Descended from Hercules
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Descended from Hercules

Biopolitics and the Muscled Male Body on Screen

Robert A. Rushing

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eBook - ePub

Descended from Hercules

Biopolitics and the Muscled Male Body on Screen

Robert A. Rushing

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Muscles, six-pack abs, skin, and sweat fill the screen in the tawdry and tantalizing peplum films associated with epic Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.Using techniques like slow motion and stopped time, these films instill the hero's vitality with timeless admiration and immerse the hero's body in a world that is lavishly eroticized but without sexual desire. These"sword and sandal" films represent a century-long cinematic biopolitical intervention that offers the spectator an imagined form of the male body—one free of illness, degeneracy, and the burdens of poverty—that defends goodness with brute strength and perseverance, and serves as a model of ideal citizenry.Robert A. Rushing traces these epic heroes from Maciste in Cabiria in the early silent era to contemporary transnational figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, and to films such as Zach Snyder's 300.Rushing explores how the very tactile modes of representation cement the genre's ideological grip on the viewer.

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Time in the Peplum
The great assemblage had gathered to see the strong man.… The lights were turned down throughout the building, to shine with doubled radiance upon the proscenium. A moment later the curtain curled upwards.… Upon a small red pedestal stood Sandow himself … bared to the waist. Slowly the red pedestal began to revolve, and the living statue with it.
The Age, September 8, 1902
homo sacer is, so to speak, a living statue, the double or the colossus of himself.
—Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
The Ballerina and the Biceps
Most genealogies of the peplum point back to the 1914 film Cabiria as the origin of the genre.1 We might also acknowledge the many previous traditions that contributed parts of the peplum, from the classical or mythological epic adventure to vaudeville and circus traditions of the strongman. Still, Cabiria was the first time at which a significant number of the elements that would eventually become the peplum’s standard features appeared together, in one image, on film. Although the entire film is classical and fantastic, arguably the very first peplum image in Cabiria is the first time we see Maciste, the physically dominating strongman played by Bartolomeo Pagano, who would eventually parlay his minor role in Cabiria into approximately two dozen spin-offs in the 1910s and 1920s (Usai calls his character “epidemic” [1986, 62] in its spread and longevity). Maciste also had his competitors and imitators—Saetta, Ajax, Ercole, Sansonia, and others—but, as Steven Ricci argues, Maciste remained not only the standard by which these other characters were judged but also distinct in his reliance on pure physical strength, in his de-sexualization, and in his populist, working-class/laborer origins (2008, 81–86; see also Bertellini 2003, 259–261). Almost without exception, Maciste’s competitors exemplified a very different kind of body, one that is perhaps more fundamentally cinematic. Willemen (2009) calls this body “the athletic body” and distinguishes it from “the Hercules body,” emphasizing the speed and kinetic dynamism of the former and the ideological/political valence of the latter:
The athletic body is part of the discourses of expertise, speed and geographical displacement, while the Hercules body is part of a discursive constellation emphasizing the static expenditure and management of labor power. The statically filmed muscle body is a figure in fantasies about primitive accumulation, that is to say, the transformation of agricultural laborers into factory laborers, valued for the quantity of labor power at their (and therefore the factory owner’s) disposal. (276)
Luciano Albertini, for instance, was a competing figure whose promotional shots featured him shirtless and flexing his muscles. Like Pagano, he went to Germany in the 1920s to make action and adventure films, but in films like Mister Radio (1924) and Der Unüberwindliche (The invincible, 1928), Albertini’s body always remains covered, and he amazes with his Fairbanks-like rapidity and co-ordination and performs impressive stunts that showcase his climbing and leaping abilities in particular (he was a former circus performer).2 By contrast, Maciste’s body is regularly exposed to the viewer’s gaze, even in circumstances where there is no plausible motivation to expose it. In Maciste alpino (1916), for example, we see Maciste, after having joined the Italian alpine soldiers in World War I, washing himself in the snow. He strips to the waist amid the snow- and ice-covered Alps and, grinning hugely (the strongman always takes enormous pleasure in his strength and endurance), rubs snow all over his bare torso. We find here again a confirmation of the link between admiration for the spectacularly muscled male body and a certain slowing of cinematic time. While Albertini’s lithe, gymnastic body lends itself to the kinetic dimension of cinema (not only in his astonishing, rapid movements but also in fast-paced editing and a preference for medium and long shots), Maciste’s muscular bulk brings the camera up close to slowly linger over his pecs, abs, and biceps.
In her famous “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey (1987) noted in passing that certain kinds of cinematic attractions that are regular features of narrative films (she specifically cited musical and dance numbers, a point I will return to later) had the curious tendency to retard or even temporarily freeze the forward movement of the narrative. More recently, she has expanded that reflection into a book-length meditation on cinema’s inherently “kinematic” character (they are moving pictures, after all) and its simultaneous reliance on the still image (cinema’s “hidden past” is both still photography and the individual frames on the strip of film, a “secret … that might or might not find its way to the surface” [2006, 67], but a past that might be cinema’s digital future as well). In this chapter, I argue that the peplum has had, since its very first film—indeed, since the very first peplum image—a curious reliance on the still image, on a variety of visual registers that are in fact opposed to the normal and normatively kinetic register of the moving pictures. Slowed time and stopped time are part of the genre.
The first image of Maciste in Cabiria consists of him not in motion but standing still, performing what will be a central necessity for the principal actors in the peplum from 1914 to the present day: striking and holding a pose. He holds the pose for several seconds while two characters in the background speak animatedly, then moves briskly to block the camera’s view of the more distant figures and strikes and holds another pose. His body language conveys a dominant physicality and assertiveness, quite surprising for a character who is supposed to be a slave (figure 1.1). As Oksana Bulgakowa points out in The Factory of Gestures (2008), gesturality and posture have always been primary ways in which spectators have understood a character’s class, background, education, attitude, and other attributes. Other servants in Cabiria (Croessa, the nurse, or Bodastaret, the innkeeper) feature the bent back and slumped shoulders that Bulgakowa argues indicated subordination and social inferiority.
Figure 1.1. Maciste the slave in a dominant posture next to his master, Fulvius Axilla. Cabiria, 1914. Courtesy of the Archives of the National Cinema Museum, Turin.
No character in the film stands as upright as Maciste does, however. He is broad shouldered, powerfully built, and possessed of a raw physicality, as well as a kind of lightness and grace. Critics have long noted (see Dalle Vacche 1992, 27–28) that his appearance seems designed to evoke not a body in action, but the idealized and static forms of the classical statue.3 The title card that precedes Maciste’s first appearance simply reads, “Fulvius Axilla, a Roman patrician, and his slave Maciste, live incognito in Carthage.” What we see, however, activates a variety of contradictory visual codes. We expect to see a Roman aristocrat and a slave, and what we see mostly corresponds to our expectations: in the foreground, a magnificent and dignified statue-like figure clad in a flowing, wind-swept toga draped dramatically over his arm; in the far background, a small man in a belted tunic and cloak, hunched over. The figures, however, are reversed. The slave is the dignified, toga-wearing figure in the foreground, and the aristocrat is the distant man in the cloak.
This first appearance of Maciste has precisely the quality of a still image, a tableau; as Dalle Vacche notes, Pastrone frequently allows “spectacular tableaux to slow down causal narrative development” (1992, 31), although this is perhaps not fair to films of the 1910s, which did not yet have a coherent dedication to linear narrative development, what Tom Gunning (1986) famously called a “cinema of attractions.”4 Regardless of whether the film’s action is slowed down here, however, the viewer is invited to enjoy the still image, letting the eye wander across the strongman’s body to appreciate muscles, proportions, and a bodily tension held in check. The actor’s impressive body asks for, and receives, a lingering gaze. Mulvey notes that when “film is delayed …, the spectator is able to hold onto, to possess, the previously elusive image. In this delayed cinema the spectator finds a heightened relation to the human body, particularly that of the star” (2006, 161). Again, it is perhaps anachronistic to think that this reliance on the still body was unusual for a film from 1914, but it does establish a link between slow time and the body that was visible in early cinema, long before Mulvey’s digitally slowed time. Indeed, as Guido (2012b) notes, between the influential philosophy of Bergson, the futurist experiments of the Bragaglia brothers’ photography, and the vitalist thinking of early film theorist Ricciotto Canudo, the Franco-Italian context for early cinema (precisely in the years leading up to Cabiria) was very markedly interested in the question of motion and stopped time. Bragaglia, influenced by Bergson, found the truth of cinema in its movement, rejecting its reliance on the single image, while for Canudo, “notions of immobility and fixation assume a positive role” (Guido 2012b, 12), but both found the relationship between stillness and motion a fundamental and highly charged question for cinema of the 1910s.5
Before moving pictures, still photography was famously used to slow movement down or to stop it, as with Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1877 photographs of a galloping horse, so that we could see what motion had previously obscured. But Muybridge’s photo series could also be used as a form of proto-cinema, projecting the still images one after the other and flipping through them so that the still horse would begin to gallop. This is precisely the effect the peplum strives for again and again—not so much a return to the still image or the frozen pose, as the rhythmic oscillation between cinema’s essential paradox: moving pictures and their simulacrum of life, on the one hand, produced from a series of still images, on the other. As Freud writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of the death drive, it arises “from the coming to life of inanimate matter, and seek[s] to restore the inanimate state” (1953–1974a, 18:44). This is, for Mulvey, the essential uncanniness of slowed and stopped cinematic time: a return to the still photography that pre-exists the advent of cinema, as if there were a “daemonic” drive to “restore an earlier state of things,” as Freud says (18:36). We can begin to see that slowed and stopped time might exert an uncanny fascination or pull—a fatal attraction, if you will, for film. In direct reference to the peplum’s pre-history, however, Wyke also notes that Muybridge was already in 1879 photographing athletes posing as classical statues (1997a, 56). Chapman notes at several points (2006, 77, 97–98) the connections between Sandow’s emergent discipline of bodybuilding and early cinema, connections that I hope this chapter’s epigraph showcases: the strong man bared to the waist, the lights, and the slow movement of the “living statue.”6
Certainly the peplum’s central pleasure is precisely that of savoring the elusive image of the spectacular male body, and Bartolomeo Pagano positioned himself in advance as the film’s star by stepping in front of the protagonist in his first appearance on screen, offering himself as a frozen image to be savored. Maciste is not the only character in Cabiria to be associated with the slow or still image, however. The film’s major female characters also strike and hold poses, create frozen tableaux, and provide the viewer the pleasure of pure contemplation. The cinematic construction of woman as a still rather than a moving image is true of the Carthaginian princess Sophonisba (played by the diva Italia Almirante-Manzini). The figure of the diva was a staple of early Italian cinema; these were some of the earliest “stars” in cinema, names guaranteed to pull in an audience. Arguably, the entire institution of the diva was predicated on a kind of cinema of stopped time since divas specialized in melodramatic (and often gothic) stories of illicit sexuality, public women, and the like, all of which culminated, almost invariably, in an extended death sequence after the diva consumed poison to end her tragic and immoral life. The diva is always, in some sense, moritura, “about to die” (see Dalle Vacche 2008). Her death sequences—and the one in Cabiria is no exception—are rooted in an acting style that is now (rather anachronistically) seen as theatrical rather than cinematic since it consists precisely in striking and holding a series of poses and emotional gestures.
Cabiria (Lidia Quaranta) herself is literally frozen as a still image; when Fulvius and Maciste escape from prison but end up trapped in an underground storage room, Fulvius draws a life-sized image of her bringing him water in prison, in a chalk outline on the wall, so that he can reminisce (and enjoy the pleasure of the male gaze). Maciste, in turn, turns Fulvius’s purely static fetishism of the image into motion by adding motion to the eternally frozen Grecian urn the drawing of Cabiria carries: he draws wine emerging from the spout, then mimes drinking the liquid, and finally puts his storyboard into reality by actually drinking from the similar wine jug he carries. What Maciste draws on the wall here is not a thing, a pro-filmic object, nor is it in any way reducible to a still image; what he draws, to be precise, is not wine or water, but motion lines that signify the flow, the movement, of liquid.
Figure 1.2. The still image is reanimated into a kinetic (implicitly masculine) register. Cabiria, 1914. Courtesy of the Archives of the National Cinema Museum, Turin.
Here we have to pause—to stop and linger over precisely the image—because this is a particularly important moment in the history of the peplum. The film seems to suggest to Fulvius that he is in a kind of danger in his rapt contemplation of the still image, and this idea will return again and again in and around the peplum. The still, adoring gaze is a pleasure to be indulged, but not for too long, and not without certain kinds of risk. We have to note, for example, that there is an implicit feminization of the still image and a concomitant masculinization in the return to cinema’s kinetic character. Maciste says, in effect, “Enough with the staring at the girl, Fulvius—it’s time to return to masculine camaraderie and carousing.” Indeed, one might argue that Maciste’s mark on Fulvius’s drawing is a kind of masculine defacement, a stain, but one that points toward movement. In lingering over this image from Cabiria, it is also useful to compare it to Rosalind Galt’s (2011) discussion of the gendering at work in “The Origin of Outline,” an image from Walter Crane’s turn-of-the-century handbook for artists (40–45). Crane’s image shows a toga-clad caveman drawing, in rapt admiration, the outline of a submissive maiden; the image is remarkably similar to Fulvius’s image of Cabiria. In Galt’s terms, Fulvius’s inclusion of decoration on the vase and on Cabiria’s dress is already perilously close to the “pretty,” an aesthetic category she finds to be rigorously excluded from classical film theory, and Maciste effectively defaces that pretty image, allowing it to be masculinized (and returned to a more properly filmic register).
Mulvey, along with many others, associates the still image with the stillness of death. Raymond Bellour (2008) notes that the still image in cinema has a long and rich history that is “reflexive, mortifying, and nostalgic” (258)—that is, the still image is a way of commenting on cinema itself and its relationship to still images and motion (it is reflexive); it is a “source of obsessive fear” (258), consistently linked to death. Guido (2012a) offers a compelling synthesis of the various theories (he mentions Mulvey, Bellour, Stewart, Bazin, and Barthes) that associate the still image in cinema with death: essentially, the flash of light that freezes the past is always, at least potentially, a traumatic memory or, in Barthes, the anticipation of what will one day be a traumatic memory (235–236). Again, Freud would argue that the still image is cinema’s pre-history, “an initial state from which [it] has at one time or other departed” (1953–1974a, 18:38) but to which it is tempted to return, like a salmon returning to its spawning grounds in order to die. I am generally disinclined to think that any formal technique has one specific and inherent meaning (such as “slow time = death,” what Guido calls “the frequent equation of photography to the ‘dark side’ of cinema” [2012a, 225]), and indeed, I argue in chapter 3 that slow time often has a quite different and more positive meaning in action films, but it is not a stretch to note that slowed and stopped time in film is often correlated with death; certainly the peplum makes this correlation consistently.
So the peplum, already in the time of Cabiria, and certainly up to the present, develops two ideas in tandem. The frozen body is the primary source of pleasure in the peplum film, but it also represents a frequently feminine death for both the film’s characters and potentially its spectators. We must ask ourselves: If Maciste warns us against becoming lost in the contemplation of the still image, then why is his own body perpetually used to invite the spectator to gaze at that same still image? And if staring at the image of a woman puts the male spectator at risk of forgetting about his male companions, then isn’t there a different, more narcissistic risk for the putatively heterosexual male spectator in contemplating the image of an idealized male body instead? (I note in passing that this sequence with Maciste and Fulvius is also the first time we see what will become the standard pairing in the midcentury peplum: the strongman is partnered with a less manly, weaker sidekick who, unlike the strongman, is interested in women.)
The ima...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Note on Film Titles and Foreign-Language Citations
  7. Introduction: A Peplum Genealogy
  8. 1 Nos Morituri: Time in the Peplum
  9. 2 Pre/Post: Sexuality in the Peplum
  10. 3 Skin Flicks: The Haptic Peplum
  11. 4 Immune Systems: The Peplum as Biopolitical Genre
  12. Conclusion: Biopolitical Fantasy
  13. Filmography
  14. Works Cited
  15. Index
Citation styles for Descended from Hercules

APA 6 Citation

Rushing, R. (2016). Descended from Hercules ([edition unavailable]). Indiana University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

Rushing, Robert. (2016) 2016. Descended from Hercules. [Edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press.

Harvard Citation

Rushing, R. (2016) Descended from Hercules. [edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Rushing, Robert. Descended from Hercules. [edition unavailable]. Indiana University Press, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.