The hero character Maciste (Italian, loosely, for “man carved out of rock”) first appeared in the silent Italian classic of 1914, Cabiria. In that movie, Maciste was played by Bartolomeo Pagano, an Italian stevedore built like a gladiator who through the role became ‘the world’s first movie star’, at least according to Roger Ebert.
A popular series of films followed featuring Maciste on various quests in different fantasy settings, almost always naked from the waist up but never without his morality. In Cabiria Maciste was a muscular slave in chains, a servant of the Roman patrician Fulvius Axilla. Spying on the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War, they rescued a little girl from the slopes of Mount Etna moments before a volcanic eruption. Maciste wrestled giant snakes in Maciste In Africa, and refused offers of corruption from the Devil himself in Maciste In Hell.
Initially paid 20 lire per day, Pagano (pictured, below right) completed dozens of Maciste films and won international fame. Though his use of blackface displeased many, surely nobody could object to his refusal to ever wear any kind of shirt. Pagano never played another role, but was more than comfortable with his typecasting: he changed his own name to Maciste at the height of his popularity. In 1926 he married an extremely lucky woman called Camilla and took her to their new home on the shores of Laguria where they produced 14 children. He died in 1968, and rests in a tomb that takes pride of place on the family estate.
The spirit of Maciste endured, reincarnated immediately after Pagano’s death in the sword and sandal films of the late 1960s, the entertainingly low-budget B-movie universe that was borne out of the financial ruins of Cleopatra.
Not only were bodybuilders cheaper to hire than professional actors, they were far more likely to move from Hollywood to Italy, where Maciste films were made (before being translated as Hercules films for the American market). Readymade for the role, they could go straight from the airport to the set, where they found that their lack of training in delivering dialogue didn’t matter since scripts were action driven and voice tracks were overdubbed in post.
Did you know: one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s 65 gowns in Cleopatra was made from 24 karat gold thread. Did you also know: Taylor insisted Cleopatra be filmed using the expensive widescreen camera technology developed by Mike Todd’s company, Todd-AO, which mainly specializes in sound effects. Taylor had inherited the rights to all profits from Todd-AO after Todd’s death. The company has since won almost three dozen Oscars, making Taylor an incalculable (and non-perfumes related) fortune mixing sound for films including Close Encounters, Out of Africa, The Exorcist and Evita.
Anyway, Steve Reeves had lifted weights since his early teenage years. After active service in World War Two he started appearing in loincloth-rippers such as his popular string of Hercules films.
Reeves’ contemporaries included handsome Ed Fury (pictured, below left), star of Maciste Against The Sheik and Wild Women of Wongo and 1954’s ‘Mr Venice Beach’, Mark Forest, who appeared in Maciste Against the Mongols, Son of Maciste, and so on (pictured, below right gazing at the definition of insolence).
The great Reg Park won Mr Britain in 1949 and starred in Hercules and the Captive Women and Hercules the Avenger and he was a friend and mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would become (with Sylvester Stallone) the supreme Maciste of the 1980s. In this picture, Schwarzenegger helps Park apply makeup:
Park also appeared in Schwarzenegger’s 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron looking more awesome than ever:
Maciste was also the template for the upright adventures of the Tarzan movies, played by the charismatic Gordon Scott, who routinely returned to his roots by dropping to the ground and pumping iron right there on location:
Maciste, ever the gentlemen, faded away and let Westerns take over for a spell but he returned in the 1980s as alluringly as ever — and as Hercules again — in the under-rated form of Lou Ferrigno, who played the title role of Hercules in 1983 after his TV success as the sci-fi Maciste The Incredible Hulk.
Shawn Baker wrote an exhaustive tribute to Lou Ferrigno previously on Nightcharm but just briefly:
Ferrigno lost most of his hearing due to an ear infection at infancy and took up bodybuilding in his teens to build self esteem. He won the Mr Universe title in 1974 and 1974. In ABC’s short lived drama series Trauma Center (13 episodes, 1983) he played John Six, an ambulance aid who often put himself at risk during outrageous stunt driving sequences that ensured the injured arrived at the hospital in time to save their lives (pictured, right). He has three children with his wife Carla (happily married, for over 30 years), was Michael Jackson’s personal trainer at the time Jackson died, and he provided the voice for The Hulk in this year’s hit remake of The Avengers.
And speaking of Arnold Schwarznegger, few realize that that actor’s most important film is the great masterpiece from 1970, Hercules in New York. The intertextual genius of this film comes replete with boulder-like deltoids and the modern New York skyline, and – the pièce de résistance – a Roman costumed chariot race! Bartolmeo Pagano would be proud:
The PEPLUM blog is a great Swords and Sandals resource.