by Emily Drisch

The Italian "Maciste" is an integral figure of both the modern-day Hercules, Italian Sword and Sandal films, and the peplum genre. Maciste ultimately gave rise to the Hercules we see in film today.

History of Hercules Edit

In Greek folklore, Hercules, or Heracles, is the son of Zeus, a Greek god, and a mortal--so he is a demi-god. Not blessed with any particular talent or interesting qualities except the nature of his birth, of course, and being exceptionally strong, Hercules was largely portrayed as a buffoon that bumbles around, eventually saving the day in Greek comedy. The Romans eventually came to view him as a hero, however, and he gradually made his way to cult status.[1]

Hercules, or "Maciste" in the Silent Italian Film Edit

Cabiria (1914)

In the Silent film era in Italy (early 1900s) the "maciste" character was only thinly modeled after Hercules--or more accurately, a god or mortal with supernatural powers. The first movie to ever use the maciste character was the 1914 film Cabiria, directed by Giovanni Pastrone, (who, by the way, has his own credit for starting the epic film genre alongside Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith [2]).
Cabiria 1914 poster restored

Cabiria theatrical poster. 1914.

Cabiria's plotline consists of "of the kidnapping and liberation of a noble Roman girl during the Punic Wars in the third century BCE",[3] in which a strong African slave named Maciste (played by the visibly non-Black, Italian Bartolomeo Pagano) is the one to rescue the Roman girl and become the ultimate hero. This introduction to Maciste heralded a slew of new Italian Sword and Sandal films with the character of Maciste being the principal focus, many of which starred Pagano himself (up until 1926, in fact), even if the idea of a general "strongman" in Italian cinema wasn't itself a new concept. This time around, Maciste represented "[a] populist icon whose strength stood in opposition to the decadence and languor of aristocratic figures"'[4]

Evolution of Maciste

Maciste's perceived lovable quality is the seemingly explicable reason for his unparamounted popularity over the span of a little over 10 years, but his character definitely took on different traits and meanings depending on the pulse of Italian and national affairs at the time. He went from loveable AFRICAN slave in the early 1900s, to white Italian (in order to coincide with nationalist Italian ideologies) during and after WWI. [5] But just like Rome in American Sword and Sandal films, the maciste character ultimately stood in for whatever the Italians wanted him to be at the time.

1960s Revival Edit

Steve Reeve's Revival


Magazine ad for the 1959 Steve Reeve's film Hercules.

In 1959 American bodybuilder Steve Reeves once again took up the torch for the genre that was obsessed with and had a "growing fascination with mythology and muscle-bound mayhem". [6] Reeves starred in 18 movies (from 1954-1969) of the Hercules peplum genre that eventually gave way to the 1970s Spaghetti Westerns. The Hercules character obviously changed as well--no longer was he a maciste "strongman"--he was Hercules--with a definitive Greek backstory and with similar plot developments. Interestingly, "Hercules" as a character name was derived from the language barrier in switching from Italian for English. In English there is no exact word for maciste, thus, he turned into Hercules, and vastly more American.

Sword and Sandal Today Edit

Because of the advent of the epic film that was partly sparked by Pastrone, the everchanging maciste, strongman, or Hercules, Sword and Sandal film of the 1950s epic variety and also the modern take on the genre are allowed to exist today. Although the peplum genre itself can be seen as an offset of the traditional, epic Sword and Sandal films, the genre is nevertheless still within the genre and as important to analyze in both the history of film and the nature of the history of the time, just as any other "epic" film of the genre.