Some Ponderings on Peplum

I love the formality of Peplum. The film genre, I mean, not the clothes.  Characters in these movies are not average joes.  They’re semi-divine beings, descended from gods, blessed by goddesses, with bodies built by the best gyms.  They engage in stately adventures:  Wars, battles, sea voyages, chariot chases, encounters with mythological creatures, cheesy dance routines.  Everything takes place in a far-away Ancient World of sunshine and sand, as if life were happening in a perpetual Club Med, the beach just walking distance away.  Think Southern Cal, pre-smog.  Almost everyone is young and beautiful, and not much clothing is required.

Time to hit the beach!

Though that last point does bring us to Peplum Clothes.  The genre’s name refers to those tiny skirts that muscle-bound male characters wear, clinging to hips like paint on a pillar.  Not much else is worn, except maybe a sash across the biceps and loops of studded leather round the wrists.  A bit kinky, but chic.  As for the ladies, a length of chiffon, encircling torso and legs—loose, light, maybe a stylish wrinkle—and a band to bind the hair suffice.  That’s what I call no-fuss fashion; one size fits all, swath it round and you’re done.  Was dressing in the Ancient World really this easy?  I dunno, but I like the cinematic reimagining of it.  It sure beats high heels, stockings, and the three-piece suit.

Statements in Peplum fashion.

Ah, yes, I had been discussing Peplum Formality.  Probably because the characters are usually gods or demi-gods, by virtue of birth and physique, they must perforce remain elevated in behavior.  Thus Hercules greets his friends not with backslaps and Hiya, Pal!, but with:  “Hello, Anticlea; And you, Escolabius”—augmented with a slight, stiff bow of the head and a poker face.  No familiarity allowed.  Characters assume the solemnity of owls.  I think it’s because of all the syllables.  Most of the names have at least three; a goodly number possess four or more.  Rolling all those verbal units over the tongue takes time, and concentration.  It won’t do to run the sounds together; one doesn’t slur a god’s moniker.  Hence a measure of seriousness is called for.  I can only imagine what a challenge it was for dubbers, wrapping their mouths round all those fricatives to match an actor’s lips.  Let’s hope their salaries weren’t garnished for retakes.

NObody better crack a grin.

All these elements appear in Hercules, Samson, and Ulysses—that’s the title of the 1963 film I’m discussing, not the answer to a final exam question—whose story proceeds from a neat idea:  Heroes of Ancient Greece meet Heroes of the Bible.  Herc—I’m claiming a measure of informality here, because it’s a pain to type all those syllables—and his young pal Ul—ditto—take off in a boat to fight a sea monster, get lost at sea, and wash up on the shores of Judea, where they meet Sam.  They all get together to fight the bad guy Philistines, as well as tangle with a pre-haircut Delilah—who’s seen in one scene applying what I assume is the Ancient World equivalent of nail polish.  I’d no idea Nail Polish existed in the Ancient World, before the advent of Beauty Parlors and Nail Salons.  Though considering that Delilah also wears enough eyeliner and shadow to supply any number of these emporia for several years running, I’m now thinking those items must have existed, too.  What an informative genre Peplum is!

There’s a lot of filler action in HS&U, as well as an ambling narrative, more than enough to stuff into Herc’s noticeably protruding muscles.  Herc spears the sea monster, fights a lion, gets sucked into the ongoing dispute between Danites and Philistines, and fights with Sam before allying with him.  Our two heroes lob boulders, pillars, and blocks of concrete, first at each other, then at the Philistine army, as lightly as if they were made of Styrofoam.  I suspect they were.  Delilah cooks up evil schemes, makes goo-goo eyes at the heroes, and does a cheesy dance, accompanied by a guy with a whip—how very modern.  Ul provides some comic relief, if little else, while the Philistines do really nasty things.  I haven’t even gotten to the carrier pigeons and the raging bull.  Nothing much goes on, but there’s always something moving onscreen, so at least the eye is always engaged.

But does anyone watch Peplum for plot?  It’s the beefcake, of course, and the cheesecake, and the shiny flesh, and the grappling of oversized men and the slinking of scantily clad women.  The men bulge in almost all parts of their anatomy; they’re well-oiled and shiny and shaven down to their pores.  The guy playing Herc is extraordinarily earnest in demeanor; the one playing Sam is so muscle-bound he walks as if wrapped in rubber bands (plus his mammary development is such that he could give Delilah’s pair a run for her money).  The sets look like leftovers from a DeMille epic, the dubbing sounds as if voices were speaking into the neck of a bottle, and the pacing seems longer than the actual running time.  But in its own way, the film is kind of priceless.  It’s like eating a Cinnabon; there’s no value in doing so except for the experience of it, so you should do it at least once.  Which is the same reason to watch a Peplum film.

Oh, and I did mention the cheesy dance routine, didn’t I?  What more reason do you need?

Bonus Clip:  It’s the Clash of the Titans when Hercules and Samson rumble in the Holy Land before becoming friends.  See rocks fly!  See pillars topple!  See iron bars bend!  A small fortune in Styrofoam must’ve been spent here:

You can watch the full film of Hercules, Samson, and Ulysses here on YouTube.  Time for a Cinnabon!

Leave a comment


  1. The combined smells of cinnamon and freshly baked dough are irresistible and lead us to spend money we oughtn’t and attempt to eat the inedible. Is it the same way with the promise of epic epicness with fantastical superhumans? These are indulgences to save for when the rest of the family is off doing their own thing.

    • Your comments are always the best! There is a guilty pleasure about the fun of Peplum films (as there is about Cinnabons) – but, hey, everyone needs to indulge a pleasurable guilt every now and then!

  2. Brian

     /  October 26, 2020

    In the right frame of mind, these can be quite fun. Not too long ago I discovered that Rod Taylor of all people had made one of these things, Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1960). It’s not a masterpiece, but it at least has Amazon women. For my money, Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) is the best of the lot, which includes Christopher Lee in a rad black costume and sporting a page boy haircut.

    • I must DEFINITELY see Christopher Lee in that rad black costume! You’re right, peplum can be lots of fun when in the right mood. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, and I think its filmmakers understood that. And even ‘serious’ movies like Demetrius and the Gladiators or Helen of Troy (or the more recent Troy with Brad Pitt) are really just Peplum under the big budget and can be enjoyed for that.

      I’ll also have to check out Rod Taylor in Colossus and the Amazon Queen – no telling what Taylor looks like in those short skirts!


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