The Real PEPLUM X : Beefcake and Cheesecake

After last week’s post, The Pantless Hero, it was pretty safe to say that the disrobing of the human body, the male body to be more precise, was a done thing. A film could pretty much show almost anything about the male physique except for full frontal nudity and it was still ok, certainly in European films. Aside from Tarzan films and Santo films from Mexico, no other genre featured so much beefcake as the PEPLUM genre. The Pantless Hero remained a European thing though.

It seems in those days that the objectification of the male body was a new thing and because of this things were much more permissible back then since no one saw the men in a sexual manner. But today, with the occurrence of the objectification of the male physique being more prevalent than ever, the trend now is going backwards. Aside from 300, the two recent HERCULES films, and maybe even TROY, today’s PEPLUM films have gone back to covering up the male physique. Just look at the new BEN-HUR or the new TARZAN film in which he wears pants throughout the film. No loincloth. Today, in 2016, Tarzan is not a Pantless Hero anymore. Very little of the PEPLUM genre's casual disregard to the male physique would be acceptable to modern audiences.

It’s funny that a time when showing a navel was controversial and yet Italian filmmakers could basically show anything of a man, including bulge or buttocks, and get away with it. This is the interesting aspect of the genre, and really shows how these films helped loosen up the collective mores of the time. These days, full nudity occurs on a regular basis on cable shows, such as the SPARTACUS series, but not so much in movies anymore as studios want to avoid the once coveted but now dreaded R-rated classification.

A very masculine Gordon Scott showing his mettle in GOLIATH & THE REBEL SLAVE. Few modern actors would agree to wear something like this today

As I mentioned previously, this is a cultural thing. Italians have no issues with displaying the human body with the prevalence of art displaying it in all its form. To them, showing skin was a masculine thing. It's a way for a man to display his 'mettle,' sorta speaking. It's complete opposite in Hollywood. The more covered up the men are, the more masculine he is.

So while the male body was displayed generously in films of the genre, the female body, though seen in ample bussomy dresses and togas, simply didn't compare. This is not to say there weren’t any sexy women wearing next to nothing in these films. They were but they, like their Hollywood counterparts, were still pretty shy in displaying anything close to partial or full female nudity. In PEPLUM films, the men often wore much less than the women. This would eventually change by the mid-1960s and definitely during the 1970s.

The closest they ever came to showing female nudity would be the ubiquitous "bathing beauty" scenes, of actresses taking bathes which was an easy way of teasing audiences with the promise of skin. But then DeMille did this back in the 1930s with SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR and things hadn't changed much since then.

Lisa Gastoni in THE LAST GLADIATOR (aka Messalina vs Son of Hercules)

The fun part of the PEPLUM genre is how each film can be categorized very specifically, by clichés, by type (swashbuckler, Egyptian, etc), level of kinkiness, etc. And of course one could categorize these films simply by virtue of the level of Beefcake and Cheesecake in them. On a scale of 1 (non-existent) to 10 (plenty), here’s a quick rundown of some titles :


HERCULES UNCHAINED - Beefcake level : 10 - Cheesecake level : 8



THE GIANTS OF THESSALY - Beefcake : 11 (off the scale) - Cheesecake : 7



SAPPHO THE VENUS OF LEBOS - Beefcake : 7 - Cheesecake : 10



ALI BABA & THE SEVEN SARACENS - Beefcake 8 - Cheesecake : 8



VULCAN - SON OF JUPITER - Beefcake : 10 - Cheesecake : 10



THE SEVEN REVENGES - Beefcake : 8 - Cheesecake : 6



MACISTE IN HELL - Beefcake : 10 - Cheesecake : 5



SODOM & GOMORRAH - Beefcake : 7 - Cheesecake : 7


This is the main difference between films set in contemporary times and films of the PEPLUM genre. There's ALWAYS some cheesecake or beefcake in them. It's de rigueur. A PEPLUM film without those elements is not a PEPLUM film. But Beefcake and Cheesecake is not the same as actual nudity, which many people eventually caught on and realized that most films from Europe featured very little actual nudity and their cachet eventually evaporated. The hype was just that, hype. Nudity was shown but mostly in films set in modern times. They were the exception not the rule. Things would change by the mid to late 1960s, but before that very little actual nudity was shown. Just the promise of nudity.

One of the best examples of this would be the woefully misconceived SODOM & GOMORRAH. The film lacked any nudity or sex, or anything sexy or lascivious. You’d think that with a film based on the legendary orgiastic stories of the most sinful cities in Antiquity would have been at the very least filled with flesh but no, it was all smoke and mirrors. HERCULES had more flesh in it that the  Robert Aldrich film. Predictably, the very costly SODOM & GOMORRAH bombed at the box office. Those looking for a pious piece of entertainment avoided the potentially lurid subject and those who went to see it for some skin were disappointed by the complete lack of any hot stuff.

The one aspect of SODOM & GOMORRAH that resembled previous films of the genre were the overtly kinky tone of many scenes. What they couldn't achieve from the lack of nudity they tried to make up with lurid stuff, like whipping, torture, hints of incest, etc. Though not even close to the same level of kinkiness found in Cecil B DeMille films, the kinkiness was pretty much obvious and director Aldrich clearly enjoyed himself with playing with these ideas though it gave an unpleasant feel to the entire project. Kinkiness without sexiness is not really palatable. The cast of SODOM & GOMORRAH is sexy but the execution of it all was turgid at best.

Next week, the innately kinky aspects of the PEPLUM genre

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1 comment:

Scott Ochiltree said...

Excellent article. However, Claudette Colbert's famous milk bath scene occurs in Sign of the Cross. As I have noted previously, this film lead directly to the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency.

DeMille had some female slaves wear bizarre six foot long writs chains. These same chains were used in Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra, and The Crusades.

No Peplum flick is complete without a good female slave market scene. Unfortunately the slaves are fully dressed, but sometimes they wear chains (bondage!)