Peplum (film genre)

This poster for Goliath and the Barbarians illustrates many people's expectations from films of this genre.

The peplum film (pepla plural), also known as sword-and-sandal, is a genre of largely Italian-made historical or Biblical epics (costume dramas) that dominated the Italian film industry from 1958 to 1965, eventually being replaced in 1965 by the Spaghetti Western. They can be immediately differentiated from the competing Hollywood product by their use of dubbing. The pepla attempted to emulate the big-budget Hollywood historical epics of the time, such as Spartacus, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments.

The terms "peplum" (referring to the tunic-style Greek and Roman garment often worn by characters in the films) and "sword-and-sandal" were used in a condescending way by film critics. Later, the terms were embraced by fans of the films, similar to the terms "spaghetti western" or "shoot-'em-ups". Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi called the genre "Neo-Mythology".[1]


While Hollywood filmmakers, such as D. W. Griffith with his 1916 Intolerance, peopled their historical epics with dramatic conflicts and realistic protagonists, many of the pepla merely took a real historical or Biblical event and used it as a backdrop for a simple heroic adventure tale, on a comic book level. The pepla are a specific class of Italian adventure or fantasy films that have subjects set in Biblical, medieval or classical antiquity, often with contrived plots based loosely on mythology, legendary Greco-Roman history, or the other contemporary cultures of the time, such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Etruscans.

Most pepla featured a superhumanly strong man as the protagonist, such as Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Ursus or Italy's own popular folk hero Maciste. These supermen often rescued captive princesses from tyrannical despots and fought mythological creatures. In the cases where a superhuman protagonist was not involved, the main character would still possess uncanny fighting abilities and a razor sharp wit.

Not all the films were fantasy-based, however. Many featured actual historical personalities such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Hannibal, although great liberties were taken with the storylines. Gladiators, pirates, knights, Vikings, and slaves rebelling against tyrannical kings were also popular subjects. But, similar to the American serials of the 1940s, the peplum always focuses on the hero's narrow escapes from the most preposterous dangers throughout the course of the film.

The Maciste silent film series (1914–1927)

Italian filmmakers led the way in the peplum genre with some of the earliest silent films dealing with the subject, including The Sack of Rome (1905), The Fall of Troy (1911) and the sensational silent version of Quo Vadis? (1913).

The 1914 Italian silent film Cabiria was one of the first sword-and-sandal films to make use of a massively muscled character, Maciste (played by actor Bartolomeo Pagano) who served in this premiere film as the hero's slavishly loyal sidekick. Maciste became the public's favorite character in the film however, and Pagano was called back many times to reprise the role. The Maciste character appeared in at least two dozen Italian silent films from 1914 through 1926, all of which featured a protagonist named Maciste although the films were set in many different time periods and geographical locations. Here is a complete list of the silent Maciste films in chronological order:

Sound film era

The Italian film industry released several historical films in the early sound era, such as the big-budget Scipione l'Africano (Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal) in 1937. In 1949, the postwar Italian film industry remade Fabiola (which had been previously filmed twice in the silent era). The film was released in the United Kingdom and in the United States in 1951 in an edited, English-dubbed version.

During the 1950s, a number of American historical epics shot in Italy were released. In 1951, MGM producer Sam Zimbalist cleverly used the lower production costs, use of frozen funds and the expertise of the Italian film industry to shoot the large-scale epic Quo Vadis in Rome. In addition to its fictional account linking the Great Fire of Rome, the Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire and Emperor Nero, the film featured a mighty protagonist named Ursus (Italian filmmakers later made several pepla in the 1960s exploiting the Ursus character). MGM also planned Ben Hur to be filmed in Italy as early as 1952.[2]

Riccardo Freda's Sins of Rome was filmed in 1953 and released by RKO in an edited, English-dubbed version the following year. Unlike Quo Vadis, there were no American actors or production crew. The Anthony Quinn film Attila (directed by Pietro Francisci in 1954), the Kirk Douglas epic Ulysses (co-directed by an uncredited Mario Bava in 1954) and Helen of Troy (directed by Robert Wise with Sergio Leone as an uncredited second unit director in 1955) were the first of the big peplum films of the 1950s. Riccardo Freda directed another peplum, Theodora, Slave Empress in 1954, starring his wife Gianna Maria Canale. Howard Hawks directed his Land of the Pharaohs (starring Joan Collins) in Italy and Egypt in 1955. Robert Rossen made his Alexander the Great in Egypt in 1956, with a music score by famed Italian composer Mario Nascimbene.

To cash in on the success of the Kirk Douglas film Ulysses, Pietro Francisci planned to make a film about Hercules, but searched unsuccessfully for years for a physcially convincing yet experienced actor. His daughter spotted American bodybuilder Steve Reeves in the American film Athena and he was hired to play the mighty demigod when the film was made in 1957.[3]

The genre's instantaneous growth began with the U.S. theatrical release of Hercules in 1959. American producer Joseph E. Levine acquired the U.S. distribution rights for $120,000, spent $1 million promoting the film and made more than $5 million profit.[4] This spawned the 1959 Steve Reeves sequel Hercules Unchained, the 1959 re-release of Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949), and literally dozens of imitations that followed in their wake. Italian filmmakers resurrected their 1920s Maciste character in a brand new 1960s sound film series (1960–1964), followed rapidly by Ursus, Samson, Goliath, Sandokan and various other mighty-muscled heroes. These films all featured similar bodybuilder stars such as Reg Park, Gordon Scott, Mark Forest, Brad Harris, Dan Vadis, and Alan Steel. European audiences tended to prefer an Anglo-American in the lead, so Italian bodybuilders would adopt English pseudonyms for the screen (Sergio Ciani became Alan Steel, Lou Degni became Mark Forest, etc.).

In the formulaic plots common to many of the films, two women vied for the affection of the bodybuilder hero: the good love interest (a damsel in distress needing rescue), and an evil femme fatale queen who sought to dominate the hero. The films often featured an ambitious ruler who would ascend the throne by murdering whomever stood in his path, and often it was only the muscular hero who could depose him. Most of the films involved an impending clash between two warring populations, one civilized and the other evilly barbaric. Thus many pepla begin with the scene of a peaceful, defenseless village being burned to the ground by a wild barbarian horde. For their musical content, most films contained a well-choreographed belly-dancing sequence or a colorful ballet, meant to underline the pagan decadence of the villains. The contrived plots, poorly overdubbed dialogue, novice acting skills of the bodybuilder leads, and primitive special effects that were often inadequate to depict the mythological creatures on screen all conspire to give these films a certain camp appeal now.

To be sure, however, many of the films enjoyed widespread popularity among general audiences, and had production values that were typical for popular films of their day. Some films included frequent reuse of the impressive film sets that had been created for Ben Hur and Cleopatra. Although many of the bigger budget pepla were released theatrically in the USA, fourteen of them were released directly to Embassy Pictures television in a syndicated TV package called The Sons of Hercules. The movies were made into a series of sorts by splicing on the same opening and closing theme song and newly designed voice-over narration that desperately attempted to link the protagonist of each film to the Hercules mythos, since few American viewers had a familiarity with Italian film heroes such as Maciste or Ursus. These films ran on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s. Often ridiculed for their low budgets and bad English dubbing, several of them have been subjects for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Hercules series (1957–1965)

A poster for Hercules starring Steve Reeves

A series of 19 Hercules movies were made in Italy in the late 50s and early 60s. The films were all sequels to the successful Steve Reeves peplum "Hercules" (1957), and each film was a stand-alone story not connected to the others. The actors who played Hercules in these films were Steve Reeves followed by Gordon Scott, Kirk Morris, Mickey Hargitay, Mark Forest, Alan Steel, Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (billed as Rock Stevens) and Mike Lane. In a 1997 interview Reeves said he felt his two Hercules films couldn't be topped by the post-1959 sequels, so he declined to do any more Hercules films.[5]

The films are listed below by their American release titles, and the titles in parentheses are their original Italian titles with an approximate English translation. Dates shown are the original Italian theatrical release dates, not necessarily the U.S. release dates (which were years later in many cases).

A number of English-dubbed Italian films that featured the Hercules name in their titles were never intended to be Hercules movies by their Italian creators....

None of these films in their original Italian versions involved the Hercules character in any way. Likewise, most of the Sons of Hercules movies shown on American TV in the 1960s had nothing to do with Hercules in their original Italian incarnations.

(See also The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962) an American-made genre parody starring peplum star Samson Burke as Hercules.)

Maciste series (1960–1965)

Main article: Maciste

There were a total of 25 Maciste films from the 1960s peplum craze (not counting the two dozen silent Maciste films made in Italy pre-1930). By 1960, seeing how well the two Steve Reeves Hercules films were doing at the box office, Italian producers decided to revive the 1920s silent film character Maciste in a new series of color/sound films. Unlike the other Italian peplum protagonists, Maciste found himself in a variety of time periods ranging from the Ice Age to 16th Century Scotland. Maciste was never given an origin, and the source of his mighty powers was never revealed. However, in the first film of the 1960s series, he mentions to another character that the name "Maciste" means "born of the rock" (almost as if he was a god who would just appear out of the earth itself in times of need). One of the 1920s silent Maciste films was actually entitled "The Giant from the Dolomite", hinting that Maciste may be more god than man, which would explain his great strength.
The first title listed for each film is the film's original Italian title along with its English translation, while the U.S. release title follows in bold type in parentheses. (Note how many times Maciste's name in the Italian title is altered to an entirely different name in the American title):

In 1973, the Spanish cult film director Jesus Franco directed two low-budget "Maciste films" for French producers: Maciste contre la Reine des Amazones (Maciste vs the Queen of the Amazons) and Les exploits érotiques de Maciste dans l'Atlantide (The Erotic Exploits of Maciste in Atlantis). The films had almost identical casts, both starring Val Davis as Maciste, and appear to have been shot back-to-back. The former was distributed in Italy as a "Karzan" movie (a cheap Tarzan imitation), while the latter film was released only in France with hardcore inserts as Les Gloutonnes ("The Gobblers"). These two films were totally unrelated to the 1960s Italian Maciste series.

Ursus series (1960–1964)

Main article: Ursus

Following Buddy Baer's portrayal of Ursus in the classic 1951 film Quo Vadis, Ursus was used as a superhuman Roman-era character who became the protagonist in a series of Italian adventure films made in the early 1960s.

When the "Hercules" film craze hit in 1959, Italian filmmakers were looking for other muscleman characters similar to Hercules whom they could exploit, resulting in the nine-film Ursus series listed below. Ursus was referred to as a "Son of Hercules" in two of the films when they were dubbed in English (in an attempt to cash in on the then-popular "Hercules" craze), although in the original Italian films, Ursus had no connection to Hercules whatsoever. In the English-dubbed version of one Ursus film (retitled Hercules, Prisoner of Evil), Ursus was actually referred to throughout the entire film as "Hercules".

There were a total of nine Italian films that featured Ursus as the main character, listed below as follows: Italian title / English translation of the Italian title (American release title);

Samson series (1961–1964)

A character named Samson was featured in a series of five Italian sword-and-sandal films in the 1960s, no doubt inspired by the 1959 re-release of the epic Victor Mature film "Samson and Delilah". The character was similar to the Biblical Samson in the third and fifth films only; in the other three, he just appears to be a very strong man (not related at all to the Biblical figure).

The titles are listed as follows: Italian title / its English translation (U.S. release title in parentheses);

The name Samson was also inserted into the U.S. titles of six other Italian movies when they were dubbed in English for U.S. distribution, although these films actually featured the adventures of the famed Italian folk hero Maciste.

Samson Against the Sheik (1962), Son of Samson (1960), Samson and the Slave Queen (1963), Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (1961), Samson vs. the Giant King (1964), and Samson in King Solomon's Mines (1964) were all retitled Maciste movies, because the American distributors did not feel the name Maciste was marketable to U.S. filmgoers.

Samson and the Treasure of the Incas (a.k.a. Hercules and the Treasure of the Incas) (1965) sounds like a peplum title, but was actually a spaghetti western.

Goliath series (1960–1964)

The Italians used Goliath as the superhero protagonist in a series of adventure films (pepla) in the early 1960s. He was a man possessed of amazing strength, although he seemed to be a different person in each film. After the classic Hercules (1957) became a blockbuster sensation in the film industry, a 1959 Steve Reeves film Il terrore dei barbari (Terror of the Barbarians) was retitled Goliath and the Barbarians in the USA. The film was so successful at the box office, it inspired Italian filmmakers to do a series of four more films featuring a generic beefcake hero named Goliath, although the films were not related to each other in any way. (The 1960 Italian peplum David and Goliath starring Orson Welles was not part of this series, since that movie was just a historical retelling of the Biblical story).

The titles in the Italian Goliath adventure series were as follows:

The name Goliath was also inserted into the English titles of 3 other Italian pepla that were retitled for U.S. distribution in an attempt to cash in on the Goliath craze, but these films were not originally made as "Goliath movies" in Italy.

Both Goliath and the Vampires (1961) and Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (1963) actually featured the famed Italian folk hero Maciste in the original Italian versions, but American distributors didn't feel the name "Maciste" meant anything to American audiences.

Goliath and the Dragon (1960) was originally an Italian Hercules movie called The Revenge of Hercules, but it was retitled to "Goliath and the Dragon" in the U.S. since at the time "Goliath and the Barbarians" was breaking box-office records, and at the time, the distributors may have believed the name "Hercules" was trademarked by distributor Joseph E. Levine.

The Sons of Hercules (TV syndication package)

Main article: The Sons of Hercules

The Sons of Hercules was a syndicated television show that aired in the United States in the 1960s. The series repackaged 14 randomly chosen Italian sword-and-sandal films by unifying them with memorable title and end title theme songs and a standard voice-over intro relating the main hero in each film to Hercules any way they could. In some areas, each film was split into two one-hour episodes, so the 14 films were shown as 28 weekly episodes. None of the films were theatrically released in the USA.

The films are not listed in chronological order, since they were not really related to each other in any way. The first title listed below for each film was its American broadcast television title, followed by the English translation of the original Italian theatrical title in parentheses:

Steve Reeves Pepla (in chronological order of production)

Steve Reeves appeared in 14 pepla made in Italy from 1957 to 1964, and most of his films are highly regarded examples of the sword and sandal genre. His pepla are listed below in order of production, not in order of release. The U.S. release titles are shown below, followed by the original Italian title & its translation (in parentheses)

Other (non-series) Italian pepla

There were many 1950s and 1960s Italian pepla that did not feature a major superhero (such as Hercules, Maciste or Samson), and as such they fall into a sort of miscellaneous category. Many were of the Cappa e spada (swashbuckler) variety, though they often feature well-known characters such as Ali Baba, Julius Caesar, Ulysses, Cleopatra, The Three Musketeers, Theseus, Perseus, Achilles, Robin Hood, and Sandokan. The first really successful Italian films of that kind were Black Eagle from 1946, and Fabiola from 1949.

Gladiator movies

Inspired by the success of Spartacus, there were a number of Italian peplums that heavily emphasized the gladiatorial arena in their plots, with it becoming almost a peplum subgenre in itself; One group of supermen known as "The Ten Gladiators" appeared in a trilogy, all three films starring Dan Vadis in the lead role.

Ancient Rome

Greek mythology

Barbarian and Viking films

Swashbucklers / pirates


Ancient Egyptian

With the interest in the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra film shot in Rome, several Italian films sought to ride its wave of publicity. 20th Century Fox bought the rights for two of them to keep them out of release.

Babylon / Middle East

Peplum films from the 1980s

After the peplum gave way to the Spaghetti Western and Eurospy films in 1965, the genre lay dormant for close to 20 years. Then in 1982, the box-office success of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian spurred a second renaissance of sword and sorcery Italian pepla in the five years immediately following. Most of these films had low budgets, focusing more on barbarians and pirates so as to avoid the need for expensive Greco-Roman sets. The filmmakers tried to compensate for their shortcomings with the addition of some graphic gore and nudity. Many of these 1980s entries were helmed by noted Italian horror film directors, and many featured Lou Ferrigno or Sabrina Siani. Here is a list of the 1980s pepla:


  1. M. Winkler, Martin (2007). Troy: from Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 14.
  2. Pryor, Thomas M. "Ben-Hur to Ride for Metro Again." New York Times. December 8, 1952.
  3. An Interview with Steve Reeves from The Perfect Vision Magazine Volume 6 Issue #22 July 1994
  4. p.73 Frayling, Christopher Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone I.B.Tauris, 2006
  5. Labbe, Rod Steve Reeves: Demi-God on Horseback Films of the Golden Age



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