Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Real "PEPLUM X" : Nudity in early PEPLUM films

Part one of the on-going subject at the permanent page : link

So how did the proliferation of soft-core or hardcore PEPLUM films from the late 1960s and up to today originated? As I mentioned in the previous post (see link above), the genre itself seems to be a natural source for sex or nudity since most costumes were skimpy to start with or people were involved in wrestling or orgies or some pagan feast. The one thing which sold those films to modern audiences was the promise of near nude bodies, female or male. Nudity in PEPLUM films date back as far as the silent film era. It wasn't uncommon to see a nude body here and there. Surprisingly, people back then weren't as prudish as we tend to believe, as long as the nudity was "tasteful."

A scene from the silent version of BEN-HUR.

The "PEPLUM explosion" or the Golden Era of the genre was renewed during one of the most conservative decades, the 1950s. And oddly enough PEPLUM films, whether they were Biblical or Greco-Roman in nature, were also the most "fleshy" type of films made during that time. There's a clear dichotomy between the subject vs film types : the PEPLUM gene is a myriad of different type of films set in the past but are often mistaken only as Biblical epics, which are supposed to be chaste and clean due to their religious aspects, but were quite the opposite and featured boatloads of flesh of beautiful people doing wrong things to other beautiful people.

A great example of this dichotomy was SIGN OF THE CROSS : a super kinky "biblical" film by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1932, which included nudity, male sex slaves, lesbianism, beastiality and Poppaea luxuriating in some milk bath (Claudette Colbert, left). DeMille set the bar pretty high back then, even if few PEPLUM films were made during that decade or even attempted to replicate its success. It would take more than 15 years for the genre to be reignited, in 1949 to be precise, with the release of FABIOLA in Europe and SAMSON & DELILAH, also by DeMille, in Hollywood. FABIOLA included nudity during the arena scenes (which is often cut) and Henri Vidal walking around practically in the nude. Very little was left to the imagination with many of his costumes.

Michèle Morgan and Henri Vidal in FABIOLA

SAMSON & DELILAH was quite the opposite : it didn't have any nudity in it but it did play with the sexual tension between the two characters throughout the film. DeMille made sure the audience knew the two were "hot" for each other. Though not as obvious as earlier films like SIGN OF THE CROSS, it was clear that sex or nudity, or the promise of either, was still a great selling point for those films, more so in Europe than the US.


But Hollywood of the 1950s was different than the pre-code era of the silent films and the early 1930s, or even the films made on the continent. If using real nude people was frown upon then the next best thing was used : statues. Naked statues were seen in many films of the 1950s, including this obvious one in ALEXANDER THE GREAT, starring Fredric March and Richard Burton.

DeMille returned with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1956 and again sex or sexy people were everywhere. The constant mention of "bondage" and people whipping each other were prevalent throughout the 4 hour long running time. DeMille was a kinky genius : after 3 hours of Bible studies, he ends it all in the last hour with an all out orgy! Yeah! People sat through the entire thing to see the over-the-top crazy sexy action at the end. Make no mistake about it, though the film was sold as something virtuous, the tone was often set on decadence and sex. The release of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS clearly demonstrated how DeMille knew how to work the audience.

Orgy!!! Edward Robinson and Debra Paget in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

more on this next week....

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