One of the bigger genres in Italy who’s popularity came and
went in waves from the silent era to the present, Sword and Sandal (or Peplum)
films are Italian movies about gladiators, musclemen, Ancient Greece and Rome,
and who’s main characters include Hercules, Spartacus, Ursus, Maciste (a
homegrown, semi-Marxist Hercules who fights the rich and decadent who is purely
a creation of Italian cinema).
The genre started in 1912, with Cabiria, an ultra-early
Italian feature that predated D.W. Griffith, featuring a muscular African slave
named Maciste, and due to his muscles and screen presence, Bartolomeo Pagano
may have been the first true movie star, making dozens of sequels. The
popularity of these movies went into hibernation in Italy until 1959, when it got a huge
resurgence when Steve Reeves starred as Hercules, and consequently became the highest paid
star in Europe. Hercules (1959) caused literally hundreds of movies to be made, assembly
line, in a burst of about 5 years. The genre burned itself out through
repetition in only a half decade, only to be replaced by the Italian horror/slasher film and the Spaghetti Western. It was down for good, only
to have something of a resurgence of popularity in Italy in the wake of the
popularity of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian in the early 1980s.
Sword and Sandal seems to be a genre where any given film picked at random could be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. For the most part, Sword and
Sandal movies are mostly known for being the training ground of people who showed
their skills in other genres, like how Mario Bava became a horror director, or
how Sergio Leone, a second unit director on a few, was best known later for Spaghetti Westerns. And there is
certainly some truth to the idea that, if you have seen one, you’ve seen them
all. But there are certainly some good examples of the genre that are worth
Goliath and the Dragon (1960)
Don’t be fooled, this is a Hercules movie, but they renamed
it because of some begobbled distribution rights issue.
If you were a Greek mythology kid (and most nerdy kids went
through a phase they were into sharks, dinosaurs, Greek mythology, AV/Radio,
writing in Dwarf runes under your desk after reading Tolkien for the first
time, and lego) you might remember reading about Hercules’s semi-tragic end,
poisoned and killed by his own wife and a centaur. It was the most fascinating
story, where Hercules’s great strength and courage was defeated by jealous and
anxious little people who tore him down. Americans don’t have much of a taste
for tragedy, so it’s very seldom been adapted for American audiences.
Goliath and the Dragon is that story. It literally starts
with Hercules finishing his hardest heroic Labor, and retiring. However, his
younger brother is jealous of him, and a conspiracy of schemers work to get rid
of Hercules by manipulating envy. Along the way, Hercules feels abandoned by
the gods and he turns against them in anguish after a lifetime of service. It
has a dragon, and quests into the underworld, yes, but it is primarily not an
adventure film, which is what makes it interesting.
It also stars Mark Forest, who might be the only one of the bodybuilders to play Hercules to have a legit screen presence. He later left movies to become an opera singer and voice coach.
Eric the Conqueror (1961)
This is one by Italian horror titan Mario Bava, and because
it’s kind of a well known film, it actually has a half-decent transfer,
including availability in the original language instead of a shoddy 70s dub –
this is utterly, absolutely unheard of in this genre, where the copies of these
movies on streaming (even on Amazon Prime!) are sometimes literally off VHS and
have “snow lines” and other phenomenally half-assed signs of VHS transfer, like the original FBI WARNING stickers.
The film is about two Viking brothers, one of who is raised
by Christians as a knight, the other of whom grows up the son of a pagan Viking warlord. It’s a film about the contrast between Christian and Pagan, and the one thing about it people remember is that it stars a pair of Playboy Playmate twins. Stylish
and action-oriented with lots of red blood, it’s like a cool version of Disney’s
“The Island at the Top of the World.”
Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
Hercules vs. Christopher Lee –need I say more? Christopher
Lee is a vampire who took over a kingdom and hypnotized Hercules’s true love,
shrouding the land in eerie darkness…and so Hercules has to descend into the
underworld. This is a case where the screenshots really tell the story, they
get across the eerie, surreal Gothic ambiance of the film. It doesn’t actually
feature Castle Greyskull, but it would perfectly fit in with the décor.
As far as I know, Hercules never actually encountered
vampires in Greek folklore, but in Italian cinema, they seem to feel that the
supreme challenge for the Son of Zeus is the undead (see also, Kobrak in
Goliath and the Sins of Babylon).
I feel guilty having two Mario Bava movies on here. But of
the two, this one feels the more…Mario Bava, in lighting, design, and ambiance, which is
really the reason to see it. Essentially, it’s Hercules Goes to Hell, and it’s
treated as more of a truly eerie horror movie, with weird lighting. The
presence of Christopher Lee makes it feel like a bodybuilder accidentally
wandered onto the set of a Hammer Horror film, with crumbling castles and
she-vampires in negligees.
Maciste in Hell (1925)
Speaking of the essential plot of a muscleman going to hell,
you wouldn’t think a movie of that kind would be whimsical, charming,
imaginative, and creative, but it is. Satan tries to tempt Maciste, a pure in
heart muscleman who represents the pure, incorruptible goodness and strength of
the working class. Maciste movies, distinct from Hercules films, always had a
strong Marxist undertone, with villains who were super-rich and decadent, all
the while Maciste resisted their temptations and hung out with the lower
classes and sponsored a revolution. The movie is full in intertitles like
“the Dragon – Hell’s Aeroplane!” And the quest by female devils to turn Maciste
into a demon himself with a kiss. Essentially, it’s a movie where if you’re
pure in heart and have biceps of steel, there’s no problem you can’t bench
press, grip, or grapple, even Satan.
According to his memoirs, this was the
movie that made Fellini want to become a director.
Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)
Made at the absolute dying gasp of the genre, this one is essentially the “Enter the Dragon” of Sword and
Sandal movies, in that it was a Hollywood/Italian co-production, much like how
“Enter the Dragon” was the first Hollywood/Hong Kong co-production. It wasn’t a
movie at all, but a pilot episode for a television show that never went to
series…to everyone’s shame, because if it had been made, it would have been a crowd pleaser, if the pilot was anything to go by. I all but guarantee it
would be a syndication favorite that would have turned everyone in it into a
star, the kind that would be on Nick at Nite forever, or the earliest
incarnation of F/X, where it was just a scrappy rerun network with a
pre-Survivor Jeff Probst (I still remember the F/X house all the VJ like hosts
This one has Hercules (played by Tarzan Gordon Scott) as a
sea captain and leader of a Greek ship named the Olympia, who is accompanied by
two sidekicks, Ulysses (a young, clever Ulysses as Herc’s sidekick was also a
trait of Paul Levine’s Hercules and Hercules Unchained), and Diogenes, Hercules’s
smart friend, a medical doctor and proto-scientist who comes off as the project’s
most interesting character, a Dr. McCoy like curmudgeon who adventures to stay
away from his awful wife, who creates a chemical that burns on water and who uses the
Socratic Method to solve a murder mystery. If this had gone to series, I can see him overshadowing the theoretical leading man in a similar way to Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith overshadowing the Robinsons.
The pilot was great fun. It had mythological creatures like
invulnerable horses and a terrifyingly unique sea monster, that was some of the
earliest work by the now legendary Carlo Rambaldi (creator of E.T. and the Alien) that is
light years ahead of the shag carpet dragons musclemen pretend to wrestle in
movies like this. Not to mention a mystery, and Hercules facing intrigue that,
as a trustworthy and direct man of action, he is incapable of dealing with (a
trait of nearly every single interesting Hercules movie).