A new genre
When one talks of a film being a “Sword and Sandal” film traditionally people think of low budget cheep Italian films. In a sense that is true. Although that is where the term came from originally the sword and sandal film has grown to encompass so much more. During this time Hollywood was knee deep in big budget epics of Biblical stories and legendary heroes from Greek and Roman writers. In response Italy began making their own style of period films using heroes such as Maciste and Ursus.
In reality the sword and sandal genre of films have been around for over a hundred years. The first known film that could be attributed to this genre was the five minute 1905 Italian silent film “The Sack of Rome” AKA “The Capture of Roma”. In 1907 the American made silent film “Ben-Hur” ran about fifteen minutes. A lot of the standard Sword and Sandal films were Italian made but France, Germany and America jumped on the band wagon at times. They cover a wide variety of periods and styles. Sword and Sandal films were being made during the silent film era but the name was coined mostly for those made from 1958 to 1965.
Sometimes these movies were also referred to as Peplum, the plural being pepla or peplos. This refers to the short pleated skirt that Greek and Roman men wore. Sometimes they were also referred to as Sword and Sorcery films. Usually these films were variations on Greek and Roman mythology but they could also be about Biblical stories or Arabian tales or even a combination of various styles. For a short while even horror elements or occult elements were added to some stories. Over the years the genre has changed to incorporate more but the original genre was attributed to the Italian films made during the traditional period.
The traditional sword and sandal period
In its purest sense the sword and sandal film was a sub-genre of the Biblical or Period films. I once read someone refer to these films as having, “Characters from ancient times heroically acting according to 20th century mores.” It’s as close to an apt description as I’ve ever seen. The Italian sword and sandal films had their hay day from approximately 1958 to 1965. Eventually these films gave way to the next style of Italian filmmaking the “Spaghetti Western”. For a time the term sword and sandal and peplum were used as condescending terms, however, eventually critics and fans embraced these terms as a beloved expression of endearment. Although many of these movies were biblical or mythological in style, a growing number were fantasy and historical in nature. At one time the phrase was relegated to low budget Italian films involving Greco-Roman characters and body builder stars. Eventually they went from low budget affairs to current epics such as “300” 2006, “Gladiator” 2000 and “Troy” 2004.
The basic elements
Characters such as Gladiators, slaves, biblical characters, tyrants and sorcerers were popular. Typical elements of these films include women in peril, pissed off gods, monsters, evil queens, sorceresses or goddesses, tyrannical rulers, sorcerers, throne usurpers, battles between different civilizations, pagan rituals, dancing girls, human sacrifices, burned and ravaged villages and/or ravaged women.
Heroes are either rightful heirs that have been cheated out of their heritage or they are subjugated slaves, or former slaves that lead other oppressed people to freedom. They are usually muscle bound with super human strength and are handsome or at least rugged looking. Sometimes they have special powers, gods or weapons at their disposal. If the hero is not battling a villain they are battling other civilizations that want kill or enslave the hero’s people.
The villains are sometimes gods themselves or at least have their own special powers, monsters, dark magic or weapons they use to oppress people, gain riches/power or attempt to defeat the hero. The villains also either covet the hero’s wife, fiancé, land and/or position in society. Often they kill or kidnap the hero’s beloved and/or family or decimate his village forcing him to seek vengeance.
The films themselves were, and still are, often ridiculed for their low budgets and bad English dubbing. Tenuous plots, bad dialogue and horrible acting, especially from the he-man hero contributed to these films being mocked. Primitive special effects and dopy looking monsters gave these movies the camp appeal many love about them now. In the 1990s they were perfect fodder for riffing and satire.
Variations on the theme
Barbarians, Vikings, swashbucklers, pirates, Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Arabian Kings all became plot devises for the sword and sandal genre. Other genres such as horror or science fiction aspects like aliens or time travel were sometimes inserted to spice up the standard themes and plots. Because of these variations we were treated to films such as “Hercules Against the Moon Men” 1964 and “The Pirate and the Slave Girl” 1959.
The Italian films concentrated mostly on the hero of their stories being Maciste. Maciste is a Hercules style character that dominated both the silent and sound eras of Italian filmmaking. He was known for his strength and feats of heroism. The name of this character was usually changed to either Samson, Hercules, Colossus or Atlas when they were badly dubbed into English for the American market.
The characters prominent in many sword and sandal films range from a one-time film to those that inspire an entire series of films. Maciste, Solomon, Hercules, Goliath, Ursus, Samson and various “Sons of” had entire series of films using their names as the leading characters. Other films used biblical or historical names as the leading character such as Hannibal, Caesar and Alexander the Great.
The stars and directors
The stars of these films were usually body builders. Quite a few were Americans or British who went to Italy to do films. Some made many films and became stars of the genre. Some of the most memorable of these barrel-chested heroes were Steve Reeves, Reg Park, and Gordon Mitchell. Other stars of the genre were Mickey Hargitay, Reg Lewis, Mark Forest and Dan Vadis. Some American movie stars also became known for their American epic contributions to the genre such as Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Victor Mature. A few bodybuilders of Italian origin also were eventually added to the list of he-men to wear the peplum. Quite often they would adopt English pseudonyms for the screen; thus, stuntman Sergio Ciani became Alan Steel, and ex-gondolier Adriano Bellini was called Kirk Morris.
Directors such as Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Mario Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Alberto De Martino, Duccio Tessari, Antonio Margheriti and other lesser known directors like Alfonso Brescia and Mario Caiano created many of these films. After making their mark they would move on to other genres such as horror, western and crime films. Some, like Mario Bava, could be identified by their signature directing and cinematic styles.
The new and improved (?) sword and sandal genre
Films made after the main wave of the peplum period are sometimes called proto-peplum or neo-peplum. Due to the genre’s liberal use of Greco-Roman mythology and other influences the Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi, who directed a number of them, used the term "neo-mythologism".
After the advent of the spaghetti Western and Euro-spy, or spaghetti spy, films in 1965, the genre fell out of favor for years. In the eighties films like “Quest for Fire” 1981, “Conan the Barbarian” 1982, “Clash of the Titans” 1981 and “The Beastmaster” 1982 brought about a sort of evolution of not only sword and sandal films but also its next of kin the sword and sorcery film. Most of these films had low budgets. Some focusing more on barbarians and wizards. If your set is a desert or a cave it saves on needing expensive Greco-Roman sets. The filmmakers added blood and sex to offset the sparse landscapes.
After the eighties film techniques improved tremendously and so did the appetites of viewers. Since then the sword and sandal film has matured and gone Hollywood. Although the original sword and sandal movies had low budgets and therefore virtually no special effects, today’s are filled with fantastic special effects which can, these days, be achieved by anyone with a laptop. These newer versions of the genre substitute camp for dazzle. Now instead of having dozens of warriors fighting you can have thousands. Instead of one dragon or a monster that’s a guy in a suit you can have dozens of monsters and dragons. You are only limited to your imagination.
Homosexuality and the sword and sandal genre
Ever since oiled muscle bound men have been wearing pleated miniskirts and carrying phallic swords the undercurrent of homosexuality has been on quiet display in the sword and sandal genre. Even if the hero is fighting to save a damsel in distress or is being seduced by an evil seductress there is usually very little sex in these films. Filmmakers concentrate their efforts on battles, sword fights and wrestling between sweaty men. Women are usually relegated to slaves, prostitutes, malevolent alpha females or unattainable virgins.
Many sword and sandal films are known for their “beefcake” factor, and have become associated with homoeroticism. This may not have been intended by the directors but the idea of hot sweaty guys flexing muscles can be interesting to both men and women. Later a few films even wandered into the R and X rated territory due to graphic sexual content. Eventually a sub-genre of films called “porno peplum” exploited all forms of sexuality. Since homosexuality has been around as long as humans have it’s not surprising that, whether intentional or not, such ideas find their way into literature and film. Especially if the star of the film is physically beautiful and appropriately muscled.
Sword and Sandal in the twenty first century
“Gladiator” 2000, “300” 2006, “Troy” 2004, “The Scorpion King” 2002, “Meet the Spartans” 2008, “Clash of the Titans” 2010. Remakes redos and sequels.
After “Gladiator” won the Academy Award for Best Picture an explosion of neo-sword and sandal film soon followed. The sword and sandal film had come of age. And it could rake in a lot of money. Some did better than others.
The new sword and sandal movies are very different from their traditional counterparts. CGI and plots that transcend the boundaries of traditional stories give the viewer an experience that earlier films only hinted at. The genre that briefly touched on horror or science fiction elements is now immersed in these genres to the point where the lines are blurred between them. Films like “John Carter” 2012 take the sword and sandal genre to other planets. Sometimes called sword and planet movies they take the old fashioned peplum movies and hurl them into outer space and into the future.
Most modern films in this genre, and its offshoots, are usually rated R and are not for children. They contain more violence, blood and skin, usually on the women, than the traditional films did. After all, sex still sells. The special effects are mind blowing. Sometimes to the point where the plot is immaterial to the CGI. The sword and sandal movie has grown up.
Whether you’re a purist or you love them all, the genre has something for everyone. Regardless of when these films were made or how, many of them have a place in the hearts of children who spent Saturday afternoons either in a theater or in front of the TV set watching these larger than life characters beat all trials and tribulations to make the world right again.
The sword and sandal genre is not longer the low budget Italian film with the muscle bound bodybuilder hero. It is now the favorite spice you add to a ho-hum movie to make it something to savor.