Let's talk for a bit about peplum, shall we?
Okay, I realise you might not recognise the word, but you certainly recognise the genre. Or at least the movies. Peplum is the word given to the type of film also know as "sword and sandal" movies. In other words, those movies dealing with times long ago, with larger-than-life heroes who fought only with their strong, bare hands and their mighty iron swords against monsters that were also giants. Generally low budget, generally concerned with mythological or biblical stories such as those of Hercules or Goliath, and generally filmed in Italy then dubbed into English, the genre probably hit its peak during the late '50s and early '60s and was responsible for a large part of Italy's movie output during that time until the creators eventually moved on and decided to try their hands at westerns. Though perhaps not as popular during later years, the genre has been carried on through TV shows such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and even now we're seeing something of a resurgence of the genre now in the form of high-profile movies such as 2006's 300 or this year's Clash of the Titans or the Starz TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand .
I mentioned earlier that the peplum genre probably hit its peak during the late '50s and early '60s, but it's actually a genre that has its roots in the earliest days of film. After all, filmmakers are always looking for ways to showcase the new and exciting special effects that they have worked out, and what better way to do that than by spotlighting a hero with powers beyond those of an average mortal? Perhaps the first true peplum is 1914's Cabiria which saw the movie debut of a character who would become one of the most famous in Italian cinema: Maciste.
Apparently, the name Maciste actually began as a nickname for the hero Hercules (and in the original outline for Cabiria, the character is actually named Ercole, the Italian translation of the more well-known name), but scriptwriter Gabriele d'Annunzio apparently wanted to use what he considered the more learned nickname, and soon, over the course of some 26 films over the next 11 years, an entirely different background and mythology was built for the hero. Interestingly, however, when the character was revived for a series of films during the peplum revival of the '50s, American imports of the movies often renamed the character as a more familiar hero such as Goliath or Samson (or, yes, Hercules) in the title, even though in the dubbed dialogue he was often still referred to as Maciste.
Of course, whatever name he's going by at the time, it's appropriate that the first peplum hero was originally intended to be Hercules, since he was also the hero that led the '50s revival in the form of former Mr. America and Mr. Universe Steve Reeves.
Reeves was born in 1926, and according to IMDB actually won his first fitness title when he was six months old when he was named "Healthiest Baby of Valley County" (Montana). During high school, Reeves developed an interest in bodybuilding, and during a stint in the army during which he worked as a truck and boxcar loader, he also took full advantage of the gym, continuing a regimen that would eventually lead him, after his discharge, to become one of the world's most famous bodybuilders. Attempting to take advantage of his growing fame, Reeves moved to California to pursue an acting career, but found that his overly muscled body was not considered leading man material. It was not until an Italian director, Pietro Francisci, noticed him in a small role and invited him to come to Europe to star in a movie he was developing that Reeves found true success. The film was Le fatiche di Ercole. Literally translated, it means "The Labors of Hercules", but when it was dubbed and imported to the states it was retitled simply Hercules. The year was 1958, and a genre was reborn.
Hercules (both the film and the hero) dives right into the action and keeps the thrills coming. Opening with a damsel in distress scenario where a lovely young princess is trying to stop her runaway chariot which is veering dangerously close to the edge of a cliff, the first shot that we get of our hero is of him uprooting a tree which he promptly throws in front of the advancing horses causing them to stop in their tracks. After a bit of flirting back and forth between the princess (whose name we come to find out is Iole) and her rescuer, the backstory begins and we soon realize that what we are actually viewing is a retelling of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Iole is Jason's cousin, and it is her father who (unknown to his daughter) has stolen the throne from and killed Jason's father and who eventually sends him on the quest to find the lost hide which is the symbol of the king.
Steve Reeves certainly gets the chance to show off his mightily-muscled and well-oiled body in this film as we see him fighting lions, tigers, bulls, monkey people and, of course, other warriors. At one point he even wraps a pair of chains around the pillars of a temple and literally brings the house down. While it's true that the "monsters" that Hercules fights may not be to the scale of those seen in the films of special-effects wizard Ray Harryhousen or other iterations of the character, in some ways that fact actually helps to ground the film and makes the feats we do see seem even more heroic.
After this film, Reeves would portray the character one more time in the 1959 follow-up Hercules Unchained. After that, he played a number of other heroic roles in 14 other movies until 1968 when Italian filmmakers turned away from the pelum genre and decided to begin making westerns. According to an obituary printed in the UK's Guardian newspaper, Reeves actually turned down the role of The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (a role that eventually went to Clint Eastwood) because "it seemed to me impossible that the Italians could make a western." Reeves also claimed to have turned down the role of James Bond before the part was eventually offered to Sean Connery.
Now, I'm certainly not going to make the claim that Hercules is filled with Academy Award -worthy acting. Nor am I going to say that it's one of the most spectaular films ever made. What I am going to say is that it is entertaining and holds the audience's attention for its nearly two-hour running time. It's full of muscular men and beutiful women, villains who act despicably and heroes who act, well, heroically (something often lacking in today's films), and there are certainly worse ways one could pass a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Here's a short clip from the film showing Hercules using not only his brawn but his brains in fighting a much larger and tougher opponent:
and now, the Skinny:
Title: Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole)
Release Date: 1958
Running Time: 107min
Starring: Steve Reeves, Sylva Koscina
Directed by: Pietro Francisci
Produced by: Federico Teti
Distributed (in America) by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Since it is in the public domain, Hercules is available to watch or download for free from the Internet Archives. It is also available on DVD.
Until next time, happy treasure hunting.