My Cinematic Inspirations
Pepla films were the precursors of the Spaghetti Western boom that followed in the late 1960s. These films all had a pseudo-mythic, epic scope with stories featuring elements of the fantastic and supernatural. Some were based on history, like Cleopatra’s Daughter, Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators, Caesar the Conqueror, starring Cameron Mitchell, Colossus and the Headhunters, starring Rod (The Time Machine) Taylor, and Romulus and the Sabines, starring Roger Moore. Most were very loosely drawn from myth and legends: Ali Baba and the Seven Saracens, Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World, Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops, and Hercules and the Princess of Troy. An early version of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, The Giants of Thessaly, was at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful and visionary epic, Jason and The Argonauts. There were even some attempts at heroic mash-ups, like Thor and the Amazon Women, Maciste in King Solomon’s Mines, and Ulysses Against the Son of Hercules.
Speaking of the Son of Hercules . . . there were quite a few films featuring one or another “sons of Hercules.” These films are a riot to watch — great late-night fun. They also boasted a decent rock and roll title song.) Other stuntmen and bodybuilders starred in these films: Reg Park, Alan Steel, Gordon (Tarzan) Scott, and Mark Forest, who holds the record for appearing in more of these films than any other actor. Even Peter Lupus, from the original Mission: Impossible television series starred in one of these pepla magnum opuses.
Each of these “Mostaccioli Epics,” as I call them, boasted special FX right out of Joe’s Garage and Basement, performances as wooden as Pinocchio’s nose, and storylines that were often illogical or plain hard-to-follow, and hurriedly dubbed by unconvincing voice actors. But they also presented a bevy of gorgeous women and enough action to keep any fan of professional wrestling satisfied. But honestly, most of these films were far worse than so many of the B- and C-films later produced during the sword and sorcery craze of the 1980s. By comparison, many Mostaccioli Epics made Ed Wood’s or Ray Dennis Steckler’s celluloid adventures look like John Ford masterpieces. Occasionally you’d find a gem, like Damon and Pythias, starring Guy (Zorro, Lost in Space, Captain Sinbad) Williams, Goliath and the Dragon, starring Mark Forest, and Duel of the Champions, starring Alan (Shane) Ladd. The Giant of Marathon, starring Steve Reeves, was directed by Jacques Tourneur (who directed many great horror films for Val Lewton), and had great cinematography by horror maestro Mario Bava. But mostly what we were seeing on our movie and television screens were cinematic quickies more often than not produced on a minuscule budget and directed by beginners still learning their craft.
I saw just about every one of the pepla films on television when I was a kid, on local stations at 10:30 PM every Saturday night. These were very guilty pleasures. While they seemed to have been earnestly made, the vast majority of them were really quite laughable—especially when viewed today. I mean . . . Hercules and the Masked Rider, set in medieval Spain? Watching some of these films today can be a little painful, even for me, though they do press my nostalgia button. Very, very few had the production values and skill that went into the making of better and earlier films like Hercules, Spartacus, Ulysses (with Kirk Douglas), the Ray Harryhausen epics, and the biblical extravaganzas of Cecil B. deMille, such as Samson and Delilah. I always hoped Harryhausen would make a film about Hercules, and I’ve been told that he was very interested in doing a version based on the legendary Twelve Labors of Zeus’s favorite son.
All the pepla films I’ve mentioned, except for the original Hercules can be found on “Warriors: 50 Movie Pack,” from Mill Creek Entertainment (2006), a collection of 13 CDs. But beware — the box “claims” they have been Digitally Remastered, but I highly doubt it. They look as if they were dubbed from very poor VHS versions — some of which might even have been videotaped right off the television! And not one of these films is in widescreen format, which is painfully evident when you watch them. Some of them look even worse than I remember from watching them on a small, black and white television with a weak antenna and a lousy signal. Fuzzy and blurry best describe the look of these CDs.
These films bear kinship to sword and sorcery, with heroes and warriors (and maybe even an actor or two) that could have very well been named Conan. Indeed, the Cimmerian can trace his cinematic ancestry, as well as his literary heritage, to Hercules, Samson, Gilgamesh, Siegfried, Roland, and El Cid. After all, Conan was born out of the mists of myth and legend, as was so much sword and sorcery, and heroic fantasy. But I loved these films when I was a kid. My friends and I would play Hercules and Samson in our backyards and alleys. I even used the plots and stories of the films and myths when I played with my “Ben Hur” playset by Marx Toys, and the hundreds of miniature Roman soldiers you could purchase at the drug store or Woolworth’s — about a buck for a bag of 25 or 50 soldiers, if memory serves me. That’s why I purchased the 50-movie Warriors Collection (at only $25.00) — to relive those wonderful days of yesteryear when summer seemed to last all year and the sun never ceased to shine.
While I don’t recommend this Warriors Collection to everyone, it might be something film buffs and younger readers out there might be curious to look into. Pepla films can be great fun to watch with a group of friends—making up your own dialogue and shouting out comments. But these sword and sandal epics won my heart when I was a kid. That’s why The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Tritonian Ring, The Swords of Lankhmar, and then Conan, Robert E. Howard, and the whole sword and sorcery genre took hold of me and transported me to exotic realms, lost worlds, and other times. I find it quite interesting that the Conan and sword and sorcery boom of the later 1960s followed so closely on the heels of the pepla craze. Had these movies primed the pumps of so many of our imaginations?
Wikipedia is a fount of information on sword and sandal, and pepla films. Go to their site and type in the names of the films and actors I’ve mentioned and you can learn even more about this curious craze and innocent phase of adventure films.
Thanks, everyone. Hope you enjoyed my stroll down memory lane!
You can see the influence of these films, and especially that of Special FX wizard Ray Harryhausen, by checking out my first novel, Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, Winner of the 2017 Golden Book Readers' Choice Award for Fantasy.
#heroicfantasy #swordandsorcery #mythology #peplafilms #joebonadonna