Book Reviews

Book jacket, featuring poster for Hercule et la Reine de Lydie
(Hercules and the Queen of Lydia), Steve Reeves' second film.

David Chapman.  Retro Stud: Muscle Movie Posters from Around the World.  Portland: Collectors Press, 2002.  []  $16.95, 128 pages. Hardcover.  ISBN: 1888054697. 

David Chapman, renowned historian of bodybuilding, offers a treasure trove of movie posters in Retro Stud.  Calling the posters an ad man's depiction of a "hyper-masculine fantasy world," the author treats these badly dubbed films as a mass-audience alternative to the subtitled fare art house audiences flocked to in the early '60s.  While a lot about the films appears in the book, its subject is the posters themselves.  For its length, it's hard to imagine a more thorough coverage of the subject -- with dozens of posters, lobby cards, film stills, set photos, and workout shots spread across the book's pages

Samson and the Slave Queen, 1963

Chapman notes the variant names used for these films: the gladiator film, taken from the "gladius," or short sword the gladiator wields as a weapon; the sword and sandal epic; the muscle or muscleman movie; and the one he prefers, the "peplum film," first used by French critics of the '70s, who took the term from "peplus," or short pleated skirt worn by the films' heroes.  Chapman defines "peplum film" as "any movie set in ancient times featuring a muscular, scantily-clad hero."  The costuming of the hero varies; one shoulder may be exposed by his outfit, and he often goes shirtless.  Names for the hero recur with numbing frequency -- Goliath, Ursus, Samson, Hercules, Maciste -- as do the predictable plots.


"The Hellhounds of Genghis Kahn"


Goliath Against the Giants, British poster

The book has several background chapters before turning to the peplum posters of specific nations.  Chapman starts with the "pre-peplum era" (anything before Steve Reeves' Hercules, imported to America in 1959).  Trends from silent films to Biblical epics like Samson and Delilah (1949) indicate a genre under formation.  Text dominates this part of the book, with Chapman's acerbic take on the film reviewers who usually panned the movies ("Muscleman saves kingdom but not film"), and the promise of sex and violence the films never quite delivered.  Typical is Gordon Scott's Goliath and the Vampires (1961), whose poster uses this overheated copy: "SEE: the revolt of the faceless humanoids!  SEE: the torture chamber of the blue men!  SEE: the virgin-harem of the vampire god!" 

Goliath and the Vampires, 1961

National coverage begins with three long chapters for the United States, France, and Italy (all the films were originally produced in Italy).  Briefer chapters follow for Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey.  The national chapters are basically pictures with captions.  For each country, the author notes the size and formats of the posters used (one-sheet, half sheet, etc.), with dimensions given in inches.  The various nations' posters differed in interesting ways; note the depictions of Alan Steel in posters for Samson Contre Tous and Samson Denizler Arslani (where he looks remarkably like GŁnter Schlierkamp).

"Samson, Lion of the Seas"


"Samson vs. All"

It's simplistic to assume the posters' (and films') appeal is merely licentious. Granted, peplum posters pose alluring temptresses and disrobed heroes in provocative positions, leaving little to the imagination.  Still, some of the films' settings exude a mythic appeal, and the films were popular.  After the success of the first Hercules import, Chapman notes, Italian studios turned out two hundred more like it from 1959 to 1965, "some (but not all) set in a vaguely Greco-Roman past."  At times specific myths were reworked, as when Steve Reeves played Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome.

From "The Legend of Aeneas" Italian poster.

Some films were athletic adventure tales, like Morgan the Pirate (1961), while others used dark fantasy in interesting ways.  In Reg Park's Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), for instance, a descent into the underworld carries the plot

Reg Park

Chapman loves these films.  He argues for their value and importance, suggesting they publicized the cult of the bodybuilder, making it more fashionable for men to look like one.  Certainly Hollywood took the films to heart.  In 1968, Charlton Heston bounded through Planet of the Apes in less than peplum heroes wore.  The posters for these films represent pop culture at its best -- or worst, depending on your perspective.  Perusing this book, it's clear to me where commercial artists like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo got their inspiration.  Even today, forty years after the vogue of this film genre, some youngsters get their first view of live bodybuilders in movies like these.

"Goliath and Hercules"

A final take on the book itself.  The color is excellent, the printing good, the price low for a hardback of its quality.  The page of notes at the end shows Chapman researched the films, but the book is not scholarly -- it's a fun read.  The only drawback is that it isn't big enough to provide a framable copy of the posters.  Many are small, with cropped pictures.  Perhaps another publisher will offer a large-format book giving the posters the size they deserve.

Mike Emery
December 2003