Friday, 31 May 2013

Of Muscles and Men - Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film

When you are a fan of Italian filone cinema one thing which quickly becomes evident is how some filone have received far more attention than others, especially in the context of English-language scholarship. There’s most material on the Italian Western, followed by horror and the giallo, but considerably less when it comes to the peplum, sex comedy, mondo, spy film, war film etc.

As such this recent collection of academic essays on the peplum or sword and sandal film is especially welcome, even although only some of the authors investigate the Italian cycle of the late 50s-early 60s and there is certainly scope for further research.

Editor Michael Cornelius begins the collection with a overview of the genre and the areas which the individual essays explore.

Cornelius notes how the peplum, sword and sandal or strongman film is difficult to place within a generic taxonomy. Unlike comedy, romance, horror and thriller films there is not any obvious emotional state or mood associated with the peplum. In this it is like the Western. However, whereas the iconographic objects of the Western have symbolic value (white hats vs black hats, the horse vs the iron horse etc.), the sword, sandal and skirt are primarily functional.

A further area of difference (one likely shared with the Italian Western cycle) is around the dynamics of the gaze, or who looks at whom. Rather than men looking at women, the peplum is more likely to have men looking at other men. This, of course, raises issues around the homosocial and the homosexual.

Cornelius contends that four major periods of peplum filmmaking can be identified, the first two being associated with Italian cinema and the latter two with Hollywood. The filone/genre emerged in the 1910s, with the first colossal epics drawing on Ancient Rome and strongman Maciste’s shift from being a minor figure in Cabiria to the title character. The filone then reappeared in the late 1950s, beginning with the success of the Steve Reeves starring Hercules and would continue for another ten or so years. It then experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, with Conan the Barbarian, and in the 2000s, with Gladiator. (Regarding to the 1980s sword and sandal film it is worth noting that the likes of the Ator series, The Barbarians and Conquest are not mentioned.)

Maria Elena D’Amelio’s ‘Hercules, Politics and Movies’ proves one of the most rewarding chapters for the enthusiast and/or scholar of Italian popular cinema, both for the points she makes and where they might be taken.

D’Amelio identifies three key individuals or groups within the pepla of this period. First, the hero. Second, the tyrant. Third, the wider society. The role of the people is usually passive, the victims of an oppressive tyrant who has usurped power from a rightful ruler. Although the hero is sometimes responsible for overthrowing the tyrant, it is also frequently the case that the latter is undone by his own actions. Where he does overthrow the tyrant, the hero declines to take power himself, even if the people ask him to, instead returning power to the pre-tyrant ruler or their heir.

Though D’Amelio does not mention Will Wright’s structuralist study of the Hollywood Western, Sixguns and Society, the relationships she identifies seem much the same as those of the ‘classical’ Western there. In both cases the hero and the villain are strong and the society weak.

Beyond this Wright mentions a further three Western plots that presented different configurations of the relationship between these parties: the transitional plot, the revenge plot and the professional plot. Later Christopher Frayling and Bert Fridlund would explore how well these plots and the trajectory from the classical to the professional could be found in the Italian Western, with both proposing a number of alternative plots. In Frayling's case the factor that is especially important is his sense that the differences between American and Italian plots related to wider differences between the two societies.

Returning to D’Amelio, she likewise relates the particular configuration of the Italian peplum to politics and history, particularly Fascism and the post-war re-alignment into Western and Eastern blocs. Essentially the tyrant was Mussolini, the people the Italians, and the hero America. Establishing the rule of the tyrant as a deviation from the norm accorded with a post-war narrative that required ordinary Italians and Christian Democrat politicians to be excused from culpability with Fascism. Presenting the people as needing an external liberator downplayed the role of the left-dominated anti-Fascist resistance and the Communists in particular. Establishing the hero as someone who magnanimously defeated the tyrant but then chose not to himself take power suited the interests of the US, as the power behind the throne.

The next chapter is by Kristi M. Wilson and examines Pasolini’s Medea and the distinctive contributions of its director. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the piece, it does seem a reflection of a weakness of many studies dealing with popular cinema, namely giving greater attention to the auteur film than would strictly be warranted given its audience size.

Following this Jerry B. Pierce looks at Gladiator, Troy and 300 and how they respectively work to performatively establish the heterosexuality of their protagonists within their primarily homosocial context.

Andrew B. R. Elliot also looks at the contemporary peplum and how it typically features a group of heroes rather than an individual. This is again interesting in relation to the Western and Wright’s analysis of its different plots. The last of Wright’s plots, the professional plot, is likewise characterised by having multiple protagonists.

John Elia’s essay presents a defence of third and fourth generation pepla by seeking to draw a distinction between ‘reverent’ and ‘irreverent’ violence. This distinction is one that is situated as going back to ancient Greece and which potentially has uses elsewhere. In particular we might consider the subject of vengeance and the vendetta in Italian society; in Nietzsche’s notion of Christianity as a slave morality that inverted the values of earlier belief systems such that taking vengeance was wrong rather than right; and how revenge is treated in the Italian Western.

Subsequent chapters are of less obvious interest, in that they again exclusively address third and fourth generation pepla, but without less that can be drawn upon in relation to their second generation counterparts. Two essays that are worth singling out are those by Robert B. Pirro and Cornelius. Pirro brings out points where Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy departs from Homer’s source texts and relates these to the director’s personal history, as a German growing up post-WWII. Cornelius examines the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe franchise of the early 1980s and its affinities with the gay male clone subculture. (He-Man et al were literally clones, the action figures coming from a few basic moulds; whether He-Man and the others devoid of genitals ever got any 'action' is another matter...)

“Do you like gladiator movies?!”

No comments: