Heroic Bodies: The Cult of Masculinity in the Peplum

  • Maggie Günsberg


The peplum is a fantasy genre celebrating musclebound masculinity in heroic action in the distant prehistorical, pre-industrialized past, and often in unidentifiable countries. Some 300 of these Italian spectacle films were produced between 1957 and 1965, the years when the genre was at its peak. This period coincided with the boom, from which the genre is regarded as providing escapism for those excluded from the new, increasingly industrialized base of economic prosperity.1 Classified as a sub-category of the adventure genre, the peplum sometimes combines with other genres, such as horror (for example, Gentilomo’s Maciste contro il vampiro).2 Overlap with comedy, as in Cerchio’s Totò contro Maciste, further accentuates the element of parody already inherent in the genre, an element impacting on gender portrayal, as we shall see. Also known as ‘sword and sandal’ or ‘muscleman’ films (and in Italy often as film storico-mitologico), many of them were co-productions, used an international cast and met with great commercial success both in Italy and abroad. Unlike melodrama and commedia all’italiana, the peplum is not steeped in italianità, a factor that helped to make it more suitable for the export market. The films are particularly renowned for their depiction of mythical (Achilles, Ajax, Hercules, Theseus, Ulysses), invented (Maciste), literary (Saetta, Ursus), historical (Spartacus, Thaur) or biblical (Goliath, Samson) apotheoses of the heroic male body.


Sexual Desire Female Body Male Body Female Character Domestic Sphere 
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Copyright information

© Maggie Günsberg 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maggie Günsberg
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ManchesterUK

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