Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Real PEPLUM X : Artistic PEPLUM films

The 'Golden Era' of the PEPLUM genre, which was re-ignited back in 1949, re-invigorated after the success of HERCULES (1958), eventually petered out and was all but dead in 1965 after massive flops like CLEOPATRA and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and the continuous flood of films from Europe, made audiences tire of the genre.  Big Hollywood productions and pulpy actioners from Italy became passé. The one good thing that lingered on from it was the fact that the human body had been disrobed in that long 16 year span of time. By 1965, the taboo of showing full nudity had disappeared. And out of the ashes of the dead PEPLUM genre came the rise of another type of film set in Antiquity : the artistic PEPLUM films.

All of these films had fee flowing nudity or quasi-nudity. The nudity wasn't titillating (even though some, or many, were probably titillated by it). Films like PHARAON (above) or ROMEO & JULIET by Franco Zeffirelli, didn't shy away from showing flesh. The artistic films didn't last as long as 16 years but their influence was the bridge between the more prudish films of the previous decade and the soon to be raunchy films of the 1970s. I won't go into details about them since it's pretty much self-explanatory : nudity = art.

This doesn't mean there weren't any 'artistic' films made prior to 1965. There were. Films like ELECTRA, directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis is an example of what art-house cinemas had to offer. But those films didn't have any nudity in them. In fact, few of them pushed boundaries but as nudity became more and more acceptable, art films were the first to fully employ this new freedoms of showing the human form with the least amount of clothing, since it was all in the name of art.

Of all those films, the biggest one and the most spectacular one was FELLINI'S SATYRICON. This film did to the PEPLUM genre what 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY did to the science fiction genre. Many don't like it but I think it's brilliant, visually and artistically, and in regards to the PEPLUM genre itself. It was basically the last word of PEPLUM cinema. Nothing could top it, even by today's standards.

So the genre had to die in order to inspire its greatest creation, which is fine by me. I would love to have seen more PEPLUM film made but their stars, like Steve Reeves or Gianna Maria Canale, were just about to retire. And there was an obvious point of saturation. There were just too many films that looked alike, which confused everyone. The genre needed to die to reinvent itself. And re-invent itself it did.

Another film based on the works of Petronius was made to capitalize on the Fellini film, and it was filmed and released before the big budgeted epic. It's often referred to as  SATYRICON BY POLIDORO (bottom left). Not as impressive as the Fellini film, that Satyricon version is still entertaining and watchable.

There were plenty of other films with quasi nudity or full blown nudity in them. The trend would last well into the 1970s, including a couple of PEPLUM films starring former genre superstar, Charlton Heston, but  the bulk of those films would not be considered art films. By the late 1960s, many trashy films began production and they were the same as the PEPLUM films of a few years back but their selling point now was sex and nudity, certainly female nudity. And this is what happened : those who saw Zeffirelli's ROMEO & JULIET loved the sexy scenes of tender lovemaking but they were still pretty chase. This created an audience for more raunchy stories set in Antiquity, for stuff that went beyond just showing breasts or buttocks. And this leads us directly back to the start of this series.

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1 comment:

Richard Svensson said...

I really like Fellini's Satyricon too. It's a dizzying film experience with an incredible visual flair. Really fun to see Gordon Michell in it, as he's one of my favourite Peplum actors.