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Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film, edited by Michael Cornelius


“Hercules!  Table for eight!” one of the bots says on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The feature ripe for riffage stars Steve Reeves, has sub-par dubbing, and copious shots of Reeve’s chiseled torso.  Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film explores the history, interpretation, and sexual politics of the sword and sandal film.  Michael Cornelius editorial acumen brings together numerous academic essays focusing on this particular film genre.  The first set of essays focus on the sword and sandal film (also known as the peplum, the name of the short skirt-like garment wore by the muscle-bound heroes).  These essays investigate the peplum film’s development and history.  The second set of essays focus on specific pop cultural products in the peplum genre, ranging from film to TV series to animation and parody.  The essay collection functions simultaneously as a précis and a convergence of numerous disciplines (film history, gender studies, pop culture studies, classical studies, literary theory, and others).  One can hope to see a more thorough investigation of the peplum genre that build off this initial essay anthology, either in the form of monographs or a tighter anthology refracted through one of the various aforementioned disciplines.

This Barthesian excursion into a much-maligned genre seeks to revivify it through reconnections with its classical roots and older waves of peplum films.  The genre originated in Italy with the Maciste films (one even had proto-fascist poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio as a screenwriter), being a modification of the “strong man” film genre.  The connection to d’Annunzio is further complicated by the Second Wave peplum films, those produced in the Fifties and Sixties with American bodybuilders as the “Hercules” figures and financed by Italian production companies.  (Also those routinely skewered by MST 3K.)  Maria Elena D’Amelio’s essay “Hercules, Politics, and Movies” posits that American stars and Italian funding helped viewers negotiate with the Fascist past.  As evidenced by plots involving the musclebound hero liberate an oppressed populace from a tyrant.  The peplum hero also works in a similar way to American Westerns, in that the liberator does not become the ruler, only as a means to restore the political status quo.  While Westerns have the White Hat Hero riding off into the sunset, the peplum usually has the hero heading back to his farm and reuniting with his wife and child.

Heteronormative fail.

On a similar note, several essays explore the problematic sexual politics of the peplum film.  The most notorious film, the recently released 300, had obvious heterosexual cheerleading and made the villains into gay caricatures.  (As one blogger snarkily put it, turning Xerxes’s armies into “a gay pride parade from Mordor.”)  Another essay, by way of counterexample, explores the intentionally problematic sexual politics of Pasolini’s Medea.  Pasolini received short shrift from contemporary film critics because of his status as a gay Catholic Communist filmmaker and poet.  The connection between heroic heterosexuality and conservative politics makes 300 a popular film among American conservatives, but also, predictably, at least given the clockwork-like predictability of Republican gay sex scandals, one of the most unintentionally gay films released in recent years.  However, film fandom operates in strange ways, perhaps giving rise to a resurgent gay fandom for 300.  The film’s ham-fisted sexual politics beg for audience mockery and derision.

The author is a child of the Eighties and grew up playing with and watching the Masters of the Universe TV series.  Michael Cornelius writes an essay finding parallels between the Masters of the Universe franchise and the gay clone subculture (e.g. The Village People, Tom of Finland).

In an overall worthy collection, it is the final essay that disappoints.  Daniel O’Brien’s essay investigating The Three Stooges Meet Hercules in terms of parody within the pepla genre fails not in content, but in execution.  The serious tone of academic writing clashes with the film’s comedic content.  Visual gags and the crazy plot get explained, but the ill fit occurs when O’Brien’s prose belabors the obvious.  Understanding parody and burlesque is instrumental in understanding the pepla genre, since it is another aspect of pepla’s multifaceted nature.  In the end, this reviewer kept uttering the phrase, “Well, duh,” while reading O’Brien’s anodyne explanations.

Despite the final essay’s shortcomings, Of Muscles and Men offers a variety of analyses into the pepla genre and its attendant pop cultural significances and problematic sexual politics.