The term PEPLUM to describe a certain kind of film was coined by French film critics, from Cahier du Cinema and other influencial film magazines or newspapers as a quick way of describing a type of film that takes place in Ancient times, such as Ancient Greece/Rome/Egypt/Arabia/Norse, etc. Any story taking place thousands of years ago in and around the Mediterranean or Old Europe they described as a PEPLUM. The main characters usually wore togas, stolas, tunics, wraps, loincloths, whatever. The fashion in those films, for the most part, were usually colorful & revealing, for both women and men, and because a peplum is an actual type of dress for women the critics agreed that using an actual description for a dress was a suitable term because they basically saw these films as costume dramas. It was easier for critics to call them PEPLUMS (or PEPLA) when HERCULES(1958) became an international hit and the screens were suddenly flooded with a glut of such films (the PEPLUM Explosion) that an all-emcompassing term was needed to categorise them.
The term PEPLUM is singular while PEPLA is the plural version. I rarely use the word PEPLA, even if it's the correct term, because most people are still not used to PEPLUM. Folks in Europe are familiar with it but not here in North America, certainly in the US, which usually uses SWORD & SANDAL or SAND & SANDAL, or BIBLICAL epic to describe such films. As good as those terms are though (I use SWORD & SANDAL almost as often as PEPLUM) they don't cover all types of films under the PEPLUM umbrella. A story that takes place in Ancient Rome with no religious story-line cannot be called SWORD & SANDAL, because there's no desert in Rome, or BIBLICAL epic if it's a non-religious story. Those films end up in the "costume drama" category. So the word PEPLUM is more encompassing and therefore more useful and, well, it just sounds right. To many film snobs though, a PEPLUM is a lower-grade European/Italian made film and to use the word PEPLUM for a Hollywood super-production like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or BEN-HUR is wrong and an insult. Well, I disagree. Yes, a PEPLUM is a more pulpy, more loose, more fleshy film that the "serious" ones made in Hollywood but Hollywood has churned out lotsa B-grade movies, like all of those ALI BABA or SINBAD movies of the 1940s and early 1950s and those films are not in the same league as BEN-HUR but no one in the US calls them PEPLUMS. For me, to make life simpler, whether the movie was made in Hollywood or Europe or Arabia, whether it had a small budget or is a super-production, whether the cast is filled with stars or unknowns, I use PEPLUM. Case closed. To start nitpicking which term is the correct one is pointless but also it becomes elitist and well, I can't stand elitisms.
Steve Reeves in THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII
THE MALE PHYSIQUE AS A SELLING POINT
With this out of the way, what actually makes a PEPLUM? And what are the major components that make up a PEPLUM? The first, and foremost ingredient needed for a film to be known as a true PEPLUM is this: the main hero or any other male actor in the movie has to be barechested at one point or throughout the movie. It's de rigueur. From CABIRIA(1914) to 300(2006), the male physique is prominently on display in these films. But this doesn't mean that a film without a barechested man in it cannot be a PEPLUM. There are plenty of S&S films with no or minimal display of male flesh. For example, SAPPHO ~ THE VENUS OF LESBOS, starring Tina Louise, Kerwin Mathews and Riccardo Garrone is devoid of any barechested men. The men show lotsa thighs/butts but no pecs in sight and yet it's a perfect example of a film with almost every PEPLUM ingredient: lions, battles, sworfights, catfights, evil ruler, etc. So even though some films don't showcase any beefy male physique they can be considered a PEPLUM, even if it's the main component. So how did it ever come to this? Everything can be traced back to 3 films: CABIRIA(1914); FABIOLA(1949) and HERCULES(1958).
In fact, the PEPLUM genre, from films made in Hollywood to Europe, can be traced back to CABIRIA. Without this film, there wouldn't be a PEPLUM genre. CABIRIA is the most important film of the genre. The granddaddy that started it all. The hero MACISTE came from it and entered the Italian (European) consciousness. If you watch CABIRIA, you can clearly see that every aspect of that film was disected into small components remade into hundreds of films made during the PEPLUM explosion. It's truly mind-boggling. The Moloch ceremony can be seen in CARTHAGE IN FLAMES, THE PRODIGAL or HERCULES VS MOLOCH. The character Maciste spawned dozens and dozens of films. There's a sequence with Hannibal (many films with Hannibal, including the one with Victor Mature) and there's one with Syracuse being attacked and Archimede and his mirror weapons protecting the city (THE SIEGE OF SYRACUS 1960). It goes without saying how influential CABIRIA was then and to this day.
But the stand-out aspect from CABIRIA was Bartolomeo Pagano as Maciste, the good-hearted slave. Maciste the character became so popular that Bartolomeo legally changed his name to Maciste. According to Roger Ebert, Bartolomeo is considered cinema's first superstar. In the story, Bartolomeo is barechested or wearing just a tiny tunic throughout the movie which displayed his beefy physique. Though not as sculpted as Steve Reeves or any current bodybuilders or physique models, Bartolomeo was nontheless impressive with his natural built and his physical agility (he did all his own stunts). He's totally believable in the role. And audiences loved watching the "muscleman" in action. Bartolomeo's physique was akin to the musclemen you'd see in circus or carnivals (but not as barrel shaped). He was the main attraction and hence one of the reasons the PEPLUM genre's main ingredient is having a hero who wears as little as possible and acts as much with his body as with his emotions. This focus on a man's physical beauty was solidified permanently with the release of FABIOLA in early 1949. In it, the slim and buff Henry Vidal (below left) is nearly naked for the first half of the film, wearing the tiniest costume that left little to the imagination. FABIOLA was an international success and re-introduced a new audience to the genre.
A succession of other films, like Cecil B. DeMille's SAMSON & DELILAH(1949) starring Victor Mature and THE SINS OF POMPEII(1950) starring a young Georges Marchal kept the momentum of a PEPLUM resurgence going by featuring their main stars in many a shirtless scene. When QUO VADIS(1951, filmed in Italy) and then THE ROBE(1953) became big at the box-office, the BIBLICAL or Roman costume dramas were here to stay. Cecil B. DeMille decided to remake one of his many silent BIBLICAL films, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS(1956, filmed in the US), with an all star cast including a bountiful cast of beefcake: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and John Derek were featured as often as possible with as little clothes as the censors allowed. With the TEN COMMANDMENTS a massive hit, much bigger than any of the predecessors, the PEPLUM genre was in full swing. The genre only transformed into what it is known as today when a modest film from Italy called HERCULES(1958) starring Mr Universe himself Steve Reeves was a box office smash and grossed half of what the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic made with not even one tenth of its budget.
The unexpected success of HERCULES created a PEPLUM explosion: in a normal year when maybe between 6 to 10 PEPLUM films were released, after HERCULES, there were 30 up to 60 films released per year. 59 films were released in 1961 alone. To capitalize on the HERCULES phenomenon these films were done in quick succession with the most sensational titles to draw audiences in, the screens filled with muscular heros, dancing damsels, historically inaccurate storylines and an orgy of cliches the likes never seen before or since. In 1959 Steve Reeves appeared in 5 films: THE GIANT OF MARATHON, GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS, WHITE WARRIOR, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and the sequel HERCULES UNCHAINED. If you watch GIANT OF MARATHON, the last Reeves film released that year, Steve looks really tired and it's no wonder. The success of HERCULES, a film released by a minor distributor and which made more money than 99% of films released by majors that year, proved one thing: having a muscular hero wearing as little as possible was/is a vital component to the genre's success.
Then came BEN-HUR (which was filmed in Italy at Cinecitta), released in late 1959. The film featured hunky Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in epic battle between two long time friends soon to become enemies. The screenplay, written by an uncredited Gore Vidal, was laced with homosexual subtext that went above Heston's head (director William Wyler kept him in the dark about this angle) but Vidal discussed this aspect openly with Boyd who played along with the storyline that two men who were once, gasp, lovers. That naughty Vidal. Most of it went unnoticed by audiences back then but today it seems obvious. There's also the storyline of Heston saving the life of Jack Hawkins (from LAND OF THE PHARAOHS 1955) after a battle at sea and both men survive on a makeshift raft and who befriends him and makes Ben-Hur his right hand man is also filled with master/slave subtext. Both Heston and Boyd are shown in various states of undress throughout the film, continuing with the tradition set by CABIRIA. BEN-HUR was a box office sensation and was most likely the genre's apogee.
(1960), a perennial favorite with macho film connoisseurs, that featured a loincloth wearing Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis giving Laurence Olivier a bath and the ridiculously handsome John Gavin lounging in a sauna. You know, macho stuff. Seriously, as noble as the filmmakers' intents were vis a vis the story-line, they were all well aware of the Steve Reeves & HERCULES selling point and included John Gavin in the cast only for the purpose of beefcake scenes, not for his stellar acting skills or compelling character in the story. SPARTACUS was a rousing success, in more ways than one I guess. When the 1960s came along, tons, and I literally mean tons of PEPLUM films were made until its demise in and around 1964/65, with the disastrous CLEOPATRA(1963; made in Italy after production problems in the UK) and the tedious THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE(1964; filmed in Spain) leading to the genre's demise. With almost no beefcake to be seen and a tired looking cast, CLEOPATRA was still a box office success: it grossed $40 million but the film's budget was a staggering $44 million so it didn't make any money and almost bankrupt Fox. THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, starring a beffudled Stephen Boyd, who kept his shirt on throughout the film, cost $19 million to make but only grossed $4.7 million! The laws of diminishing returns. By 1964, 15 years after FABIOLA started the ball rolling, audiences were tired of the whole genre, not just big budgeted Hollywood projects but also with pulpy Italian productions with their dizzying & confusing titles that sounded all alike, were badly dubbed and re-used footage from other films. Few of the latter day PEPLUM films recreated the level of success the Steve Reeves HERCULES films achieved and that includes Reeves' films during the mid-60s.
The PEPLUM genre saw few films, or should I say few memorable films between the mid-1960s and early 1980s and was only re-ignited again with CLASH OF THE TITANS(1981) starring a shirtless Harry Hamlin as Perseus (an unofficial remake of the Italian film PERSEUS THE INVINCIBLE starring Richard Harrison) and CONAN THE BARBARIAN(1982) starring non-actor/bodybuilder sensation Arnold Schwarzenegger who flexed his impressive physique whenever a scene demanded too much acting. Even if there were only two official CONAN films the Barbarian-inspired knock-offs lasted the entire decade mostly in direct-to-video format. A big chunk of those knock-offs were produced in Italy. KING DAVID(1985), starring a thoroughly miscast Richard Gere, was released in the mid-80s but it's considered a disaster. I saw this on the big screen and I can attest that it's a stinker.
Things died off again for a decade until Ridley Scott directed GLADIATOR(2000) and won best picture. The beefcake level was sorta high in GLADIATOR, mostly supplied by the supporting cast and not necessarily by its main star Russell Crowe. The past decade saw quite a number of PEPLUM films, including the bloated TROY(2004) and its hunky cast: Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana, just to name a few, in various state of undress. IMO, it wasn't really good but the film was a success even if it cost more ($175 million!!!) than what it got in return. The same cannot be said for ALEXANDER THE GREAT(2004) which bombed at the b.o. for various reasons but the genre lived on long enough for 300(2006) to see the light of day sent the genre into new heights of popularity. Needless to say, as a whole, 300 has more beefcake in it than the entire film career of Steve Reeves. 2010 saw the remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS starring Sam Worthington who, unlike the 1981 version, bucks the trend and keeps his shirt on throughout the film. The polar opposite can be said for the TV series SPARTACUS: BLOOD & SAND. The program's unflinching display of the male form in all its splendor and horror is sometimes overwhelming.
So as you can see with this quick rundown why a barechested muscular hero, wearing next to nothing, is the No 1 ingredient for a PEPLUM film. The PEPLUM explosion of the late 1950s/early 1960s is probably the only instance in the history of cinema when men and their physiques were a major selling point, as opposed to women (not that there weren't any bodacious babes in them). It was a unique phenomenon that will probably never happen again and even though selling a film according to the leading man's physical beauty and overt sexuality would be frowned upon today (see poster below), most Sword & Sandal films produced and released these days, for the most part, still feature beefy heroes wearing skimpy costumes. The phenomenon from the Golden Era of the PEPLUM genre might be over but the tradition continues nonetheless.
More to Come: The "perfect storm" which lead to the PEPLUM explosion.
Even though I wasn't born back then, it's easy to see why and how HERCULES became such a big hit, created a PEPLUM explosion, spawning hundreds of other pulpy action film set in antiquity. The PEPLUM Explosion, also known as Musclemen Epics, was a unique phenomena that will probably never be seen again. Here's a quick round-up of the Perfect Storm of trends back then which helped the Pietro Francisci opus become the quasi-legendary film that it's now regarded as.
Comic books were at an all time popularity back then. New drawing styles and printing technology made comic books look snazzy and cool. Distributor extraordinaire Joseph Levine used the comic book medium during the promotion of HERCULES and it worked. Incidentally, though never mentioned as, HERCULES is the first superhero film ever made. There were serials and TV series of Superman or Batman but never a full movie dedicated to a super-human being or a mortal superhero until HERCULES.
Who doesn't know or hasn't seen this legendary advertising? It was printed in practically every comic book starting as far back as 1941. This simple ad ignited interest in physical fitness in more young men than anything else. The growing interest in physical fitness subsequently created a new market of bodybuilding magazines.
Exercise magazines, some actually being about bodybuilding, while others were carefully concealed beefcake mags showcasing men in various state of undress, were incredibly popular. Some had a circulation of over 500,000 a month. Many bodybuilders, like Steve Reeves or Mark Forest, or beefcake models such as Richard Harrison (above) first appeared in these magazines before flying to Italy to star in PEPLUM movies.
PULPY MAN'S MAGAZINE
Not only were bodybuilding/beefcake magazines extremely popular back then but also a myriad number of "man's magazines" which featured pulpy short stories, some written by soon-to-be-famous authors like Mario Puzo, that were filled with violence, sex and all things questionable which drew men to them. The covers were always fantastic (I have several books on these and they're great; link), drawn by incredibly talented artists. Those covers and the movie posters of PEPLUM films were identical in style and in the use of screaming colour. In order words, not very subtle.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF PRO-WRESTLING
Professional wrestling entered a new age of popularity when it was shown live on TV. Many PEPLUM action films, with their beefy heroes and prolonged action scenes often recalled pro-wrestling antics. Wrestling scenes were often part of the stories and is a veritable PEPLUM cliché.
RESURGENCE OF EPIC FILMS
Starting with SAMSON & DELILAH and QUO VADIS in Hollywood and FABIOLA in Europe, the big EPIC films were all the rage again. Joseph Levine already had a hit with ATTILA starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn. When Levine acquired HERCULES and released it with a big publicity campaign, including the printing of a comic book, this basically translated into a massive hit.
HERCULES: Box Office hit!
All these trends culminated in the mid to late 1950s and they can all be seen in HERCULES. It's no wonder the film, released in 1958, captured the public's imagination. HERCULES was a worldwide hit, not just in the US. But the incredible success of the modest Italian film in the US meant that almost every film producer in Europe started churning out an endless number of PEPLUM films at an incredible rate which lasted until the mid-1960s. The trend died when big Hollywood films like CLEOPATRA and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE were box office disasters and European Sword & Sandal films started cutting corners and often re-edited their movies into "new" films which turned off audiences who felt duped.
More to come: Babes, babes and babes!
In Part 1 of PEPLUM INTRODUCTION, I explained the significance of the term PEPLUM and how the genre came about and how the male physique is often front and center in most of these films.
In Part 2, I explained how the success of HERCULES came about due to a "perfect storm" of elements back then and the explosion of films quickly followed. HERCULES was a game changer (hate the term but valid in this case) in the film industry: modest budgeted films from Europe were raking the money at the box office while big expensive Hollywood productions were often struggling.
In Part 3, I'll quickly go over another important element that made these films popular: the incredible number of beautiful women populating the landscape.
Is anyone looking at him? All eyes are on Marilù Tolo in THE MAGNIFICENT GLADIATOR
Probably in order to offset the wall-to-wall beefcake seen in so many Sword & Sandal films, producers hired some of the most beautiful starlets in Europe and sometimes from Hollywood to appear in the skimpiest of costumes, as either heroine or villainess, sometimes both, for the hero to rescue or fall pray to. In some instances the number of starlets in one film was overwhelming and made the film unrealistic, such as it was the case with Robert Aldrich's SODOM & GOMORRAH or SON OF SINBAD, which literally featured Howard Hughes' entire (un-official) harem of Hollywood babes. Something like 120 starlets. But few people complained. If beefcake wasn't your thing then the harem girls dancing about would do.
For me the perfect example of this can be seen in THE MAGNIFICENT GLADIATOR pictured above. In one lengthy talkative moment between the hero (played by Mark Forest) and the Emperor, Marilù Tolo was strategically placed next to the Emperor during the scene. All eyes are on her even if she remains silent throughout the scene. The director knew the scene was tedious and by having Marilù simply stand there, the scene became less boring for it. She's stunning, perfectly lit and it's one of the most memorable babe scenes from any PEPLUM film. She's just got it. Not that Mark's physique is not shown prominently in the film. It is. It's just in this instance the Babe element took over and came to the fore.
It's almost impossible to summarize this aspect as there are so many PEPLUM babes that I could spend hours upon hours going all over them. The amount is truly mind boggling. I created a video montage of WHO'S THE QUEEN OF PEPLUM CINEMA? It's in two parts and there are literally dozens and dozens of actresses fighting for the title. I even mistakenly left out some big names like Rosanna Schiaffino (photo above). I'll be updating the compilation with new stuff, including those I've missed the first time around.
The amazing thing about this is that if the main actresses didn't do it for ya, like Anita Ekberg above (!?!), well then there was always the dancing girls:
And if the dancing girls didn't do it there was always the love-starved Amazons:
Producers of PEPLUM films always found an excuse to showcase a boatload of beautiful women. Always.
The women from SCHEHERAZADE, Anna Karina and Marilù Tolo.
It's one aspect that so-called serious Hollywood films couldn't even compete with: for instance, if you watch CLEOPATRA (1963) you're basically stuck with Elisabeth Taylor for the next 4 hours. And if Elisabeth doesn't excite you then there weren't many other babes in it, aside for a few brief dance numbers. It's something that producers in Europe knew all to well. As reckless as they were when they featured the male physique (compared to Hollywood), European filmmakers didn't shy away from displaying their most beautiful actresses.
Daniela Rocca in COLOSSUS AND THE AMAZON QUEEN
Up next: PEPLUM GENRES & HYBRIDS