Whatever happened to old Steve Reeves movies?
Turner Classic Movies was running three "pepla" together. It gave me a sort of nostalgic feel. This is a genre of film that seems all but forgotten. I do not see books written about them. You do not see revival houses playing the films. I am a little surprised that Turner saw fit to show them. How many people today even know much about the sub-genre of historical fantasy called "pepla," or in the singular "peplum"? Taken literally, a peplum is a sort of clothing worn in ancient Greece and Rome. It is draped over the shoulder and then wrapped around the loins. In ancient Rome a peplum was a robe of state. In Italy the films are also known as "fusto" films. "Fusto" means muscleman. In this country we tended to call these films by the English name "Sword and Sandal" films. When applied to films it is a genre of film set in (usually) classical historic times with a muscle-man hero.
Today there are just a few rare little revivals. But back when I was a teenager there was a lot of pepla on Saturday night television. I think the local station called their program "Medallion Theatre." The pepla were a sort of film we associate with 1960s Italy. Actually most were made in the years from 1958 to 1968, and they were made in the hundreds. But pepla actually go back well into the silent era of filmmaking. CABIRIA (1914) was probably the first true peplum film. It had a muscleman hero named Maciste. Most of these films were not seen outside of Italy until the late 1950s.
What really got the ball rolling was Joseph E. Levine finding the film HERCULES in Italy. He dubbed it into English and released it in the United States. It had cost him next to nothing and he made a financial killing. It was not his first coup of that sort, by the way. He had previously bought the American rights to show a big-budget Japanese film called GOJIRA and which he re-cut and released as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. Hoping that lightning would strike twice he tried to repeat the trick with Hercules. And surely enough he made another killing at the box-office. HERCULES and the shortly following HERCULES UNCHAINED were the first real hits of this genre in this country. They played separately, I believe, but when the appeal died down they played together on a double feature. How anybody could stand to sit through two of these films back to back is still a mystery to me. The films tend to be these terribly uninvolving stories of not very high quality. It does not help that they are so poorly dubbed into English. The plots are mostly incoherent and usually just end up with the muscleman hero being imprisoned by a tyrant and then the hero gets angry and tears apart the kingdom. He does things like pulling trees out of the ground by the roots and bopping the tyrant with them. He then gets the girl, but he never seems to get very close because these huge inflated biceps and pectorals seem to get in the way.
When pepla proved profitable as an international product the Italian film industry started grinding them out one after another. We got a lot of the dubbed peplums over here. Only a few did I ever see playing in theaters. Perhaps they played in drive-ins. However, most went directly to television where stations could show them on programs like my Medallion Theater. Many seemed to start American body builders. Hercules was played variously by Steve Reeves, Mark Forest, and Gordon Scott. Other heroes would be named for famous strongmen of myth, history, and folklore like Samson, Goliath, Colossus, and Atlas. Then there were some with a hero known mostly only in Italy called Maciste, the fellow from CABIRIA.
Americans did not know Maciste, so frequently he got other names in the translation. He might get a name like Colossus or the Son of Samson. But if you saw the titles, he was really Maciste. Initially only Joseph E. Levine could legally release a peplum about a strongman named Hercules. But eventually it must have been decided that he did not own the name and there were several Hercules films among the pepla. For example, there was that classic HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN. I know what you are thinking. That sounds to you like a silly idea for a film. The truth was, no, it was not Hercules fighting actual men from the moon. That would be ridiculous. It was Maciste fighting actual men from the moon.
In waves the Italian film industry would pick a genre that they thought would be popular and they would just make dozens of films in that genre until the market was worn out. When there was no more demand for muscleman films they moved on to other genres. I seem to remember some spy films that were a sort of an imitation of James Bond films. In 1977 and 1978 they re-geared and made a lot of space opera films. They had been making them since the early 1960s, but STAR WARS gave them a real boost. However, what they eventually made their big genre started in 1964 with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. That film basically killed the pepla film and directors like Sergio Leone and Mario Bava who had been making beefcake films switched to making Westerns or horror films.
But somewhere out there are moldering a bunch of really bad but fitfully fun films. I am hoping that Turner Classic Movies brings more of them back.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper