Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Real PEPLUM X : Prehistoric Cheesecake!

During the past few weeks, I established the fact that there was a slow, progressive disrobing of the human body, mainly on the male side, and how the PEPLUM genre helped in loosening up the very conservative decade of the 1950s. Mostly due to films from Europe, one could show almost anything of the male physique and seemingly get away with it. Hollywood films were still reluctant in going along with this trend even though some films directed by certain directors did try to capitalize on the Beefcake craze that followed after the success of HERCULES (1958).

I’ve also mentioned in the previous posts how the PEPLUM genre had a kinky side to it with numerous scenes of torture and whippings. This combination would eventually progress to the more provocative stuff made during the 1970s, and beyond, since there was a pretty much established audience for these types of films after the genre resurfaced in 1949 with the success of SAMSON & DELILAH and FABIOLA.

But what about the disrobing of the female body? Since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers have always enjoyed using ‘Cheesecake’ to sell their movies. Bodacious babes dressed in a provocative way always pleased both men and women for a variety of reasons. Films made before the Hayes code, the infamous comity of censors who presided over movies in order to control rampant immoral stuff in them that were becoming mainstream, were often racy and didn’t shy away in showing off women in various states of undress or have immoral female characters, aka prostitutes, in them. But after the Hays code took control, women’s bodies were pretty much covered up. While there was a casual disregard for showing men in any state of undress, censors kept women covered up during this period.

Some European films did show fleeting shots of breasts or even the scandalous belly button here and there, and films like AND GOD CREATED WOMEN began to disrobe the female body beyond the tight dresses women wore in films set in the 1950s, or those set in in the distant past. Then DR NO came along in 1962, it had Ursula Andress in a revealing swimsuit (above, top left) that didn't cover up her belly button well things were finally changing, but oh so slowly. Many movies made after the James Bond hit were still prudish, including those BEACH BLANKET BINGO (above right) type of films were the women wore 'granny' bottoms to make sure their navels were covered up.

With the PEPLUM genre, there was always an equal amount of Cheesecake to go along with the Beefcake. It’s just that Beefcake was more prominent since beefy, muscular heroes wearing next to nothing became a selling point at the time, certainly after HERCULES became a worldwide hit.

The one thing that set women apart from men were the mores of the era in which the stories were set. Historically speaking, women were always covered up in settings of the past. For example, a story during the renaissance could only show women in bosomy, tight fitted dresses. Except for when women took baths, female characters showing too much skin would appear historically inaccurate. And since the PEPLUM genre are stories set in Antiquity or in the distant past, the genre itself wasn't automatically conducive to abundant displays of female flesh, excluding harems of course.

So both Hollywood and Europe were still on the look out for any type of film set in the past in which women wore the least amount of clothes. Then this film came along, called ONE MILLION YEARS BC (1966), starring Raquel Welch, who only wore an anachronistic fur bikini throughout the movie. Belly button on full display. This was in 1966, just after the PEPLUM explosion petered out. Though not as big and influential as HERCULES, ONE MILLION YEARS BC did to the display of female flesh what HERCULES and Stevee Reeves did for the male physique.

After the success of the Raquel Welch film, there was simply no going back. The female belly button and thighs were finally free for good! A flood of cavemen films set in prehistoric time were made afterwards, all of them with women wearing next to nothing, such as WHEN WOMEN HAD TAILS starring Senta Berger (above). It was the perfect excuse setting for showing female flesh. Of course, they had very little historical accuracy to them but people didn't complain about this as long as Raquel wore very little. This doesn't mean that the men in these films were covered up. They weren't. John Richardson wore very little in ONE MILLION YEARS BC but that the selling point of these films, Prehistoric Cheesecake, was like the selling point of the majority of PEPLUM films, Heroic Beefcake.

Mind you, ONE MILLION YEARS BC wasn't the first cavemen / prehistoric film ever made. There were a bunch of them made during the 1950s and even during the PELUM explosion. But the women were not very scantily clad. Films like WILD WOMEN OF WONGO (above left) had cave women dressed appropriately (covered navels), and coiffed in style. Though these films were considered "exploitation" movies at the time and few people took notice of them, they were the beginning of a trend which would eventually lead to ONE MILLION YEARS BC, a film produced by Hammer Studios and released by Warner Brothers.

As much 'Cheesecake" there was in WILD WOMEN OF WONGO, the Beefcake in it still dominated. That super low budget film starred future PEPLUM actor Ed Fury (above right) who would go to Europe and find success there as THE MIGHTY URSUS and other muscle bound epics.

One of the genre's foray into prehistorical setting was COLOSSUS OF THE STONE AGE starring Margaret Lee and Reg Lewis (aka Fire Monsters vs the Son of Hercules). Made in 1962, it was as accurate as the Welch film (meaning not very). The big difference, of course, is that the flesh on display was the male variety. Margaret is covered up in it.

By 1966, after ONE MILLION YEARS BC was released, both the male and female bodies were pretty much disrobed. The buttoned-up 1950s were a distant past. Oddly enough, the PEPLUM genre itself, as they had come to know it back then, since it had re-emerged in 1949 and had lasted up to 1965, had died. No more Beefcake Heroes. And while Cheesecake took over, for a short period, it certainly didn't last 16 years. The big Hollywood epics or the pulpy European films set in Antiquity were dead, but then a new type of PEPLUM film emerged that pushed the limits of nudity on screen : the artistic PEPLUM film.

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Scott Ochiltree said...

In the 1960s just about every male college dorm room had a poster of Raquel Welch in her fur bikini. Often a poster of Che Guevara hong alongside it.

The mid-1960s are now almost half a century away in time, but I still remember this very intense period in American life vividly (I am age 70).

Scott Ochiltree said...

"Heroic beefcake" doubtless was a Peplum film selling point for the minority of the male audience that was gay.

Presumably women also enjoyed it. However, the erotic dances (Chelo!!) and female slave market scenes probably had the most appeal for the predominantly male audiences.

PEPLUM TV said...

HERCULES didn't become a worldwide hit just with those two demographics you mentioned. They were popular with kids and adults, male and female. And many films were made with kids in mind. Kids like big, strong muscle men like HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN or HERCULES & THE CAPTIVE WOMEN. The appeal of big muscular heroes wasn't just sexual.

Scott Ochiltree said...

Yes, you are clearly correct about the appeal of muscle man movies for children - I should not have overlooked that fact.