Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Real PEPLUM X : Flesh in the 1950s

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

Continuing with the subject of the proliferation of soft-core or hardcore PEPLUM films and where did they get their start. Last week I wrote about SIGN OF THE CROSS, which set the bar pretty high in terms of kinkiness, overt sexuality and nudity, as one can see in the photo on the left. This happens during the arena scene at the end. Yes, there's a hint of bestiality. But SIGN OF THE CROSS was a pre-code film, so it got away with many things few films were able to do once the Hays code was established. It would take several decades before things got to the level of that old DeMille film.

The main point with the popularity of the PEPLUM genre during the most conservative era of films, the 1950s (and also being one of the main points of the PEPLUM genre itself), was the disrobing of the human body. Except for a daring filmmakers like Joshua Logan, showing flesh in the 1950s was frown upon in stories set in contemporary settings but not with stories set in Antiquity. And since full nudity in Hollywood was banned during the 1950s there are very few films to talk about. So I'll briefly go over the display of flesh instead. In contrast, nudity or even incidental nudity in European films was common, and would remain so until the raunchy sex-filled PEPLUM films of the 1970s and onwards. On the right is a scene from the European-made MESSALINA (1951). Something you'll never see in any Hollywood film of the same era.

Last week, I finished off with the orgy in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The orgy wasn't as over-the-top as the lewd stuff seen in SIGN OF THE CROSS but that 1956 epic served a good amount of sexy cheesecake and beefcake to keep viewers entertained.

Bathing beauties in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)

In Hollywood, by the late 1950s, BEN-HUR was THE big epic everyone was talking about. It starred Charlton Heston, who was also in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and like that film, Heston often wore very little, certainly during the entire galley part. Heston somehow enjoyed wearing very little. I guess he was a bit of an exhibitionist (see link).

Slaves from the galley scene from BEN-HUR (1959)

One can't stress often enough how conservative the 1950s were. Everyone was buttoned up to their collars. Therefore any film with any kind of overt display of skin was startling. Hence the popularity of the PEPLUM genre. Even though there was a supposed taboo undertone with the relationship between Ben-Hur and former friend Messala, and there's an awkward scene set in a sauna with Stephen Boyd on full display, BEN-HUR was a very pious film. It was the complete polar opposite of a Cecil B. DeMille kinky production.

Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina in HERCULES (1958). Equal amounts of beefcake and cheesecake

Films made in Europe always had difficulty getting distribution in the US because of Hollywood's dominance of the film market. But European filmmakers had one weapon Hollywood didn't dare to do back then : showing skin. Since Europe was already ahead of the game in regards to nudity, with films like AND GOD CREATED WOMAN starring Brigitte Bardot, European films that could never get distribution were finally being released in America. That Bardot film got wide distribution in North America because of the promise of flesh. HERCULES (1958) was released during that same period and became a hit around the world, including in the Unites States. It was unseen for modest European films to make more money than most Hollywood productions. Producers in Europe and the US took notice.

Gina Lollobrigida and Yul Brynner in SOLOMON & SHEBA

Hollywood realized that European films had an edge over their films with regards to the display of flesh or sexuality. They finally got the hint and tried to make their own PEPLUM styled films, like SOLOMON & SHEBA, with the temptress almost always played by a European actress, like Gina Lollobrigida or Sophia Loren or Mylene Demongeot. But films like SOLOMON & SHEBA were few and far in between. Hollywood kept on doing ultra-religious films like THE STORY OF RUTH or KING OF KINGS, or massive bloated epics like CLEOPATRA. The sexy pulpy / action films set in Antiquity, with beefy heroes and full of pagan dance numbers, were dominated by European productions. Screens were literally flooded with these kind of 90 minutes long mini-epics, like THE TARTARS.

Liana Orfei wearing an anachronistic dress in THE TARTARS. But who's complaining?

After HERCULES became a massive hit around the world, effectively creating the PEPLUM explosion which would last several years, producers made sure that most actors wore as little as possible. Though female characters wore very little or wore clothes displaying their best, eh, assets, the focus was primarily on the men, which is something that never happened before.

more next week!


Scott Ochiltree said...

Thanks, most interesting.

"Sign Of The Cross" was heavily edited (censored might be a better word!)for its 1938 re-release. However, all cuts were restored for a 1993 video release. The Turner Classic Movies version is also uncut.

"Sign Of The Cross" was one of the movies that lead directly to the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Europe1 said...

What would you say was the raunchest Peplum film made (that wasn't a pornographic/exploitation product)? The Tiger of Eschnapur with Debra Paget's near-nude dance perhaps?

Keep up the good work!