August 05, 2006

THE BIRTH OF MACISTE AND THE ITALIAN FEATURE FILM REVOLUTION – AN ARTICLE

THE BIRTH OF MACISTE AND THE ITALIAN FEATURE FILM REVOLUTION

– AN ARTICLE

(Stills from 'Maciste all'Inferno' , Cabiria ,Hercules and Hercules in the Haunted World)

This is my last reportage for a while. Work wise I need to focus 100%, hence an age since my last review.

So I am also going to change the Blog look too as we venture into a monumental time in the history of film.

We begin the tale with the birth of ‘peplum’ and focus on ‘Maciste’ or, Hercules as he was eventually exported.

There is some way to go and a lot of viewing time needed to cover the 1957-1964 ‘reign’ of sword and sandal Italian epics. These will kick off the new look teapot as this is the last of the style we have grown fond of.

We will review the adventures of Maciste from selected silents through to turning point talkies of sword and sandal folklore, as we follow the birth and rise of this genre.

Due to underexposure this will be something of a revelation to the British who have fared badly with material readily available in this country.

Mario Bava had a go at them, Fellini was inspired by them and D.W Griffith paid homage to them (well Cabirias’ an absolute certainty) – such is an important, but little known, chapter in cinematography.

Not all were epics but the peplum (a name given to these style of movies that featured such a tunic and due to the garments simplicity were also very inexpensive to make) momentum never seems to vanquish completely, it comes back in various guises and forms but beneath it all seems to be a formula as staple as a giallo format for sword and sandal visual ballads of fable.

To begin at the beginning…..

Sidney Olcott was the first to venture into peplum territory with ‘Ben Hur’ in 1907 but was a scant 15 minutes so was far from the lavish feature film it later became. Despite this, there really were no other peplum examples apparent. We must move from the USA to Italy for the true zeitgeist of this sort of movie.

In contrast to the self-made moguls of American studios, Italian production companies were headed by the cultivated members of the aristocracy, who made films based on historical, biblical or mythological subjects in keeping with the literary and dramatic tradition of grand opera

The first important influence was Italians’ first tableaux-style film ‘L’inferno’ in 1911 which dreamily revealed Dante and Virgil’s experiences on their journey through hell.


This format was the basis used for an emergence of epics in Italian cinemas earliest days. Due to the Italians’ imperialist victory in the Libyan war (1911-1912) and further inspiration from grand opera these caused a catalyst of epic ‘firsts’ with breathtaking cinematography and jaw dropping sets that seem impossible for the time.
Italy also housed plenty of Roman Antiquities that were inspirational in their own merit.

The imagination didn’t have to stretch too far when it came to the creation of such sets of unbelieveable magnitude. Only what one has ever thought and dreamed became an opulent reality seemingly commanding respect as well as enjoyment from the audience.

One is wowed by the early effects whilst maintaining the utmost reverence for design and craftsmanship apparent.

The early era brought the Italian cinemagoer visual feats as ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (1913), Quo Vadis (1912) and in 1914 this successful tradition brought a cinematic first ‘Cabiria’. This was the first time that the action seen broke away from tableaux style representation and became a live animate adventure.


Loosely based on Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Salammbo’ Cabiria was also the very first feature film running an admirable 123 minutes, practically unheard of.

Cabiria concerned the adventures of the titular heroine who is separated from her parents at the time of the Punic wars in the 3rd Century B.C.A.E (Before Christ Allegedly Existed). There is a spectacular explosion of Mount Etna that results in Cabirias abduction by pirates in the confusion. There she is taken and sold at Carthage as a slave and sacrificial fodder for the ancient god Moloch.

She is saved by Fulvio Axilla, a ‘rascal’ nobleman and his giant companion/slave Maciste.

The film starts a journey of visual treat where costume and set design have meticulously been detailed. Cabiria begins her odyssey with Mount Etna, witnesses the savage splendour of a barbaric Carthage, dodges human sacrifice and even witnesses Hannibal crossing the Alps, amongst other things!

Cabiria was filmed by Giovanni Pastrone in North Africa, Sicily and the Italian Alps and is truly a spectacular event in plot and in style.


The movie was also the first to be shown on White House grounds and when reached stateside inspired D.W Griffith ‘Babylon’ sequence in ‘Intolerance’ (1916), which at the time of Cabiria was under production known by a completely different working title ‘The Mother and the Law’.

From this film there was one character overall; that staid in the Italian publics imagination, that was Maciste played by Bartolomeo Pagano.


During the years 1915 to 1926 Pagano reprised his role in 25 movies spanning 11 years. The unusual element this time was that Maciste could seemingly enter any moment in history. This ensured Maciste was utilised as supreme propaganda for the First World War and in one of his films is a WW1 soldier.

His agenda was simple and that was too right wrongs and ensuring good always over bad, on regular instances in the ‘silent’ Maciste movies, the ‘bad’ element was usually represented by corrupt aristocratic or state figures. Art imitating life?

The series of Maciste films were constantly popular with the public and Macistes’ swansong ‘Maciste all’ Inferno’ (Maciste in Hell) is probably the best example of Paganos’ successes.

When Federico Fellini was a child he saw Maciste all’Inferno and was so enamoured and inspired by what he saw made the decision to become a director and the rest, as they say, is history

Maciste faded during the 30’s and 40’s but resurfaced again in the 1950’s. The ‘Maciste all’Inferno’ print was re-edited and re-scored and began stirring an interest in sword and sandal epics. Stateside ‘The Ten Commandments (1956)’ brought biblical epics and Christian mythology in vogue.


In 1958, the Italian film industry looked back at their pioneering triumphs and a hero was finally resurrected and it wasn’t before long he was back into the Italian nations hearts and due to wise, if not confusingly re-titled, national distribution the Hercules ‘format’ proved a lucrative venture.


Maciste had returned lifting fables off the page leaves and bringing them to Technicolor life on the big screen - a new chapter for Maciste had begun ………………….. (To Be Continued)

The 1914-1926 outings of Maciste were;

Cabiria (1914)

Maciste (1915)

Maciste il Fuoco (Maciste: The Fire) (1915)

Maciste Alpino (Maciste in the Alpine Regiment) (1916)

Maciste bersagliere (1916)

Maciste poliziotto (Maciste the Policeman) (1917)

Maciste medium (Maciste the Medium) (1917)

Maciste sonnambulo (Dreams of Maciste) (1918)

Maciste Atleta (Maciste: The Athlete) (1918)

Maciste contra la Morte (Maciste against Death) (1919)

Maciste I (1919)

Maciste salvato dalle acque (Maciste saves from the Waters) (1920)

1919/1920 produced a Maciste trilogy;

Maciste Innamorato (Maciste in Love) (1919)

Il Vaggio di Maciste (Macistes’ Journey) (1920)

Il testamento di Maciste (Macistes’ Testament)(1920)

Maciste in Vacanza (Maciste on Holiday) (1921)

Rivincita di Maciste, La (1921)

Maciste e la figlia del re della Plata (Maciste and the Daughter of the King of Plata) (1922)

Maciste und die Japanerin (Maciste and the Japanese) (1922)

Maciste contra Maciste (Maciste against Maciste)(1923)

Maciste und die chinesische Truhe (Maciste and the Chinese Chest) (1923)

Maciste Emperatore (Maciste the Emperor) (1924)

Maciste e il nipote d’America (Maciste and the Nephew from America) (1924)

Maciste contro lo sceicco (Maciste in Africa) (1925)

Maciste nella gabbia dei leoni (Maciste in the Cage of the Lions) (1926)

Maciste all’Inferno (Maciste in Hell) (1926)


FORTHCOMING TREATS:

Sword and Sandal Reviews including the rare Maciste all’Inferno, also we look at Italians cinemas first L’Inferno, Cabiria and a whole host of 50’s / 60’s beefcake delight.

The sleaze won’t stop either there’s some true gruelling stuff in fantasy land that need the celluloid teapots exposure. The Maciste section will last for a while but will be broken by different reviews to keep the electicness at giddying heights. It won’t be long, all the best.

James x