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What are Sword and Sandal Films?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sword and sandal films refer to a genre of filmmaking that dates back to the beginning of 20th century movie making, with the silent film version of Ben Hur in 1907. The term may refer to the whole genre, or to the popularity of cheaply made Italian films during the early 1960s, which predate the Spaghetti Western. For the latter definition, these films were an inexpensive way for Italian directors to shoot films loosely based on classical mythology, on the lives of gladiators, or on biblical subjects.

Such films often made it to the many other countries where they became popular, though many are examples of extremely poor filmmaking, replete with anachronisms and terrible dialogue, which was not improved by dubbing. Several of these films are now enjoyed for their faults, and a few have provided laughs for Mystery Science Theater 3000. Stylistically, most Italian sword and sandal films do not compete with the groundbreaking direction and filmmaking of many Spaghetti Westerns.

These Italian films were imitative of the big budget epics in America like Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, and both the Claudette Colbert and Elizabeth Taylor versions of Cleopatra. Unlike the Italian films, many of the early sword and sandal films hold up as excellent examples of movie making. The genre began to deteriorate as interest surged in casting body builders in lead roles. When seasoned actors like Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, and Richard Harris were replaced by good-looking yet not particularly good actors like Steve Reeves, Mark Forest and Dan Vadis, these films took a downhill turn.

In fact, many sword and sandal films of the 1960s are strictly known for their “beefcake” factor, and have become associated with homoeroticism — not the initial intent of directors. A few films even verged into R and X rated territory because of graphic sexual content. Most were more mainstream productions intended for general audiences, and television even took a stab at reshowing some of the Italian films like those based on Hercules in the late 60s.

The sword and sandal films genre began to enjoy greater popularity in the US with the film Conan the Barbarian in 1984. The film was certainly not for kids, and did feature a body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, relatively poor dialogue, and low budget production value. Its commercial success prompted a rebirth of this genre made by US directors, however. Some of these remained campy and laughable, like Red Sonja and Beastmaster. Others, especially in the beginning of the 21st century, proved exceptional.

The 2000 film Gladiator directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Russell Crowe won the Academy Award for Best Picture, firmly establishing just how successful epic sword and sandal films could be. Other recent films in this genre include King Arthur, and Kingdom of Heaven, another Ridley Scott entry — both were fairly well received by audiences and critics. Films like Troy and Alexander have fared less well in box office returns and critical reviews. Perhaps one of the most interesting films which theoretically fits in the sword and sandal genre is the 2004 The Passion of the Christ. Unlike other films, Passion is not the typical popcorn fare film, but a more accurate rendering of Christ's persecution and crucifixion.

Another film, 300, released in 2007, is a sword and sandal epic deconstructed. It is based on the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller, and has fascinating art direction, with illustrations over actors. 300 represents an interesting meeting between the graphic novel and sword and sandal films. Again, like most modern films in this genre, these films are usually rated R and are not intended for children.

For kids who enjoy being swept up in sword and sandal films, consider some of the films of the 1960s or earlier. For example The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, The Clash of the Titans and Ben Hur are films suitable for older kids. Sinbad and Titans are also excellent studies in the stop motion filmmaking pioneered by Ray Harryhausen.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On Jun 12, 2014

I like the older sword and sandal films. They were always entertaining to watch. I liked "The Ten Commandments" and "Spartacus." Great casts, great acting.

I would love to see either of these movies on the big screen. I know they would really come alive for me again. A TV screen just doesn't do justice to these really huge films.

American cinema has lost a lot in the past 20 years or so, and really hasn't gained much. There aren't too many actors who will be looked at in the light of Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris in 20 years. There aren't too many who have earned that kind of respect.

By Grivusangel — On Jun 11, 2014

When I saw the title, my first thought was "Ben Hur." That's probably the archetypal sword and sandal movie, although there are many others from the mid-50s to late 60s era, like "The Robe," "The Bible," "Quo Vadis" and "King of Kings."

I'd say the definition of a sword and sandal picture from that era was usually an epic-type film set in biblical times, Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece. Today, that definition still holds, but with the addition of the mythological factor, not necessarily of Rome or Greece. It could be said to be a film set pre-Renaissance or maybe in the pre-Norman conquest era. It's a little fuzzy, but it's one of those things where you know it if you see it.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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