Peplum Populist: Goliath and the Vampires (1961)

Saturday, June 30th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

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Okay, another Maciste film! Let’s do this!

When writing about Maciste’s history in silent movies, I promised that the next Peplum Populist article would hurtle ahead to Maciste’s first appearance in the sword-and-sandal boom of the 1960s, Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei Re). But I have a DVD of Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contro il vampiro) lying here on the shelf, and it’s about time I completed the “dark fantasy” trio of peplum classics after writing about Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) and Maciste in Hell/The Witch’s Curse (1962). Although Goliath and the Vampires doesn’t have the same visual imagination, it’s in the 90th percentile as far as sword-and-sandal fun goes.

Goliath and the Vampires features more stock genre situations than those two other films. The fantastic elements don’t dictate the story as much as they’re pasted onto the pre-fabricated framework of what sword-and-sandal films were quickly solidifying into.

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Peplum Populist: The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema (2015)

Saturday, April 14th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

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The mighty muscleman Maciste has battled his way across millions of cinema screens around the globe, toppling tyrants, aiding the oppressed, vanquishing monsters, and taking on evil armies. Yet most of the world doesn’t even know his name. Instead, Maciste has gone undercover with pseudonyms such as Colossus, Atlas, Goliath, and most often, Hercules.

Maciste first appeared in the Italian sword-and-sandal (peplum) boom of 1957–1965 in Maciste in the Valley of the Kings (1960), which became Son of Samson in English-speaking territories and started the tradition of erasing the character’s name outside his home country. Maciste featured in twenty-four more pepla over the next five years, placing him second only to Hercules in the pantheon of sword-and-sandal strongmen. Since I started these “Peplum Populist” articles a year and a half ago, I’ve examined four Maciste films — and just one has “Maciste” in its English title, Maciste in Hell (1962), and that was only in the U.K. It became The Witch’s Curse in the U.S. I’ve come across only two Maciste film that use his name in the English dubbing, and in Colossus and the Headhunters he still lost his name in the title. 

So who is this brawny Italian superman? Why did everyone in Italy seem to know who he was and hold him almost equal to Hercules at the movie palaces?

The short answer: Maciste is a hero created not from myth, folklore, or poetry, but from movies. The long answer: well, it’s a long answer, hence why this article exists. I’ve wanted to explore the whole “Maciste issue” at length, and discovered the best approach was to go right to the source — Maciste’s roots in the silent films of Italy. The most extensive English study on the topic is The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema by Jacqueline Reich (Indiana University Press, 2015). Consider this your history of the origin of Maciste by way of a book overview.

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Peplum Populist: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

Saturday, March 3rd, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

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The Colossus of Rhodes may be my personal favorite Italian sword-and-sandal (peplum) film. This one has everything: epic scope, gigantic ornate sets, devious espionage fun, bizarre gizmos, numerous brawls and sword fights, amphitheater challenges, secret passages, a sadistic torture chamber, a dungeon with lions, ceremonial dances, an evil temple, a femme fatale, an earthquake, a slave uprising, copious practical special effects, a gratuitous ape costume, and the insane super-weapon statue at its center. The only thing it doesn’t have is a muscleman hero. But it has the best possible substitute: one of the all-time great directors of world cinema, Sergio Leone. A guy with director muscles to rival Steve Reeves’s actual muscles.

Before you get too excited, I must explain that The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rhodi) is the seventh best of the seven movies with Leone as the credited director. However, the other six are A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker!, and Once Upon a Time in America. No shame coming in seventh to that bunch. The Colossus of Rhodes isn’t a baroque masterpiece, but it’s a solid neo-classical success.

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Peplum Populist: The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)

Saturday, January 6th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

last-days-of-pompeii-1959-posterIn August of the first year of the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, the volcano Vesuvius erupted in the south of Italy and destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Thousands of lives were lost. Out of the fire, ashes, and pyroclastic flows, an Italian film subgenre was born.

The 1959 film The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei) is the most famous of the many journeys Italian cinema has taken into the story of Vesuvius’s first-century eruption. Ostensibly based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s bestselling 1834 novel, the movie is a sword-and-sandal (peplum) riff that departs freely from its source so it can work as a vehicle for new megastar Steve “Hercules” Reeves. Reeves was at the height of his stardom and the peplum genre was also approaching the summit of its commercial success. There were loopier and cheesier days ahead for sword-and-sandal movies — I would argue more fun days — but for class and cash, The Last Days of Pompeii is a pinnacle. It lumbers sometimes under the weight of trying to appear like a serious prestige picture, but the lust for action entertainment carries it along. If you want to watch a dead serious epic from the same year, you have Ben-Hur. If you want to watch masses of polystyrene walls and pillars rain down on the cast and a hero slay lions and crocodiles, stay here.

Mario Bonnard is credited with directing The Last Days of Pompeii, but he fell sick on the first day of production. The man who took over the job was the assistant director, Sergio Leone. Yes, that Sergio Leone. Leone already had extensive experience working on Hollywood epics shot in Rome, including Quo Vadis. He proved he could helm a big feature with The Last Days of Pompeii, and soon after landed his first credited director job on another peplum, the fantastic romp The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), which I humbly submit is the pest peplum of all time. Two years later, Leone jump-started the genre that would surpass sword-and-sandal movies as the Next Big Thing in Italy with his Western, A Fistful of Dollars.

Although the eruption of Vesuvius is the reason the film was made, its story works as an ancient Roman drama even without the volcano. This isn’t a modern disaster film where the volcano is a constant subject of speculation with the actual on-screen disaster consuming the entire last third. Vesuvius appears in a few matte paintings and receives almost no mention again until the last ten minutes, when it interrupts the finale in the amphitheater to become the big curtain-closer. Forget the former plot, everybody run away!

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Peplum Populist: Goliath and the Sins of Babylon (1963)

Saturday, December 9th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

goliath-sins-babylon-US-posterWhen you have an Italian sword-and-sandal (peplum) film, and the hero of the title has an oblique name like “Goliath” or “Colossus,” the immediate question that comes to mind is, “Is this hero actually Maciste?”

The answer with Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is “Yes.” The Italian title of this 1963 muscleman epic is Maciste l’eroe più grande del mondo, “Maciste, The Greatest Hero in the World.” This isn’t strictly true, because in the rest of the world, Maciste habitually lost his name and was turned into Hercules or Atlas or Colossus … or Goliath.

And Maciste isn’t even in Babylon! This is another deception of the English-language title and dub. The setting is the usual vague Greco-Roman Mediterranean world that served as the backdrop for the majority of peplum flicks, where fictional kingdoms constantly warred with each other until a bulky hero appeared to help the underdogs to victory.

The story of Goliath and the Sins of Babylon isn’t much more complex than that description, although the events of the plot as it lunges from scene to scene create a needless tangle. The short version: The Kingdom of Cafaus (“Babylon”) has forced a cruel treaty on its neighbor, Nephyr, that demands an annual tribute of twenty-four virgins (upped to thirty in the English version). The current king of Nephyr, Pergasos (Piero Lulli), arranged for this awful treaty so he could keep the throne after his brother’s death. The wandering strongman Maciste (Mark Forest) arrives in Nephyr and befriends a group of rebel gladiators who plot to free the city from the grip of the king of Cafaus and his wicked agent, Morakeb (Erno Crisa), and place Regia (José Greci), daughter of the previous king, onto the throne of Nephyr.

Between the lines of this story is a naval battle, a chariot race, copious sword fights and wrestling moves, a populist uprising, a pitched battle between armies on horseback, a rush of lions and leopards mauling everybody in sight, comic antics with a dwarf, and jarring shifts in the story that can make it tricky to follow the specifics. There’s a lot packed into this movie, including chunks of other movies, which makes for a choppy narrative and moments of, “Wait, who is this guy again?”

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Peplum Populist: Howard Hawks Goes to the Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

land-pharaohs-1955-posterI didn’t think of putting Land of the Pharaohs under my “Peplum Populist” banner at first, even though peplum (sword-and-sandal) can be used as a broad description for any historical epic set in the ancient world. Ben-Hur is peplum. Quo Vadis is peplum. Spartacus is peplum. 300 is peplum. But for the purposes of this occasional feature, I was sticking to the specific historical definition, which is the Italian-made movies produced between 1958 and 1965. However, 1955’s Land of the Pharaohs is a genuine sword-and-sandal film, and there’s no rule except my own against expanding the umbrella of the genre to discuss a movie from one of the greatest of all Hollywood filmmakers — a movie that also happens to be his oddest foray outside of his usual style.

Howard Hawks is a name so colossal in the history of American movies that he feels like a stone monument of pharaonic Egypt, carved against a rock hill in the Valley of Kings. But Hawks only made one trip to ancient history and the historical epic with a film that has never achieved major recognition. Even with Hawks’s name on it and the continuing popularity of classic Hollywood ancient epics — especially with the technology of HD TVs making them look better at home than ever before — Land of the Pharaohs is little discussed. It’s never received anything more than standard-def DVD releases (one of which packaged it as a “Camp Classic,” which it definitely isn’t). The $3 million film was a box-office failure on its premiere, but this has never stopped a film from later gaining appreciation and a dedicated following. If it did, I wouldn’t be running a John Carpenter career retrospective series right now.

There has been some low-level buzz about Land of the Pharaohs. Martin Scorsese has called it his favorite movie as a child and a guilty pleasure as an adult. But this isn’t enough, so I’ll add a bit love (well, “like” would be a better word) for this unusual chapter in the career of a master filmmaker. It’s not essential Howard Hawks, but it’s Howard Hawks taking a whack at crafting a Cecil B. De Mille-style flick, and that’s worth something. Besides, I’m a sucker for this genre, and Land of the Pharaohs is a fascinating oddity among the ‘50s and ‘60s epics. Its strange, dispassionate approach makes it feels unlike anything else made at the time.

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Peplum Populist: Short Takes on Three Streaming Titles

Saturday, July 15th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

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When I first set out to write articles about Italian peplum (sword-and-sandal) films, my intention was to excavate for worthwhile titles available from the quarry of low-quality streaming options. But my intention started to skid, and now I’m turning into the skid. I’ve already dealt with a quality film you can only get on DVD (Hercules, Samson & Ulysses) and a high-quality streaming film you shouldn’t watch (Colossus of the Stone Age). The more I sort through the archives of sword-and-sandal flicks on Amazon Video, the more limited I find the options for movies in even the most modestly acceptable presentation.

So while I continue to sift through streaming choices and look into DVDs from boutique labels, here are three short takes on films in the Amazon Video library (all free for Prime members) that don’t pass my normal picture quality threshold, but may be interesting to the Black Gate readers who can grit their teeth and struggle through blurred, pan-and-scan transfers.

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Peplum Populist: Maciste in Hell (The Witch’s Curse)

Saturday, May 27th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

maciste-in-hell-Italian-movie-poster-1962Among the canon of Italian peplum (sword-and-sandal) films made from 1958 to 1965, there are three special horror-fantasia entries. I’ve already written about Mario Bava’s classic Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). In the future I’ll look at the same year’s Goliath and the Vampires, which was co-directed by famed Italian Western director Sergio Corbucci, the man who helmed the original Django (1966).

Today I’m spending my peplum-time with the third dark fantasy, Maciste in Hell (1962), yet another movie featuring Italian homegrown hero Maciste. (Oh, wait. Goliath and the Vampires is also a Maciste film. Damn these U.S. title changes!) Although Maciste in Hell isn’t as fantastic as Hercules in the Haunted World — it’s hard to best Mario Bava when it comes to doing weird horror on the cheap — it’s on the top of the pile as far a sword-and-sandal movies go. And its Amazon VOD presentation is relatively high quality. The picture has the vertical squeeze problem of Perseus the Invincible, but at least you have the entire image and a decent print.

The idea of Maciste journeying to the underworld like Dante or Aeneas wasn’t new: Maciste in Hell (Maciste all’inferno) is also the title of one of the silent Maciste films that were hits in Italy in the 1910s and ‘20s. The two movies don’t have any story connection aside from the hero in an infernal setting, and the silent Maciste is a different character and phenomenon from the 1960s version. But Maciste in Hell ‘62 is also different from other peplum films of its time, and not just in its overt supernatural horror elements. Where Maciste’s standard stomping grounds are the ancient/mythic Mediterranean, here he pops up in seventeenth-century Scotland. Maciste has a reputation for shifting about in time and place: I dealt with him in prehistory in Colossus of the Stone Age, and recently watched him battle Mongols in China in Maciste at the Court of the Great Khan (retitled Samson and the 7 Miracles of the World in the U.S.). Even so, Scotland in the Early Modern Era is pushing against the sword-and-sandal barriers.

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Peplum Populist: Hercules, Samson & Ulysses

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

hercules-samson-ulysses-posterThe “versus film” has been with us for decades, even if “vs.” didn’t show up in early movie titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Audiences crave watching cinematic legends smash into each other in duels to the death — or duels to the mutual understanding. Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason, Batman v[s]. Superman, King Kong vs. Godzilla (soon ready for a rematch), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (this really happened), Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (a number of occasions), and Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys. Bring up anything involving the SyFy Channel and sharks and you get hurt.

Italian sword-and-sandal (peplum) films couldn’t resist putting titans of the ancient world into the ring together, and there’s no finer example than 1963’s Hercules, Samson & Ulysses. The Italian title translates as “Hercules Challenges Samson,” in case you needed to know who goes up against whom and who is hanging around as the sidekick.

When it comes to peplum-as-pulp, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses is the real deal. Appearing at the point in the genre’s evolution when sword-and-sandal films either went stale or went silly, HS&U falls solidly on the positive silly side. It’s an outrageous actioner that knows exactly what its audience wants to see and delivers 100% on the promise of watching two legendary supermen batter each other in muscular absurdity. It may not be the best sword-and-sandal film, but it’s one of the most entertaining. This is the peplum film to watch if most of the genre’s other offerings don’t grab you.

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Peplum Populist: Colossus of the Stone Age (Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules)

Saturday, March 4th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

colossus-of-the-stone-age-maciste-contro-i-mostri-italian-posterHere’s a pleasing discovery: Amazon Video has a widescreen print of the 1962 sword-and-sandal (peplum) film Colossus of the Stone Age available under its U.S. television syndication title, Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules. And the print is a good one. It’s not the level of a professional 4K restoration like the Phantasm Blu-ray that came out in December, but considering sword-and-sandal movies often look like someone dragged the film along the sidewalk on the way to the telecine department, Colossus of the Stone Age is damned near pristine. It isn’t part of the Amazon Prime library, however, so subscribers have to shell out $1.99 to rent it, or an extra 51¢ to own it. There’s a version streaming on Amazon Prime under the same title, but it’s the standard cropped and dragged-across-the-pavement type.

So as far as pepla available in English, Colossus of the Stone Age looks fantastic. But is it any good?

Perhaps the better question is, “Is it worth watching?” For this type of low-budget fantasy production, the question of quality is often separate from the question of whether to spend time with it.

But my answer to both questions is “no.”

The appeal of a peplum movie set in the Stone Age and the promise that it will have fire monsters is tempting, and the quality widescreen presentation is a legitimate bonus, but Colossus of the Stone Age (the U.K. theatrical release title) is one of the more tatty and flavorless examples of this genre. Pepla at their best have bizarre imagination, creative production designs and visuals, and robust action scenes. At their most mediocre they have heroes who don’t do anything and long scenes of extras running around in fields or through cheap cavern sets while clumsily swinging sticks at each other. Which is a sentence that works as a summary of this movie.

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