Peplum Talk: A Look Back at Gladiator Flicks

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.

  • Wayne P.

    Nice Tunic takes, Irv…the only thing can think of that couldve possibly also been included is a mention of Victor Matures rather ‘Herculean’ film resume of Sword & Sandal pics…theyre about all that saved his career from the dust-bin after My Darling Clementine (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947), which is rather surprising since those are quite good and varied efforts…but thats a topic for another day, thanks!

    • Wayne P.

      You did reference Demetrius and the Gladiators which is a good Vic pic(k:)

    • Irv

      Thanks, Wayne. He was quite the star of these films in his day. I also liked 300 Spartans, which I negleted to include.

  • OZ ROB

     My favorite of this genre,,Mad emperor fiddles while Rome burns,Beautiful empress showing her nipples whilst bathing in asses milk, Marcus in his tunic leaping from chariot violently whipping at his subjects, In the arena naked beauties clad only in flower garlands sacrificed to wild beasts,Pygmies and Amazonian women impaling each other with forked spears,Gladiators dueling to the death,Christians fed to the lions,The Sign of the Cross 1932 has it ALL and much more,, the costumes by Mitchell Leisen are also a big highlight of this early must see epic…

    • callsign2000

      There you go OZ ROB. All the makings of a great film!

    • Jason fleming

      Love Sign of the Cross its one of my favorite DeMille films. He was definitely at his peak in the 20′s and early 30′s his later films are so bloated and dull I can’t watch them.

  • Ganderson

    Irv has picked a favorite genre of mine, so I have to answer yes to the question. “do you like movies about gladiators?”  As an impressionable pre-teen in the late 50′s early 60′s, I was really swept up by the ‘Hercules’ movies and then, “wow!” - ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Ben Hur’!  What a time to be young and like sword-fighting.  Let me add ‘Barabbas’, 1961, with Anthony Quinn as the criminal spared crucifixion by Pontius Pilate, in lieu of Jesus.  He ends up in Rome as a gladiator where he fights a pretty spectacular match against a psycopathic Jack Palance, who’s driving a chariot.  I have closely followed the Spartacus story in both history and cinema in the years since 1961 and have collected several lesser known films.  The Kirk Douglas epic relies more on the Howard Fast novel than on the historical record and is justly considered a movie classic – I am disappointed it dealt so little on the hero’s time in the arena, though the great battle scene at the end is still jaw-dropping, even in the CGI era.   Other entries include a 2004 TV mini-series starring Goran Visnjic as the rebel slave — it’s a fairly good effort but, again, follows Howard Fast and Kirk Douglas closely. ‘Sins of Rome’ is a 1953 Spartacus retelling, which is primarily memorable for fantastic scenes in the Colosseum (which wasn’t built until 150 years after Spartacus was dead) including a jarring and extremely not-roman modern dance number in the arena by the female lead.  The earliest ‘Spartacus’ was probably a 1909 silent, still available on Amazon, in which Spartacus ends as an honored hero of the Roman populace who is given a triumph by a grateful people (I guess for leading a slave rebellion?).  Ah, but what to say about the new Starz series?  It’s a guilty pleasure, no doubt about it, but is unabashedly sleazy.  I like best the scenes in the arena and it’s the first time anyone’s tried an accurate depiction of the fantastically dramatic gladiator armor, with the broad brimmed helmets, masks, and thick padding on arms and legs.  I could, however, completely do without the unrealistic wire-work and blood splatters.  The abundent sex and nudity is curiously unengaging and even uninteresting — like the profanity in ‘Deadwood’ it becomes so common-place it ceases to mean anything.  So, my jury is still out on the new series.  In its favor, it at least tries a little closer focus on the historical record, which is, by the way, much more dramatic and “Hollywood” in nature than anything else in cinema.  A couple of last thoughts in what has already become an over-long post – what do we think of the modern resurgence of epic sword and sandal flicks?  Started with ‘Gladiator’ and including ‘Troy’ and ‘Alexander the Great’, the new crop seems to have already flashed in the pan and, too bad, will likely not continue.  One of my favorite scenes in the genre, old or new, is in ‘Gladiator,’ when Russel Crowe and his little band of “hicks from the sticks” fighters first enters the Colosseum in Rome and gape in wonder at the size and spectacle — “Can men build such a thing?”  Isn’t spectacle what cinema is all about?

  • GaryVidmar

    The initiation of widescreen technology in the 50′s owes a great deal to Biblical epics of the Readers-Digest variety, but when the Italians began exploiting ancient-history territory, they concentrated far less on the religious angle and exploited homoerotic fetishism and sexpot exoticism with a garish glee that really resonated at the American boxoffice for surprisingly long run.  Samuel Bronston and his director, Anthony Mann, put an end to that glorious cycle with THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, an underrated gem of the genre, which arguably rates with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ CLEOPATRA as the most ambitious and the best of them of the all.
    The new-millenium revival with GLADIATOR is interesting since it lead to 300, so gratuitously homoerotic in it’s men-with-big-spears philosophics, that it’s proof that in Hollywood, everything old can be made new again! 
    Big-screen toga parties are the best!

    • callsign2000

      What is on your mind? What is all of this homo-erotic talk about? You’ve read a lot more into this than most people want to know. Just because most of the characters are buff and showing it off, doesn’t make this all overtly “homo-erotic”. There are usually women in these films too, you know.

      • GaryVidmar

        Do you like Gladiator movies?  Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!  You can miss the point if you want to.  Give me a break!

        • callsign2000

          Ok, ok. I get the point. You see what you want to see. And that’s ok too.

  • callsign2000

    I love the genre. Simple story line, clean unambiguous characters, and usually charmed with a bit of humour. Scorpion King sis probably the best modern iteration of this theme. Good fun.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/CGRLUPNLT6P3VWL42P2VG2I22I hockeyguy 08

    The Lou Ferrigno version of Hercules is bizarre.  It is funny to watch and has a strange scene near the end where a female lead (can’t remember who) is being choked and she slips out of her costume slightly in the scene. It is left in the movie, probably on purpose.  It is a later movie but still very much in the style.

  • PJ

    Lets not forget Jack Palance, who played opposite Anthony Quinn in “Barabas”. When he was trying to run Quinn down with his chariot, while laughing like the psycho that only Palance could be.
    I remember my parents taking us to the movies in Los Angeles. Outside the theater sat a red chariot with silver spikes on the wheels, the movie was Ben Hur.