Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the flamboyant omnisexual alien transvestite villain of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, introduced himself to audiences with a song, “Sweet Transvestite,” which entreated the film’s hero and heroine to hang out at his castle and while away the time with him and his revelers. “If you want something visual,” he sings, “that’s not too abysmal, we can take in an old Steve Reeves movie.”
Steve Reeves (1926 – 2000), to explain it to younger readers, was an American bodybuilder who is perhaps best known for playing the title demigod in a pair of Italian productions, 1957’s Hercules and 1959’s Hercules Unchained, the first two in a long, long series of Hercules movies to come out of Italy at the time. Reeves is often cited as cinema’s best Hercules, very much the same way Sean Connery is considered the best James Bond; he simply defined the role. Other bohunkular beefcakes eventually took Reeves’ place as Hercules, none of which were as well-regarded, but every one notable in their own right. The New Beverly will be showing the fifth and sixth films in the Hercules series – Hercules and the Captive Women and Hercules in the Haunted World, both from 1961 – on Sunday and Monday, January 15th and 16th. Those films both feature Reg Park as Hercules. A bit of trivia for you: the two films were edited together in 1965 and released as Hercules the Avenger.
But even the long, long series of Hercules films (that starred Reeves, Park, Alan Steel, Rock Stevens, Mike Lane, Dan Vadis, Mark Forest and Mickey Hargitay, Mariska’s father) are but a drop in the bucket of Italian sword-and-sandal films to come out of the country in the 1960s. In addition to Hercules, there was also a long series of films featuring the beefy strong man Maciste, many with Ursus, and a pile featuring better-known Biblical figures like Samson and Goliath. Many of the dubbed films you’ve encountered to feature Hercules or Samson, just to confuse matters, often began their lives as Maciste movies, only to be re-dubbed and re-titled in America; Maciste is not as marketable in America, being an Italian figure. Collectively, these sword-and-sandal films are referred to by deep-cut film buffs as peplum films.
So why is Dr. Frank-N-Furter talking about Steve Reeves? Well, one look at Steve Reeves makes it obvious: Steve Reeves was a stud. He was a body builder, usually dressed in scanty leather outfits, sported an ultra-masculine beard and was often depicted lifting heavy things, sweating, straining and fighting alongside a team of equally beefy men. Steve Reeves, although heterosexual himself, was greatly admired by gay and bisexual men the world over for his physique, and it’s no surprise that, to this day, Reeves is considered a gay icon.
When The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975, the only places to see Steve Reeves or other peplum movies were local theaters, second-run houses and grindhouses. 1975 was also the year of Jaws and it was still a time when feature films weren’t released nationwide. That means the glory days of exploitation films were still riding high. The Midnight Movie phenomenon was surging, and cult “fringe” audiences were able to get their hands on theatrically-released exploitation fare with relative ease. It’s this era that the New Beverly often recaptures most vividly.
That “fringe” often included a gay audience. Gay people, in case it needs iterating, weren’t often a sought after demographic in the 1960s, and films that directly reflected the gay experience were very few and very far between. It wasn’t a complete desert in terms of gay content – there were still plenty of gay people working on films – but the filmmakers had to be subtle about the way they depicted things. Watch The Maltese Falcon sometime, and you’ll see that Peter Lorre was meant to be read as gay, even if the script wasn’t allowed to say so under the auspices of the Hays Code.
Gay audiences became very good about reading the “code,” as it were. Since so little filmmaking was devoted to gay audiences (Kenneth Anger, et al, notwithstanding), it became something of a cultural game to slip gay references into mainstream movies. This game of “spot the gay reference” was played for many, many decades and it wouldn’t be until the 1970s when homosexual characters began appearing in (American) films in earnest. Until then, gay audiences had to look elsewhere for gay icons. And Steve Reeves sure fit the bill.
The Hercules films were giant hits back in the 1960s and played particularly well in grindhouses. They made their way into the public domain and were in heavy rotation on late-night TV slots. These films, while not necessarily touted as great cinema, were still widely seen and openly accepted. And while they were not made to be coded as gay, their gay subtext was read practically as text. Here was an audience, looking for gay coding in films, presented with a greasy hunk, half nude Greek, fighting with other hunky men, and presented as a sexual dynamo… it’s easy to see why Dr. Frank-N-Furter would know about this guy.
Hercules himself – according to the old stories – had both male and female lovers. Look up Hylas sometime. Indeed, there was a mild scandal with Marvel Comics recently when they announced that their Hercules character was now straight. It’s no secret that Greek men typically held young boys to be their sexual companions, while wives were seen more as homemakers and companions. Gay audiences knew this and many mainstream white audiences may have even known this, too, albeit in the back of their minds. And while the Steve Reeves peplum films never showed him canoodling with other men – no kissing or sex – and Hercules was depicted as being irresistible to women, the gay coding was far too strong to ignore.
Indeed, the gay coding of peplum films has become so strong since the 1960s that modern audiences can barely read them any other way. That way of reading sword-and-sandal fantasy epics all started with Hercules. Hercules, as such, has become a fetish object. A fantasy for gay men. A “type.” If you’ve ever heard someone talk about how they’re attracted to “muscle daddies,” you need look no further than Hercules for the archetype.
The original Italian filmmakers may not have been savvy to what they were doing. Watching any old peplum films reveals – merely – a bunch of cheaply-made, awesome-looking adventure films with amazing visuals, weird special effects, ineffable stories and no small amounts of non-threatening bonkers monsters (have you seen Hercules Against the Moon Men? Which was actually a Maciste film?). These films were made quickly and at an incredibly high volume, so the filmmakers were likely not stopping to examine who was watching their films or why. They just wanted cheap genre product they could sell to the widest possible audience. Biblical epics were “in” at the time, and this seemed like a good way to make money. The makers of Hercules were likely not gay themselves but were unwittingly providing a service to gay audiences.
So the next time you see a peplum film, and it looks a little gay to you, know that you are experiencing a decades-long legacy of cultural coding that has been part of the conversation since your grandparents were watching movies. These greasy studs were indeed viewed as attractive gay icons, even if they weren’t originally meant to be. Their masculinity began to speak to the strength of the gay man, and these characters, while highly fetishized, stood as proof that gay audiences were longing for representation. These goofy flicks with rubber monsters, cheap effects, and bad dubbing were, in their own right, culturally relevant milestones.
Let’s enjoy them together. Watch them with someone you love.