The Italian peplum film (sometimes called the sword-and-sandals film) enjoyed a brief but intense vogue from about 1957 to 1965. Over three hundred of these films were made following the same basic model: a bodybuilding celebrity (Steve Reeves, Reg Park) was cast as a heroic muscleman (Hercules, Samson) in a mythical universe of dragons, witches, and evil emperors. This article targets a specific question about these mid-century Italian peplum films: how do they handle the “problem” of their obvious nonheteronormative attractions, well-oiled and nearly naked bodybuilders, whose bodies are constantly on display and evidently eroticized. The beefcake on display in the peplum is clearly not meant for a straight female audience (the films are rarely more than a series of demonstrations of violent physical strength, often haphazardly strung together), and the films were too widely popular to have appealed exclusively to a gay audience. Despite their evident camp value today, peplum films appear to have been principally aimed at, and consumed by, straight adolescent males. The peplum largely adopts three strategies, not always consistent among themselves, to address its problematic questions of desire and identification: (1) it displaces same-sex desire into the past (I used to desire Hercules, but now I identify with him); (2) identification is displaced from its proper target (the skinny and helpless adolescent sidekick) to a much more flattering one (Hercules); (3) the peplum universe repeatedly disavows sexual difference.
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Robert A. Rushing; Gentlemen Prefer Hercules: Desire | Identification | Beefcake. Camera Obscura 1 December 2008; 23 (3 (69)): 159–191. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2008-011
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