Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Other People’s Pulps – Revenge of the Peplums

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cabiria101They never wrote novels about Maciste.
But someone’s writing them now.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, Italy had its own brand of fantasy movies – they were called peplums, from the standard garment worn by the female characters, the classic attire of ancient Greece, or more generically “film mitologico” – myth-based movies.
And we’re talking classical myths – Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, Ulysses… and Maciste.

Maciste first surfaced in 1914, in the silent era colossal Cabiria, portrayed by Bartolomeo Pagano, a former docks worker turned actor.
The success of the character was such that the following year Maciste was back on screen, starring in his own spin-off – the straightforwardly titled Maciste.
The first Maciste movie is interesting because it moves the character from the ancient biblical times of Cabiria to the present day – setting a trend that will go on with Maciste Alpino, from 1916, in which the muscular hero joins the Italian forces in the Great War.
In the following years, Pagano would portray the hero in a number of movies – and Maciste would join the police, participate in sporting events, dabble in spiritualism etc.
A few movies were produced in Germany.
bfi-00n-go0The series ended in 1926 – a year in which Maciste appeared in four movies, including the entertaining fantasy Maciste all’Inferno, in which our hero faces Hell itself in the name of common decency and level-headed lower-classes values.
The movie was a visual effects tour-de-force for the time, and its mix of action, naughtyness and happily pagan elements would cause today a lot of headaches to censors and critics.

The genre and the character laid dormant for over three decades, but in 1960 – on the wake of the success of a number of historical and psaeudo-historical movies, often featuring mythological or biblical elements, Maciste was resurrected – with Maciste nella Valle dei Re featuring Egyptian magic and intrigue at the court of the Pharaoh – as “the poor man’s Hercules”.
Or so it seemed.
Easily dismised as the sort of muscle-man movie lampooned in Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Maciste deserve some attention, as they did create a parallel, fictional mythos, using which directors and screenwriters were able to basically tell whatever story they pleased.

macistvamp01Thus Maciste – portrayed by actors like Mark Forest, Gordon Mitchell, Gordon Scott and Reg Park – became a sort of time-hopping everyman.
He fought as a gladiator in Sparta, visited the courts of Kublai Khan and Czar Nicholas, and the Arabian Nights’ Baghdad; he faced and defeated the Mongol hordes, headhunters, vampires, monsters and even Zorro.
Depending on the script, the budget, the sets and the costumes, he visited the East and the West, and even King Solomon’s Mines.
A total of 23 movies where shot in 5 years, between 1960 and 1964 – part of the hundreds of movies featuring mythological or pseudo-historical settings and muscular, taciturn heroes.

Now, let’s not wax nostalgic – an awful lot of the peplums were just cheap silly movies, and worthy of the MST3K treatment.
And a fair chunk of the Maciste opus is just that – cheap, simplistic entertainment, often veering in the field of silly or involuntarily comic.
The distribution in the English-speaking world often made things worse – by arbitrarily editing the originals, changing titles, character names (Maciste often turning into Goliath or Hercules, depending on the mood of the day) and even splicing together scenes from different movies to create drive-in fodder.

Finally, in Italy, a somewhat naive political interpretation of the movies (Maciste as right-wing icon) and the recent “rediscovery of trash” helped cast the whole peplum phenomenon as somewhat shameful, and bad, very very bad.

And yet – the character did have potential, and could have been developed into something fun.

maciste-contro-freud-copertina-2-0And recently a few authors started writing stories featuring peplum characters.
My old friend Alex Girola is doing a tongue-in-cheek series featuring Maciste as a time-hopping adventurer and do-gooder – and the success of the series has apparently already spawned some clones, stories featuring other similar characters very loosely based on mythological sources (Theseus, Jason, Heracles).
I’ve been toying with the structure – and trying to do something different, as I see a lot of potential into this sort of revival.
And I’m very curious about future developments.
Everything seems to indicate the genre is coming back – not as movies, but as genre fiction, deployed as ebooks through the Amazon platform.
Looks like once again the Titans of the movies are back to entertain the general public.
And it might be fun.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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