The Myth of Hercules in 1950s and 1960s peplum films
Peplum usually refers to a low-budget Italian movie set in ancient Greece or Rome, with a professional body builder in the principal role. The peplum genre was a popular segment of Italy’s movie industry from 1958-1964, after the success of two Italian productions from 1958 and 1959, which were Hercules and Hercules Unchained, starring the American bodybuilder Steve Reeves.
The Hercules of ancient Greece is a controversial myth: he is Greece’s main hero, fearless and generous, the founder of new poleis and the Earth’s liberator from evil creatures; however, depending on different versions of the myth he is also a violent rapist and murderer, who killed his entire family in a fit of sudden madness caused by Hera. During Medieval times Hercules was reinvented as a clone of Christ, purifying these problematic characteristics. This new model of Hercules’ myth becomes Prodicos of Keos’ anecdote, as told by Xenophon, which pictured Hercules choosing Virtue over Vice. This tradition was influential in the construction of Hercules as the ‘right and might’ virtuous hero of the Italian peplum films, fighting for a higher purpose by saving the masses and eliminating an evil dictator or unruly king after surviving terrible torture. Moreover, an American bodybuilder, who represented a type of masculinity very different from the Italian one, was often the preferred casting choice for the role of Hercules.
This chapter explores the production of Hercules films in post-war Italy and their reception in both the Italian and American film market, which suggests that the serialised production of popular films centred on the character of Hercules fostered the construction of a transatlantic idea of white masculinity that helped negotiate the transition from the Italian ‘uomo forte’ (‘strong man’) of fascist memory to the global, US-inspired, strong hero of the Marshall Plan era.
Provisional content for The Modern Hercules (Volume 2)