Mention the term “gladiator movies” to a film fan, and it’s inevitable you will get a response referencing the movie Airplane! The line was uttered by Peter Graves as airline pilot Captain Oveur, who asks a kid visiting his cockpit: “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
Hilarious, yet squirm-in-your-seat-inducing, at the same time.
But the truth of the matter is that gladiator movies were, and continue to occasionally be, a big deal.
Gladiator movies come in many flavors. They can be fictional or historical or even religious in nature. Sometimes, they can even involve pirates. In most cases, we’re talking what genre fans call sword-and-sandal films or “peplum” (tunic) movies, featuring muscular, well-oiled male beefcakes and attractive, scantily-clad females.
The films typically boast action—hand-to-hand combat, sword and knife fighting, battle scenes, horse chases and more. In more cases than not, the dubbing is as bad as a Japanese horror film from the 1960s. Additionally, the origins of the boulders the strong fellows throw across the screen are part of what used to be considered “screen magic”: constructed from cardboard or papier mache, flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
While gladiator films peaked in popularity with Hollywood studios in the 1950s, the height of their international status came in the latter part of the decade and into the mid-1960s, when most of them were imported from Europe, in particular, Italy. The peplum pictures garnered quite a following. Scores were made over a period of a few years.
Gladiator movies actually began in the silent era. There was a long-running series of Italian films featuring a character named Maciste, who was resurrected in the 1960s. Around the same time, D.W. Griffith treaded into sword-and-sandal cinema territory, historical and religious division, with segments in his epic Intolerance.
The Americans preceded the Italians to the cycle with Biblical-themed epics like Quo Vadis, The Robe, and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators. American actors like Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn travelled to Europe to make such films as Ulysses and Atilla, which were big international hits.
Sniffing a financial triumph, Italian director Pietro Francisco and producer Federico Teti cast American bodybuilder Steve Reeves in their long-in-the-works production of Hercules. The adventures of the Greek-named demigod son of the Roman god Zeus and human Alcmene was produced in 1957, but not released until 1959, when American entrepreneur Joseph E. Levine turned the relatively cheap acquisition ($120,000) into a goldmine with $5 million at the box-office. Reeves was catapulted to international fame, and appeared along with his Hercules co-star, Croatian beauty Sylva Koscina, in Hercules Unchained a year later.
With the success of expensive American productions such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus and such high profits on modestly priced foreign films, the sword-and-sandal sagas became all the rage around the world. Samson, Ursus, Sandokan, other incarnations of Hercules and a new Maciste were now headlining their own films. The heroes were played by a new wave of well-toned actors with macho names such as Reg Park, Alan Steel, Gordon Scott and Dan Vadis. Meanwhile, Reeves, a Montana native and ex-GI who held many bodybuilding titles, remained in Europe, staying in sword-and-sandal form for such efforts as The Giant of Marathon, Goliath and the Barbarians, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Trojan Horse and The Thief of Bagdad.
Warner Archives has recently issued a few long-missing peplum enterprises to DVD. Reeves was done raking in Herculean cash receipts by the time the teaming of three heroes came about in 1963’s Hercules, Samson and Ulysses. In his place as Herc was a former Venice gondolier originally named Adriano Bellini, who Americanized his name to Kirk Morris. He joins forces with Samson (Richard Lloyd, aka Iloosh Khoshabe) and Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico). With a marquee showcase for these three super heroes, Hercules, Samson and Ulysses turned out to be a baby boomer’s matinee screen fantasy come to life.
With Hercules director Francisco behind the camera, the film boasts action and sweaty sinews along with its oddball plotting. The story involves a sea monster that Hercules and Ulysses try to kill. Hercules is mistaken for Samson, who is being targeted by the Philistines, so both heroes are actually rivals throughout most of the film, as Hercules attempts to clear his name by helping to track down Samson. There’s also an evil king, soldiers that wear reconditioned World War II German helmets, and the beguiling but bitchy Delilah (Liana Orfei), a master manipulator of men.
Also released from Warner Archives (in a widescreen version) is Damon and Pythias. While not essentially a peplum picture, the film, based on the Greek legend, has the attire and era (about 400 B.C.) similar to the sword-and-sandal adventures. It is also an example of the willingness of American actors (including Broderick Crawford, Rory Calhoun, Rhonda Fleming and John Drew Barrymore) to head to Italy to partake in peplum picture making.
Here, Guy Williams, who saw great success as TV’s Zorro, plays Damon, a charismatic ne’er-do-well, who takes the place of Pythias (Don Burnett), a former rival slated for execution by a tyrannical leader, so he can see his ailing, pregnant wife.
Solid production values (it was an MGM-funded production) and fine work by Williams help bring this tale of friendship in ancient times to life. (For a more in-depth look at the film, go to: http://www.moviefanfare.com/movie-articles/damon-pythias-how-far-will-a-friend-go/)
Other recent Warner Archives titles of the same ilk include:
Gold for the Caesars (1963), which stars New Orleans-born Jeffrey Hunter as a slave architect who, upon completion of a huge project, is given an ultimatum by a Roman governor: extract gold from a remote mine protected by Celtic warriors, or die!
The Tartars (1961), while not a sword-and-sandal epic, has the Italian pedigree and American stars often common in such efforts. An ornately costumed Orson Welles plays the Russian Tartar leader viciously battling Viking commander Victor Mature on the banks of the Volga.
And Steve Reeves continues his reign as the prince of peplum as The Slave (1962) and Sandokan the Great (1963). In the former, Reeves is a Roman centurion sent on a mission to Egypt by Caesar, who comes to discover that he is, in fact, son of the legendary rebel slave Spartacus. The latter is set in colonial Malaysia, as a rebel prince-turned-pirate (Reeves) retaliates for the capture of his father by the British by making a hostage of the niece of an enemy general. Directed by future exploitation horrormeister Umberto Lenzi, the film is one example of many that successfully took the gladiator formula and put some clothes on it.
While the sword-and-sandal cycle eventually morphed into the spaghetti western cycle in the mid-1960s, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood “The Man with No Name” trilogy, it still has some cinematic kick to it, albeit in small doses. 2000’s Gladiator won the Academy Award for Best Picture, while 300 (and, likely, its upcoming sequel 300: The Battle of Artemesia), Troy, and others continue to draw interest. Television series entries such as Hercules, Spartacus and Rome have proven to be popular for long runs.
There’s still some pep in that peplum yet.