The First Modern Peplum

The peplum, or sword-and-sandal film had been an Italian film specialty since the days of the silent film, indeed, films like “Cabiria” and “The Last Days of Pompeii” helped put Italian cinema on the map, but Carmine Gallone’s 1937 film “Scipio Africanus” really served as the blueprint for the Italian spectacle films that flourished in the 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s and made Hercules into a household name. Gallone’s film wasn’t made to sell popcorn however. It was meant to be a great patriotic epic, coming as it did a scant year after Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia, it was meant to compliment Benito Africanus on his triumph. No expense was spared and Pietro Aschieri’s impressive sets compliment Gallone’s massed crowds, arms raised in the fascist salute hailing the great Scipio. The composer Ildebrando Pizzetti, who had earlier scored the silent “Cabiria” provided appropriately martial and decorous themes to accompany these displays of “people power.”
While the later pepla would feature handsome hunks like Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott as their stars. Annibale Ninchi looks more like a middle-aged accountant–of course Scipio doesn’t fight dragons or pull down temples. He does defeat Hannibal, played by Camillo Pilotto as a sort of patch-eyed, live action Bluto. (Oddly enough Pilotto gets the big speech about the beauty of Italy, a land that he claims to love even as he devastates it.) As for the “regular guy” Carthaginians, aside from their being hirelings and not virtuous citizens defending their homes, they are treated in the best Agitprop tradition as being somewhat less than human. While Romans have beautiful plumed crests on their helmets, these guys have a couple of feathers standing upright, making them look like rampaging chickens as they ravish Roman women, loot Roman homes and swill Roman wine from broken casks. The ogling slave-merchant to whom they deliver their captives looks decidedly Semitic. Aside from the brutish villain Hannibal the film introduced several other character types who would become stand-byes in pepla to come. There is Francesca Braggiotti’s seductive Queen Sophonisba, dressed to the nines and ready to seduce any weak-willed ally of Rome who comes her way, Fosco Giachetti as Captain Massinista, one of her conquests, Marcella Giorda as Sophonisba’s weak-willed husband King Syphace and Isa Miranda as Velia, a virtuous Roman maiden captured by the Carthaginians and promptly shipped off to Hannibal’s tent. But because Gallone was doing something relatively new, these types hadn’t yet hardened into stereotypes. Thus, although we would expect Velia to be rescued and re-united with her beau, fighting with Scipio, the lovers are not re-united and she dies when the Romans overrun the defeated Hannibal’s camp. Massinista, though sorely tempted by Sophonisba–even to the point of marrying her after Syphace is killed–never really betrays Scipio. Although he does allow his new wife to drink a goblet of poison rather than be led in chains to Rome. Scipio himself never does anything individually heroic. He leads his troops. He rallies them in battle, but he doesn’t single-handedly kill a Carthaginian war-elephant or engage Hannibal in hand-to-hand combat as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky does with the leader of the Teutonic Knights. He simply exists as a living symbol of Roman virtue. When the war is over, he returns to his farm to plant his crops.
The film is apparently is some disrepute among animal-lovers for the harsh treatment accorded to the elephant members of the cast. I hope no elephant was actually harmed in the making of this motion picture, but it sure looks like a couple of elephants were harmed. While a disregard for the safety of large quadrupeds may not qualify as a hallmark of fascist art, the almost idolatrous regard for the Legion’s standard does. Much is made of the fact that Scipio carries with him the disgraced standard of the legion wiped out by Hannibal at Canae. The troops are constantly being called upon to avenge Canae and, at one point in the climactic battle of Zuma, there is a veritable scrimmage between Roman legionnaires and Carthaginian mercenaries to gain possession of the battered symbol. When the Romans win the struggle it is thrust aloft in triumph, a symbol of the new patriotic religion of land and race. This aspect of “Scipio Africanus” did not become a feature of the latter pepla–often filmed in Spain with infusions of French and Germany money, to be shown in the good, old U.S.A. Although audiences loved the history spectacles of De Mille, I don’t think that Gallone’s film ever received a wide U.S. release. Post-war productions like Alessandro Blasetti’s “Fabiola” with its specular martyrdoms and Pietro Francisci’s “Queen of Sheba” with its feverish romantic entanglements would crack the U.S. market. In 1960, with the genre in full flower, Gallone himself directed and co-wrote a sequel of sorts, “Carthage in Flames,” which tells of Carthage’s final defeat and destruction at the hands of Rome.

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