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Reel Life: the joys of movie muscle

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Between 1957 and 1965 over 150 sword-and-sandal movies were unleashed on the American public. But when MGM archivist and gladiator-film buff John Kirk started researching the popular genre, he found very few mentions of Hercules and Goliath movies in film-history texts. "It's as if they were nonexistent or too embarrassing to bring up, which is strange to consider, since they were quite popular and made quite a bit of money for the film industry," he says.

One of the first of these dubbed, Italian-made films to hit U.S. shores was 1957's Hercules, starring a buff, scantily clad Steve Reeves in the title role. Its success led to a slew of similar movies, which created a new demand for bodybuilders. "Before, bodybuilding was not a common thing," Kirk says. "Bodybuilders were usually seen as circus freaks or people who did specialty acts or something."

Musclemen posed for physique magazines, which were often aimed at a gay audience, and today these gladiator films appear to have similarly obvious homoerotic overtones. MGM's bizarre musical flop Athena, a classic example of muscleman camp, offers bodybuilders (including Reeves) sporting skimpy pastel outfits, singing, and hanging out in bed.

"They were the first films to exploit men as sex objects, although I don't know how much of that was brought out at the time," says Kirk. "It was something of a novelty, and it appealed to women and gay men, whether they could acknowledge it or not."

Kirk was ten when he saw Hercules, his first gladiator film, at a matinee in 1960. "I loved movies but was no fan of action movies--I didn't like westerns or big war pictures or anything like that. But when I saw it, it stimulated something. It wasn't until junior high or something that I realized there was any kind of sexual attraction to it."

He was just another fan when he hooked up with New York filmmakers Jay Blotcher and William Comstock at last year's gay and lesbian film festival in Los Angeles, where Blotcher and Comstock gave a presentation called "Hercules in the American Underground." Kirk offered to find clips of MGM's contributions to the genre if the two ever decided to make a documentary. He and Comstock ended up reworking the presentation, and Kirk gave an illustrated lecture at last year's Chicago Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival.

"One of the reasons I decided this would be interesting is that a lot of people have forgotten about the films, and a lot of younger people may not have heard of them," he says.

By the early 60s the genre had even spawned such satirical takes as 1962's Hercules in the Vale of Woe; My Son, the Hero, a comically redubbed adventure a la What's Up, Tiger Lily?; and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules. Eventually, hunk-studded mythological flicks gave way to violent, cheaper-to-make spaghetti westerns. "After about ten years they ran out of ideas, and movies just started getting more and more ridiculous and low budget, with papier-mache and cardboard sets," says Kirk. "Things weren't so innocent anymore in the wake of Vietnam and 1960s drug culture, and people lost interest in silly old gladiator movies. They continued to be quite popular on TV in most of the world. But you don't see them too often here, except in the middle of the night once in a while."

Kirk will discuss gladiator movies and show clips from over 70 films as well as excerpts from interviews he conducted with actors Richard Harrison, Gordon Mitchell, and Mickey Hargitay in a presentation called "Sons of Hercules." It's at 6 on Thursday, September 24, at the Film Center at the Art Institute, Columbus at Jackson. Admission is $7; call 312-443-3733 for more information. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited muscle movie boy.

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