When Italian director Pietro Francisci’s 1958 production The Labours of Hercules was released internationally, it set off an explosive chain reaction. Featuring American bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves as the superhuman hero of Greek myth, it paved the way for what would become a trend: the casting of American and British actors as the leads in Italian-made productions, which would appeal to audiences across the Mediterranean, as well as the Atlantic. Over the next 7 or 8 years, Italian studios pumped out similar fantasy adventures and historical epics by the hundreds. An entire genre was born.
Known as peplum (or pepla in plural), and often referred to as “sword and sandal,” the genre featured stories of high adventure, often set in the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Filmed in widescreen and glorious Technicolor, with stunning location shooting, and often boasting dramatic and romantic full orchestral scores, these epic narratives ruled Italy’s cinematic output until Spaghetti Westerns unseated them to become the next big Italian movie craze.
Peplum featured the familiar gods and heroes of Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Roman emperors, gladiators, centurions, Mongol hordes, barbarians, and even pharaohs. Granted, many prints available to American audiences aren’t exactly Hollywood perfect, but the epic narratives still enthrall, waiting to transport viewers who can look past these flaws. And for sheer escapist fun, you could do far worse.
Byzantine court intrigue, evil kings and queens, usurpers of the throne, peasant uprisings, slave revolts, epic battle scenes with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of extras, sword fights aplenty, muscle-bound heroes, damsels in distress, monsters, magic, and sorcery — it’s all here. So don your toga, pour the wine, and revel in the thunder of the cavalry and the clash of steel on steel, as the gods of Mount Olympus look down from on high.
FURY OF ACHILLES (1962)
In the tenth year of the Trojan War, tensions flare between Achilles (Gordon Mitchell) and Agamemnon (Mario Petri), causing a rift between their respective loyalists in the Greek camp. Inside the walls of Troy, Hector ( Jacques Bergerac) seeks to take advantage of the weakened Greek forces and drive them back to the sea. Achilles refuses to fight for the honor of Agamemnon, and his friend Patroclus (Ennio Girolami) fights in his stead, disguised as Achilles. This is the set-up for a series of tragic events that account for Achilles’ “fury.”
Unlike another film on this list, the Trojans come off as less sympathetic than the Greeks (save for the haughty, power-mad Agamemnon). But there is some ambiguity. The Trojan War, after all, had heroes and villains on both sides. The short shrift paid to the figures of Paris (Roberto Risso) and Helen (an off-screen character) notwithstanding, director Marino Girolami’s production is a marvelous adaption of Homer’s Iliad, rife with an aura of fantasy that serves as a reminder that, although it was a war between men, the gods were an ever-present force acting behind the scenes.
Mitchell appeared in a number of peplum productions, but his role as Achilles is among his most compelling performances. He makes for a convincing Greek hero, flawed by his tendencies for rage and brute force. He’s nearly invulnerable, save for his heel, and knows he’s fated to die soon after exacting a terrible vengeance on the Trojans.
Like Reeves, Mitchell was an American bodybuilder who jumped on the peplum bandwagon. Not the most handsome of actors, he made up for a lack of movie star glamour with some real acting chops and proves it here. His ire at the Trojans is palpable, and the specter of his prophesied death hangs over him like a pall.
The battle scenes in Fury of Achilles are spectacular, violent, and thrilling, but they’re balanced by a number of tender love scenes, not the least of which is the moment when Achilles’ Trojan slave Briseis (Gloria Milland), after an unsuccessful attempt to slay her captor, realizes that she’s in love with him. Not rated, 118 minutes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Dailymotion
GOLIATH AND THE VAMPIRES (1961)
Italian strongman movies had more than their fair share of muscular heroes. In addition to the Hercules epics, there were films about other figures similarly endowed with superhuman strength: Ursus, Samson, Goliath, and Maciste. The latter, an Italian folk hero, who made his first appearance in the silent classic Cabiria (1914), suffered the most under U.S. distribution. “Maciste” isn’t a name that resonates with American audiences, so his name was often changed to something more recognizable, like Samson or Goliath. That’s the case here. Originally titled Maciste contro il vampiro (Maciste vs. the Vampire), the story follows Goliath (Gordon Scott) as he attempts to free the female captives of the vampire Kobrak, whose minions raided their village and took them to a remote island, where Kobrak plans to use their virgin blood to create a slave army. Among the captives is Guja (Leonora Ruffo), Goliath’s beloved.
Scott, who was second only to Steve Reeves in peplum popularity, really shines here. This was his first time out in a peplum production, following a series of British and U.S. Tarzan pictures. And he gives the role gusto, batting about his enemies with whatever he can use as a weapon (support beams, wine jugs, but mostly his fists), and rages at the injustices of the cruel Kobrak. He shows more sympathy for peplum regular Gianna Maria Canale in the role of Astra. She’s the evil confidante of the island kingdom’s sultan and is secretly in league with Kobrak.
Goliath and the Vampires, which was co-directed by Sergio Corbucci and Giacomo Gentilomo, is the third of the 1960s-era Maciste films, and it’s among the best. The series had a tendency to lean heavily into camp after this. But, here, you have not only an effective peplum/horror movie mash-up, but a terrific fantasy production to boot, and there are several stand-out scenes: Goliath trekking his way through misty swamplands in the pre-dawn light, accompanied by a supernatural race of beings called the Blue Men; Goliath’s fight to the death against his doppelgänger; and Goliath driven half-mad by the cacophonous ringing of a massive bell, which is placed over him as a torture device. Colorful, exciting, and filled with mystery and magic, this is one that no fantasy fan should pass up. Not rated, 91 minutes, Dailymotion
HERCULES UNCHAINED (1959)
“I’ve been cursed by the gods,” bellows Hercules (Steve Reeves in his second and final appearance as the Greek hero). So it would seem. After drinking from the waters of forgetfulness, Hercules neglects his mission of diplomacy, which would avert a war between the brothers Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and Polinices (Mimmo Palmara), who are vying for control of Thebes. Under his enchantment, Hercules falls for the seductive Omphale (Sylvia Lopez), queen of Lydia. A determined young Ulysses (Gabriele Antonini), strives to bring Hercules back to his senses before Omphale tires of his affections and adds him to her macabre menagerie of embalmed former lovers.
Better than its predecessor, Hercules Unchained (originally titled Hercules and the Queen of Lydia) reunites many of the previous film’s cast, including the stunning Sylva Koscina as Iole, Hercules’ new bride. It gives Reeves more opportunities to flex his acting talents along with his muscles, and he gamely rises to the occasion, turning in one of his most engaging performances (he appeared in a total of 14 peplum productions). Here, he’s more animated, playful, and expressive. Along with director Pietro Francisci, cinematographer Mario Bava returns to lend the production a magical, timeless quality, put here to more spectacular effect than in The Labours of Hercules. The caverns and grottos of Omphales’ kingdom are awash in a dreamscape of luminous color.
One of the film’s most thrilling set pieces comes late in the film as Hercules, mounted on a chariot, singlehandedly brings down the siege towers outside the walls of Thebes. It’s Hercules at his unfettered best, proving he has no mortal equals. An early highlight features the charming Iole crooning her theme song, “Evening Star” (voiced by American singer June Valli in the English version and Marisa Del Frate in the original Italian), while languidly strumming Orpheus’ lyre. It nearly makes up for the short shrift she gets for most of the production’s run time, as Hercules, caught in the throes of passion with Omphale, forgets he even has a wife. Rated G, 105 minutes, Amazon Prime, Tubi, Sling TV, YouTube
THE TROJAN HORSE (1961)
Director Giorgio Ferroni’s epic retelling of the tenth year of the Trojan War wasn’t conceived as a sequel to Fury of Achilles (which came out the following year), but its narrative pretty much picks up right where that one leaves off, with an enraged Achilles (Arturo Dominici) dragging the body of the slain Hector behind his chariot. Hector’s friend, Aeneas (the inimitable Reeves), is a reluctant warrior in a conflict that’s lead to nothing but tragedy on both sides.
Arguably among the best cinematic retellings of the events in the Iliad, The Trojan Horse is that rarest of pepla. It takes itself seriously and finds moments between its epic battle scenes to let its actors emote with grace and poignancy, notably Carlo Tamberlani as the grieving King Priam and Lidia Alfonsi as the Trojan priestess Cassandra, driven to despair by her visions of a fallen Troy. More downbeat than the usual peplum, where good ultimately triumphs over evil and the heroes are paraded through the streets to cheering crowds, it’s also a thoroughly engaging story that keeps the viewer’s interest throughout.
The Greeks elicit far less empathy than the Trojans this time around. Aeneas’ concerns for his wife, Creusa ( Juliette Mayniel), and their unborn son, make him likable from the start. Reeves, who strikes a noble figure in his gleaming armor, makes a complete break with his Hercules persona, portraying an intelligent, humane military commander. The arrogant Paris (Warner Bentivegna) and seductive Helen (Edy Vessel) are given a lot of screen time. Rather than portray them as star-crossed lovers, they’re depicted here as jaded and embittered, and whatever love between them withered by the weight of long years of war. It is possible to garner some sympathy for Paris late in the film when he’s humiliated before Helen by a vengeful Menelaus (Nando Tamberlani), Helen’s lawful husband.
Of course, no movie about the Trojan Horse is complete without its titular wooden structure making an appearance. And the scenes where the massive horse is hauled through the gates of Troy to the throngs of thousands of exultant extras, who are unaware of the unwelcome surprise hidden within it, are on a par with the bigger budgeted Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics of the 1940s and ’50s.
Highlights include Aeneas’ thrilling cavalry charges into the Greek camps to save his beloved, and his sword fight with his well-matched nemesis Ajax (Mimmo Palmara). The fall of Troy is a harrowing sequence. The walls tumble; men, women, and children are put to the sword; and Cassandra wails to the flickering light of her burning city as her prophetic dreams come true before her eyes. “Troy was mortal,” we hear in a concluding narration. “Rome would be known as the Eternal City.” And true to that statement, there was a less memorable sequel, The Last Glory of Troy (1962), in which Reeves reprises his role as Aeneas, the mythic founder of Rome. Not rated, 105 minutes, Amazon Prime, YouTube ◀