An iconic image from HERCULES (1959) starring Steve Reeves
THE MANY FACES OF SWORD & SANDAL: THE MEN & THE MONSTERS
In 1959 (shot and released in Italy in 1957) the film THE LABORS OF HERCULES starring American born bodybuilder Steve Reeves would start an avalanche of muscleman movies that would enjoy a somewhat brief run (in both Italy and America) from 1960 until 1965 when the genre was supplanted by the onslaught of the Italian Westerns. This film was a huge success both in Italy and abroad and detailed the trials of Hercules and his friend Jason and their search for the Golden Fleece. One of Herc's jobs is to rid frightened villagers of the Bull of Crete as well as take on a villainous monarch. The character of Jason gets a lot of screen time himself and even battles a giant dinosaur-like creature that (at least in the American release) has the same roar found in the Japanese Godzilla movies.
The film was extremely popular around the world and a sequel was quickly made. Entitled HERCULES & THE QUEEN OF LYDIA (1959) in Italy, Steve Reeves returned for the sequel but not for any subsequent mythological strongman movies. The film was called HERCULES UNCHAINED for its US debut. Reeve's did appear in numerous gladiator movies and similar peplum style movies like THE WHITE WARRIOR (1959) and the pirate adventure film, SANDOKAN, THE GREAT (1963) and its first sequel, SANDOKAN, THE PIRATE OF MALAYSIA (1964) both directed by the great Umberto Lenzi.
Steve Reeves is easily the most famous of the muscle movie stars. Other actors may have had longer careers in various other genres, but Reeves epitomized what the sword and sandal genre was all about. He starred in some of the most successful and enduring entries associated with the genre. One such film is THE GIANT OF MARATHON (1959), a film of some significance in that it was partially directed by the esteemed Mario Bava.
The film concerns the feud between the Athenians and the Spartans and a new enemy, the Persians. Reeves is a formidable warrior who must attempt to form an alliance with his peoples enemies to fight against this new threat. The film is an extravagant production, one of the best to come out of Cinecitta studios in Rome. There is also some startling scenes of gruesome violence during the finale.
Another box office moneymaker starring Reeves was another picture from 1959, THE TERROR OF THE BARBARIANS, or as it was known in America, GOLIATH & THE BARBARIANS. In the film, Reeves plays a man named Emiliano who happens to have great strength and is called 'The Goliath' by the invading barbarian hordes. Bolstered by a good cast including Arturo Dominici (BLACK SUNDAY), another asset is the participation of the gorgeous Cuban dancer, Chelo Alonso.
She puts her dancing skills to good use twice in this film in addition to looking sensual in every scene she is featured in. The film is also distinguished by some meticulous costume design as well as some unusually gruesome scenes of violence. One of the best films of this genre.
The peplums, or fusto movies, were generally based on biblical or historical accounts and most often times mythological adventures. Sometimes there would be a melding of the historical with the fantasy elements but always these movies had the same ingredients--(mostly) American or Italian bodybuilders in the heroic roles, lavish sets, beautiful, scantily clad damsels in distress as well as evil scantily clad sorceresses that would use their charms, or magic to lure the heroes to their doom and lots of fights.
Most of the films were low budget, but made good use of the limited funds with the spectacle. The monetary limitations would be painfully obvious in the films that featured monsters or magical creatures. Even still, these entries possessed a sense of child-like wonder that makes them the most memorable of the genre with fans. Some of the monsters seen in the films were often (for there time) quite accomplished hydraulically controlled creations. Some of the best of these would often turn up in another movie. And then there are others that are just downright laughable for one reason or other.
There were at least 20 movies in Italy that utilized the Hercules character. There was also a series of films featuring a classic Italian folk hero, Maciste. Over two dozen Maciste movies were produced during this time. Also, the mythological characters of Ursus, Goliath and Samson had their own series of films as well. These featured such actors as Reg Park, Mickey Hargitay, Kirk Morris, Gordon Scott, Brad Harris, Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Gordon Mitchell, Richard Harrison and one of my favorite actor from the peplums, Dan Vadis.
When one of the Maciste movies would be exported to American shores, the title was always changed. The American distributors assumed that audiences would not know who Maciste was and therefore changed the name. Furthermore, the dubbing was sometimes changed to suit the altering of the original title but on numerous occasions the originally dubbed name of 'Maciste' survived in the export versions. Here are some examples of title changes--
MACISTE IN THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS (1960)-- US title: SON OF SAMSON
MACISTE IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS (1961)-- US title: ATLAS IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS
MACISTE AT THE COURT OF THE GREAT KHAN (1961)-- US title: SAMSON & THE 7 MIRACLES OF THE WORLD
MACISTE IN HELL (1962)-- US title: THE WITCH'S CURSE
MACISTE VS THE MONSTERS (1962)-- US title: FIRE MONSTERS AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES
ZORRO VS MACISTE (1963)-- US title: SAMSON & THE SLAVE QUEEN
MACISTE VS THE MONGOLS (1963)-- US title: HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS
MACISTE IN GENGHIS KHAN'S HELL (1964)-- US title: HECULES VS THE BARBARIANS
American muscleman Mark Forest (Lou Degni) played Maciste more than the other actors and he was one of the most popular. Outside of Reeves and Vadis, he was one of the best peplum stars I saw on Saturday Afternoon movies. One of the biggest and most enjoyable movies to star Mark Forest was the hugely entertaining peplum adventure, GOLIATH & THE SINS OF BABYLON (1963; aka MACISTE, THE WORLD'S GREATEST HERO).
Frequent peplum star Mimmo Palmara stars alongside Guiliano Gemma, an actor who started in sword and sandal epics but found immense fame in Italian westerns. Frequent Euro western bad guy Nello Pazzafini has a role as a gladiator. He often has supporting roles as a villain in this genre as well. Another actor in this film, Piero Lulli, would also go on to a flourishing career in European oaters playing bad guys. His peplum roles alternated between good and bad guy roles.
Forest also starred in one of the most popular peplums THE REVENGE OF HERCULES aka GOLIATH & THE DRAGON (1960). Released by AIP, new scenes utilizing a stop motion animated dragon were added to accommodate a mock up dragon not present in the Italian version. There is also a scene where Goliath goes to Hades to capture a magical stone and battles with a fire breathing 3 headed dog as well a giant bat creature. Oscar winning US actor Broderick Crawford played the main bad guy. There is also lots of fights, feats of strength and an execution of a slave by being trampled by an elephant.
Forest was one of the most prolific of the muscleman stars appearing in at least a dozen Italian sword & sandal pictures, most of them as the Italian hero, Maciste. After the peplums finished there run, Forest used his money made during his stint in Italy to pursue business ventures. He retired to become an opera singer(!) and still teaches today in LA as well as being a fitness trainer.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2...