Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Of Muscles and Men

Physical perfection has been an ideal for as long as there has been civilization, celebrated in games and competitions, extolled in song and story, captured in paintings and, since the late 19th century, photographs and movies. That inspiration continues today. In Pain and Gain, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson pump iron to sculpt themselves into the bodybuilder ideal, modeling themselves on such specimens as Arnold Schwarzenegger, WWE champions and Mr. Olympia winners. Where they get off track in their pursuit of the American dream is when they put their hard bodies into the service of an ill-advised plot involving extortion and kidnapping. All that muscle seems to have gone to their heads when it should have gone to straight to the abs and pecs.

Bartolomeo Pagano as Maciste in ‘Cabiria’

That ideal of rippling musculature and hard definition across the arms, legs and chests was not always the model of masculine perfection. The muscleman of earlier eras with bulkier and brawnier, more like a beefy circus strongman or barrel-chested wrestler, and the image evolved thanks to the examples set by fitness gurus like Jack LaLanne and bodybuilders like Steve Reeves. Here’s a look at the changing image of fitness and strength and physical perfection on the screen, from the strongman of the silent days to the beefcake heroes of Hollywood spectacles to the oiled-up warrior in the new Hollywood version of the ancient world soldiers and gladiators.

‘Cabiria’ (1914)

Giovanni Pastrone’s lavish historical epic stirs warriors, pirates, slaves, a volcano eruption, a demanding god and an orphan girl tossed to the fates into a tale of the ancient world before Christ. The story is pure stage melodrama, but the sets and pageantry is magnificent, unlike anything seen on the screen before, and it launched a worldwide passion for cinematic spectacles. It also launched the cinema’s first muscleman hero: Maciste. Played with jolly passion by the brawny Bartolomeo Pagano, who developed his impressive figure working as a longshoreman in Genoa, Maciste was a gentle giant of a strongman and a brawny teddy bear of a hero, and Pagano brought Maciste up to the present in a long-running series of lively adventure films that blurred the line between onscreen hero and offscreen persona.

When the muscleman movies made a comeback in Italy in the ’60s, they were called Hercules or Samson or Goliath in the U.S., but back in Italy, most of them were the beloved Maciste. None of the subsequent actors succeeded in recapturing the big kid charm of Pagano.

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