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TCM Spotlight: Sword and Sandal
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Sword and Sandal - Thursdays in January


"Sword and Sandal" was an affectionate term applied by the film industry to biblical, historical or mythological costume epics that generally had a handsome and well-built action hero doing battle with oppressive and/or evil adversaries. The genre was a Hollywood staple from the days of the original Quo Vadis? (1913) and the adaptation of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), and gained a new popularity during the 1950s and '60s, the period represented in this month's TCM Spotlight.

The 1960s saw the development of a subgenre, the peplum film, which was largely Italian-made and somewhat more modestly produced than the elaborate Hollywood productions. "Peplum" came from the tunic-style Greek and Roman garments worn by characters in the films. These movies often starred an American actor/athlete with a European supporting cast that was dubbed for American screenings. Peplum films were eventually replaced by "Eurospy" movies then "Spaghetti Westerns."

Hollywood's stake in the sword-and-sandal epic moved into a new level with MGM's remake of Quo Vadis (1951), which was priced at $7 million and became the most expensive film in history at the time. Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov star in this story of ancient Rome during the reign of Nero, with Mervyn LeRoy directing.

Another MGM remake, Ben-Hur (1959), was even more elaborate and easily doubled the budget of the Quo Vadis redo (at more than $15 million). This version Ben Hur won a record 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Director (William Wyler) and Actor (Charlton Heston). Director Stanley Kubrick took the Hollywood historical epic into more thoughtful (if still spectacular) territory with Spartacus (1960), starring Kirk Douglas.

Among other Hollywood-produced epics in our tribute are Delmer Daves' Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), starring Victor Mature and Susan Hayward; and Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), starring Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd. The U.S.A., Italy and France joined forces on Helen of Troy (1956), directed by Robert Wise with Rosanna Podesta in the title role. In a more minor league, American exploitation master Roger Corman produced and directed his own "epic," Atlas (1961), starring Michael Forest and filmed in Greece for a tidy $108,000.

Sergio Leone's The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) is an important early entry in the field of the Italian peplum films. The first movie for which Leone is credited as director, it is set during the Hellenistic era and stars American Rory Calhoun as the Greek hero Dario, who becomes involved in plots to overthrow a tyrannical king.

Damon and Pythias (1962) is an Italian/American production directed by Curtis Bernhardt and set in ancient Greece, with Guy Williams and Don Burnett in the title roles. Amazons of Rome (1961), an Italian/French film that credits three different directors, is set in ancient Rome and stars Louis Jourdan as a warrior chieftain and Sylvia Syms as the head of an army of Amazons.

Four of our Italian (or French/Italian) epics are TCM premieres, beginning with The Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete (1960). This one is based on the Greek myth and Athenian hero, king Theseus and his legendary battle with a Minotaur-- a being with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. The movie was directed by Silvio Amadio and stars Bob Mathias, an American decathlete and Olympic gold medalist, as Theseus/Prince Teseo.

The other premieres are inspired by the Roman god Hercules and also star an American actor/athlete. The Tyrant of Lydia Against the Son of Hercules (1963), directed by Mario Caiano, stars Gordon Scott as the strong man's son in a struggle against an evil king and his followers. Mark Forest takes on the role of Maciste, a Hercules-like character in the time of Genghis Khan, in Hercules Against the Mongols (1963) and Hercules Against the Barbarians (1964).

Forest also plays Maciste in the non-premiere The Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules (1964). Other Italian "peplums" in our tribute are The Revolt of the Slaves (1960), starring Rhonda Fleming; The Slave (1962), starring Steve Reeves; and Hercules, Sampson & Ulysses (1963), starring Kirk Morris as Hercules.

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