The Mondo-Esoterica Guide to

The Peplum

About The Peplum:

The term Peplum (from the Latin for a Robe of State - the 'over-the-shoulder' robe that Hercules et. al. sport throughout the genre) is most commonly applied to the mass of muscle-man movies that sprung up in the 1960s after the success of Hercules (1958). However, like most euro-cult expressions it has become confused and re-used heavily down the years - most often interchangably with the generic term 'Sword and Sandal' leading to many American made films being rather incorrectly classified as Pepla.

For this feature we will classify a Peplum as any varient of the 'Sword and Sandal' era adventure film - but specifically that was produced in Europe and not just filmed there - thus incorporating the traditional muscleman films as well as historical epics and adventure pictures with a classical/ancient setting (from Ancient Egypt through to around 700 AD) but not including more modern-set historical epics and muscleman films or the Biblical epics of which the Italians shot many during the 1960s. The Peplum should also not be confused with the later 'Sword and Scorcery' genre that arose from the success of Conan the Barbarian (1982) and although there is a lot of overlap, the latter distinctly employed more high fantasy and magical elements.

History of the genre:

From the very beginning, the Italian cinema industry has been producing Sword and Sandal films with an epic spectacle - Quo Valdis (1912), The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and Cabria (1914) were among the first and most successful Italian silent films. The latter is most notable for the introduction of the Maciste character, a musclebound hero in the Hercules mold, played by actor Batolomeo Pagano - he went on to play the character in twenty-six more films up until 1926, with a mix of classical and more contemporary settings. The genre began to wane however, with Italian cinema as a whole, in the aftermath of the First World War - one exception being Mussolini's pet project Scipione l'africano (1937) about the destruction of Cathage and considered to be the largest scale epic ever made. The Second World War did even more damage to the Italian film industry but it quickly strove to return and alongside the famed Neo-Realist films, the more popular genres began to re-emerge with dozens of low budget comedies and soon enough another retelling of the classic Last Days of Pompeii (1950), followed by Riccardo Freda's elaborate Sins of Rome (1953) set around the legend of Spartacus and a version of the classic tale of Ulysses - Ulisse (1954) starring Kirk Douglas.

Most important however, was the relatively small scale Fatiche di Ercole (1958) - a re-telling of the classic tale of the Argonauts (made 5 years before the famous Hollywood version) with American body builder Steve Reeves as the eponymous muscleman. A sequel quickly followed, Ercole e la regina di Lidia (1959) with Steve Reeves returning in the lead role. The films were a big success in Italy but more importantly in America where the rights were purchased by Joseph E. Levine (who had previously distributed the American edit of Godzilla (1954)). Thanks to his aggressive promotion, the films proved among the highest grossing of the year, outperforming Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). The way was set for the first of the Italian exploitation booms.

Over the next six years, the Italian film industry produced almost a hundred Pepla of all shapes and sizes until the genre began to die out in the mid-1960s thanks to decreasing budgets and endlessly repeating and increasingly daft storylines. The death knell came when Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci heralded the Spaghetti Western and the swords and sandals became rifles and whisky bottles - by 1965 the Peplum had all but disappear, with only a few minor and largely ignored productions emerging during the next decade that could be considered Pepla. A minor and unexpected resurgence came in the early 1980s in response to the big budget American/Italian production of the near-pornographic Caligula (1979), showing Roman decadence in all of its questionable glory. Italian exploitation producers put out an increasingly perverse series of unofficial sequels and follow ups, including Bruno Mattei's Caligula et Messaline (1981) and Joe D'Amato's Caligula II: The Untold Story (1982) before the genre quickly vanished again in favour of cheaper to produce exploitation.

The original films themselves would find a home for many years on American television targetted at young audiences, where those films not originally including Hercules would be grouped together as Sons of Hercules films which, in an attempt to explain away the ecclectic mix of character names and settings present in the stories, used a narration explaining that Hercules had a number of children who were continuing his heroic work across the world. The comparatively low budget and poorly acted Traditional Pepla were also a frequent target for a ribbing on the long running Mystery Science Theatre 3000 television series, although much of this low regard of the Peplum was caused by the poor dubbing and low quality fullscreen prints used on the television broadcasts.

Style and Subgenres:

The pure or 'traditional' Peplum is of course the one that most people will associate with the genre, namely the musclebound fantasy hero films. The subgenre was born with Maciste in 1914 but most influenced by Hercules (1958) and duly, Steve Reeves. The films focus around a central hero, be he Hercules, Maciste, or one of the multitude of heroic figures that the film-makers plucked from both history and the bible for their productions. Generally these stories would be unrelated to the actual legends surrounding the hero, to the extent that the characters often became interchangable and in different dubs of the films Hercules would become Samson and Goliath would become Hercules without any other changes needed to the script.

A majority of these films follow the same basic pattern. Set during some generic period of ancient Roman or Greek history, our hero discovers a 'wrong' (usually an evil dictator who has usurped the throne of a kingdom) and in setting out to right it will upset the villain who will sent waves of cannon fodder soldiers at the hero, all building up to a climactic confrontation with a nice happy ending. This last point is most notable when comparing the Pepla to many of the later Euro-cult genres, from the Western to the Giallo, in which nihilism and tragic endings were all too common - the Traditional Peplums were almost invariably light in tone and although rarely resorting to all out comedy, comic relief characters were often a feature of the genre and the productions could generally be considered family friendly, at least by modern standards.

There was plenty of variation of course - the settings were most easily altered and could vary from the Far East (Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (1961)) to Africa (Maciste in King Solomon's Mines (1964)) and even South America (Colossus and the Headhunters (1960)). Sorcery and magic could be a major plot aspect or completely ignored, the scale could range from small to near-epic (Hercules Unchained (1959)), there could be whole teams of musclemen (Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili (1964)) or the musclebound lead could be replaced completely by a band of heroes (Giants of Thessaly (1960)).

Less recognised but equally as numerous was the Historical Peplum. Based on real historical events, or well known legends such as the Battle of Marathon, these films were often darker and more violent than the Traditional Peplum, although a happy ending would usually be provided. Magic and Gods would be completely eshewed, even when adapting legendary stories such as the Battle of Troy, and although there usually was still space for a musclebound hero, his strength would not be supernatural. Influenced by the American epics, these Italian productions would generally revolve around some key battle scenes with small scale characterisation inbetween. Depending on the production budget, some genuinely large scale battle scenes could be staged, most notably in The Battle of Marathon (1959) and The Wooden Horse of Troy (1961). In contrast to Hollywood's output however, even the largest scale films would rarely exceed 90 minutes run-time and the overblown excesses of such productions as Twentieth Century Fox's Cleopatra (1963) were avoided.

Not all of the more historically themed Pepla were epic war films however and historical adventure films formed one of the more common subgenres of the Peplum, combining real historical settings with fictional stories. These ranged from the relatively small scale Ten Gladiators series, to the epic spectacle of The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) and Last Days of Pompeii (1959). Probably furthest removed from the normal definition of a Peplum were the small number of historical dramas with a focus much more on dialogue and plot than action scenes, including Messalina (1960) which packed enough court intrigue and murder into its script to make a thespian happy.

Cross-over films began to appear towards the end of the genre's heyday with the musclebound Peplum heros being added to swashbuckling 16th-19th Century adventure stories - this led to such bizarre films as Zorro contro Maciste (1963), Hercules and the Black Pirate (1964) and Hercules and the Masked Rider (1964). However, aside from the bulky hero these films had no ties to the Pepla and were otherwise just typical adventure films.

The People:

Mr Universe 1950, Steve Reeves is by far the best known of the Peplum stars - after appearing in the original Hercules and its sequel, he was called in for dozens of similar roles in both traditional and historical Pepla. After a serious accident during the filming of Last Days of Pompeii (1959) he was forced to stop his heavy workout routines and tone down considerably - but by then his name was permanently attached to the genre and he continued to work through until the end in the mid-1960s. The massive demand for muscle-bound heros during the genre's heyday meant that Reeves himself could not handle all of the roles and so producers scoured tough man competitions, importing dozens of musclebound Americans to play their lead roles - at the time, as was still the case many years later, an American actor was considered essential the help the film sell on the international market.

Thus performers like Brad Harris, Gordon Scott, Richard Harrison, Ed Fury, Mark Forest, as well as British born Reg Park all played their parts in the Peplum boom. Only a couple of native actors appeared in the musclebound lead roles, although they appeared under Anglicised names to help sell the films, the best known being Alan Steel (Sergio Ciani) and Kirk Morris (Adriano Bellini). Much of the dim view held of the Peplum films these days comes from the acting of these performers - while stars like Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott had been trained as actors, many of the others were simply bodybuilders with no performance training at all and as a result the quality of a number of the films suffers - although script writers were often able to keep speaking parts down to a minimum for the lesser actors. Many of the better actors, including Harrison and Scott went on to make a career in European cinema, staying on for the Eurospy and Western booms.

On the directoral side, the genre never boasted any iconic names of its own, although it did prove to be a starting block for many directors who became iconic in their own fields. Future auteurs Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone got their first breaks in the genre, working together on The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) while many other future Western directors, including Gianfranco Parolini and Ferdinando Baldi, made their debuts in the Peplum. Italian Master of Horror Mario Bava got his big start as a cinematographer on both Hercules (1958) and its sequel, and it was his work filling in for the uninterested Jacques Tourner on Giant of Marathon (1959) that got him noticed and lead to his first directoral break - Black Sunday (1960). His mentor Riccardo Freda worked on several genre entries, including the pre-boom Sins of Rome (1952) and later The Giants of Thessaly (1961) and Maciste in Hell (1963).

DVD Reviews: Peplum Films

Pepla are generally poorly served on DVD, particularly in the US, where the lapse of many of the films into the public domain has lead to a rash of low quality DVD releases, with full frame transfers making the generally scope films all but unwatachable. Even the classic Hercules (1958) and its sequel are poorly treated. Fortunately there have been a series of good looking releases in Italy, Spain and Germany, although only a select few have included English options.

Caesar the Conqueror (1962)

Spanish Filmax Region 2 DVD
Cameron Mitchell gives a stand-out performance as the Roman leader in this otherwise average historical Peplum.
For genre and Cameron Mitchell fans.
The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

USA WB Region 1 DVD
Sergio Leone's directoral debut is this strong and entertaining historical Peplum that gets going after a rather slow start.
Conqueror of Corinth (1962)

Spanish Filmax Region 2 DVD
A superb performance from John Drew Barrymore is the highlight of this rather unremarkable historical Peplum.
Of interest to genre fans.
Giant of Marathon (1959)

Retromedia Region 0 DVD
Epic battle scenes, a good storyline and strong direction make this historical epic Peplum among the very best.
Giants of Thessaly (1960)

VCI Region 0 DVD
A surprisingly dull retelling of the classic Argonauts tale from director Riccardo Freda.
Not recommended
Goliath and the Barbarians (1959)

Wild East Region 0 DVD
Steve Reeves stars in a well made historical Peplum with good direction and a solid storyline.
Goliath and the Vampires (1961)

Wild East Region 0 DVD
Gordon Scott fights alongside the Blue Men and takes on vampire zombies in an utterly bizarre Traditional Peplum.
Very enjoyable - recommended.
Goliath versus the Giants (1961)

RHV Italian Region 2 DVD
Not many Giants, but Brad Harris makes good work of this entertaining Traditional Peplum.
Recommended to Peplum fans.
Gladiators 7 (1961)

A rather generic but certainly enjoyable adventure story starring Richard Harrison.
Partly recommended.
Hercules (1958)

DVDY French Region 2 DVD
The original and classic film that holds up surprisingly well today despite a rather slow plot.
Recommended and a great place to start.
Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

Retromedia USA Region 0 DVD
A rather typical Peplum story is bolstered by a solid storyline and some well budgeted direction.
Recommended to genre fans.
Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

USA Image/Fantoma Region 1 DVD
A well directed hellbound Traditional Peplum with a top-notch euro-cult cast including Christopher Lee. From Mario Bava.
Recommended for an entertaining watch.
Hercules Prisoner of Evil (1961)

Retromedia USA Region 0 DVD
A Central Asian location and a solid script make this an interesting entry but Reg Park doesn't get much to do.
Partly recommended.
Hercules the Avenger (1965)

Retromedia Region 0 DVD
An interesting storyline but the heavy reliance on stock footage from earlier films is very distracting.
Not recommended.
Hercules Unchained (1959)

Concorde German Region 2 DVD
Hercules returns in this very enjoyable films, with good acting and direction, but some pacing issues.
The Last Days of Pomeii (1959)

Cine Plus German Region 2 DVD
Steve Reeves gives a good acting turn in this not so effective Historical Peplum, partly directed by Sergio Leone.
One for genre fans.
Maciste in King Solomon's Mines (1965)

Alpha USA Region 0 DVD
A unique African location is wasted by a completely generic script and lackluster pacing.
Not recommended.
Messalina (1960)

German E-M-S Region 2 DVD
Court intrigue and murder abound in this superbly well written and produced Historical Drama.
Recommended although not for action fans.
Roma Contro Roma (1964)

Blackhorse UK Region 2 DVD
A bizarre, horror themed Peplum is let down by a poor storyline and inadequate budget.
A curio, but not recommended.
Romulus and Remus (1961)

Koch Media Germany Region 0 DVD
Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott go head to head in this well made epic, with more storyline than battle scenes.
Samson (1961)

RHV Italian Region 2 DVD
Some listless pacing and a cliché plot make this film rather tedious, although it does have some good action scenes.
Not recommended.
Son of Cleopatra (1964)

Retromedia USA Region 0 DVD
Mark Damon stars in this well written but largely action-free Peplum with real Egyptian locations.
Of interest to genre fans.
Son of Samson (1960)

Retromedia USA Region 0 DVD
A well written Egyptian set film with some beautiful scenery starring Mark Forest as Maciste.
Recommended to genre fans.
Spartacus the Gladiator (1953)

VCI USA Region 0 DVD
Riccardo Freda's large scale pre-Peplum Spartacus film is a rather dull romance with poorly helmed battle scenes.
Not recommended.
The Trojan Horse (1961)

New Entertainment World Region 2 DVD
One of the biggest historical epics, boasting some solid direction and a fine central Steve Reeves performance.
War of the Trojans (1962)

Retromedia Region 0 DVD
Steve Reeves returns as Aeneas in this direct sequel to The Trojan Horse - less effective, it is still enjoyable.
Of interest to Reeves and Peplum fans.

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All text in this page written by Timothy Young - October 2007 - April 2011.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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