Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' is the latest film in a long line of Roman epics.

John Kirk explores the enduring appeal of sweaty centurions and short-skirted superheroes

I recall that I was nine years old. My best friend Donny and I walked up to the neighbourhood cinema in Houston, Texas, our hometown, one Saturday morning. Under the marquee, we saw a poster that immediately caught our attention. It featured a big colour drawing of an actor we had never heard of before - Steve Reeves. Reeves, who died last Monday at the age of 74 , was at the end of the 1950s the most popular film star in the world, next to Sophia Loren. But at that time, we'd never heard of him. "Is this guy going to be as boring as John Wayne?" I thought. Looking at the big muscles on his arms, my next thought was, "Well ... no ...!"

The movie turned out to be Hercules, and it ushered in the popularity of the sword-and-sandal movies (also known as "peplums", after the Roman tunics) all over the world in the late 1950s. We were instant fans, and from that Saturday morning on, we eagerly awaited the next Steve Reeves movie. Even though we were Texans, cowboy films had never moved us. These new actors were the most exciting movie heroes we had ever seen. Most of the actors were English and American - a rare Italian star, Adriano Bellini, even changed his name to Kirk Morris. All the actors' voices were dubbed, so it made no difference what nationality they really were.

Ten per cent of all films made in Italy between 1957 and 1976 featured musclemen, but not much has been written about this period, at least not in English. Writers tend to skip from the post-Second World War Neo-Realist period to the Spaghetti Westerns of the mid-1960s. Today, all but a handful of the sword-and-sandal spectacles have been forgotten.

Superheroes were popular in Italian cinema from the earliest days of the silent era. Maciste, the popular character of many sword-and-sandal films, made his first appearance in Cabiria in 1914. The actor who played him became so popular that he eventually was billed not by his real name, but simply as "Maciste". If you see one of the silent Maciste films (Maciste in Hell is the best one) and compare early photos of Benito Mussolini to later ones, you will notice that he appears to have had a Maciste makeover at some point.

From the First World War through to the Second World War there was no money to make expensive films in Italy, so the genre lay dormant until the 1950s, when producers suddenly found themselves having to fight off competition from television. So they tried to keep their audiences by cranking out larger-than-life colour spectacles for the big screen. The sword-and-sandal films were produced, mostly at Cinecitta outside Rome, under factory-like conditions, recycling the same sets, stars, and supporting players, and stock-footage battle scenes.

Reeves had been an award-winning bodybuilder - Mr America in 1947, Mr Universe in 1948 and 1950. He was spotted in Athena, a forgettable 1954 MGM musical, by Pietro Francisi's daughter. Francisi needed the perfect actor for his new film, and Reeves had just given up trying to break into Hollywood when he got the director's call to go to Rome to star in Hercules; a film that turned out to be phenomenally successful.

Whatever else Reeves may have accomplished, most importantly he did for bodybuilders what RuPaul later did for drag queens, or as he said in an interview with the LA Weekly a couple of years ago: "Like Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, I think I broke the physique barrier in show business." Where Reeves led, Schwarzenegger and Stallone would follow in the 1980s, especially in Schwarzenegger's Conan films.

Bodybuilding didn't exist in the way we think of it today until the 1930s, when body-builders started to find a common identity and culture at "Muscle Beach" in Santa Monica, California. By today's standards, the musclemen of the 1940s and 1950s look smaller than we expect, but remember, their physiques were achieved without using steroids, unlike most of the bodybuilding today. Until the success of the first Hercules film in 1957, bodybuilders had usually only been displayed in physique magazines, apart from the lucky few who had been members of movie sex goddess Mae West's touring nightclub revue.

After Reeves's success, however, many other musclemen followed suit and traded their posing straps for pleated Roman skirts. Women had been exploited in Hollywood and other film capitals as sex symbols for some time, but the Italians were the first to produce films that did the same thing so blatantly with men. But, in spite of the strong male-bonded relationships portrayed, none of the films would have, or could have, been made with overt homoeroticism in them. If these films didn't exactly depict gay relationships, the lack of convincingly passionate male-female relationships did create a sexual ambiguity that was a noteworthy feature of the genre.

But these films weren't just about beefcake. Hollywood sexpot Jayne Mansfield, circus star Moira Orfei, Folies Bergÿres sensation Chelo Alonso, and other busty female stars dominated the genre. What time has taken away from the men it has given to the women. These glamorous queens, who threatened the gender order with their control of power, were so outrageous they ended up turning patriarchy on its head, just as Mae West did in her Vegas muscleman show. The fetishistic costumes, big hair, and outlandish make-up of these sensational leading ladies remain the inspiration of female impersonators throughout the world. Try to find a video copy of The Loves of Hercules, starring Mansfield and her then-husband, former Mr Universe Mickey Hargitay - it is one of the campiest classics of the genre. Also look for Orfei's The Strongest Man in the World, or Samson and the Slave Queen.

Do not look for many homoerotic ideas in Ridley Scott's new Gladiator movie - because you certainly won't find them; Derek Jacobi has a boyfriend, but that's about it. Russell Crowe only goes bare-chested once (a nice touch, but not enough) and the battle scenes and gladiator fights are too brutal and realistic to be sexy to most people. But Gladiator does still show a few influences from the lower-budgeted films some of us grew up with, including dialogue that must have been difficult for the actors to say with a straight face. Alas, something it does not have is a strong female actress. Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix irtually wipe poor Connie Nielsen, the only woman of note in the film, off the screen. But the thrilling battle and fight scenes are quite impressive. It's a treat for once to see a mega-budgeted film that shows on the big screen every pound that the film-makers spent.

Another look at the campy films from the sword-and-sandal genre is long overdue. So treat yourself to an evening of peplum nostalgia, although it may be hard to find some of these films in your local video shop. Don't waste your time on the humourless, ponderous big-studio costume epics. The campy ones far outshine the so-called "good ones" made with bigger budgets and bigger names. I have a good friend who considers the sword-and-sandal films to have contributed even more to the art of cinema than the works of Visconti or Fellini. But wherever one might rank them on a scale of taste, they shouldn't be allowed to rot away in some film vault.

Yes, it is important to preserve classic films, but I think there is room to preserve the best camp films as well. It is time we rallied together to make sure these films are preserved and rediscovered, so we do not lose those lovely images of the well-oiled men and glamorous women who graced our silver screens.

John Kirk is the film archivist for MGM Studios in Los Angeles. He has lectured on film in Europe, the US, Australia, and New Zealand

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