Sword-and-sandal, also known as peplum (pepla plural), is a subgenre of largely Italian-made historical, mythological, or Biblical epics mostly set in the Greco-Roman antiquity or the Middle Ages. These films attempted to emulate the big-budget Hollywood historical epics of the time, such as Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. These films dominated the Italian film industry from 1958 to 1965, eventually being replaced in 1965 by spaghetti Western and Eurospy films.
The term "peplum" (a Latin word referring to the Ancient Greek garment peplos), was introduced by French film critics in the 1960s. The terms "peplum" 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". In their English versions, peplum films can be immediately differentiated from their Hollywood counterparts by their use of "clumsy and inadequate" English language dubbing. 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 (aka Kino Kolossal).
Sword-and-sandal films are a specific class of Italian adventure films that have subjects set in Biblical or classical antiquity, often with plots based more or less loosely on Greco-Roman history or the other contemporary cultures of the time, such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Etruscans, as well as medieval times. Not all of the films were fantasy-based by any means. Many of the plots featured actual historical personalities such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Hannibal, although great liberties were taken with the storylines. Gladiators and slaves rebelling against tyrannical rulers, pirates and swashbucklers were also popular subjects.
As Robert Rushing defines it, peplum, "in its most stereotypical form, [...] depicts muscle-bound heroes (professional bodybuilders, athletes, wrestlers, or brawny actors) in mythological antiquity, fighting fantastic monsters and saving scantily clad beauties. Rather than lavish epics set in the classical world, they are low-budget films that focus on the hero's extraordinary body." Thus, most sword-and-sandal films featured a superhumanly strong man as the protagonist, such as Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Ursus or Italy's own popular folk hero Maciste. In addition, the plots typically involved two women vying 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.
Also, the films typically featured an ambitious ruler who would ascend the throne by murdering those who stood in his path, and often it was only the muscular hero who could depose him. Thus the hero's often political goal: "to restore a legitimate sovereign against an evil dictator."
Many of the peplum films involved a clash between two populations, one civilized and the other barbaric, which typically included a scene of a village or city being burned to the ground by invaders. For their musical content, most films contained a colorful dancing girls sequence, meant to underline pagan decadence.
Italian filmmakers paved the way for the peplum genre with some of the earliest silent films dealing with the subject, including the following:
The 1914 Italian silent film Cabiria was one of the first films set in antiquity 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:
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. Fabiola was an Italian-French co-production like the following films The Last Days of Pompeii (1950) and Messalina (1951).
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 Technicolor 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.
Riccardo Freda's Sins of Rome was filmed in 1953 and released by RKO in an edited, English-dubbed version the following year. Unlike Quo Vadis, there were no American actors or production crew. The Anthony Quinn film Attila (directed by Pietro Francisci in 1954), the Kirk Douglas epic Ulysses (co-directed by an uncredited Mario Bava in 1954) and Helen of Troy (directed by Robert Wise with Sergio Leone as an uncredited second unit director in 1955) were the first of the big peplum films of the 1950s. Riccardo Freda directed another peplum, Theodora, Slave Empress in 1954, starring his wife Gianna Maria Canale. Howard Hawks directed his Land of the Pharaohs (starring Joan Collins) in Italy and Egypt in 1955. Robert Rossen made his film Alexander the Great in Egypt in 1956, with a music score by famed Italian composer Mario Nascimbene.
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 physically convincing yet experienced actor. His daughter spotted American bodybuilder Steve Reeves in the American film Athena and he was hired to play Hercules in 1957 when the film was made. (Reeves was paid $10,000 to star in the film).
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 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 and various other mighty-muscled heroes.
Almost all peplum films of this period featured bodybuilder stars, the most popular being Steve Reeves, Reg Park and Gordon Scott. Some of these stars, such as Mickey Hargitay, Reg Lewis, Mark Forest, Gordon Mitchell and Dan Vadis, had starred in Mae West's touring stage review in the United States in the 1950s. Bodybuilders of Italian origin, on the other hand, would adopt English pseudonyms for the screen; thus, stuntman Sergio Ciani became Alan Steel, and ex-gondolier Adriano Bellini was called Kirk Morris.
To be sure, 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 re-use 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 US, fourteen of them were released directly to Embassy Pictures television in a syndicated TV package called The Sons of Hercules. Since few American viewers had a familiarity with Italian film heroes such as Maciste or Ursus, the characters were renamed and the films molded into a series of sorts by splicing on the same opening and closing theme song and newly designed voice-over narration that attempted to link the protagonist of each film to the Hercules mythos. These films ran on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s.
Peplum films were, and still are, often ridiculed for their low budgets and bad English dubbing. The contrived plots, poorly overdubbed dialogue, 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. In the 1990s, several of them have been subjects of riffing and satire in the United States comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000.
However, in the early 1960s, a group of French critics, mostly writing for the Cahiers du cinéma, such as Luc Moullet, started to celebrate the genre and some of its directors, including Vittorio Cottafavi, Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava, Pietro Francisci, Duccio Tessari, and Sergio Leone. Not only directors, but also some of the screenwriters, often put together in teams, worked past the typically formulaic plot structure to include a mixture of "bits of philosophical readings and scraps of psychoanalysis, reflections on the biggest political systems, the fate of the world and humanity, fatalistic notions of accepting the will of destiny and the gods, anthropocentric belief in the powers of the human physique, and brilliant syntheses of military treatises".
With reference to the genre's free use of ancient mythology and other influences, Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi, who directed a number of peplum films, used the term "neo-mythologism".
A series of 19 Hercules movies were made in Italy in the late '50s and early '60s. The films were all sequels to the successful Steve Reeves peplum Hercules (1958), but with the exception of Hercules Unchained, each film was a stand-alone story not connected to the others. The actors who played Hercules in these films were Steve Reeves followed by Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris, Mickey Hargitay, Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (billed as Rock Stevens) and Mike Lane. In a 1997 interview, Reeves said he felt his two Hercules films could not be topped by another sequel, so he declined to do any more Hercules films.
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 the U.S. release dates (which were years later in some cases).
A number of English-dubbed Italian films that featured the word "Hercules" in the title were not made as Hercules movies originally, such as:
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 versions.
(see also The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962), an American-made genre parody starring peplum star Samson Burke as Hercules)
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 re-titled Goliath and the Barbarians in the U.S. 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 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)
The name Goliath was also inserted into the English titles of three other Italian pepla that were re-titled 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.
Both Goliath and the Vampires (1961) and Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (1963) actually featured the famed Italian folk hero Maciste in the original Italian versions, but American distributors did not feel the name "Maciste" meant anything to American audiences.
Goliath and the Dragon (1960) was originally an Italian Hercules movie called The Revenge of Hercules, but it was re-titled Goliath and the Dragon in the U.S. since at the time Goliath and the Barbarians was breaking box-office records, and the distributors may have thought the name "Hercules" was trademarked by distributor Joseph E. Levine.
Main article: Maciste
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):
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.
Main article: Ursus (film character)
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);
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);
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 Against the Sheik (1962), Son of Samson (1960), Samson and the Slave Queen (1963), Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (1961), Samson vs. the Giant King (1964), and Samson in King Solomon's Mines (1964) were all re-titled Maciste movies, because the American distributors did not feel the name Maciste was marketable to U.S. filmgoers.
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.
Main article: The Sons of Hercules
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 ever theatrically released in the U.S.
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 in parentheses by the English translation of its original Italian theatrical title:
Main article: Steve Reeves
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 and its translation (in parentheses)
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, Zorro, Theseus, Perseus, Achilles, Robin Hood, and Sandokan. The first really successful Italian films of this kind were Black Eagle (1946) and Fabiola (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.
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 successes of Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire (1981), Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Clash of the Titans (1981 film) (1981) 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, Miles O'Keeffe and Sabrina Siani. Here is a list of the 1980s pepla:
A group of so-called "porno peplum" films were devoted to Roman emperors, especially - but not only - to Caligula and Claudius' spouse Messalina:
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frammenti di letture filosofiche e briciole di psicanalisi, meditazioni sui massimi sistemi politici, sul destino del mondo e dell'umanità, concezioni fatalistiche di accetazione della volontà del destino e degli dei, fiducia antropocentrica nella potenza fisica e sintesi fulminee di trattatistica militare