Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The PEPLUM Perfect Storm

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 for bodybuilding magazines.


Exercise magazines, while some were actually about bodybuilding and many 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 off to Italy to star in PEPLUM movies.


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.


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. Also, wrestling scenes were often part of the stories and are a veritable PEPLUM cliché. 


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 starring Mr America and Mr Universe Steve Reeves and released it with a big publicity campaign, including 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. 

Uploaded at the PEPLUM Introduction page.


Steven Lester said...

Your short histories are always so well done. Always the right photos are shown. Always stuff to learn that I didn't know before. Your blog is a real delight.

PEPLUM cinema said...

Thanks Steven for your support! I'm interested in the subject and I guess it shows. lol.