The Real PEPLUM X : the influence of HERCULES (part 1)


Previous posts of the on-going subject can be read at the permanent page : link

Last week I mused about the proliferation of flesh in PEPLUM movies of the 1950s. Nudity was banned in Hollywood during that decade so the only option for producers and filmmakers was to be as fleshy as possible without being blasphemous. One could see casual or incidental nudity in films made in Europe but not in the US. The closest a film came to show full female nudity was the skimpy costume Lana Turner wore in the 1958 dull opus THE PRODIGAL (left). But that photo is a publicity shot and it's sorta different than how it actually appears in the final film. The display of skin in PEPLUM films, certainly Biblical films, is quite odd since most of those films were purported to be virtuous and approved by religious groups.






Last week I finished off with the worldwide success of HERCULES starring Steve Reeves and directed by Pietro Francisci. I'll write about the influence the modest Italian film had on the genre but also on the way it shaped people's mores towards the disrobing the human body. Aside from the fact that HERCULES is excellent, the big reason for its success was the addition of Mr America himself, Steve Reeves. What didn't work in ATHENA clicked in this film. Audiences were amazed by the bodybuilder’s physique. Aside from Tarzan films, most actors who appeared sans shirts in those days had a sorta average built, not the super cut physique of Reeves. His body was unlike anything audiences back then had ever seen on the big screen or something outside of a “Physique pictorials” magazine of the day, which were very popular then with the increased interest in bodybuilding. On the right is future PEPLUM star Ed Fury on the cover of such a magazine.

Before appearing in HERCULES, Reeves  starred in a musical called ATHENA (left). Even though he was featured extensively in bodybuilding mode in it, ATHENA wasn't a success at the box office but it did give a preview of things to come. ATHENA was a mixed bag of ideas (to say the least) and it disappeared quickly from the radar. Unlike HERCULES, the impressive amount of beefy flesh on display failed to generate any interest in Reeves, except for Pietro Francisci who noticed him after seeing it and hired Reeves to play Hercules. And the rest is history.

Mimmo Palmara, Gabriele Antonini and Steve Reeves in HERCULES (1958)

Steve Reeves was in such demand after HERCULES became a hit that he made 5 films in a row : GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS, HERCULES UNCHAINED, WHITE WARRIOR, THE GIANT OF MARATHON and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, all made in 1958-59. All hits. He was also the highest paid American actor in Europe at that time.

Producers in Europe capitalized on this new angle to sell a story by hiring other bodybuilders or male models to star in their productions, like Ed Fury, Mark Forest, Gordon Mitchell, Gordon Scott, Alan Steel, Kirk Morris and a long list of other men. Hundreds of films of the PEPLUM genre were made and released between 1958 and 1965. Regardless of where the stories were set, Greece or Egypt or Rome or were pirate epics, it didn't matter, most featured one beefy actor listed above. This "PEPLUM explosion" lasted a good 7 years before interest slowly died, certainly after the failure of the gargantuan CLEOPATRA (1963) and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964) zapped any interest the general audience had with films set in Antiquity. Subsequently, Italian / European films also fell victim of this backlash.

Laurence Olivier and John Gavin in SPARTACUS (1960)

Those two massive productions were, oddly enough, pretty much devoid of any beefcake. Was this one of the reasons for their failures? Not really. Both films were just too dense to be enjoyable. But then it wouldn't have hurt them if they had included such scenes. Even prestigious films like SPARTACUS (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick, took note of the success of HERCULES and included some of the prerequisite "beefcake" moments, with John Gavin, a minor character in the story, spending a lot of time in the sauna. The influence of HERCULES could be seen everywhere. Films that were made before it altered the way their re-releases were advertised.


The poster on the left was the poster used for its original release and the poster on the right is the one used for its re-release, after HERCULES became a hit. Muscles were a selling point.

Try as they may, few Hollywood productions were able to duplicate the success of the Italian ones and even if they made some attempts to copy them in one form or another, such as THE 300 SPARTANS or SOLOMON & SHEBA. In the end, Hollywood was simply too reluctant to compete with the unflinching display of the male physique seen in Italian productions.

More to come...

2 comments:

Scott Ochiltree said...

I agree that "The Prodigal" was a big disappointment, and that Peplum flicks were usually best left to the Italians.

However, there were some excellent Hollywood Ancient World films. These include: (1) "Quo Vadis," (2) "The Robe," (3) "The Ten Commandments," and (4) "Ben Hur."

Some big budget Hollywood flops in this genre were: (1) "The Silver Chalice," (2) "The Prodigal," (3) "Helen of Troy," (4) "The Fall of the Roman Empire," and "Cleopatra" (the Liz Taylor snooze fest, not DeMille's brilliant 1934 version).

Paul Newman famously later apologized for his performance in "The Silver Chalice."

"Helen of Troy" was a good film, but the bizarre decision to use European rather than American big time stars in the two leading roles hurt it at the US box office.

Richard Svensson said...

The only British/US production I can think of that seemed to stand on its own legs at least in some ways apart from the Italian influence was "Jason and the Argonauts". The fantasy world in that movie looks quite different to me than the majority of the Italian Peplums, though I have noticed swords and possibly other props and costumes being recruited from Italian wardrobe departments. The closest to "Jason" in style and mood would be Mario Bava's films, I'd say.