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Travel through time with a camera: the Peplum

The term Sword-and-sandal or Peplum to describe a certain kind of film was invented by French film critics, from ‘Cahier du Cinema’ and other influential film magazines or newspapers as a quick way of describing a type of film that takes place in ancient times, such as Ancient Greece/Rome/Egypt/Arabia/Viking, etc.

Originally this sub-genre was largely Italian-made historical (from 1958 to 1965), mythological, or biblical epics mostly set in the Greco-Roman antiquity or the Middle Ages. These films attempted to emulate the big-budget Hollywood historical epics of the time, such as Samson and Delilah (1949), Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and Cleopatra (1963). They were eventually replaced in 1965 by Spaghetti Westerns and Eurospy films.

These cinematic genres have long been ignored by critics and film historians. It was like someone with a camera travelled back in time where Julius Cesar meets Alexander the Great, or Cleopatra Erik the Red! The problem was mainly that the films were so popular with the public in the 60s because they were entertaining, visually magnificent although historically debatable, that it was meant to become an art in its own form but always treated as unimportant or not worthy of respect by the so-called experts in cinema. Synonyme of the Hollywood blockbuster, the Peplum, which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, became, throughout the history of cinema, a notable element of production, both Hollywood and European. 

The great Hollywood epic is characterized by excess. Its visual ambition therefore gives pride of place to grandiose reconstructions of emblematic monuments of Antiquity, mainly palaces, arenas and circuses: in Rome the Forum, the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, in Alexandria the Lighthouse, etc. Cecil B. DeMille in his own way was a precursor, just like his fellow directors at the beginning of film making, and their films were successful, until they become out of fashion, with failures of such a magnitude like Cleopatra (1964) or The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). It is interesting to mention that at the same time, the old Hollywood studio system started to disintegrate.

It was only after the resurgence of the historical blockbuster film, at the beginning of the 1990s, that the peplum could make its return to the big screen, in the form of a historical blockbuster: Gladiator, produced in 2000 by Dreamworks, a success which initiated the resurgence of the “neo-peplum”.

It has become a transmedia (cinema/TV/books) genre that grasps ancient history through appropriations, recreations, interpretations, incorporation, adaptations, and other textual play, to comment on past and/or contemporary matters, to support a distinctive aesthetic for artistic means, or simply to tell a story. It took more than a hundred years for it to be recognized and appreciated in the collective mind of cinema goers and critics like a form of art in its own right.

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