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Toga Party: 10 Sword-and-Sandal Films to See

Do you like movies about gladiators? Here’s a pre-‘Hercules’ primer on the films that test the mettle of brave warriors and other men in loincloths


DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection

It's the genre that just won't die, as epic films featuring immortal heroes and ancient derring-do remain one of cinema's true cross-generational kickers. But the sword-and-sandal film — a derisive term that, like the spaghetti Western, is now embraced by fans — has not only continued to grace big screens; it's managed to flourish among the giant-robot blockbusters and caped-crusader tentpoles of the 21st century. The peplum has consistently reinvented (or at least reinvigorated) itself ad infinitum since the first S&S fantasy played to packed theaters 100 years ago; the sight of men in togas and loincloths flexing their biceps, battling armies or beasts, and crossing blades is a gift that seems to keep on giving.

'Hercules' and This Summer's Other 'Season of Fierce' Films

This week sees the release of the latest take on the genre's most well-known protagonist – that half-god, half-mortal known as Hercules – with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson starring in the second of two 2014 movies devoted to the resident strong man of Mount Olympus. But how much do you know about the muscle-bound mythology flicks? It's time to bone up on your antiquity-beefcake basics – here are 10 sword-and-sandal films you need to see in order to hoist your own battle flag nice and high. By Kate Erbland

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‘Cabiria’ (1914)

Begin at the beginning: Director Giovanni Pastrone and playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio — who was so famous in his own right that he was often referred to as just "The Poet" and "The Prophet" — creatively pulled from history, imagination, and previous literary works to create the cinema's first real epic. (At least, that's what film historian Martin Scorsese says, and who are we to argue with Marty?) Set during the Second Punic War, Pastrone's silent movie is ostensibly focused on the kidnapping of the eponymous young girl Cabiria. But this sensationalistic feature is generously packed with plenty of eye-popping elements, including volcanic eruptions, revolting religious rituals, mythological characters, and a generous dash of old-school warfare. The film also marks the first introduction to the giant slave Maciste, who later earned his own series of Italian sword-and-sandal features. Its success helped push Hollywood into making such epics on their own — you wouldn't get the Babylonian sections of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) or the original version of Ben-Hur (1925) without it.

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‘Quo Vadis’ (1951)

Mervyn LeRoy's hit remake of the 1925 Italian epic Quo Vadis? (which was, incidentally, co-directed by Gabriele d'Annunzio's son, Gabriellino) feature international star power both in front of and behind the camera: Its cast included Robert Taylor, Peter Ustinov, and Deborah Kerr, as well as a young Sophia Loren as an uncredited extra; a budding Italian film fanatic named Sergio Leone was an assistant director. Filmed on location in Rome, the loosely historical feature centers on Emperor Nero and his rise to power in the old city, a classic story that kicked off a new period of cross-cultural exchange between Italy and Tinseltown. The film was the first feature of the "Hollywood on the Tiber" cycle, a heady time in the Fifties and Sixties that saw Rome emerge as a new filmmaking hub for big-budget, sword-and-sandal-on-steroids epics.

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‘Hercules’ (1958)

Quo Vadis may have been the first sword-and-sandal Hollywood hit, but Hercules pushed the genre known as the peplum (an Italian phrase roughly translated as "tunic") into a whole new stratosphere. This Frederico Teti feature is perhaps the Platonic ideal of mondo mythsploitation: a musclebound hero (bodybuilder Steve Reeves), epic battles, a steamy romance, and great feats of strength to swoon over. This first Hercules feature spawned a loosely connected franchise of films, with the strong man gracing some 23 features during the next decade or so; Reeves, however, only starred in two, though the former Mr. America hunk had prominent roles in 14 straight peplum features throughout his career. The 1983 version starring The Incredible Hulk's Lou Ferrigno has its advocates, but we prefer the original.

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‘Son of Samson’ (1960)

After appearing in Cabiria and subsequently showing up in 26 other silent films, the giant slave Maciste got a second life after the success of the first two Reeves-starring Hercules features, starting with Carlo Campogalliani's 1960 film. Although most sword-and-sandals films centered on known mythological heroes or historical events, the Maciste character was just a servant blessed with superhuman strength — yet he still managed to topline an additional 25 films during the peplum revival of the late Fifties and Sixties. (A number of these were repackaged and redubbed in order to feature a different brand-name hero for distribution outside Italy…hence the Son of Samson title for U.S. release). Maciste's films were all about mind-boggling feats of heroism and heavy lifting — which summed up the range of sword-and-sandal actors such as Mark Forest, Gordon Scott and Reg Lewis nicely.

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‘Spartacus’ (1960)

Stanley Kubrick's contribution to the sword-and-sandal genre was one born out of desire, competition, and fierce debate – a perfect fit for a film about a slave who leads a revolt against the evil powers-that-be. Leading man Kirk Douglas had originally wanted to star in the Oscar-winning remake of Ben-Hur, but lost the gig to Charlton Heston. Douglas wanted in on the big-budget biblical-epic boom of the early Sixties badly, however, and eventually bought the rights for Howard Fast's thematically hot novel with his own money. It paid off big time: blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo churned out the script in two weeks and was given credit for his work, effectively ending the HUAC-scare era; the film snagged major-supporting-star wattage in the form of Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis (whose restored "oysters and snails" exchange makes the implicit homoeroticism of sword-and-sandal films nothing if not explicit), won four Academy Awards; and became Universal's biggest box office winner to date. It's easy to look at the genre as a guilty pleasure; thanks to the fact that it holds up better than Ben-Hur as well as having legitimized the S&S movie back in the day, Spartacus is simply a pleasure, period.

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‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963)

As both the "Hollywood on the Tiber" fad and the Hercules/Maciste feature boom began to fade in the mid-Sixties, Don Chaffey's inventive, matinee-ready adventure injected some much-needed originality into the atrophying genre. Bolstered by creatures made by beloved stop-motion-animation deity Ray Harryhausen, the film loosely adapted the classic Jason and the Golden Fleece myth for maximum thrills, spills and chills, complete with a cameo from Poseidon, some heroic man-vs-army-of-sword-wielding-skeletons fights and various other memorable baddies (the bronze-giant-come-to-life known as the Talos; the harpies; that totally awesome Hydra).  It's a classic that's still worth its weight in gold — even of the fleece variety.

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‘Clash of the Titans’ (1981)

After several fallow years when swords and sandals were traded in for light sabers and moon boots, the genre chugged back to life with yet another mythologically top-heavy take on a classic Greek myth. Desmond Davis' feature was kitted out with a few decidedly Eighties stars (hey there, Harry Hamlin as Perseus!),  but didn't balk at including some prestigious marquee names as well; Laurence Olivier, it seems, loved cashing paychecks from sword-and-sandal gigs nearly as much as performing Shakespeare. Like Jason and the Argonauts, the film also featured Ray Harryhausen's patented herky-jerky monsters (the film ended up being the animation giant's last) and plenty of thrilling near-camp moments ("Release the Kraken!"). The less said about the 2010 remake and its infamously bungled 3-D conversion, the better.

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‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982)

Following in the massive footsteps of Hercules' Steve Reeves, former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger had played the strong man in 1969's amusing Hercules in New York. But John Milius' long-gestating adaptation of Thirties pulp writer Robert E. Howard's stories about a wandering barbarian afforded him the ability to really go nuts with an actual sword in hand. The first Conan film was awash in blood, battle, and instantly quotable lines ("To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!") while also possessing the sensibilities of a sprawling B-movie action flick. The movie's visuals, based on illustrator Frank Frazetta's blood-and fire-fixated paintings of the eponymous hero, provided a new aesthetic that was soon duplicated throughout other sword-and-sandal fantasy films of the Eighties and beyond.

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‘Gladiator’ (2000)

The kitsch factor of the sword-and-sandal movie remained consistently high in the post-Conan years, but Ridley Scott's 2000 Oscar-winner about a former Roman general literally fighting for his life in arenas reminded us of just how powerful the genre could be. Although the Russell Crowe-starring feature didn't balk at laying on the bloody battle sequences — you'd swear that someone is literally throwing buckets of Type O at characters during the various gruesome gladiator games — it also embraced the kinds of themes that run through stark, serious dramas that don't involve men in leather skirts: revenge, love, pride, family, and glory. Yes, we were entertained, as well as impressed. Several Academy Awards later, Hollywood had fallen back in love with the sword-and-sandal epic.

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‘300’ (2007)

Director Zack Snyder's visually gob-smacking take on the Battle of Thermopylae (and the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley comic book series that chronicled it) reestablished the sword-and-sandal epic as a true event film – if only because you had to see this stuff on the big screen to believe it. Heavy on the CGI, the film attempted to replicate the chroma-colored look and pulp-peplum feel of Miller and Varley's source material; the result was a combination of mythological-epic storytelling, neocon warnography fantasies, libido-kickstarting commercials for abdominal exercises and spectacular set pieces that's been hard to match since. (Even Noam Murro's 2014 sequel to the film, 300: Rise of an Empire, couldn't duplicate the sheer rush of Snyder's film.) A century after the first big sword and sandal outing, the genre suddenly seemed fresher than ever.