Robert A. Rushing’s knowledge of the peplum genre — sword-and-sandal strongman epics — is undeniably extensive and appreciative. The author approaches his subject with a recognizable fondness for the content that’s refreshing for academic writing. He doesn’t seek easy answers or make pat conclusions, nor take for granted that the reader will automatically accept his conclusion. And that conclusion, in the end, is aptly summarized by the book’s sub-title, “Biopolitics and the Muscled Male Body on Screen”.
Rushing seeks to demonstrate that the muscled male body — the central unifying imagery of the peplum genre — represents a “biopolitical intervention”. That is; skin flicks, so obviously targeted toward otherwise heterosexual (often adolescent) men, are vessels for a political message about not only the health of the human body but the health and integrity of the body-politic. Throughout the book, Rushing manages to find a space in which he can simultaneously enjoy and partake in the undisguised sexuality, and oftentimes campiness, of these films while also training a critical eye on their messages, both surface and latent.
In fact, Rushing even critically addresses the jarring distinction between the first and second generation peplums and the darker, grittier, more apocalyptic later ones. After all, the tonal differences between say, Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964) and Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) are unmistakable and call for explanation. Rushing provides one: “…the current affect of most peplums — a desperate, dark, and melodramatic seriousness bordering on a kind of suicidal nihilism — has been more successful than the old-school grin-and-flex approach. Without the intense melodramatic affect, the excess of the image would predominate, permitting the viewers to see only camp rather than the biopolitical fantasy that seduces and fascinates them.”
Rushing’s analysis toward that end is carefully laid out across four chapters, beginning first with “Nos Morituri: Time in the Peplum”, which focuses on one of the signature elements of the genre — long, lingering, time-dilated shots of the muscled male heroes’ bodies. After all, for a genre ostensibly consumed by predominantly straight young men, the infatuation with men’s bodies — and the salacious attention the camera gives to examining muscle and flesh — seems designed to cause anxiety of the type certain viewers would seek to avoid rather than indulge in. It’s in this mélange of the male gaze, male anxiety, and the ideal male form, that Rushing pulls out the first strands of his biopolitical argument.
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Rushing argues that as viewers we intuitively derive pleasure from the conversion of the static to the kinetic, the passive to the active. The films allow us to enjoy the action that holds the stillness of death at bay, and to take the source of adolescent male anxiety and intensify it, rather than attack it. Yet even while making the argument for a biopolitical reading of the peplum, Rushing manages to divorce some of the more blatantly propagandistic films (e.g., 300) from their political content and celebrate the beauty of their aesthetic innovation and celebration of an unfiltered manhood. Rushing’s analysis draws on Foucault (an obvious reference) sparingly, and Freud, Nietzsche, and psychoanalytic ideas frequently, much to its credit.
In chapter four, Rushing reaches the core of his argument regarding biopolitics. It’s clear by the end of the book that these films embody a political intervention aimed at portraying health, the muscled male body, and the state as inextricably linked and interconnected. Yet beyond a handful of examples, Rushing never quite makes the case for an affiliated argument that he dabbles with: that these figures lead directly into the real world of politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger, both Conan of the film series and later California Governor, is the obvious high-water mark for this argument, but few others populate it as directly.
Ultimately, Descended from Hercules seems filled with so many missed opportunities to discuss the cultural legacy of so much of what these films depict beyond simply the time frame in which they have been produced. Rushing admirably discusses the pre/post sexual status of the peplum hero, but doesn’t fully connect this to the larger cultural continuity that art, myth, and religion offer for understanding why this archetype persists. What of the connection between the innocently pre-sexual and similarly depilated youths in ancient Greece, admired and eroticized by their erastes but not necessarily aroused themselves (as Rushing describes numerous peplum heroes)?
“[A]s the sequence progresses, we are treated to more and more shot / countershot constructions that locate the place of our gaze in Queen Samara’s eyes, and the shots become increasingly erotic, until nothing is left except close-up slow pans across his taut, muscled, tanned, oiled, hairless massive pectorals.”
Instead of his pedantic and contrived discussion of the trans body near the book’s end, what of the cultural legacy of the ritual performance of sex seen throughout art and mythology from the numerous instances of sex-change in classical Greek mythology to Mohini, the female incarnation of the god Vishnu? What Rushing does provide is carefully-crafted and knowledgeable, but all too often is plagued by missed opportunities and an abbreviated analysis that never extends historically beyond references to Freud (1856) or Nietzsche (1844). The work could benefit from a deeper look back to the stories, art, mythology and other sources that are the foundation of these epic mythic tales. The opportunity uniquely offered by a genre largely linked to classical mythology for its source material provided numerous windows left unopened, but what Rushing did provide was expertly laid out.