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What is Peplum Film?

Films can be categorized into a variety of genre based on their key elements and the way the narrative is delivered. The sword-and-sandal films of the 1950s, for example, are represented largely by Biblical settings or the presence of mythological elements and are more widely known as peplum films. The peplum film has a unique style that cannot be mistaken. But exactly what is peplum film?

What is Peplum Film?

Peplum is a subgenre of films that emulate epic Hollywood films of their time. But which have dominant Italian roots. And are often directly compared to sword-and-sandal productions.

These films represented a dominant cycle of movies that were produced in Italy between the years 1957 and 1964.

Peplum films are set in an imaginary classical past. They often have biblical settings or may be set in Greek or Roman times.

Clothing

Tunics, similar to those that you would expect at a “toga” party, are just one of the of key elements of a Peplum film. 

The term “Sword and Sandal” films were used largely in description of the commonly worn costumes that were so popular at this time. 

The term peplum films, and the term sword and sandal, were both used condescendingly by film critics to describe these films.

Characteristics of Peplum Films

The peplum film represented a very specific class of Italian adventure films in which the setting was in a classical area.

Often focusing on Biblical times or loosely associated with Greek or Roman mythology.

Characteristically, peplum films had very loose plots that generally focused on:

  • Egyptians
  •  
  • Medieval times
  •  
  • Biblical times
  •  
  • Roman history

Consider This

You might recall gladiators, slaves, and the typical pirates, swashbucklers, and rebelling rulers that were so popular and characteristic of these films from the peplum genre.

Peplum films usually features a superhuman character that was stronger than man ever could be.

The superhuman protagonist paired with a plot that typically included women vying for the love or affection of the buff hero was common.

General Plot Overview

The plot generally consisted of some damsel in distress that required rescue by the superhumanly strong man.

And there would almost always be some evil femme fatale queen that was trying to dominate.

Can you see why the term peplum was used in a cynical and critical manner? These films largely lacked substance and fell into the stereotypical plot that was presumable at best.

Popular Characters from Peplum Films

The Sword and Sandal films frequently involved barbaric populations that would clash with the civilized world.

Popular characters included Hercules, Goliath, Samson, and other extraordinarily large and superhumanly strong protagonists. Many took on the characteristics of Italy’s folk hero Maciste.

Which was largely featured throughout Italian cinema from the 1910s through the mid-1960s likely ending with the close of the peplum film era.

Other Examples

Additional common characters from the peplum era included Athena, Delilah, and Cleopatra as well as Ben-Hur. 

Notice all of the characters from the peplum film era were grandiose and of elaborate stature. Most were superhuman and had supreme muscle strength.

The Rise & Fall of the Peplum Film Era

The release of the film Ulysses with Kirk Douglas would almost immediately draw Hollywood attention.

Soon after, filmmakers would be vying for their spot in the action and for their piece of the pie.

Italian Director Pietro Francisci would soon release Hercules featuring American Bodybuilder Steve Reeves, who had previously played in Athena, as Hercules.

Furthermore, the film was released in 1957 and welcomed the rise of the peplum film era in the United States. 

After Hercules

Several additional peplum films would be produced following Hercules. Theaters were finding huge success in this filmmaking genre!

As spectators from all around flocked in to see the next big, bold adventure. Hercules Unchained, released in 1959 would be the next major peplum film to hit the market.

Soon after, Italian filmmakers would bring about films that included Maciste as well as Ursus, Samson, Goliath and other muscle-rich characters.

Bodybuilders would become stars in many of these films as Italian filmmakers searched far and wide for those with just the right superhuman appearance and features for the camera.

Many were of Italian origin while others were not so much. 

Recycled Sets

Film sets created for Ben-Hur and Cleopatra would be reused over and over again in future peplum films. In fact, these films had such widespread popularity during their time.

So much so that it was not uncommon to see the recreation of several films and film sets to be used in additional narratives and features for years to come.

Although many peplum films were ridiculed by film critics for their low budgets and reuse of materials paired with the novice acting skills of the bodybuilders that played lead roles.

The general audience enjoyed the films. Sure they were poorly dubbed, and they lacked special effects. But they did not lack popularity among general audiences.

Through the 60s

Peplum films would continue to have their place in the industry throughout the late 1950s and into the mid-1960s.

Several instances of Hercules films would be released including even The Three Stooges Meet Hercules which was released in 1962. 

Goliath would also have a spot in the peplum film era. With films being introduced from 1959 through 1964 and focusing on Goliath as the primary superhero protagonist.

The Goliath series included more than just the retelling of the Biblical story to feature a variety of concepts including Goliath Against the Giants, Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus, and several others.

The Takeaway

So what is peplum film? Peplum film represents an Italian era film genre in which superhuman strength characters.

Such as Hercules, Goliath, Samson, and others were the key characters in Biblical, Roman, or Greek mythological settings.

More frequently referred to as Sword-and-sandal films, peplum films were introduced by Italians and became the key focus of the industry between the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Although they were largely criticized by film critics, they were enjoyed by general audiences.