“Cinema, my love!” by Driss Chouika

“If Dante came back to earth, he could liken the dark rooms to one of the nine circles of Hell. In some cases, the producers subject us to refined tortures without our even having the resource to scream. This is what I thought while undergoing – with what spasms that were difficult to overcome – the appalling Ulysses perpetrated by Mario Camerini”. Henry Agel.

The peplum is one of the cinematographic genres that began to emerge at the end of the 1940s, with films such as “César et Cléopâtre“ by Gabriel Pascal (1945) and “Samson et Dalilah“ by Cecile B. De Mille (1949), to develop in the 1950s as a cinematic phenomenon of great popularity. Ignored by critics as a particular genre, it was listed for the first time in the early 1960s by a group of French film critics, at the instigation of Bertrand Tavernier, under the name “Péplums“. It was then essentially films based on facts, real or legendary, relating to Greek, Roman or Mesopotamian antiquities.

Laurent Aknin remarkably defined them as follows: “Singular expression that the “peplum”! Latin term originally designating a Roman tunic, then passing into the language of the cinephile of the 1960s in France, to form “film in peplum”, quickly abbreviated to Simply “peplum”, it now designates an absolutely protean set of films. Very often synonymous with kitsh or pasteboard, it evokes both Hollywood blockbusters and the most implausible bis cinema. Through it, there are dozens of archetypal images that immediately come to mind: mad emperors, Christians thrown to lions, femme fatales and evanescent young virgins, bodybuilders and gladiators, crucifixions, Atlantis and Rome of decadence, crossing the Red Sea and building the pyramids. Everything jostles in a disorder that is all the more inextricable in that historical truth is and never has been the goal or the ambition of these films. e we admit that the peplum is a film concerning any period of Antiquity, is to determine the beginning and especially the end of this one… But in the end, what does it matter, since the aesthetics of the films ultimately counts more than their treatment of history!” (“Peplum”, Laurent Aknin, Albin Michel).

The peak of this genre was reached in the 1950s with cult films such as “Ben Hur“ by William Wyler (1959) or “Spartacus“ by Stanley Kubrick (1960).

At the time, the relative contempt of film critics and historians for this cinematographic genre was not due to the rejection of the popular dimension of this type of film, but rather to a certain opposition to the artistic claim that animates them. This genre, which quickly became very popular, has also and above all become a kind of cultural fund of the West. Antiquity and the biblical world are thus magnified, even with the apparent risk of disguising it. Despite this, it has in fact become the preferred cinematographic mode for expressing the social tensions that shake Western societies.

It’s magical cinema, mainly based on the image of the spectacular. Don’t stop your chariot, Ben-Hur! In any case, the opinions of critics and cinephiles on the cinematographic adaptations of works or ancient facts, real or legendary, have always been divergent. But, the show remains well followed and appreciated until today. And apparently “People hold on to their martyred ancestors. It is the only aristocracy that is never challenged to them“, as Amélie Nothomb so aptly put it.

In a practical way, we can list and classify the peplums according to their historical or legendary themes and the places of their actions. We can distinguish as follows:

  • Films related to the Old Testament, such as “The Ten Commandments” by Cécile B. De Mille 81956), “David and Goliath” by Ferdinando Baldi (1960) or “Sodom and Gomorrah” by Robert Aldrich (1962) …

  • Films about Mesopotamia, such as “Semiramis, Slave and Queen“ by Carlo Ludivico Bragaglia (1954), “The Prodigal Son“ by Richard Thorpe (19559, “The Sacrifice of the Slave Girls“ by Gordon Scott (1962)…

  • Films about Egypt, such as “Sinuhé the Egyptian“ by Michael Curtis (1954), “Cleopatra“ by Joseph L. Mankiewwicz (1963), “Antony and Cleopatra“ by Charlton Heston (1972)…

  • Films on Greek mythology, such as “Ulysses” by Mario Comencini (1954), “Medea” by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969), “Alexander the Great” by Robert Rossen (1956), “Clash of the Titans” by Desmond Davis (nineteen eighty one)…

  • Films about Troy, such as “Helen of Troy” by Robert Wise (1956), “The Trojan War” by Giorgio Ferrori (1961), “Romulus and Remus” by Sergio Corbucci (1961), “The Wrath of Achilles “ by Marino Girolami (1962)…

  • Films on the History of Rome, such as “Attila King of the Huns” by Douglas Sirk (1954), “Julius Cesar the Conqueror of the Gauls” by Tanio Boccia (1962), “The Revolt of the Gladiators” by Vittorio Cottafavi (1964 ), “The Barbarian Invasion“ by Robert Siodmak (1969), “The Death of Cesar“ by Stuart Burge (1970), “Scipion the African“ by Luigi Magni“ (1971)…

  • Without forgetting that more recently, from the 2000s, there has been a renewal of the genre with new adaptations, such as “Gladiator“ by Ridley Scott (2000), “Troy“ by Wolfgang Petersen (2004), “La passion du Christ“ by Mel Gibson (2004), “Agora“ by Alejandro Amenabar (2009), Pompei“ by Paul WS Anderson“ (2014), “Exodus: Gods & Kings“ by Ridley Scott (2014), “Ben Hur“ by Timur Bekmambetov (2016)…

And the pleasure of the cinematic spectacle of the genre continues.

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