Descended from Hercules: Biopolitics and the Muscled Male Body on Screen

Robert A Rushing

Research output: Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook


Descended from Hercules argues that the peplum amounts to a century-long cinematic biopolitical intervention that offers the spectator an imagined form of the ideal male body, overflowing with health, muscular energy and natural vitality. The peplum has functioned as a mediation between life (the vitality and health of the male body) and politics in multiple ways; it has offered an ideal form of the male body for spectators to emulate; it has returned obsessively to biopolitical themes (illness and degeneracy opposed to muscular health; bare life and concentrationary spaces); and it has repeatedly functioned as a mediatic bridge between the world of the body (athletics, bodybuilding) and the world of politics. Peplum films have catapulted their stars from the world of “pure body” to political careers on more than one occasion, none more spectacularly than Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is not enough, however, to simply say that the peplum is an intensely and provocatively biopolitical genre—in part because biopolitics itself is not enough to understand the fascination that the moving image of the muscular male body has for us. Descended from Hercules examines three of the ways that that the peplum has consistently captured the spectator’s fascination with the muscular male body: first, through its use of slow motion and stopped time, rendering the hero’s musculature and bodily vitality visible in a time of endless admiration; second, by immersing the hero’s body in a universe that is lavishly eroticized but from which the question of sexual desire has been removed; and third, by activating as much as possible the “haptic” or tactile codes of cinema, our sense of skin, muscles and viscera, in order to cement the film’s ideological hold on the viewer.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Place of PublicationBloomington
PublisherIndiana University Press
Number of pages219
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-253-02258-5
ISBN (Print)978-0-253-02250-9
StatePublished - Oct 15 2016

Publication series

NameNew Directions in National Cinemas


  • peplum
  • sword and sandals
  • biopolitics
  • cinema
  • film
  • Italy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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