The real PEPLUM X

When the sexual revolution exploded in the late 1960s and on to the 1970s, a new kind of PEPLUM films were being made : the X rated kind.

This new trend of having soft-core or hardcore porn films set in Antiquity was something unimaginable just a few years back, during the Golden Era of the genre. An endless number of films were made and the trend would continue on well into the 1980s certainly after the most notorious film of them all, CALIGULA was released in 1979 and made headlines all over the world.

Sex and PEPLUM films seem to be made for each other : orgies were common in Roman times. People wore skimpy clothes or nothing at all. But there's a world of a difference between suggesting something sexy and showing something explicit. For the most part though, the majority of Italian PEPLUM sex comedies of the 1970s had nudity in them and were sexy but they rarely used explicit sex to sell their films.

Except for CALIGULA, the quality of these films were pretty low grade and few of them are noteworthy. But they are an interesting footnote on the genre. More on this subject in the following weeks.


Nudity in early PEPLUM films

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 were 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 seemingly 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

Flesh in the 1950s

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, for most of the 1950s, there are very few films to talk about. 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 bit of an exhibitionist (see link).

Slaves from the galley scene in 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.

The influence of HERCULES

Last week I mused about the proliferation of flesh in PEPLUM movies of the 1950s. Nudity was banned in Hollywood during that decade so the only option for producers and filmmakers was to be as fleshy as possible without being blasphemous. One could see casual or incidental nudity in films made in Europe but not in the US. The closest a film came to show full female nudity was the skimpy costume Lana Turner wore in the 1958 dull opus THE PRODIGAL (left). But that photo is a publicity shot and it's sorta different than how it actually appears in the final film. The display of skin in PEPLUM films, certainly Biblical films, is quite odd since most of those films were purported to be virtuous and approved by religious groups.

Last week I finished off with the worldwide success of HERCULES starring Steve Reeves and directed by Pietro Francisci. I'll write about the influence the modest Italian film had on the genre but also on the way it shaped people's mores towards the disrobing the human body. Aside from the fact that HERCULES is excellent, the big reason for its success was the addition of Mr America himself, Steve Reeves. What didn't work in ATHENA clicked in this film. Audiences were amazed by the bodybuilder’s physique. Aside from Tarzan films, most actors who appeared sans shirts in those days had a sorta average built, not the super cut physique of Reeves. His body was unlike anything audiences back then had ever seen on the big screen or something outside of a “Physique pictorials” magazine of the day, which were very popular then with the increased interest in bodybuilding. On the right is future PEPLUM star Ed Fury on the cover of such a magazine.

Before appearing in HERCULES, Reeves  starred in a musical called ATHENA (left). Even though he was featured extensively in bodybuilding mode in it, ATHENA wasn't a success at the box office but it did give a preview of things to come. ATHENA was a mixed bag of ideas (to say the least) and it disappeared quickly from the radar. Unlike HERCULES, the impressive amount of beefy flesh on display failed to generate any interest in Reeves, except for Pietro Francisci who noticed him after seeing it and hired Reeves to play Hercules. And the rest is history.

Mimmo Palmara, Gabriele Antonini and Steve Reeves in HERCULES (1958)

Steve Reeves was in such demand after HERCULES became a hit that he made 5 films in a row : GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS, HERCULES UNCHAINED, WHITE WARRIOR, THE GIANT OF MARATHON and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, all made in 1958-59. All hits. He was also the highest paid American actor in Europe at that time.

Producers in Europe capitalized on this new angle to sell a story by hiring other bodybuilders or male models to star in their productions, like Ed Fury, Mark Forest, Gordon Mitchell, Gordon Scott, Alan Steel, Kirk Morris and a long list of other men. Hundreds of films of the PEPLUM genre were made and released between 1958 and 1965. Regardless of where the stories were set, Greece or Egypt or Rome or were pirate epics, it didn't matter, most featured one beefy actor listed above. This "PEPLUM explosion" lasted a good 7 years before interest slowly died, certainly after the failure of the gargantuan CLEOPATRA (1963) and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964) zapped any interest the general audience had with films set in Antiquity. Subsequently, Italian / European films also fell victim of this backlash.

Laurence Olivier and John Gavin in SPARTACUS (1960)

Those two massive productions were, oddly enough, pretty much devoid of any beefcake. Was this one of the reasons for their failures? Not really. Both films were just too dense to be enjoyable. But then it wouldn't have hurt them if they had included such scenes. Even prestigious films like SPARTACUS (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick, took note of the success of HERCULES and included some of the prerequisite "beefcake" moments, with John Gavin, a minor character in the story, spending a lot of time in the sauna. The influence of HERCULES could be seen everywhere. Films that were made before it altered the way their re-releases were advertised.

The poster on the left was the poster used for its original release and the poster on the right is the one used for its re-release, after HERCULES became a hit. Muscles were a selling point.

Try as they may, few Hollywood productions were able to duplicate the success of the Italian ones and even if they made some attempts to copy them in one form or another, such as THE 300 SPARTANS or SOLOMON & SHEBA. In the end, Hollywood was simply too reluctant to compete with the unflinching display of the male physique seen in Italian productions.

The influence of HERCULES (part 2) 

As mentioned in previous posts, European films had an edge over Hollywood films in the 1950s. They were not shy in showing some skin. This trend was more evident with PEPLUM films. This trend came in a one two punch in the late 1950s with the release of non-genre film AND GOD CREATED WOMAN, which had Brigitte Bardot wearing nothing (left) and HERCULES starring Mr America, Steve Reeves (below), almost in all his glory for the entire length of the movie. Both European productions were hits in the US thanks to their nonchalance attitude in showing skin which became their entry point into the lucrative US market.

HERCULES was the bigger hit and its influence was that Beefcake, or muscular actors, were now a selling point. Except for Tarzan films, in Hollywood, Beefcake was always secondary to Cheesecake, which reigned supreme (and still does today). After its success came a myriad of auctioneers or dramas set in Antiquity or across the seven seas, which often had a shirtless hero defeating evil rulers by the sheer will of his good intents, and with the help of his much developed sinewy body. Not all PEPLUM films were like HERCULES but many, including Swashbucklers, had to have a beefy hero, who often wore little clothes, and was the central figure of the film though most of the supporting roles often propelled the story. The heroes in PEPLUM movies always had an air of mystery to them which forced screen writers to shape the story in a way that wasn’t too revealing of the hero’s mystique. Though they were made for adult audiences, these films were really popular with kids, certainly boys and young men.

Clockwise : Richard Harrison, Mark Forest, Kirk Morris, Alan Steel, Gordon Scott, Peter Lupus, Dan Vadis and Iloosh Koshabe

European studios cranked out these films by the dozens per year. Quality varied but technically most of them were pretty constant : Technicolor or some variation of the film process. And Cinemascope or some less expensive variation of the film format. Today, when they are released on DVD in pristine conditions, these "low quality" productions look absolutely amazing. There was quality behind them. Just not super high quality like many (turgid) Hollywood epics.

With the smashing success of HERCULES, the Beefcake hero was finally born and this influence would stay with us up until today. Coming in different waves, having bodybuilders play heroes in PEPLUM films, or action films became the norm. Arnold Schwarzenegger and host of bodybuilders or models were the staple of action films throughout the 1980s. Even today, with a new generation of muscly actors like Dwayne Johnson and Kellan Lutz continue the tradition that started with the casting of Steve Reeves as Hercules. Critiques often ridicule this aspect of these films. These bodybuilders or models were (or are) not actors, but most of critics rarely understand the point of having a muscly hero : it was to show the human body in motion. Heroes would do things, like feats of strength or simply by battling the enemy, to demonstrate the suppleness and artistry of the male physique.

This influence would spill over into mainstream Hollywood  films. More and more films featured “beefcake” players. The films of Joshua Logan certainly was one of the few directors in Hollywood who used muscular actors in his films. Navy comedies like OPERATION PETTICOAT and ENSIGN PULVER capitalized on this trend. Many of the actors who appeared in these Hollywood films as supporting actors eventually went on to Europe to appear in leading roles thanks to the new PEPLUM explosion. Gordon Mitchell, who appeared in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, or Ed Fury and Ken Clark (left) in SOUTH PACIFIC, became the main stars, not bit players.

But as much influence as HERCULES had, and it was a game changer in many aspects, the trend of having beefy heroes would always be something that strictly came from Europe and not Hollywood, which simply couldn't compete with the casual display of the male physique. This would change in the 1980s after the success of CONAN, and later on again in the 2000s, with the success of 300. But during that period, Hollywood was still uneasy with too much skin, male or female, and European productions always retained an edge over US films. One just has to look at the costumes between Hollywood films and European/ Italian productions :

Richard Egan in THE 300 SPARTANS versus Gordon Scott in CORIOLANUS : HERO WITHOUT A COUNTRY

Costumes in PEPLUM films made in Hollywood were always more conservative than those from Europe, which were more accurate, with a few exceptions here and there. This casual disregard to male flesh would even make today’s audiences uncomfortable. Remember, most of these films were marketed to kids. No kids film today would show something like this :

Ed Fury mounting a horse in THE MIGHTY URSUS. You'll never see something like this in films made in Hollywood.

Oddly enough, though HERCULES spawned this trend and director Pietro Francisci wasn’t shy in showing Reeves’ physique, those films were careful in not showing actual nudity, like naked buttocks or bulges. I'll go over this next week.

But not everyone was happy about this. Today, these films are often seen as worthless because of the amount of the muscles and casual quasi male nudity. In comparison, films like ONE MILLION YEARS BC are fondly remembered for displaying curvaceous beauties like Raquel Welch (right, with John Richardson) but PEPLUM films have been (and  still are) derided for its prominence of Beefcake (I’ll write more on the “cavemen” trend of the 1960s in a future post).

This nonchalance view of the male physique is so legendary that the 1980 comedy AIRPLANE had a now infamous line : Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?

The Pantless Hero!

Yes, I love films with gladiators. Haha.

But then gladiators weren’t featured in all PEPLUM films.

Continuing with the disrobing of the human body via the PEPLUM genre. Last week I left off with AIRPLANE making fun of gladiator films. This line is now repeated every time the subject of PEPLUM films or gladiators come up with non-fans. This just shows the extent of the brazenness of male flesh these films had back in the day. But most of these negative observations come mainly from Americans (or Europeans who mimic Americans). This is mainly due to the fact that Hollywood has always been extremely prudish with showing too much male nudity. It something that persists up to today.

In order to put things into context on how prudish Hollywood or Americans were, remember that Barbara Eden on I DREAM OF JEANNIE (above) had to cover her belly button. Yes, that’s how extreme it was back then. Showing a navel on TV or even movies could get a studio some fines or an undesirable classification for a production. Today, this seems totally absurd (because it was) but in those days people were still antsy over showing too much flesh, on TV or in the movies. Hollywood followed the mores of the time but European films bucked that trend. It was more liberal in regards to the display of flesh, in which many American moviegoers responded positively to it. Europeans films, which always had difficulty making in-roads into the Hollywood dominated US market found an entry point : showing skin. Of course there were always nudies or early porno films that showed breasts and buttocks so the disrobing of the human body did occur in them but those were relegated to the grind house theatres. This discussion is about films made for mainstream audiences.

Same outfits, and yet different outlook. Belly buttons are on full display in the Italian made THE MINOTAUR while the dancers in the Hollywood-made THE 300 SPARTANS are covered up : navels are hidden and bra-tops are fuller.

The success of HERCULES, starring Steve Reeves, gave birth of the 'Pantless Hero.' Between 1958 and 1959, Steve quickly made several films afterwards, including THE GIANT OF MARATHON (above, right) where he lead an army of men into battle, dressed only in white wraps. This was before and during the eventual release of BEN-HUR. The success of latter would solidify this trend, with brawny Charlton Heston wearing the same thing as Reeves in MARATHON during the galley scene. But even though Hollywood had a few instances of a 'Pantless Hero' with some PEPLUM inspired productions like KINGS OF THE SUN starring a near nude Yul Brynner (above left) and JASON OF THE ARGONAUTS, the 'Pantless Hero' phenomena remained a European thing. Hollywood never tried to fully copy this aspect of PEPLUM films, certainly the casual disregard to male flesh.

The 'Pantless Hero' : Jerome Courtland in THARUS - SON OF ATTILA

There are so many films in the PEPLUM genre that fits this description that I could write an entire book on it. It's interesting that this wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Europe while in North America, most whom are unaccustomed to this, would always make a point of it. It's most likely due to the fact that Europe and Italy is dotted by so many great works of art, such as public statues, that it's never an issue to them. It's a blind spot of sorts.

Now just to make things clear, not all PEPLUM films from Europe had a 'Pantless Hero' or excessive amounts of Beefcake or Cheesecake in them but even so the costumes were still more fleshy than those seen in the US. Several PEPLUM films were, like their Hollywood counterparts, based on the Bible or inspired by historical events from a Christian point-of-view. Films like CONSTANTINE THE GREAT or THE SWORD AND THE CROSS were 'Biblical' films made in Europe. They competed with Hollywood films like THE STORY OF RUTH or A STORY OF DAVID starring Jeff Chandler (below, right).

And not surprisingly, those European Biblical films, along with the lesser Hollywood ones, are often the least remembered ones today. People remember the chariot race in BEN-HUR or the campy sexiness of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, not necessarily the Christian message those films tried to convey. The more Christian a film was, the less remembered it is today. Does anyone remember THE BIG FISHERMAN?

But the productions of the European biblical films still reflected the style they were made at the times. Case in point : PONTIUS PILATE. Great production (hampered by a terrible script). Amazing costumes that looked very accurate. It's one of the most authentic looking productions ever made and yet this might prove too much even for today's audiences by reading reviews at IMDb. Here's a screenshot of a review PONTIUS PILATE :

Jean Marais and cast wearing 'tiny gladiator skirt' in PONTIUS PILATE

It goes without saying that Hollywood and Europe (or Italian) view things differently. Hollywood is much more conservative, which is a shame since they are a monopoly around the world. Their point-of-view is the one that dominates and so we have an entire generation of people who have grown up on with this and the moment they view some European production, they invariably start mocking them or dismiss them entirely because they don't reflect the values perpetuated by Hollywood. This is why the 'Pantless Hero' will always be seen as a European thing.

Beefcake & Cheesecake 

After last week’s post, The Pantless Hero, it was pretty safe to say that the disrobing of the human body, the male body to be more precise, was a done thing. A film could pretty much show almost anything about the male physique except for full frontal nudity and it was still ok, certainly in European films. Aside from Tarzan films and Santo films from Mexico, no other genre featured so much beefcake as the PEPLUM genre. The Pantless Hero remained a European thing though.

It seems in those days that the objectification of the male body was a new thing and because of this things were much more permissible back then since no one saw the men in a sexual manner. But today, with the occurrence of the objectification of the male physique being more prevalent than ever, the trend now is going backwards. Aside from 300, the two recent HERCULES films, and maybe even TROY, today’s PEPLUM films have gone back to covering up the male physique. Just look at the new BEN-HUR or the new TARZAN film in which he wears pants throughout the film. No loincloth. Today, in 2016, Tarzan is not a Pantless Hero anymore. Very little of the PEPLUM genre's casual disregard to the male physique would be acceptable to modern audiences.

It’s funny that a time when showing a navel was controversial and yet Italian filmmakers could basically show anything of a man, including bulge or buttocks, and get away with it. This is the interesting aspect of the genre, and really shows how these films helped loosen up the collective mores of the time. These days, full nudity occurs on a regular basis on cable shows, such as the SPARTACUS series, but not so much in movies anymore as studios want to avoid the once coveted but now dreaded R-rated classification.

A very masculine Gordon Scott showing his mettle in GOLIATH & THE REBEL SLAVE. Few modern actors would agree to wear something like this today

As I mentioned previously, this is a cultural thing. Italians have no issues with displaying the human body with the prevalence of art displaying it in all its form. To them, showing skin was a masculine thing. It's a way for a man to display his 'mettle,' sorta speaking. It's complete opposite in Hollywood. The more covered up the men are, the more masculine he is.

So while the male body was displayed generously in films of the genre, the female body, though seen in ample bussomy dresses and togas, simply didn't compare. This is not to say there weren’t any sexy women wearing next to nothing in these films. They were but they, like their Hollywood counterparts, were still pretty shy in displaying anything close to partial or full female nudity. In PEPLUM films, the men often wore much less than the women. This would eventually change by the mid-1960s and definitely during the 1970s.

The closest they ever came to showing female nudity would be the ubiquitous "bathing beauty" scenes, of actresses taking bathes which was an easy way of teasing audiences with the promise of skin. But then DeMille did this back in the 1930s with SIGN OF THE GLADIATOR and things hadn't changed much since then.

Lisa Gastoni in THE LAST GLADIATOR (aka Messalina vs Son of Hercules)

The fun part of the PEPLUM genre is how each film can be categorized very specifically, by clichés, by type (swashbuckler, Egyptian, etc), level of kinkiness, etc. And of course one could categorize these films simply by virtue of the level of Beefcake and Cheesecake in them. On a scale of 1 (non-existent) to 10 (plenty), here’s a quick rundown of some titles :

HERCULES UNCHAINED - Beefcake level : 10 - Cheesecake level : 8

THE GIANTS OF THESSALY - Beefcake : 11 (off the scale) - Cheesecake : 7

SAPPHO THE VENUS OF LEBOS - Beefcake : 7 - Cheesecake : 10

ALI BABA & THE SEVEN SARACENS - Beefcake 8 - Cheesecake : 8

VULCAN - SON OF JUPITER - Beefcake : 10 - Cheesecake : 10

THE SEVEN REVENGES - Beefcake : 8 - Cheesecake : 6

MACISTE IN HELL - Beefcake : 10 - Cheesecake : 5

SODOM & GOMORRAH - Beefcake : 7 - Cheesecake : 7

This is the main difference between films set in contemporary times and films of the PEPLUM genre. There's ALWAYS some cheesecake or beefcake in them. It's de rigueur. A PEPLUM film without those elements is not a PEPLUM film. But Beefcake and Cheesecake is not the same as actual nudity, which many people eventually caught on and realized that most films from Europe featured very little actual nudity and their cachet eventually evaporated. The hype was just that, hype. Nudity was shown but mostly in films set in modern times. They were the exception not the rule. Things would change by the mid to late 1960s, but before that very little actual nudity was shown. Just the promise of nudity.

One of the best examples of this would be the woefully misconceived SODOM & GOMORRAH. The film lacked any nudity or sex, or anything sexy or lascivious. You’d think that with a film based on the legendary orgiastic stories of the most sinful cities in Antiquity would have been at the very least filled with flesh but no, it was all smoke and mirrors. HERCULES had more flesh in it that the  Robert Aldrich film. Predictably, the very costly SODOM & GOMORRAH bombed at the box office. Those looking for a pious piece of entertainment avoided the potentially lurid subject and those who went to see it for some skin were disappointed by the complete lack of any hot stuff.

The one aspect of SODOM & GOMORRAH that resembled previous films of the genre were the overtly kinky tone of many scenes. What they couldn't achieve from the lack of nudity they tried to make up with lurid stuff, like whipping, torture, hints of incest, etc. Though not even close to the same level of kinkiness found in Cecil B DeMille films, the kinkiness was pretty much obvious and director Aldrich clearly enjoyed himself with playing with these ideas though it gave an unpleasant feel to the entire project. Kinkiness without sexiness is not really palatable. The cast of SODOM & GOMORRAH is sexy but the execution of it all was turgid at best.

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).

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.

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.

1 comment:

curious9 said...

Under the heading of "The Pantless Hero!" it is stated:

"This is mainly due to the fact that Hollywood has always been extremely prudish with showing too much made nudity."

You did actually mean "too much MALE nudity."?