• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, April 09, 2018

    Book Review - The New Peplum:
    Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s

    The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s
    Edited by Nicholas Diak

    McFarland (2018)
    234 pages
    ISBN 978-1476667621

    The re-emergence of the historical epic in the mid-1990s was something of a surprise. I sometimes wonder if the indignation of those who failed to see it coming have lead to the now resurgent genre being largely overlooked in academic film studies. And that's even before the fact that some of the genre's best loved recent hits were made not for film, but (gasp), television, is taken into account. There are, of course, a good number of books on silent and classic peplum, some of which even cover the occasional 21st century work, but aside from the odd book on biblical films, or associated with specific movies, the newly emergent sword and sandal films are still very much in the desert.

    Thankfully a new book, "The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s", edited by Nicholas Diak has stepped in to fill the gap. Tackling movies such as 300, Gladiator and Hercules and TV shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess, Spartacus and Vikings, the fourteen authors combine to give a good general overview of the neo-peplum, covering both a good range of the genre's key recent works and a wide variety of approaches to discussing them.

    After a foreword by David R Coon, Diak gives an introduction to the collection as a whole. He starts by searching for the best term to use to describe the works explored in the book, before deciding that "much as the term neo-noir came into currency to establish its own identity...the term neo-peplum is the most appropriate verbiage to categorize peplum films made after 1990" (5-6). He then goes on to highlight the five factors that are so distinctive of these later pepla "the advent of pepla on television; rapidly improving technology and filming techniques; trans-media storytelling in other forms such as comics, video games and music; the establishment of fan culture and communities; and the fluidity and adaptability of what constitutes a neo-peplum film" (6). He expands on each of these in turn before concluding that whilst filmmakers have failed "to recreate the success of Gladiator and 300...the proliferation of new neo-pepla on television, or that neo-peplum elements continue to be incorporated into other film genres" (such as superhero films) suggests the genre has an ongoing importance (14). The introduction ends with a brief introduction to the essays that are to follow.

    The book is divided into four sections, the first of which "Crossing the Rubicon" looks at "Expanding the Neo-Peplum Boundaries". Paul Johnson gets things moving with "Adapting to New Spaces: Swords and Planets and the Neo-Peplum". In it Johnson examines three recent science fiction films, Tron Legacy (2010), John Carter (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015) which retain elements of the neo-pepla but which also "'de(re)compose' into new forms" (23). In particular he looks at the way the films loosely adapt classic myths such as Oedipus and The Odyssey; utilise elements of action and melodrama; echo the locations of classic peplum films; feature overdubbing; and retain in modified form the emphasis on the male body. "The key to their basis and success is adaptation, appropriation, and an ability to recombine, adjust and mutate the paradigm" (39). In so doing they "highlight an adapted continuance of the genre" (40). There's mention of the sword, sandals and monsters group of films within classic genre, but this could have been expanded more. Discussing John Carter's Tharks without mentioning Ray Harryhausen seems like a bit of a flaw to an otherwise solid opening.

    Not dissimilarly, it's a little surprising that Francisci's seminal Hercules (1958) receives only a brief mention in Djoymi Baker's "Hercules: Transmedia Superhero Mythology" which examines Brett Ratner's 2014 film of the same name, but in some ways that is her point. Rather than being the preserve of a single authoritative source Baker argues that it is precisely the "way that contemporary culture refashions the myth that keeps it alive" (45). In this specific case the film and its "paratexts" (44), of which Baker gives fascinating examples, emphasise the film's link with this era's most popular genre, the superhero movie. Baker also uses a neat parallel from Singin' in the Rain (1952) to highlight how the film starts by demythologizing, but then "arcs around" to return "to the myths and filmic tradition that the film originally dismisses as nonsense" (52) and how the paratexts play their part in both demythologizing and remythologizing.

    The third essay in this collection is Kevin M. Flanagan's "From Crowds to Swarms: Movement and Bodies in Neo-Peplum Films. Flanagan focuses on the role of crowds in peplum films which he considers to be "bread and butter to the genre, often underscoring the most lavish and narrative-punctuating moments in these films" (63). Yet crucially Flanagan notes that more recent films "are less interested in revising the narrative or ideological terrain of earlier films...and more concerned with pioneering new forms of bodily representation...many of these recent films invest less importance in crowd scenes of the old sort' and instead imagine mass bodies as swarms" (64). Having looked at the work of Elias Canetti and others on crowds, particularly in the ancient world and in cinema, he moves on to examine films such as 300 (2006), Gladiator (2000), Wrath of the Titans (2012) and Immortals (2011). Ultimately he finds the new technology used to create crowd scenes in neo-pepla makes them seem more malign and"echoes audience fears about new modes of warfare and protest" (75).

    Section 2, which focuses on "the barriers, challenges and liberties involved when realizing old worlds as new" (15), opens with Steve Nash's "The Are No Boundaries for Our Boats: Vikings and the Westernization of the Norse Saga". Being less familiar with the sagas, songs, Skaldic verse and Eddas of the Viking world, I appreciated Nash's detailed overview of the fluid material which he argues "is characterized by one key trait: a rejection of centrality (85). This is markedly different from the more-connected biblical material and indeed the "authoritarian structures that guide traditional Western narrative practice" (80), which Nash describes as "rhizomatic" which he argues reflects the way the Vikings themselves were "obsessively preoccupied  with a rejection of fixed narratives or boundaries". It would have been nice to see a little more space given to an analysis of the Vikings (2013-present) series, however.

    Nick Poulakis' "Sounds of Swords and Sandals: Music in Neo-Peplum BBC Television Docudramas" is hampered somewhat by the author's view of television as "unsophisticated" (98) and him seemingly polarising what I would argue is spectrum of truthfulness between documentary and drama.1 Nevertheless, he makes some interesting observations about the way that music for neo-peplum docudramas often "yearns for the 'archaic,' the 'natural' and the 'exotic,' while embodying issues of postmodern nostalgia, ideological aestheticization, eclectic innovation and post-capitalist consumption" (101), resulting in a "neocolonial (aural) discourse [which] is dominant for BBC Television docudramas" (104).

    Sticking with television, Valerie Estelle Frankel tackles two of neo-pepla's best known shows in "Hercules, Xena and Genre: The Methodology Behind the Mashup". Frankel explores the ways in which the two shows subvert and "co-opt the ancient myths...while re-imagining them" (130), rather than being "bound by the constraints of history or traditional myth" (116). Frankel enthusiastically highlights the playful nature of the two series as well as the way both series bend the stories which they toy with towards "modern sensibilities" (130). Hercules does this by "recasting its heroes as figures of the nineties" (118) most notably its "truly sensitive Hercules who cries and listens to women" (116); Xena presented a feminist vision of history "in which women can be anything they wish" (115), as well as taking "a major step for gay rights" (124). I've only ever seen snippets of Xena, but Frankel has persuaded me I ought to see more.2

    The book's third section - which looks at "The Glories of Rome" - opens with two chapters looking at the Starz TV network's series Spartacus. Hannah Mueller gives a detailed analysis of the series' "representation of emotion, violence and sex" in "Male Nudity, Violence and the Disruption of Voyeuristic Pleasure" (136), noting how its "camera does not significantly distinguish between male and female bodies" (138), rather what matters is how "control over the gaze mirrors the imbalance of power" (138). Like Mueller, Jerry B. Pierce ("Sex Lies and Denarii") discuss at length the shows portrayal of sex, violence and "moral depravity" (159). He notes the way the series contrasts the "duplicitous, crassly exploitative, and morally flawed" Romans (169), with the "reliable, trustworthy and altruistic" slaves (170), noting that whilst in general the series repeats the "expected tropes of ancient Rome...of corruption, exploitation, and immorality" (174), one key difference is that it "normalizes queer3 relations by divesting them of their previous deviant overtones" (175).

    Staying with Rome, Kevin J. Wetmore moves away from Italy during the time of the republic to Britain during the later years of the empire in "In the Green Zone with the Ninth Legion". The chapter's subtitle - "The Post Iraq Roman Film" nicely sums up its content, which looks three recent films, The Last Legion (2007), Centurion (2010) and The Eagle (2011). Wetmore notes how in contrast to the way the classic epic "present Rome and her soldiers as modeled after Nazis, fascists and/or communists" (178), these later films demonstrate a "reversal of this construction" (179). Whilst the "corrupt ruling class" still remains (181), the heroes of these films are the ordinary soldiers who are presented as "Honorable warriors fighting a save, religiously-driven, inhuman enemy (191). Thus all three films, released after the start of the invasion of Iraq, "align with a construction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" (182), demonstrating "echoes of Iraq" through their reconstruction of Roman Britain (186).

    Part Four, "Sculpted in Marble" looks at the issue of "Gender and Representation". In "Laughing at the Body: The Imitation of Masculinity in Peplum Parody Films", Tatiana Prorokova examines three parodies of the genre, namely Mel Brooks' A History of the World: Part 1 (1981), Meet the Spartans (2008) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). In particular Prorokova focuses on how these films parody the portrayal of masculinity in many neo-pepla finding they take one of two opposite paths. Either they depict the male body as "physically untrained" or with "exaggerated strength and almost unbelievable invulnerability" (205). A particularly welcome focus of the chapter is the manner in which Spartans pushes the genre's idealising of the male body into portraying it as "an absolutely artificial, plastic object" (204).

    The final essay in this volume is Haydee Smith's "Queering the Quest: Neo-Peplum and the Neo-Femme in Xena: Warrior Princess".4 The particular focus here is the show's "elusive lesbian subtexts" and how it "critiques the constructed nature of romantic relationships, expected gender roles, and the aesthetics of culturally coded gender presentations" (208). Smith explores the idea of Xena as a "neo-femme icon" and the strategies of "performing feminine mimicry, disguising oneself with passing privilege, and queerly retelling social stories about hegemonic feminine gender roles" (210). The show never explicitly outs its two female leads and Smith sees this as a strength: "Whether or not the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is lesbian, it is undeniably queer; the queer nature of such a bond offers almost limitless possibilities" (214), and portray "the progressive potential of queer readings (215). Ultimately Smith concludes "Xena's aesthetic, strength, and sexuality defy feminine/masculine demarcations and reconfigure gender roles and regulations" (216).

    Smith's chapter segues nicely into an afterword by one of Xena writers and producers Steven L. Sears. It's an entertaining end to an enjoyable volume which does a great deal towards putting study of the neo-peplum on a more even footing academically with some of the more fashionable genres. Highlights for me were Flanagan's observations on the changing nature of crowd scenes and Frankel's advocacy for Xena, whilst Diak's introduction makes a number of great, general points in a relatively short space of time.

    As ever with these things they can only cover so much. Obviously my personal  preference would have been for a chapter or two on some of the more recent biblical pepla, but that might have upset a very nicely balanced collection of essays which Diak has collated, and that part of the market is already served by several good books whose extensiveness compensates for their broader time frame.

    It was good as well to see at least a reference to Indian peplum (14) which, again, there was not quite room for, but which might get included in future works on the subject should they ever be commissioned. I do hope they will be, because on the evidence of this volume, they deserve to be.

    1 - Whilst this may be true in general, I would argue that Rossellini's historical dramas such as The Rise of Louis XIVth is more sophisticated than the vast majority of offerings at the cinema and more factually accurate than many documentaries. Certainly compared to cinematic documentaries such as Supersize Me or Bowling for Columbine, Rossellini's TV dramas are both better art and less biased.
    2 - In particular the third episode of season 2 - "The Giant Killer" where "Xena sets up the David and Goliath battle by counselling the Israelite hero in the weak spots Goliath is hiding well as human politics (sic.) (126)
    3 - Whilst I recognise that some find the term "queer" to be offensive, many, have sought to redeem, reclaim and refine the term more positively. Recognising that it is a commonly used term in academic film studies, frequently by scholars who identify as LGBT, I have retained it here where it forms part of a direct quotation.
    4 - as note 3 above

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