Monday, October 2, 2017

Post of the week : Serious PEPLUM films

Note : This will be the only article I'll be publishing this week (I'll post other stuff but not articles). The blog will resume full time next week. 

A few weeks ago, Alec Semicognito asked me (link) to do a list of 'serious' PEPLUM films after posting about GOLD FOR THE CAESARS. I thought about it and here's a list.

Now what exactly constitutes a 'serious' PEPLUM movie? First, they have to be grounded in reality. This doesn't mean that films with mythological stories and settings cannot be serious, like HERCULES (1958) or ULYSSES (film and TV mini-series) but for me a 'serious' PEPLUM film lacks super powerful heroes, obvious supernatural elements, folk stories and such. Something that's strictly based in reality or a semblance of reality or history. You know, the movies kids hated to watch because they were too serious. Haha!

For me, a great and fun PEPLUM film is like a big buffet. It's a virtual smorsgasborg of entertaining moments and clichés. A serious film is sorta the opposite. It's like being on a strict diet, with a limited menu to choose from (this doesn't mean a 'serious' film cannot have many stand-out moments).

Some 'serious' films take themselves so seriously that they fall into camp. If a movie is too campy, for whatever reasons, I won't list it here. This doesn't mean they're not good. It just means that the film is ends up being more fun than serious. For example, take THEODORA - SLAVE EMPRESS (1954). It's a serious film but its approach is so over-the-top that it fails to be what I would call a 'serious' film. It's devilishly entertaining, thanks to campy performances and OTT production.

But then take HEAD OF A TYRANT, which has many of those same clichés but the tone of the film is so serious, it borders on the dour. It's a morbid love story. It's definitely on my list.

Other films almost defy description, like MESSALINA (1960) starring Belinda Lee, which is a strange mix of super serious tone (violence, evil characters) and slapstick moments. It didn't make it on this list.

To keep this list as short as possible, I've excluded categories and some sub-genres which are automatically serious :

- Romances, like GODDESS OF LOVE (1957). Though serious, its swirling romantic music and declarations of love push it nearly into the realm of fantasy.

- Adventure films like THE BLACK KNIGHT or TERROR OF THE RED MASK.

- Hollywood films.

- Straightforward Biblical films that deal directly with Jesus like GOLGOTHA (1935) or Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (1964).

- Most Historical epics that fall under the PEPLUM umbrella.

The main ingredient of all these films : a complete lack of humour.


SEVEN FROM THEBES (1964)


I vote this rarely seen PEPLUM film as the most serious of them all. It has a 1970s vibe to it, not a movie made during the Golden Era of the genre. I like it and there are some memorable stuff in it, but it's a bit too serious. A little levity or at least one amiable character would have made it more approachable. As it is now, it's a mean, lean unlovable machine. As serious as it is, it pretty much follows the same template of other PEPLUM films, so even though it sometimes feels like an art film, it's not.

SPARTACO - SINS OF ROME (1953)

Massimo Girotti and Gianna Maria Canale

This brilliantly directed film is serious and yet it never loses sight of being hopeful and heroic, even in the face of death. It's not bleak serious but grand, operatic serious. Love it! Riccardo Freda's tour de force.

GOLD FOR THE CAESARS (1963)

Giulio Bosetti, Mylène Demongeot and Massimo Girotti

A very straight-forward, grounded PEPLUM film, which is sorta rare. It's still filled with anachronistic stuff and it's still entertaining but compared to other films of the genre, it's not a 'fun' film. A drama set in antiquity.

HEAD OF THE TYRANT (1959)


As I already mentioned above, this film is SERIOUS. A tragic / morbid love story, starring Massimo Girotti and Isabelle Corey. Good film!

HEROD THE GREAT (1959)


A very serious film with few fun or uplifting moments. Serious from the first frame to the last. Directed by Viktor Tourjansky, who also directed GODDESS OF LOVE mentioned above, which is a Big Romance and a little more light-hearted than this excellent production.


DUEL OF THE TITANS (1961)


Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Virna Lisi, Jacques Sernas, Massimo Girotti amongst others. No humour. Deadly serious. Apparently, Reeves and Scott didn't get along.


SON OF SPARTACUS (1962)


This film directed by Sergio Corbucci flirts with the not-so-serious adventure films but downbeat ending keeps this adventure film firmly grounded in the serious category.


THE BARBARIANS (1953)

Pierre Cressoy and Hélène Rémy

This is a good example of a historical film which falls under the PEPLUM umbrella. Serious. Nothing fanciful about it though some might say it's not historically accurate.


SLAVE OF CARTHAGE (1956)


This beautiful production is, first and foremost, a serious drama. Gianna Maria Canale stars.


THE SWORD & THE CROSS (1958)


The story of Mary Magdalene. Yep, serious. This film deals indirectly with Jesus, who always remains unseen. Rossana Podestà as Martha and Yvonne De Carlo as Mary.


KNIVES OF THE AVENGER (1966)


A well made drama but not very compelling in that I need to re-watch it on a regular basis. Good but sorta dull. One of many Cameron Mitchell PEPLUM films. Elissa Pichelli co-stars.


THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS (1961)


I almost didn't include this one because it's more adventure film than anything else, and there a lot of campy elements in this, including Edmund Purdom's performance, but there's one brutal scene in it which places it firmly in the 'serious' category. Cameron Mitchell also stars.


IN THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLE (1966)


Another serious Cameron Mitchell film. Not bad, with very good production values but serious to the point of being void of any emotional connection. Its twin production, MASSACRE IN THE BLACK FOREST, also with Mitchell, is serious but it's more action packed and fun than this one. Bebe Loncar co-stars.


CARTHAGE IN FLAMES (1960)


This huge story-free epic is humourless and pretty much falls into that category even if the production itself is a tad on the Over-The-Top side. The ending is a downer. A young Terrence Hill stars.


CONSTANTINE & THE CROSS (1961)


As the title implies, this is a very big, serious retelling of the story of Constantine and the advent of Christianity. Kids would find this boring. Belinda Lee and Cornel Wilde star in this epic.


SCHEHERAZADE (1963)


You'd think that a film with Anna Karina and Marilu Tolo would be fun to watch. No. As humourless as a PEPLUM film can be. Too serious for its own good.


APHRODITE - GODDESS OF LOVE (1958)


This film (along with its older twin sister FRINE - COURTESAN OF THE ORIENT) is a straight-forward drama. This one is set in Corinth and has everything : religion, struggle for power, the plague. I like it a lot. Serious but still fun to watch over and over again. Anthony Steffen and Irène Tunc star.


SIEGE OF SYRACUSE (1960)


Its arch, episodic and nearly implausible storyline might push this film into the realm of fantasy but I've added it because it's the most 'serious' film directed by Pietro Francisci, who usually juggled a good amount of seriousness, campiness, comedy in his films, such as HERCULES (1958). There's NO humour in this story. Rossano Brazzi and Tina Louise star in this grand epic story.

PONTIUS PILATE (1962)


Though this deals with Jesus, the story is mostly about Pontius Pilate and his struggle with overseeing the construction of an aqueduct. The screenplay is flawed but great production nonetheless. No one under 17 will like this. Jean Marais stars in the titular role.


POMPEII films

Any film which deals with the destruction of Pompeii is always played straight.

SINS OF POMPEII (1950)


Some dislike this film because of its staginess. This is just to give you an idea of how serious it is. Georges Marchal stars. I like it but it is quaint in its seriousness.


THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1959)


One of Steve Reeves most serious films. Though he plays a strong, muscular man who survives the destruction of Pompeii, the film's tone is without humour. Mimmo Palmara co-stars along with Steve (left).


Art Films -

A sub-genre of the PEPLUM genre. There aren't that many but listing all of them would take an entire post. So here's a brief overview of PEPLUM art films.

The films of Mihalis Kakogiannis


The Greek director made ELECTRA (above starring Irene Papas, 1962), THE TROJAN WOMEN (1971), IFIGENEIA (1977), among others. Always serious. Rarely fun to watch. His films are more art films than straight-forward dramas set in the past. His films focused mainly on female characters.


DACII (1966) and COLUMNA (1968)


These films produced and filmed in Romania were made after the end of the PEPLUM explosion. They are grand, epic and very serious. They're not Art Films per se but were sold here as such. Georges Marchal and Pierre Brice star.


FELLINI'S SATYRICON (1969)


What can you say about this Fellini film? I could have used other images but this sorta gives you an idea of what to expect from it.

One of the reasons Art Films are called art films is because of nudity, mainly male nudity. Films with female nudity were sold as either porn or soft-porn, and were rarely serious, like WAR GODDESS (1973).

Pasolini's ARABIAN NIGHTS (1974) or even Felinni's SATYRICON above is filled with male nudity, which, to many people, is something that's taboo. There's a whole sub-genre of PEPLUM Art Films which are inspired by this. It would take too long to list all of them. Here's one example:


VAINCRE A L'OLYMPIE (1977)


Jean Marais stars in this French TV film inspired by male Olympic athletes. I tried to watch it and it's very serious, or I should say pretentious. Peplum star Georges Marchal also stars in this.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this article. There are more titles I've could have listed but it would have  taken too much space. Maybe a part 2?

Added to the SPECIAL FEATURE permanent page


9 comments:

Steven Lester said...

I had no idea there were so many films within Peplum.

Anonymous said...

Biblical movie like Esther and the king,david and goliath,joseph and his brethen are serious too.

Scott Ochiltree said...

Thanks, most interesting list. I agree with just about all the choices for those films I have actually seen.

Somewhat surprised you omitted THE TROJAN WOMEN (1971) and FRYNE,COURTESAN OF THE ORIENT (1953).

PEPLUM Cinema said...

Scott, I've listed those two films.

Scott Ochiltree said...


FRYNE and THE TROJAN WOMEN were indeed listed, but without any photo. This made me think - quote incorrectly - they were being given second tier status.

Although I am not at all religious, I agree with Anonymous that some religious Peplums deserve to be taken seriously. Examples include QUO VADIS, THE ROBE, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and BEN HUR.

However some very bad religious Peplums have also been made. These include THE SILVER CHALICE, THE PRODIGAL, and KING OF KINGS.

Scott Ochiltree said...

In addition to THE TEN COMMANDMENTS Cecil B. DeMille made the following significant "serious" Peplum movies.

These are THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, CLEOPATRA, and SAMSON AND DELILAH. I would rate CLEOPATRA (with Claudette Colbert) as perhaps the best Peplum of all.

His silent Peplums THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and KING OF KINGS are also noteworthy.

PEPLUM Cinema said...

I specifically wrote that I excluded Hollywood films

Scott Ochiltree said...

Fair enough - Sorry I did not notice the Hollywood exclusion.

However some of these films were actually filmed in Italy to use up inconvertible local currency, get away from strong Hollywood craft unions, and take advantage of cheap extras in the age before CGI.

Alec Semicognito said...

Awesome! Thanks so much for the thought you put into this --- I'll be picking from this list for a long time.