Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra / Hercules at the Center of the Earth, 1961) directed by Mario Bava, starring Reg Park
Samson and His Mighty Challenge (Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus: gli invincibili / Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: The Invincibles) starring Alan Steel as Hercules, 1964 (a.k.a. Combate dei Gigantes or Le Grand Defi)
Hercules and the Princess of Troy (No Italian title) starring Gordon Scott, 1965 (a.k.a. Hercules vs the Sea Monster) --- This U.S./ Italian co-production was made as a pilot for a Charles Band-produced TV series that never materialized & it was later distributed as a feature film.
Hercules the Avenger (Sfida dei giganti / Challenge of the Giants) starring Reg Park, 1965 (This film was composed mostly of re-edited footage from the two 1961 Reg Park Hercules films.)
A number of English-dubbed Italian films that featured the Hercules name in their titles were never intended to be Hercules films by their Italian creators....
Hercules Against the Moon Men, Hercules Against the Barbarians, Hercules Against the Mongols and Hercules of the Desert were all originally Maciste films. (See "Maciste" section below)
Hercules and the Black Pirate and Hercules and the Treasure of the Incas were both retitled Samson movies. (See "Samson" section below)
Hercules, Prisoner of Evil was actually a retitled Ursus film. (See "Ursus" section below)
Hercules and the Masked Rider was actually a retitled Goliath movie. (See "Goliath" section below)
None of these films in their original Italian versions involved the Hercules character in any way. Likewise, most of the Sons of Hercules movies shown on American TV in the 1960s had nothing to do with Hercules in their original Italian incarnations.
There were a total of 25 Maciste films from the 1960s peplum craze (not counting the two dozen silent Maciste films made in Italy pre-1930). By 1960, seeing how well the two Steve Reeves Hercules films were doing at the box office, Italian producers decided to revive the 1920s silent film character Maciste in a new series of color/sound films. Unlike the other Italian peplum protagonists, Maciste found himself in a variety of time periods ranging from the Ice Age to 16th Century Scotland. Maciste was never given an origin, and the source of his mighty powers was never revealed. However, in the first film of the 1960s series, he mentions to another character that the name "Maciste" means "born of the rock" (almost as if he was a god who would just appear out of the earth itself in times of need). One of the 1920s silent Maciste films was actually entitled "The Giant from the Dolomite", hinting that Maciste may be more god than man, which would explain his great strength.
The first title listed for each film is the film's original Italian title along with its English translation, while the U.S. release title follows in bold type in parentheses. (Note how many times Maciste's name in the Italian title is altered to an entirely different name in the American title):
Totò contro Maciste / Totò vs Maciste (no American title, 1962) starring Samson Burke; this was a comedy satirizing the peplum genre (part of the Italian "Toto" film series) and was never distributed in the USA; it is apparently not available in English
In 1973, the Spanish cult film director Jesus Franco directed two low-budget "Maciste films" for French producers: Maciste contre la Reine des Amazones (Maciste vs the Queen of the Amazons) and Les exploits érotiques de Maciste dans l'Atlantide (The Erotic Exploits of Maciste in Atlantis). The films had almost identical casts, both starring Val Davis as Maciste, and appear to have been shot back-to-back. The former was distributed in Italy as a "Karzan" movie (a cheap Tarzan imitation), while the latter film was released only in France with hardcore inserts as Les Gloutonnes ("The Gobblers"). These two films were totally unrelated to the 1960s Italian Maciste series.
Ursus series (1960-1964)
Following Buddy Baer's portrayal of Ursus in the classic 1951 film Quo Vadis, Ursus was used as a superhuman Roman-era character who became the protagonist in a series of Italian adventure films made in the early 1960s.
When the "Hercules" film craze hit in 1959, Italian filmmakers were looking for other muscleman characters similar to Hercules whom they could exploit, resulting in the nine-film Ursus series listed below. Ursus was referred to as a "Son of Hercules" in two of the films when they were dubbed in English (in an attempt to cash in on the then-popular "Hercules" craze), although in the original Italian films, Ursus had no connection to Hercules whatsoever. In the English-dubbed version of one Ursus film (retitled Hercules, Prisoner of Evil), Ursus was actually referred to throughout the entire film as "Hercules".
There were a total of nine Italian films that featured Ursus as the main character, listed below as follows: Italian title / English translation of the Italian title (American release title);
Ursus e la Ragazza Tartara / Ursus and the Tartar Girl (Ursus and the Tartar Princess, 1961) a.k.a. The Tartar Invasion, a.k.a. The Tartar Girl; starring Joe Robinson, Akim Tamiroff, Yoko Tani; directed by Remigio Del Grosso
Gli Invincibili Tre / The Invincible Three (Three Avengers, 1964) starring Alan Steel as Ursus
Samson series (1961-1964)
A character named Samson was featured in a series of five Italian peplum films in the 1960s, no doubt inspired by the 1959 re-release of the epic Victor Mature film "Samson and Delilah". The character was similar to the Biblical Samson in the third and fifth films only; in the other three, he just appears to be a very strong man (not related at all to the Biblical figure).
The titles are listed as follows: Italian title / its English translation (U.S. release title in parentheses);
Sansone / Samson (Samson) 1961, starring Brad Harris, a.k.a. in France as Samson Against Hercules
The name Samson was also inserted into the U.S. titles of six other Italian movies when they were dubbed in English for U.S. distribution, although these films actually featured the adventures of the famed Italian folk hero Maciste.
Samson and the Treasure of the Incas (a.k.a. Hercules and the Treasure of the Incas) (1965) sounds like a peplum title, but was actually a spaghetti western.
Goliath series (1960-1964)
The Italians used Goliath as the superhero protagonist in a series of adventure films (pepla) in the early 1960s. He was a man possessed of amazing strength, although he seemed to be a different person in each film. After the classic Hercules (1958) became a blockbuster sensation in the film industry, a 1959 Steve Reeves film Il terrore dei barbari (Terror of the Barbarians) was retitled Goliath and the Barbarians in the USA. The film was so successful at the box office, it inspired Italian filmmakers to do a series of four more films featuring a generic beefcake hero named Goliath, although the films were not related to each other in any way. (The 1960 Italian peplum David and Goliath starring Orson Welles was not part of this series, since that movie was just a historical retelling of the Biblical story).
The titles in the Italian Goliath adventure series were as follows:
The name Goliath was also inserted into the English titles of 3 other Italian pepla that were retitled for U.S. distribution in an attempt to cash in on the Goliath craze, but these films were not originally made as "Goliath movies" in Italy.
Goliath and the Dragon (1960) was originally an Italian Hercules movie called The Revenge of Hercules, but it was retitled to "Goliath and the Dragon" in the U.S. since at the time "Goliath and the Barbarians" was breaking box-office records, and at the time, the distributors may have believed the name "Hercules" was trademarked by distributor Joseph E. Levine.
The Sons of Hercules (TV syndication package)
The Sons of Hercules was a syndicated television show that aired in the United States in the 1960s. The series repackaged 14 randomly chosen Italian peplum films by unifying them with memorable title and end title theme songs and a standard voice-over intro relating the main hero in each film to Hercules any way they could. In some areas, each film was split into two one-hour episodes, so the 14 films were shown as 28 weekly episodes. None of the films were theatrically released in the USA.
The films are not listed in chronological order, since they were not really related to each other in any way. The first title listed below for each film was its American broadcast television title, followed by the English translation of the original Italian theatrical title in parentheses:
Steve Reeves appeared in 14 pepla made in Italy from 1958 to 1964, and most of his films are highly regarded examples of the genre. His pepla are listed below in order of production, not in order of release. The U.S. release titles are shown below, followed by the original Italian title & its translation (in parentheses)
Hercules (1958) (Le fatiche di Ercole / The Labors of Hercules) filmed in 1957, released in Italy in 1958, released in U.S.A. in 1959
Hercules Unchained (1959) (Ercole e la regina di Lidia / Hercules and the Queen of Lydia) released in USA 1960
Pirates of Malaysia (1964) a.k.a. Sandokan, the Pirate of Malaysia, a.k.a. Pirates of the Seven Seas; this was a sequel to Sandokan the Great, directed by Umberto Lenzi
Other (non-series) Italian pepla
There were many 1950s and 1960s Italian pepla that did not feature a major superhero (such as Hercules, Maciste or Samson), and as such they fall into a sort of miscellaneous category. Many were of the Cappa e spada (swashbuckler) variety, though they often feature well-known characters such as Ali Baba, Julius Caesar, Ulysses, Cleopatra, The Three Musketeers, Theseus, Perseus, Achilles, Robin Hood, and Sandokan. The first really successful Italian films of that kind were Black Eagle from 1946, and Fabiola from 1949.
Inspired by the success of Spartacus, there were a number of Italian peplums that heavily emphasized the gladiatorial arena in their plots, with it becoming almost a peplum subgenre in itself; One group of supermen known as "The Ten Gladiators" appeared in a trilogy, all three films starring Dan Vadis in the lead role.
Alone Against Rome (1962) a.k.a. Vengeance of the Gladiators
Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) Rosanna Podesta, U.S./ Italian film shot in Italy
Story of Joseph and his Brethren, The (1960)
Sword and the Cross, The (1958) a.k.a. Mary Magdalene, Gianna Maria Canale
With the interest in the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra film shot in Rome, several Italian films sought to ride its wave of publicity. 20th Century Fox bought the rights for two of them to keep them out of release.
After the peplum gave way to the Spaghetti Western and Eurospy films in 1965, the genre lay dormant for close to 20 years. Then in 1982, the box-office success of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian spurred a second renaissance of sword and sorcery Italian pepla in the five years immediately following. Most of these films had low budgets, focusing more on barbarians and pirates so as to avoid the need for expensive Greco-Roman sets. The filmmakers tried to compensate for their shortcomings with the addition of some graphic gore and nudity. Many of these 1980s entries were helmed by noted Italian horror film directors (Joe D'Amato, Lucio Fulci, Luigi Cozzi, etc.) and many featured actors Lou Ferrigno and Sabrina Siani. Here is a list of the 1980s pepla:
Adam and Eve (1983) aka Adamo ed Eva, la prima storia d'amore, has stock footage from One Million Years B.C. (1966)
^p.73 Frayling, Christopher Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone I.B.Tauris, 2006
^Labbe, Rod Steve Reeves: Demi-God on HorsebackFilms of the Golden Age
Richard Dyer: "The White Man's Muscles" in R. Dyer: White: London: Routledge: 1997: ISBN0-415-09537-9
David Chapman: Retro Studs: Muscle Movie Posters from Around the World: Portland: Collectors Press: 2002: ISBN1-888054-69-7
Hervé Dumont, L'Antiquité au cinéma. Vérités, légendes et manipulations (Nouveau-Monde, 2009; ISBN2-84736-434-X)
Florent Fourcart, Le Péplum italien (1946-1966) : Grandeur et décadence d'une antiquité populaire (2012, CinExploitation; ISBN291551786X)
Maggie Gunsberg: "Heroic Bodies: The Culture of Masculinity in Peplums" in M. Gunsberg: Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre: Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan: 2005: ISBN0-333-75115-9
Patrick Lucanio, With Fire and Sword: Italian Spectacles on American Screens, 1958-1968 (Scarecrow Press, 1994; ISBN0810828162)
Irmbert Schenk: "The Cinematic Support to Nationalist(ic) Mythology: The Italian Peplum 1910-1930" in Natascha Gentz and Stefan Kramer (eds) Globalization, Cultural Identities and Media Representations: Albany: State University of New York Press: 2006: ISBN0-7914-6684-1
Stephen Flacassier: "Muscles, Myths and Movies": Rabbit's Garage: 1994 : ISBN0-9641643-0-2