We know them by a few different terms: peplum films, sword and sandal films, neo-mythology historical epics. Call it what you will, the genre takes historical/mythological/biblical stories, fills them with as much cast-of-thousands epicness as they can afford for epic battle scenes and high melodrama. Mastered by the Italians, they’ve long been overlooked and ridiculed despite Hollywood aping this basic model every single summer. No more! Not on our watch! Behold in awe: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

NEFERTITI, QUEEN OF THE NILE (Nefertite, regina del Nilo)
Dir. Fernando Cerchio
Italy, 1961



It all starts so simply: in ancient Egypt, Tumos the sculptor (the great Edmund Purdom! PIECES! THE FIFTH CORD!) is in love with priestess-to-be Tenet (Jeanne Crain of STATE FAIR and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN). Simple, right? Not when high priest Bekanon is set on keeping them apart! Did I mention Bekanon is played by Vincent Price? VINCENT PRICE! Bekanon splits up the couple, throwing Tenet in prison and condemning Tumos, who flees to the desert to gather help and hear revelations of the future. Meanwhile, Bekanon tells Tenet that he’s…her FATHER, and so gives her the name by which history would know her…NEFERTITI, QUEEN OF THE NILE!

That’s just the start: from here we have double-crosses, prophecies, lion maulings, the destruction of false idols and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of sardonic Price monologues. Director Fernando Cerchio was well-prepared for this kind of historical spectacle, having directed CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER and GODDESS OF LOVE earlier, and all of his stars make the most of the larger-than-life drama. Sword and sandal fans expecting something like the Firesign Theatre’s HERCULES’ BIG ARMS might hope for two hours of swordfights, but while there’s action aplenty it’s much more of a historical epic.

HERCULES (Le fatiche di Ercole)

Dir. Pietro Francisci (1958)
In English (dubbed from Italian)


“How simple men are.”
In the 3rd century BCE, Apollonius of Rhodes wrote The Argonautica, a retelling of the story of the Argonauts, derided in its time as a cheap reboot of Homer. One of the main reasons for this was the reinterpretation of Jason as less a mighty god than nearly an anti-hero, excelling not at fighting or bravery but cunning and manipulation, and now the main focus of the story, while Heracles (Hercules) is more a loveable but lunkheaded oaf.
1958, and Pietro Francisci delivers what even the opening credits call a loose interpretation of The Argonautica, putting Hercules back in the main role but keeping much of the original dynamic. No one’s as ready to fill these particular shoes as the pride of Montana himself, Steve Reeves, who manages to be both a mighty slab of demigod and a “hero” who generally stumbles into trouble and fights his way out. Our opening, in which Hercules saves Iole (Sylvia Koscina, LISA AND THE DEVIL) and ends up travelling the world, fighting armies, unsuccessfully resisting the schemes of sorceresses and fighting pretty much everything that lives when all he wants to do is take a nap.

With gorgeous Technicolor cinematography and special effects by none other than Mario Bava, a truly jaunty score, a cast of thousands and plenty more, this was the film that led to the sword and sandal boom around the world. There have been many Hercs, but Steve Reeves is our personal favorite, and we hope you see why this July — ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

HERCULES UNCHAINED (Ercole e la regina di Lidia)
Dir. Pietro Francisci, 1959
Italy, 97 min
In English (dubbed from Italian)


Beginning directly where HERCULES left off, the whole gang is at it again, this time from a story (*very* loosely) adapted from Sophocles’ final play, OEDIPUS AT COLONUS, in which Oedipus, in exile after his eye-gouging mother-fucking tragedy, laments his sons Eteocles and Polynices fighting over control of Thebes. Here, Hercules gets in the middle of all this, which seems a bit realpolitik for The Herc, but worry not; before he can get very far he drinks from a poison fountain that erases his memory and is taken captive by Omphale, Queen of Lydia (played by Sylvia Lopez, who sadly passed away the same year this film was released). Omphale seduces and convinces Herc he’s her husband, and our hero spends plenty of time loafing around drinking wine and watching dancing girls. It’s kinda like Overboard! Meanwhile his long-suffering wife Iole (the great Sylvia Koscina of JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, JUDEX, A LOVELY WAY TO DIE), still in Thebes, tries to prevent being flung to the wolves by the scheming Eteocles. Will Thebes fall? Will Iole live? Will Hercules stop taking naps?

Savage Steve Reeves is back for his second and final turn as Herc, and if anything he’s even more of a lovable oaf, fighting curses, palace intrigue, endless spear-carriers and hangovers with perfect hair and pecs for days. Director Pietro Francisci and cinematographer Mario Bava make the most of every location, and the technicolor caverns where Omphale’s licentious ritual dances are not far at all from BLACK SUNDAY’s Technicolor tableaux. There’s a song near the beginning that’ll make you think we fell into a Western, a duel for the future of Thebes and a final everything-and-the-kitchen-sink battle where Herc whips people with chains and destroys entire buildings. Everything you could want from a Hercules film! ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

Dir. Osvaldo Civirani, 1965
Egypt/Italy, 97 min
In English (dubbed from Italian)


In the wake of Steve Reeves in HERCULES, Italian directors set out to find every musclebound New York lug they could put in body oil and beat up spear-carriers, and so Mark Forest (known to his family in Brooklyn as Lou Degni), after stints as a gym owner, a bodybuilder and a member of Mae West’s troupe of musclemen, became quite the rage in Rome. From 1960 to 1965 he did eleven peplum films, concluding with KINDAR THE INVULNERABLE.

The sword and sandal film will always be linked to Italy, but there’s something special about seeing a film set elsewhere, in this case Egypt (as the closing shots at Luxor will make clear). Like many blues singers to come, lightning struck the birthing bed on the day Kindar was born, the sultan’s son, destined for greatness — until Lil’ Kindar gets Kindarnapped by a desert bandit who raises him as his own! Kindar’s troubled youth takes a drastic turn when, about to raid a village, he falls for a villager named Kira (and who could blame him, as it’s none other than Rosalba Neri (LADY FRANKENSTEIN, Franco fave MARQUIS DE SADE’S JUSTINE, THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT)!

With plenty of action and some really beautiful set pieces (Kindar sneaking into the city at night is particularly lovely), KINDAR does stray a bit closer to a superhero film than a traditional peplum, but so what? Not even an iron maiden can stop him! Arguably Mark Forest’s best film, it’s an excellent close to this summer’s installment of ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

THE AMAZONS (Le guerriere dal seno nudo)
Dir. Terrence Young, 1973
Italy, 102 min.
In (dubbed) English


“All men are repulsive in mind and body! Their hands are coarse and rapacious!”
It’s hardly a shock to discover the seventies awash in films ostensibly about Amazon tribes as pretext for contemporary thoughts on the battle of the sexes. In that not-always-proud tradition director Terrence Young (WAIT UNTIL DARK, DR. NO, THUNDERBALL) and writer Robert Graves (most relevantly I CLAUDIUS, also the amazing THE SHOUT) walk the fine line between bold peplum extravagance and winking smirks with THE AMAZONS, a film known in Italy as Le guerriere dal seno nudo, or The Warriors With The Naked Breasts.

We begin with the tribe performing feats of strength to decide who will be the next Queen (the price of admission? A man’s head!) .The challenge is decided when Antiope (Alena Johnston in one of her few roles) defeats rival Oreitheia (Sabine Sun of WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT, MR. FREEDOM and THE BITCH WANTS BLOOD) and becomes queen, capped with a speech about the absolute inferiority of the failed male race that’d make a great trailer all by itself. Unfortunately for the new queen, the yearly Procreation Celebration (which is to say the only time the women come into contact with men that doesn’t lead to a pile of headless bodies) is coming up, and between discovering that even a Queen can have strange unseemly desires and Oreitheia’s plans for a coup things get complicated in a hurry.

Midnighters will take special note of two names: the astonishing Helga Line (from Spec faves CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37, HORROR EXPRESS and HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB) and Eurohorror royalty Rita Calderoni among the Amazons. There’s a Riz Ortolani score, which is almost always a thing to celebrate, but to be honest there’s a constant level of goofery that feels more like incidental music from Green Acres than anything approaching the dramatic. That said, with an obviously lavish budget, some fantastic stunt/fight scenes, multiple nude fights to the death and whiplash changes in tone, it’s a film that shows a whole different side to the sword and sandal school. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?