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Sword and sandal

So, do you like movies about gladiators?
— Peter Graves, in Airplane (1980)

Sword and sandal films are a cinematic genre of fantasy films that have subjects set in Biblical or classical antiquity, with contrived plots based very loosely on mythology or history. Broadly considered, this could compass such diverse films as Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, Titus, or The Ten Commandments. In this sense, it is one of the oldest movie genres; the original Ben-Hur was made by Sidney Olcott in 1907; the 1914 silent film Cabiria was important in the development of the art of cinematography. Another name for the genre is peplum, from a Latin word for a sort of tunic, easy to make, and favoured by the costume departments for these films.

More specifically, however, it usually refers to a low-budget Italian movie on a gladiatorial or mythological subject; for the genre occupied much of the less pretentious segment of Italy's movie industry before the invention of the spaghetti western. Gladiators were perennial favourite subjects, as were the adventures of Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, or the more recent legendary strongman Machiste. The fad begun with the 1959 release of Hercules, starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves; this spawned a 1960 sequel, Hercules Unchained, and literally dozens of low-budget imitations starring other bodybuilder stars like Reg Park or Alan Steele.

The absurd plots, out of synch dialogue, wooden acting of the muscleman heroes, and pitifully primitive special effects that were utterly inadequate to depict the legendary creatures on-screen, all conspired to give these films a certain camp appeal. This, and the beefcake factor made the films' unintended humour notorious in the gay community. Several have been subjects of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. A movie series and syndicated television show called The Sons of Hercules was made from a number of different films; this ran in the 1970s.

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