The first Maciste (Italian, loosely, for “man carved out of rock”) appeared in the silent Italian classic of 1914, Cabiria. In that movie, Maciste was played by Bartolomeo Pagano, an Italian stevedore who Roger Ebert has called ‘the first movie star’.
From the docks of Genoa to worldwide movie fame, Pagano changed his name to Maciste and starred in over a dozen spank-bank filling movies including Marvelous Maciste, Maciste in Africa and Maciste in Hell.
Maciste took the form of many pneumatic romantics - a Roman slave in chains here, a jungle adventurer wrestling dinosaurs there - and though his use of blackface displeased many, surely no person could object to Maciste’s refusal to ever wear any kind of shirt:
Maciste married some extremely lucky woman in 1926 and took her off to “make a family” with her. Jackpot (for her).He died in 1968, and rests in a tomb on the family estate.
But the spirit of Maciste lived on, reincarnated with a vengeance in the late 1960s come the sword and sandal genre, a low-budget B-picture universe borne out of the financial ruins of Cleopatra (did you know: one of her 65 gowns in the film was made from 24 karat gold thread, and Elizabeth Taylor also insisted Cleopatra be filmed using expensive camera technology developed by Mike Todd’s company, as she had inherited the rights to it after Todd’s death).
Not only were bodybuilders cheaper than professional actors, they were far more likely to score careers in Maciste films, which were mainly made in Italy, than get any work in Hollywood. While the hero was always called Maciste in Europe, he was translated as Hercules for American markets.
Steve Reeves had lifted weights since his early teenage years and after active service in World War Two he started appearing in loincloth-rippers such as his popular Hercules films.
Reeves’ contemporaries included handsome Ed Fury, star of Maciste Against The Sheik, Wild Women of Wongo and many others:
and 1954’s ‘Mr Venice Beach’, Mark Forest, who appeared in Maciste Against the Mongols, Son of Maciste (and so on):
The great Reg Park won Mr Britain in 1949 and starred in a handful of classics made in Italy in the 1960s such as Hercules and the Captive Women and Hercules the Avenger and he was a friend and mentor to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the supreme Maciste of the 1980s (more below).
Park even appears in Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron in 1977 by which time he still looked as beautiful as he did in his prime:
Maciste warped through several incarnations and innumerable actors over the decades; he even became Tarzan at one point, played by the charismatic on-safari weightlifter, Gordon Scott:
The Maciste, ever the gentlemen, politely faded away and let Westerns and Elvis movies take over for a spell but he returned in the 1980s as alluringly as ever, and as Hercules again, in the under-rated form of Lou Ferrigno, who played the title role of Hercules in 1983 after his TV success as the sci-fi Maciste The Incredible Hulk.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two Conan films bracketed Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules and Arnold subsequently took the Maciste into the future, as the Predator-fighting marine called Dutch, who stripped off his armour and clothes before smearing himself with mud and going into hand-to-hand combat with the deadly beast from outer space.
Which brings me to Chris Hemsworth, but let’s leave that for another day: