The Out Take: 'Hercules' and the Rise of the Gay Blockbuster

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The Out Take is a bi-weekly column on queer representations in film. It runs on alternating Thursdays. 

Sword and sandal movies have always been a bit gay.

Ok, I’ll rephrase that. There’s something undeniably homoerotic about the very concept of the sword and sandal flick. It was true back when they were called “peplum” movies (a word for tunic), and it’s absolutely true today. From 1958’s “Hercules” with Steve Reeves to the new “The Legend of Hercules” starring Kellan Lutz, and everything in between, the genre lives and breathes through the muscled bodies of often scantily-clad actors. We’re in the midst of a Renaissance of sorts, actually. Zack Snyder’s entirely ridiculous “300” was a sensation in 2007, and since then we’ve gotten such diverse entertainments as Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals” and TV’s “Spartacus.” And now, in 2014, we’re anticipating “The Legend of Hercules,” the Rock’s “Hercules,” “Pompeii” and “300: Rise of an Empire.”

As far as the eye can see, giant shouting men in elaborate loincloths.

The old wave of peplum movies, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was an entirely unintentional gay phenomenon. These absurdly successful action movies, made primarily by Italian studios, became cult hits among a very particular and then-ignored segment of the audience. None of the original “Hercules” series presented an eroticized protagonist as such, but they were eroticized anyway by the gay community that took them in, a community that at that time was still very much a closeted and abused minority in the United States. The peplum boom was set off by the success of the 1958 “Hercules,” just over a decade before the Stonewall Rebellion.

None of the old peplum films embrace the potential of their protagonists to be sexual objects. They weren’t made for women, certainly, and they very evidently were not shot with the male homosexual gaze in mind either.

Things are different now. Not that major releases are ever made with gay people specifically in mind as a target audience, but the wider culture has accepted the fact that gay people exist. Not that the dominance of the straight male gaze is gone, but the existence of both gay male and female desire is recognized by movies. So, here’s the question: while the old peplum films accidentally stumbled into gay desire, is it possible that the new batch of bigger-budget Hollywood sword and sandal movies are inviting it?

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Believe it or not, it’s has a lot to do with special effects. The body of Hercules (or Samson, or Maciste, or Goliath or whoever) was the primary visual draw of the Italian peplum flick, the source of the action. Look no further than my personal favorite anachronistic mess, 1963’s “Hercules and the Masked Rider.” The film is set in Spain in the 16th century, because why not? Hercules is a blonde, hulking gypsy played by Alan Steel, but the plot is mostly about Don Juan (the almost-as-beefy Mimmo Palmara). Actually, Hercules has very little to do except act as Don Juan’s support, showing up to throw things around and flex for the camera. Alan Steel, as Hercules, plays the role of the special effects in an action movie about someone else.

There are plenty of movies in which Hercules is more central to the plot, but the aesthetics are the same. The camera is obsessed with the size and shape of the muscleman, and the way that he moves, but it’s done without even a hint of self-awareness. In “The Fury of Hercules” (1962), Brad Harris as Hercules actually shows up to every fight scene with an extra layer of body oil. This is even true of the Steve Reeves films, including the 1958 original. His muscles upstage the actual special effects, not least of which is an enormous makeshift dragon that falls over after a very short fight with the young Jason.

The legacy of these old films is therefore one of giddy, innocent obsession with the male form. It’s almost reminiscent of professional wrestling, another muscle-obsessed cultural form that often chooses to ignore the erotic potential of its grease and its tight brightly-colored briefs. And professional wrestling is still around, loudly. Have things changed that much?

Looking over the last decade, the evidence is mixed. “Troy” was absolutely complicit in the erotic presentation of its main characters. It features Brad Pitt’s body, often resting rather than fighting, and occasionally mostly-naked in a tent of furs. That’s to say nothing of the rest of the cast. It’s a shame the movie was so terrible.

However, the influence of Zack Snyder’s “300” changes things a bit. Not content to simply use the exaggerated masculinity of the bodybuilder physique as a special effect, special effects are used on the male form. The result is a group of Spartans that physically overwhelm, a feverish fantasy of masculinity. The costumes reveal far more skin than almost anything in an old Hercules movie, and Snyder tosses in a few moments of actual nudity just to make sure you’ve noticed it. In a sense, “300”is a perfect example of a modern sword and sandal film that both maintains the action potential of the excessively built male form and incorporates a consciousness of its erotic value.

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Then again, the Snyder’s epic of weird violence also has some other ideas. It’s equally interested in the grotesque, opposing the engineered Adonises of Sparta with an army of increasingly horrific Persians. When Ephialtes, made repulsive by the film with palpable glee, finally enters the Persian royal tent to betray the Spartans, he is met by a sickly orgy that seems to identify transgressive sexual and gender ideas with everything disgusting about Persia. This is opposed to a Spartan gender binary of enraged male musculature and a lonely Lena Headey to stand in for everything feminine about the world.

One assumes that the sequel will be akin to that. But what about the rest of the overabundance of peplum this year? This week we get the new “Hercules” after all, a movie which seems destined to fall somewhere in the middle. The trailer hints at elements of the “300” style, exaggerated fighting mechanics to complement the exaggerated physical presence of Kellan Lutz. But this is also going to be a love story, and one built around a man from the “Twilight” stable of beefcakes. Lutz has already been the erotic object in films directed at a primary female audience, and one can only assume that his casting was at least informed by that. The media is obsessed with his workout routine, but what exactly does that imply?

At the end of the day does this mean anything? Would it be a victory if major studio action films more explicitly began marketing themselves to gay men? I suppose it’d be nice, but I’m hardly going to start campaigning for more shirtless Lutz as a civil rights issue.

At the same time, there is an important conversation to be had around male nudity in popular culture. In many places it’s taboo, too much of an acknowledgement that the male body can be just as erotically appropriated as the female. Interestingly, the safest places for male nudity on screen appear to be comedies of ridicule and the supposedly hyper-masculine worlds of the sword and sandal flick, wrestling, etc. Yet that’s a blissful ignorance, one which falls apart the moment you notice how much gay men loved those Steve Reeves movies. And if a film is conscious of that, I’d like to think that would make it more interesting to watch.

Related: This! Is! (Still!) Sparta! How "300" Lowered the Bar for Sword & Sandal Movies