There is an experience many of us who grew up in Australia as male children of migrant parents in the 1960’s and 1970’s will recognise: the sense of expectation that surrounded our Sunday lunch. This feeling was not just about the food our mothers had spent most of the morning preparing. An essential condiment to our lunch of lasagne or tagliatelle crowned by unsteady meatballs would be our television fare.
From twelve to one o’clock, the family would enjoy the multicultural antipasto offered by World Championship Wrestling on Channel 9. Never was the signifier ‘world’ more appropriate. Even though the broadcast was from Melbourne’s very own Festival Hall, the protagonists came from all over the globe.
Depending on our ethnic allegiance, our heroes would be Mario Milano, with his dark complexion and movie star looks, the equally handsome Spiros Arion (the Golden Greek), or the fair Larry O’Dea who played the flexible mercurial Irishman. Their foils were as bad as our heroes were good: Killer Kowalski, as his epithet itself suggests, was the eternal villain. By never pitting Mario against Spiros and by keeping the fighting (mostly) within the ring, the managers of World Championship Wrestling performed a great service to our nascent multiculturalism and kept peace on the city’s streets.
This was only the first half of the meal. After a long commercial break, our minds would begin once more to salivate in expectation. On the screen would appear the words in colonnaded lettering: ‘Epic Theatre’. This title said it all: it was a slot dedicated to films set in the Ancient Rome or inspired by Greek mythology. Cinema buffs use the condescending term ‘sword-and-sandal’ or ‘peplum’ (plural: ‘pepla’) to describe these works of cinematographic prowess. Today they are considered masterpieces of camp cinema.
The majority of these films were shot in Italy at the famous Cinecittà studios of Rome, or in the surrounding countryside populated with ruins, grass huts and Mediterranean pines. Impassioned viewers of the genre as we were, we ignored the fact the settings or the scenery seemed to reappear in film after film.
For many of us these fields and pines represented ideal representations of our ancestral homeland, not the poor and deprived villages depicted in our parent’s accounts. These settings only further fed the mystique of these films, as did their stereotypical characters and story-lines. Set in a ‘mythological’ time or the heroic ancient era, their larger than life protagonists crowded the polar extremes of behaviour and aesthetics: they were either virtuous and beautiful or ugly and evil. Not surprisingly for a film industry seeking broad appeal, these films starred handsome (often American) body-builders in the lead roles. After being spoken in Italian the films were imperfectly dubbed into English for international audiences. While this brings hilarity today, at the time we hardly noticed.
We were not listening to the words so much as instinctively decoding and absorbing the body language of the Italian casts that was so familiar to us. The same could be said for the dominant masculine body types, which the short tunics amply highlighted: bronzed bodies with muscular legs and arms. The film plots began with an injustice committed and ended in a righting of wrongs – a righteous revenge – played out on the grandest scale and painted abundantly in red blood.
Almost invariably a reluctant male hero would be drawn into a political intrigue by his attraction for the virtuous and beautiful daughter of a king or an emperor who had been deprived of their rank by some evil usurper. The hero would seek to put right to wrong and overcome the terrible snares laid out to entrap him. Simultaneously he would usually have to resist the whiles of the evil usurper’s adulterous consort. Ultimately the hero would succeed, often legitimated by the last minute intervention of the oppressed masses who stormed the usurper’s palace. Their arrival always sealed the destinies of the protagonists. They would restore the throne to its rightful occupant if still alive, or hand it over to the hero himself, now the beloved of the virtuous woman mentioned above, whose rule would usher in an era of peace and sunny prosperity.
While it may be easy to laugh today at such naiveties, in the eyes of young Italian-Australian spectators, these films represented cultural vindication in technicolour. We were brought up on the staple fare of Hollywood films that invariably cast thin lanky white Anglo-Saxon men as heroes who always won out against the ‘Other’, whether they were Native-American, soldiers from non-English speaking countries, or spies with strange accents.
We found it difficult to suspend our selfhoods to the point where we could identify with these ‘heroes’, so similar to the very same people who called us ‘wog’ or ‘dago’ in the streets. Instinctively, we identified with Native-Americans, the soldiers from non-English speaking countries, and the spies with accents, who to us were only ‘strange’ when they were inauthentic. When the masses arrived on the final scene, to us they did not appear to be extras in recycled peasant garments carrying pitchforks: their faces reflected back to us our own sense of who we were and where we had come from, they gave us hope.
The sword-and-sandal genre presented on ‘Epic Theatre’ was the first to posit Italians, Greeks, and Mediterranean people more generally, as heroes and protagonists of their own destinies. They spoke to us Italian-Australian boys of a world whose symbolic order was entirely and proudly our own. These films portrayed heroic deeds, larger than life events, ennobling myths, infinitely greater and more captivating than the insipid procession of British monarchs whose starchy complexions stared at us from our schoolbooks. Their stories belonged to us, were part of our cultural patrimony and proved our greatness.
With all of their bad dubbing, ‘campness’ and repetition, these films blended into a single reverie lasting our entire childhood and made us feel that we too could be heroes. Back in Italy it was the Western genre that wove the fabric of children’s desires, in Australia it was these pepla that became the stuff of our Italian-Australian boyhood dreams.