Who are the biggest names in the rise of sword-and-sorcery? Most are the authors who burst open fantasy literature in the pulp pages and later in paperbacks: Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock. Almost as important are the artists whose book covers and comic illustrations realized the genre’s visceral visuals: Frank Frazetta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Roy Krenkel, Boris Vallejo.
One name rarely mentioned among the sword-and-sorcery influencers is Steve Reeves. He wasn’t an author or artist. He was a bodybuilder turned actor. But it’s unlikely the fantasy genre would be the same without his brief but powerful contribution to movies in the late-1950s and early ‘60s. His reign at the global box office popularized the image of the invincible, muscular hero who clobbered swarms of armed enemies, wrestled with monsters, and enjoyed passionate love. Steve Reeves not only opened the way for numerous other beefed-up superstars of later decades, his image of a superhero—one who wielded a sword rather than wore capes and tights—influenced a generation of young viewers who soon sought similar thrills in book pages.
Steve Reeves was born in Montana in 1926 and grew up in California. He developed an interest in bodybuilding during high school, and after his military discharge in 1947, he became one of the world’s best-known bodybuilders, winning a string of championships culminating in a Mr. Universe title in 1950. He also had film-star handsomeness—something people didn’t associate with bodybuilders at the time—which landed him movie and television appearances. But when his acting career stalled, Reeves took a job helping to publicize the openings of gyms.
In 1957, Reeves received a letter from Pietro Francisco, an Italian writer-director. Francisco had been trying to make a Hercules film for years, and offered Reeves the starring role based on seeing him in the 1954 musical Athena. Reeves at first didn’t think Francisco’s offer was genuine. Then another letter arrived containing $5,000 and an airplane ticket to Rome. “Well, I thought ‘These people are serious,’” Reeves recalled in an interview. “I either have to send them back the money and the plane tickets, or go over there and take a chance.” He took the chance. It paid off.
The 1958 Hercules was an outrageous success that opened up a global market for European genre films. Historical epics were already a major part of the Hollywood movie industry, with Ben-Hur sweeping the Oscars the same year Hercules debuted in the US. Hercules arrived at the right moment for younger viewers who wanted the spectacle of Ben-Hur, but leaner and with more action and sex appeal.
The Italian film industry responded to the success of Hercules with a few hundred more fantasy and historical-action movies starring any bodybuilder who’d sign up. Known as “sword-and-sandal” films, they dominated European movie theaters for the next six years.
Reeves remained at the center of the sword-and-sandal explosion and was, for a time, one of the world’s highest paid actors. He already had another film in the can before Hercules was released, Goliath and the Barbarians, and quickly made a second Hercules movie, Hercules Unchained (1959). Reeves never again played Hercules, but is forever identified with the legendary hero. More successes followed, with a remake of The Last Days of Pompeii (directed by an uncredited Sergio Leone) scoring another international success. His other fantasy and adventure films include The Giant of Marathon (1959), Duel of the Titans (1961), a remake of the Arabian fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1961), and a pair of movies about the Roman hero Aeneas, The Trojan Horse (1961) and The Avenger (1962).
Although Reeves was dubbed by professional voice actors, even in the English language versions, he was a commanding physical presence on screen. His combination of leading-man looks and incredible physicality made him a perfect fantasy figure—a Superman of the Bronze and Iron Ages. His films were especially lavish, made as co-productions with France and Spain and filled with the finest continental actors, elaborate sets, and extravagant fight scenes.
Unfortunately, the seeds of the end of Reeves’s movie career were planted early. During the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii, Reeves’s chariot collided with a tree and he dislocated his shoulder. He never fully recovered from the injury, and the pain from it forced him to retire in 1963. The sword-and-sandal craze was already fading, and soon the slick spy and the amoral Western gunfighter replaced the muscleman on the world stage. Reeves made one last film, the Western A Long Ride to Hell (1968). It was a disappointment, and Reeves returned to California where he bought a ranch and bred horses.
Sword-and-sandal films are often faciley dismissed today as cheap and silly—which they sometimes were. But this discounts not only the good ones, but also the effect the genre had on fantasy cinema, literature, and comics. This was the first boom for epic fantasy on film, with larger-than-life heroes in mythic times battling sorcerers, wicked yet sensuous queens, ape men, minotaurs, dragons, and even traveling into the Underworld. The biggest epics reached screens in the US to play to matinee crowds. Smaller movies went to American television screens in the popular “Sons of Hercules” syndication package. A generation of children grew up with a taste for fantasy adventure from their viewing habits—just in time to graduate to reading fantasy novels in the expanding field of the 1960s. It wasn’t difficult to lure people into reading about Conan when muscular heroes were beating up monsters all over theater and TV screens.
Steve Reeves died in 2000—the same year Gladiator was a global smash and proved the actor’s sword-and-sandal legacy was a powerful as ever. In his last interview, Reeves said, “To be remembered at all in life is truly astounding, and Hercules put me on the map. It’s a cultural phenomenon.”