Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Real PEPLUM X : Torture, Whippings and Chains, oh my!

Continuing with the discussion of how the PEPLUM genre helped in disrobing the human body in the world of cinema that eventually led to more explicit productions in the late 1960s and 1970s, something which has lasted up to today. Well, maybe not in movies released to theatres but the tradition is still on-going with  cable TV shows such as SPARTACUS series or GAME OF THRONES.

There are many aspects of the PEPLUM genre which appear to be entirely innate to it, aspects rarely seen in other genres. One of the them is the prevalence of overly muscular men wearing as little as possible (left, a muscular extra seen in QUEEN OF SHEBA). This trend started back in the silent era and came to complete fruition during the Golden Era of the genre, between 1949 and 1965. I explained this in great details during the past weeks, with HERCULES being the ultimate example of this trend.

Another aspect that is primarily seen in films of the PEPLUM genre is the kinky overtones. It's an odd aspect. Practically every PEPLUM film has a torture scene, or whippings, or some extremely elaborate test of strength our hero has to endure to overcome the obstacles set up by evil villains. They are so common that they are, imo, synonymous with PEPLUM cinema.

It would pointless to enumerate all the films which have some of these scenes. In fact, it would probably be easier to list the few films that don't have such scenes. Just a couple weeks ago I uploaded such a scene from THE MIGHTY URSUS (below). The scene perfectly encapsulates the overtly kinky tone of these types of  scenes. As a note, when MIGHTY URSUS was released on DVD in Spain, most of the torture scenes were trimmed down or removed. Too much for today's audiences.

Like so many things, these torture scenes existed since the days of silent cinema. It was a way to get a reaction from audiences : torturing the main character as a test of wills. But during the Golden Era, these torture scenes took a whole another level. This is mostly thanks to Cecil B DeMille, who's film, SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932), became a template of sorts for all films made afterwards. SIGN OF THE CROSS at it all : whipping, beastiality, sex slaves, forced lesbianism, you name it, it was in it. But as kinky as SOTC was the stuff that would appear in film of the 1950s and 1960s would even make DeMille blush. For example, the torture scene in DUEL OF THE TITANS (above right, Steve Reeves) is totally gratuitous. We see a stripped down Reeves on a cross, being turned around and whipped mercilessly. It just comes out of nowhere and we never see any consequences of that moment afterwards. But then few people complained about that scene, if you know what I mean. It added very little to the film except for some naughty sexiness.

To put it bluntly, you rarely see ugly, overweight people getting whipped with their clothes off. The entertainment aspect was this : seeing evil, often ugly people doing bad things to beautiful people. It's pretty simple and universal.

The film with the most tortures and whippings and Feats of Strength is MACISTE IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (above, with Wandisa Guida). I posted an image from it last Monday. It's a cornucopia of kinky torture scenes.

Here's just a short sample of examples :

Feats of Strength -

Gordon Mitchell is about to be pulled part on either side by two sets of slaves, while straddled on top of a pit filled with hungry lions, in MACISTE IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS. It doesn't get more over-the-top than this...hmm, actually it does :

Maciste (Mark Forest) holds tons up or else he'll get crushed to death, just after invariably skewering his two friends with those blades. This scene can also be listed under 'Elaborate and impractical torture devices.' Both films directed by Antonio Leonviola, who has an incredible talent for these OTT scenes.

Whipping -

Probably the most popular form of torture. Anita Ekberg tortures a woman, with a whip (among other things) in THE MONGOLS

Torture wheel -

The Torture Wheel scene from SWORDS WITHOUT A COUNTRY. The film itself is very benign. Strictly rated PG but then bam, here comes a very effective torture scene, which almost puts it in the R rated category.

Branding -

A slave (Mitsuko Takara) is about to get branded in SODOM & GOMORRAH. A common torture practice in PEPLUM films.

Elaborate and impractical torture devices -

Goliath (Brad Harris) tries to save his tied-up buddy from the spinning device with deadly claws, pulled by a bunch of slaves whipped into submission by a slave master (below). This is not a 'Feat of Strength' moment.

Mud wrestling -

Mark Forest wrestles with a bad guy, in the mud, in MACISTE - GLADIATOR OF SPARTA. The first mud wrestling scene even put on screen? The film suddenly took an unexpectedly kinky turn.

Torture chamber -

The Torture chamber in COLOSSUS OF RHODES

Combos -

Gordon Scott is tied and about to be whipped while his girlfriend is tied up to torture device in KERIM - SON OF THE SHEIK. Fun time for the whole family!

The list goes on and on : tie-up, torture using fire (not branding), netting, torture with water, etc. I could write a whole book on this alone. In fact, someone did write a book of the subject of whipping, called LASH!, and it mostly featured PEPLUM films.

Again, like the casual disregard to male nudity, one has to wonder how these films got away with most of what they showed back in the day. If the torture scenes were to be set in contemporary times, they would take a whole different meaning and the films would have most likely been banned but since the stories took place in the distant past, these moments seemed more 'normal,' hence their acceptance. Today, many of these scenes would most likely get an R rating because of the excessive attention in drawing pain from people, but also because of the overt kinkiness to them.

These torture (aka kinky) moments were so common that when the more explicit films of the 1970s came along, people were already pretty much accustomed to seeing them in such films set in Antiquity and the next logical step was simply going even further, like what they did in CALIGULA (1979).

Next week, disrobing the female body.

Permanent page for The Real PEPLUM X


James E. Parten said...

I have to admit that it was these scenes of "kinkiness"--torture, deathtraps, and Feats of Strength--that got me into the Peplum genre in the first place.

I think that the "kinkiness" seems to have come in as Peplum films got away from being based around stories out of Graeco-Roman Mythology, and settled into the "overthrow the tyrant" trope that came to dominate the genre. This trope would have meant much to Italian audiences of the time. They only needed to look into recent memory to think back to tyranny--although neither the Fascisti nor the Nazis ever got as "kinky" as the Peplum pictures did. And the Italian audiences only needed to look across the Adriatic at the tyranny that was going on in Yugoslavia under Tito, and in Albania under the Communists, to remind them of what tyranny was.

I believe that another influence may well have been the comic strips or "fumetti", which were as popular in Italy as anywhere else. "Flash Gordon" was popular all over Europe, and that strip had its share of torture, executions, and arena scenes.

The frame grab used for "Swords Without A Country" doesn't tell very much. What is this "torture wheel" that is used in that picture? I don't know if it is available anywhere.

PEPLUM TV said...

Torture wheel is a common device used in other PEPLUM films, including SODOM & GOMORRAh and THE INVINCIBLE BROTHERS MACISTE, just to name a couple.

There are different versions of the wheel. The one in SWORDS WITHOUT A COUNTRY works like this : the weight of the man's body is used to torture him. When the wheel is turned back, it lifts the man off the ground, with most of the weight of his body dragging him in the opposite direction. The pull on his arms and upper body is excruciating.

Many fans of the PEPLUM genre love these scenes. They are the most requested scenes, aside from wrestling / fighting scenes.

The serials of the 1930s were a source of inspiration but many of these scenes pre-date the serials since there was a PEPLUM explosion during the silent era and torture scenes were common in them as well. Politically, I find it fascinating that these scenes were permitted during the time the films were made.

James E. Parten said...

I can understand why the "kinky" scenes are among the most requested. They are some of the most iconic scenes in the entire Peplum genre.

The Feats of Strength-with or without an Elaborate Torture Device--also give the writer(s) and/or director(s) ample opportunity to show off the beefcake available to them.

There seem to have been five basic Feats of Strength used in these situations in these pictures.. .
Tug-of-war with Hero being pulled from opposite directions ("Maciste
In The Land of the Cyclops", "Triumph of the Son of Hercules")
Standard tug-of-war ("Samson", "Thor and the Amazon Women")
Capstan or 'push-ofwar' ("The Seven Revenges")
Holding up increasing weights ("Triumph of Hercules","Mole Men vs.
Son of Hercules")
Holding apart spiked walls ("Hercules and the Moon Men")

Some of these are also used to imperil the heroine or friends of the Hero, as well as the Hero.

I get the impression that contemporary Hercules pictures do not contain such scenes: more's the pity that they don't!

PEPLUM TV said...

Other examples :


Walls closing in (not spiked) like in HERCULES OF THE DESERT and others

Pulling in a big object, like a boat, in SAMSON & THE MIGHTY CHALLENGE or MACISTE vs the MOLE MEN


Operative some big machinery, like in MACISTE vs the MOLE MEN

Man vs Beast / Animal

the list goes on and on

It would be great to have them again in new films

StingRay said...

"The Beast of Babylon Against the Son of Hercules" (1963) had one of the most outre S&M-type scenes with the chest-flogging of female slaves bound to X-frames -- just to taunt Gordon Scott's army. As a kid in the 60s was gobsmacked by similar scenes of decadence and misogyny (a woman hung by her hair, slave girls forced into cat-fight wrestling, and misc. humiliations) that only appeared in Torch & Toga epics on Saturday afternoon TV.