The Art of the Italian Peplum

In the forward to his revised edition of The Greek Myths, written in Deya, Majorca, in 1960, Robert Graves sketched a theory:

 I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshiped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence […] suggests that Satyrs, Centaurs, and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. (1)

Graves had experimented with magic mushrooms throughout the 1950s, stimulating ideas about the origins of Greek mythology which he later set out in his essay  ‘Centaur’s Food’ (2). Dismissed as spurious by classical scholars, his theories were nevertheless tantalising and suggestive, recapturing the primeval strangeness and tribal traces of the original stories.  Hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, remarkable muscular strength: such behavioral extremes had been largely purged from modern representations of the ancient world, and when Hollywood got hold of the Classics they had a fairly safe set of tales to ransack. It took the Italians, literally picking up leftover American sets and costumes at Cinecitta studios, to put some strangeness and savagery back into the stories. 

I suppose that Graves would have disdained the Italian pepla had he ever watched one, an event that seems unlikely in his Majorca retreat. Even among Italian film enthusiasts they tend to be considered camp crap: Sixties kitsch dumped on YouTube channels for the nostalgic or those looking for a laugh. Yet, when Tim Lucas described Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) as the first psychedelic movie he wasn’t being lazy or flippant at all. Bava’s peplum followed his 1960 Gothic chiller Black Sunday, in which he defined his visual style in pure form for the first time, balancing and manipulating light and shade to evoke and elicit extreme states of fear and eroticism. In Hercules in the Haunted World he did the same thing, but in deep, bold Technicolor. Presented as a mythical yarn, Bava’s Hercules was a visionary spectacle: a fever-dream in which action was secondary to visual concepts and the exploration of hypnotic states, spells and hallucinations. By this point the lines between his pepla and horror films had blurred, so that Christopher Lee could play villainous King Lico as if he was Count Dracula. The closing World of the Dead sequence effectively laid the groundwork for the visual assaults of the early 80s Italian zombie cycle: Bava’s Living Dead rising from their crumbling crypts foreshadowed Lucio Fulci’s own underground uprising at the end of City of the Living Dead. (This kind of slippage also happened in his science fiction nightmare, Planet of the Vampires.) Bava’s film showed that the Italians, at this time, had the ability and licence to do things that Hollywood could barely imagine, let alone execute. 

In his overview of the cycle Jon Solomon usefully summarised the basic template of the Italian peplum: “at its nucleus was always the heroic male bodybuilder protagonist performing feats of strength while righting wrongs, originally and predominantly within the mythological and historical parameters of the Greco-Roman world” (3). This provides a neat starting point that is basically accurate for most pepla churned out between 1958-65, but also shows how far the Italians took the formula, not just in terms of geography and history, but thematically and aesthetically. Solomon details plot excursions to Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Atlantis and Mongol Central Asia, but there was no fidelity to period detail, literary integrity or historical accuracy in these films: each setting simply provided a stage for the most extreme spectacle possible. As Solomon notes, for many producers and directors the innate exoticism of the genre provided an opportunity to accentuate “villainy in the tyrants and sensuality in the femmes fatales” (4): in other words, to maximise the sex and the violence. Italian directors were encouraged to mine story and history books for salacious material which was then spliced together and given lavish visual attention by local film crews, triggering an explosion of energy and creativity that fueled Italian genre cycles until the late 1970s. In his foundational Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (Ercole e la regina di Lidia, 1959) director Pietro Francisci promiscuously adapted elements from Apollonius of Rhodes, Sophocles, Aeschylus and the legends of Hercules and Omphale to present an anarchic remix of mythology and history even more frantic and audacious than opera: stories and characters conflated, condensed and recombined in pursuit of rapid, non-stop sensation. The effect was surprising, often thrilling, sometimes hilarious. There was liberty in this lurid mess. 

As the cycle developed, the need to generate novelty produced a kind of aesthetic delirium: constant escalations spawned increasingly strange hybrids. Riccardo Freda’s The Witch’s Curse (Maciste all’inferno, 1962) is an example of the apparently accidental Surrealism that could result. Freda’s film opens as an atmospheric period chiller about witch trials in 16th Century Scotland, but is quickly disrupted by the entrance of Maciste from another time and realm altogether, bursting into the dark and frigid landscape of Protestant Loch Laird on horseback and wearing only a loincloth. There is no explanation for this temporal irruption, certainly no logic, but it sets up the sudden descent into a feverish subterranean landscape drawn from Hieronymus Bosch, a vision of hell crowded with bestial subhumans and writhing demons, rivers of fire and fluorescent spumes of flame. The overall effect is Gothic, discordant, searing, unhinged; a dizzy rush of wild pyrotechnics and vivid streams of colour creating similar effects to the horror films that Freda was directing alongside Mario Bava at exactly the same time. This is something altogether different from a hammy Hercules tale, and it is as hallucinatory and unsettling as the Greek myths presented in Graves’ own translation.

This was a fast and experimental creative environment with no scruples and no respect for the auteur theory of film or conventional notions of good taste. In this atmosphere, limits could be exceeded quickly, for sometimes large profits. The films, after all, were cheap, and the talented crews fully up to the task of producing ingenious and dazzling spectacle from practically nothing. Everything was thrown into the mix, and genres blurred: at times, even now, it can be hard to know what you are watching: a mythological epic, a science fiction fantasy, or a Gothic nightmare. The process was chaotic, even random. The resulting products were impure, contaminated; sometimes a magical spell, a lavish confection, at other times barely holding together at all. As Howard Hughes put it in his compendium Cinema Italiano, “the central theme of pepla is man’s freedom” (5), but the means of expression were unhinged. Mario Bava, in particular, excelled at pushing the limits of physical spectacle and moral license with limited resources. In Hercules in the Haunted World and the Viking saga Erik the Conqueror (Gil invasori, 1961) he decorated his tales with lavish, over-saturated images of sadism and sexuality, creating minor period epics that fitted into the visual and thematic world he was conjuring up in Baroque horrors like Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body

This impurity was perhaps the defining feature of Italian products. It could be glimpsed in the haunting vision of Queen Lydia’s crypt in which former lovers become petrified statues in Hercules Unchained or the gruesome fate of the sacrificial victims to Proteus in Vittorio Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, 1961), visually rich and uncanny set pieces that defy categorization. In Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contra il vampiro, 1961) the Oriental Kingdom of Salmanac is terrorised by a shape-shifting, blood-sucking apparition that materialises in wrathes of red mist, floating in mid air, fangs and talons poised to feast on the blood of virgins. Kobrak (‘the vampire’) is capable of changing his form at will: during the film’s climax he morphs into Goliath himself so that at the final moment, courtesy of some crafty special effects, Goliath appears to grapple with Goliath. The film is suffused with an atmosphere of spooky sadism and exotic sensuality, decorated with a bone-strewn desert, a depraved Oriental court and a frozen underground lair that conceals an army of blue humanoids. Goliath and the Vampires is a period adventure that exceeds every other production of the time by gleefully raiding adjacent genres (horror, science fiction). Corbucci, like Bava, had the talent and temperament as a director to take these things to their logical conclusion: his Roman epic Son of Spartacus (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962) and Spaghetti Westerns Django and The Great Silence stand out for their handsome scale and pitiless brutality. Goliath and the Vampires made the peplum frightening and cosmic, within its own frivolous boundaries: in the process it shredded conventions and invented something stupid, new and unrepeatable. 

This wildness, this lack of decorum and taste, a refusal to acknowledge any aesthetic boundaries and push at both moral and legal limits, became a basic driving force of Italian genre cinema, taken to extreme horizons by directors like Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. It pushed the peplum cycle through to its bitter end and ushered in the amorality, violence and eroticism of the Spaghetti Westerns, horror movies and gialli of the later 1960s. The brutality of the pepla set a precedent for the aesthetics of Italian film by depicting violence with more felicity and imagination than the American models. Movies like Goliath and the Vampires or Carlo Compagalliano’s ruthless romp Goliath and the Barbarians (Il terrore dei barbari, 1959) and his voluptuous, savage Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei re, 1960) opened with whole villages and towns being massacred in surprising, gory detail: the innocent burnt or  buried alive, stabbed or impaled, with no mercy for women or children. In later pepla like Son of Spartacus or Ferdinando Baldi’s Son of Cleopatra (Il figlio di Cleopatra, 1964) the brutal, parched landscape, visual motifs and pessimism of the Spaghetti Western had started to be sketched out: pitiless bursts of violence perpetrated by desperate, amoral men on horseback in barren desert wastelands. 

The violence was balanced by an extravagant sensuality that was often, and deliberately, decadent and provocative, a central trait of Italian cinema. There is a retrospective tendency to focus on the supposedly homoerotic presentation of the lead actors in the pepla: bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Reg Parks romping around in skimpy loincloths, flexing oily torsos and wrestling wild beasts. But this is misleading, ahistorical and misses a key point: the pepla often revolve around the motivations, machinations and sexual allure of their women. The female characters were not just sex objects in these films: their erotic charisma often suffused the entire narrative and propelled it. If the central protagonist was invariably the muscular and moral hero, a Hercules or a Maciste, then his real nemesis was more often than not a dynamic and seductive queen or courtesan. Occasionally controlled by a larger, more malevolent force (Kobrak in Goliath and the Vampires; a race of rock-headed, be-caped aliens in Giacomo Gentilomo’s legitimately camp and demented Hercules Against the Moon Men), they almost always stole the show from everybody else. 

Hercules Unchained, for example, belonged to Sylvia Lopez, the tragic starlet who died of leukemia one year after the film was released. Her Queen Omphale is an outstandingly lurid and febrile creation: decked in gossamer suits and diaphanous gowns with eyes like steel daggers and lips like lava, she is eventually driven mad by desire and immolates herself in her own cave of horrors like a Technicolor Barbara Steele. In Son of Samson and Goliath and the Barbarians, Chelo Alonso (“the Cuban H-Bomb”) provided a lethal sexual charge by deploying seductive dance routines learnt at the Folies Bergere in Paris (6), vamping and murdering her way through the Mongols of Central Asia and the dangerous schemers of Pharaonic Egypt in luxurious and only vaguely period-appropriate couture mini dresses. As Queen of the Amazons in Hercules, a wily courtesan in Goliath and the Vampires or a corrupt and lusty aristocrat in Son of Spartacus, Gianna Maria Canale exuded a graceful and intelligent menace that finely balanced the outré sexuality of Alonso and Lopez. Lydia Alfonsi excelled at the role of Prophetess often key to the mythological mini-epics, adding mystery and dignity to such roles as the Sybil in Hercules and Cassandra in Giorgio Ferroni’s The Trojan Horse (La guerra di troia, 1961). In their original context these films pushed the boundaries of female agency and sexual aesthetics to produce some of the most memorable yet forgotten lead performances by any Italian actresses.  

The peplum provided a perfect vehicle for the visual sensibility of the Italians, and an important opportunity to develop their talent and expertise in special effects, set and costume design. If there is one thing that distinguished the best Italian productions from their American models, it is their rich visual texture. The Italians presented their stories in dynamic, saturated Technicolor. Caves, grottoes and crypts were drenched in shimmering colour palettes: jarring blues and livid reds, piercing golden shafts and aquamarine washes. Pioneered and inspired by Bava, the lighting did a lot of work: cheap tricks devised to conjure vivid and unnatural dream states and hallucinatory nightmares. In fact, the visual signature of Mario Bava is all over the most effective and beautiful-looking pepla, even those without his direct involvement like Hercules Conquers Atlantis (a visual and thematic wonder), or Goliath and the Dragon (Le vendetta di Ercole, 1960) in which Cotaffavi painted a broiling volcanic landscape that was only let down by the ridiculous fire-breathing rubber puppet that Mark Forest wrestled at the climax of the film. Most productions required a dance sequence, both an obligation and a chance to show off: in the hands of Bava these became extreme candy-coloured confections, inserts of exotica that enhanced the dreamy delirium, like budget versions of the Powell and Pressburger ballet extravaganzas in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The nature of Italian productions, the studio combination of outrageous talent and motivated hacks, led to this uneven balance of virtuosity and abject failure, often in the same film, even the same scene. But this is precisely why the Italians excelled at the low-brow: apart from an upper crust of Marxist or moralising neorealists, the Italian film industry was refreshingly mercenary and anarchic, and within that precarious, venal infrastructure the likes of Bava and Corbucci could refine their own style and deliver it, in a commercial package, to hungry regional cinemas. 

The tendency towards extreme stylistic mannerism established during the peplum period would be fully developed in the Gothic horrors and gialli that followed: the thread can be traced all the way through to the visual assaults of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. The escalations and deviations of the pepla also established the pattern for subsequent film cycles. This was the first filone, and set a commercial and stylistic template for the Spaghetti Westerns, spy capers, Gothic horrors, gialli and poliziotteschi. Some of Italian cinema’s great genre exponents started here, notably Freda, Bava, Leone and Corbucci. Furthermore, with their big, bold themes (freedom, tyranny, the nature of good and evil, love, sex, power) and however moronic the approach, the pepla wore the scars of Italian society in the heat of industrial and cultural revolution. Like the Gothic horrors and Spaghetti Westerns, they did not, in general, try to preach or convert. Like the best Hollywood genre products, the ideas they explored were not delivered as programmes or slogans, but as symptoms of fear and desire, aspiration and dislocation (7). Their achievements were accidental, but not insignificant. Ignored now, they are worth revisiting (and where possible, fully remastering, 8) for their visual and stylistic achievements but also as central and living documents of a country with unmatched cultural resources and abilities being transformed at every level, from every direction. They are waiting, still, to be rescued and rediscovered. 

  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1992), p.9
  2. ‘Centaur’s Food’ in Robert Graves, Food for Centaurs (Doubleday & Co., 1960). William Graves would partly blame use of psychedelics for his father’s late mental decline, see Joshua Hammer, ‘Robert Graves Found ‘Perfect Tranquility’ in Majorca’, New York Times, July 3, 2015
  3. Jon Solomon, ‘The Muscleman Peplum: From Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) to Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)’ in The Italian Cinema Book (ed. Peter Bondanella, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.163
  4. Solomon, p.167
  5. Howard Hughes, Cinema Italiano – The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult (I.B. Taurus, 2011), p. 1
  6. Howard Hughes, p.13
  7. The best example of this is perhaps Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in some ways the most ridiculous of all the pepla but also the most interesting. In the film, Queen Antinea’s Atlantis is a technocratic tyranny with eugenic ambitions to “change men…create a new race.” The mythological setting tilts into science fiction and even exploitation, with its Futurist cityscapes and charged erotic apparel: the fetishistic black leather uniforms and weapons of Queen Antinea’s guards, as well as her own prowling, vicious performance, an Atlantean dominatrix. The thematic echoes of Mussolini’s own mad dreams of a fully aestheticised and pure totalitarian state are obvious and it is worth remembering that these films were being produced only fifteen years after the destruction of the Fascist regime.
  8. The model would be Arrow Films’ exquisite release of Erik the Conqueror: their 2K  restoration (with the original Italian vocal track) is a revelation. The reputation of films like Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules Conquers Atlantis and Goliath and the Vampires would be transformed by similar treatment and presentation. Whether this will ever be possible, either technically or commercially, is another matter. 
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