This year alone we will see two big-budget Hercules movies, plus this spring’s 300 sequel and the ancient action-intrigue-then-volcano popcorn epic Pompeii. That’s a whole lot of musclebound Mediterranean men in togas throwing spears at each other—more than we’ve seen since the brief eighties heyday triggered by Ahhnold’s original Conan the Barbarian.
That latter era featured a whole lot of cheap Italian-produced knockoff of the Hollywood Conan. Remember Ator, the Fighting Eagle or Yor, the Hunter from the Future? Of course you don’t. But they were an example of cinematic full-circledom, because the most famous such cycle was practically 100 percent Italian: Those umpteen “sword and sandal” adventures made through the mid-1960s in the wake of surprise international smash Hercules (1958), which starred American bodybuilder Steve Reeves.
So many such movies were made that they eventually choked on their own flexed biceps, even as they were being replaced in the international marketplace by a new Italian exploitation-flick glut: Spaghetti westerns, which also frequently starred slumming American hunks. (Albeit skinnier ones, like Clint Eastwood.)
But Italy’s screen infatuation with chiseled demigods hefting pillars to free the slaves from tyranny, or whatever, goes back even further—though its earliest such endeavors aren’t so well remembered today. Of course it makes sense that Italy should have used the medium from earliest days to export visions of its own fabulous ancient history and mythology: No events and beliefs of 1,500 to 2,500 years ago are better known around the world (or at least in the West) than those of the Roman Empire. Even if they don’t know the specifics, your average viewer today probably has a general grasp on concepts like Nero’s fiddle, Cupid = Love, or Poseidon being all wet. And decades ago, when students were much more extensively schooled in “the classics,” the gods and goddesses of Olympus would have been figures as familiar to the popular imagination as Peter Pan or Romeo & Juliet.
That cultural edge helped make Italy a very big player in early cinema—before talkies divided audiences linguistically and Hollywood became the globally dominating force it is now. Italians made many of the films that first pointed movies toward epic length and scale, inevitably taking antiquity and myth as their subjects. A year before D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, Giovanni Pastrone‘s Cabiria was a huge international hit of (originally) over three hours’ length, shot in locations from North Africa to the Italian Alps, written by leading Italian literary figure Gabriele D’Annunzio. (It was even the first movie ever to be screened at the White House, for President Woodrow Wilson and family.) Its breathless narrative straddled the worlds of mortal and immortal, mashing historical incidents together alongside pure fancy.
Seen above, exulting in his strength while being liberated from shackled toil by a friend, is bronzed and brawny Machiste—a name interchangeable with Hercules and other legendary strongmen in many Italian adventure films to come. (As “Maciste” had little recognition value abroad, he was usually renamed Hercules, Goliath, et al. in their export versions.) The strongman was first played by Bartolomeo Pagano, an erstwhile Genoan longshoreman built like a brick house. The actor grew so popular he starred as the same character in at least two dozen spinoffs over the next twelve years, a series that ended only when he neared age fifty and decided to retire.
Invariably using his enormous strength for the greater good of the common people, Maciste was a formative role model for people like Benito Mussolini—though of course one might argue he and other fascists got that hero’s lesson all wrong. During World War II the genre was revived, more or less, via the lavish fantastical jumble of 1941’s The Iron Crown. It cast athletic Massimo Girotti (who’d later star in films for Visconti, Antonioni, Pasolini and Bertolucci) as a switched-at-birth prince who grows up in the jungle, emerging in a loincloth to win a princess’ hand and save a kingdom from its false ruler. Combining the attributes of Machiste and Tarzan, he provided a lot of hubba-hubba value for Italian women who’d already sent many of their menfolk off to fight. Here he is, waking from a leisurely nap with tigers to face an avalanche or two while tracking the “golden deer”:
Was The Iron Crown pro-fascist or anti-? Some thought Girotti’s manly, virtuous savior an idealization of Mussolini—or at least of the way he perceived himself. But others thought the film subversive in its portrait of a popular uprising against tyranny. Hitler’s propaganda minister Goebbels reportedly hated it, saying that if it had been made in Germany its makers would have been executed for treason. That didn’t stop the film from winning a prize at the Venice Festival—though it wasn’t exported to Allied nations until well after the war, often in poorly dubbed and re-edited versions.
As a result, its director Alessandro Blasetti made a much greater international impact with 1949’s Fabiola, at least the third film version of a (vaguely) historical novel by a 19th-century Catholic bishop. Girotti was back, albeit in a supporting role, in this epic of forbidden love and gladiator games amidst the waning paganism of a third-century A.D. Rome about to turn Christian. Fabiola was a huge success, though oddly it didn’t immediately inspire more Italian epics so much as attract American ones to Italy, where filming was cheaper and ancient sites could simply be photographed rather than built on studio soundstages. Thus the new cycle of Italian muscleman movies started by Reeves’ Hercules was actually inspired by 1950s Hollywood productions at least partly shot in Italia (Ben-Hur, Ulysses, Land of the Pharoahs etc.), which in turn had partly been inspired by earlier Italian ones.
Finding that their success was not necessarily compromised by budgetary restraints, these movies got ever cheaper. Their primary audience of kids at Saturday matinees was happy enough with the simple spectacle elements of bodybuilders, chariots and one-on-one combat, without need for the elaborate sets or costumes of “A” productions. (Though the latter continued to be made, via such expensive, often stilted and increasingly money-losing early sixties films for grownups as El Cid, Sodom and Gomorrah and The Fall of the Roman Empire, not to mention the infamous Cleopatra.) Typical of them was 1962’s Gladiators Seven, with Richard Harrison—another American bit-part actor and physique model who crossed the Atlantic to become a star—leading Spartan warriors against the cruel tyrants keeping the common people in a state of terrorized enslavement, etc. etc. Like many such, it benefited from the re-use of sets doubtless built for prior productions, like this stadium where our hero grudgingly does battle for the amusement of a decadent Roman elite:
The cluttered market allowed some attempts at diversity, applying sword ‘n’ sandal formula to figures from Ali Baba to Zorro, from Tartars to Vikings. Surrounded by so many imitators in togas, Steve Reeves himself took to the Malaysian jungle as a South Seas pirate turned anti-colonialist rebel in 1963’s Sandokan the Great, a lively exotic adventure in which he wore more clothes than usual. But not, of course, all the time, as and crew arrive ashore from exile at the start in their skivvies:
That film would be successful enough to spawn a sequel, and its director Umberto Lenzi would stick around long enough to participate in the peplum revival of the 1980s (via Conan knockoff Ironmaster). Nonetheless, Reeves saw the writing on the wall: After making one spaghetti western in 1968 (A Long Ride from Hell), he retired from the screen and never looked back.
What seemed unique in Reeves’ day—and was the butt of some jokes—now hardly raises an eyebrow. Today we expect action heroes to be ripped and pumped; the gym barbells are no longer used strictly by those fitness “fanatics” who once populated Hercules movies and provided tourists with photo ops in Venice Beach, but by anybody and everybody who wants to simply be “in shape.” This summer’s Hercules, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is hardly limited in role choices by his physique, ethnicity or even high-profile wrestling background. He’s just another movie star—one with the body of a Greek (or Roman) god, sure, but that doesn’t make him so different from a lot of leading men these days. Once Maciste & co. fought for the Everyman. Now they practically are Everyman, at least in chest-measurement terms.