Maciste (Italian pronunciation: [maˈtʃiste]) is one of the oldest recurring characters in cinema, created by Gabriele d'Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone. He cuts a heroic figure throughout the history of the cinema of Italy from the 1910s to the mid-1960s.
He is usually depicted as a Hercules-like figure, utilizing his massive strength to achieve heroic feats that ordinary men cannot. Many of the 1960s Italian films featuring Maciste were retitled in other countries, substituting more popular names in the titles (such as Hercules, Goliath or Samson).
The name of Maciste ultimately comes from a sentence in Strabo's Geography (Book 8, Chapter 3, Section 21), in which he writes: ἐν δὲ τῷ μεταξὺ τό τε τοῦ Μακιστίου Ἡρακλέους ἱερόν ἐστι καὶ ὁ Ἀκίδων ποταμός — "And in the middle is the temple of the Macistian Heracles, and the river Acidon." The epithet Μακίστιος (Makistios, Latinized as Macistius) is generally understood to be an adjective referring to a town called Μάκιστος (Makistos) in the province of Triphylia in Elis. However, in the first volume of the Dizionario universale archeologico-artistico-technologico (1858) Macistius is given as one among several epithets of Hercules (Ercole). In the second volume of the same dictionary (1864) this name appears Italianized as Maciste, defined as uno dei soprannomi d'Ercole ("one of the nicknames of Hercules").
In the original draft outline of the 1914 film Cabiria by director Giovanni Pastrone, the muscular hero's name had been Ercole. In the revised script, writer Gabriele d'Annunzio gave the character the name Maciste, which he understood (based on the above or similar sources) to be an erudite synonym for Hercules.
By later writers using the character the original etymology was generally forgotten, and a folk etymology was constructed based on the name's superficial similarity to the Italian word macigno "large stone"; in the first of the 1960s films, Maciste tells another character in the film that his name means "born of the rock".
Maciste made his debut in the 1914 Italian silent movie classic Cabiria. Cabiria was a story about a slave named Maciste (played by Bartolomeo Pagano) who was involved in the rescue of a Roman princess from an evil Carthaginian king who plotted to sacrifice her to the cruel god Moloch. The film was based very loosely on Salammbo, a historical novel by Gustave Flaubert, and had a plot and screenplay by Gabriele D'Annunzio.
Maciste's debut set the tone for his later adventures. Including "Cabiria" itself, there have been at least 52 movies featuring Maciste, 27 of them being pre-1927 silent films starring Bartolomeo Pagano and the other 25 being a series of sound/color films produced in the early 1960s. Typical plots involve tyrannical rulers who practice vile magical rituals or worship evil gods. Typically, the young lady who is the love interest runs afoul of the evil ruler. Maciste is a super-strong guy who must rescue her. There is often a rightful king out there somewhere who wants to overthrow the evil usurper. There is an obligatory belly dance scene. There is often an evil queen who has carnal designs on the hero. These films, then, could be set in settings from Mongolia to Peru, from Egypt to the Roman Empire. The character's origin in ancient Carthage apparently did not prevent him from appearing in later films in any setting from classical antiquity to more modern times.
Bartolomeo Pagano's Maciste films
As a character, Maciste had two distinct moments in the spotlight. The first was in the Italian silent movie period, in which the original Maciste from Cabiria, the muscular actor Bartolomeo Pagano, starred in a series of at least 26 sequels over the period from 1915 through 1926. Then decades later, (following on the heels of the success of the two 1950s Steve Reeves "Hercules" films) Maciste was revived by Italian filmmakers for a series of 25 sound films (all made between 1960 and 1965).
The Bartolomeo Pagano silent Maciste films established the character as someone who could appear at any place and at any time. Some of the earlier ones, made during World War I, had the distinct flavour of propaganda, and cast the hero in the role of a soldier. Later films in the series return to fantasy, but the fantasy was not always mythological. Maciste appears as an Olympic athlete, in contemporary settings, or in the afterlife. His character and his plots remained consistent in whatever setting; he was always a populist Hercules, using his physical prowess to overcome the evil ruses of effete aristocrats and authority figures.
Revival of the 1960s
The character was revived in the 1960s. In 1957, Steve Reeves' Hercules, an Italian production, created a minor boom in Italian dramas featuring American bodybuilders in vaguely mythological or classical historical subjects. Maciste was the hero in 25 of these films. Other films starred such heroes as Ursus, Samson, Hercules and Goliath.
Maciste was never given an origin, and the source of his mighty powers was never revealed, nor was he confined to one specific time period/setting in his adventures. However, in the first of the 1960s Maciste films, he mentions to another character that the name "Maciste" means "born of the rock" (almost as if he was a god who would just appear out of the earth in times of need). One of the 1920s silent Maciste films was actually entitled "The Giant from the Dolomite" (another reference that he was not born as an ordinary mortal man would have been). Hence it is hinted that Maciste is more god than man, which would explain his great strength.
This sword and sandal fad continued for about six years, until the new fad for spaghetti Westerns and spy films took over the attention of the Italian cinema industry. The name Maciste was not in the title of the English versions of most of these films: when the films were imported into the USA and dubbed in English, the hero's name was often changed to Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Atlas, Ulysses or Colossus, because the name Maciste was not widely recognised in the USA. Some Italian sword and sandal films were not theatrically released in the USA; rather they premiered on American television in a syndication package called The Sons of Hercules, usually broadcast on Saturday afternoons. Best remembered for its stirring theme song, films originally featuring Maciste were dubbed into a variety of different "Sons of Hercules" pictures, with stock narration at the opening attempting to tie the film's lead character in to Hercules any way they could. A number of Italian musclemen played Maciste in the 1960s films, but Mark Forest was the actor who played Maciste the most (7 times). The other actors included Gordon Scott, Reg Park, Gordon Mitchell, Reg Lewis, Kirk Morris, Samson Burke, Alan Steel, Richard Lloyd, Renato Rossini and Frank Gordon.
- Some authorities[who?] have made Maciste out to be a somewhat darker figure. The character is the enslaved embodiment of physical strength and vitality; as he travels to exotic locations, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, he does battle against Oriental decadence and barbarism, as particularly embodied in the cult of Moloch that figured in the plot of Cabiria. It is certainly true that Cabiria tapped into Italy's celebration of its colonial adventure in Libya, and that Maciste appears as the ideal slave, always longing to be re-united with his Roman master.
- The Cabiria scene in which Maciste pushes a mill wheel for ten years seemingly inspired John Milius, who shot a similar one for his movie Conan the Barbarian (1982).
- Federico Fellini credited the 1926 Maciste all'inferno as the movie that made him decide to become a director.
- The 1960s adventures have been enjoyed mostly by devotees[who?] of camp style. Two of the films, Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste (translated as Colossus and the Head Hunters) and Maciste e la regina di Samar (as Hercules against the Moon Men) appeared on the comedy television program Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the 1990s. In Colossus and the Head Hunters, the pronunciation of Maciste's name was frequently mocked as "my cheesesteak."
- The legendary Belgian strongman John Massis based his pseudonym on Maciste.
- The 2006 film The Caiman features an Italian exploitation film producer who made the film Machiste Against Freud.
The Silent Film Series (in chronological order)
- Cabiria (1914) introduced the Maciste character
- Maciste (1915) aka "Marvelous Maciste, the Giant of Cabiria"
- Maciste bersagliere ("Maciste the Ranger", 1916)
- Maciste alpino (1916) aka "Maciste The Warrior"
- Maciste atleta ("Maciste the Athlete", 1917)
- Maciste medium ("Maciste the Clairvoyant", 1917)
- Maciste poliziotto ("Maciste the Detective", 1917)
- Maciste turista ("Maciste the Tourist", 1917)
- Maciste sonnambulo ("Maciste the Sleepwalker", 1918)
- La Rivincita di Maciste ("Maciste's Revenge", 1919)
- Il Testamento di Maciste ("Maciste's Last Will and Testament", 1919)
- Il Viaggio di Maciste ("Maciste's Journey", 1919)
- Maciste I ("Maciste the First", 1919)
- Maciste contro la morte ("Maciste vs Death", 1919)
- Maciste innamorato ("Maciste in Love", 1919)
- Maciste in vacanza ("Maciste on Vacation", 1920)
- Maciste salvato dalle acque ("Maciste, Rescued from the Waters", 1920)
- Maciste e la figlia del re della Plata ("Maciste and the Silver King's Daughter", 1922)
- Maciste und die Japanerin ("Maciste and the Japanese", 1922)
- Maciste contro Maciste ("Maciste vs Maciste", 1923)
- Maciste und die chinesische truhe ("Maciste and the Chinese Trunk", 1923)
- Maciste e il nipote di America ("Maciste's American Nephew", 1924)
- Maciste imperatore ("Maciste the Emperor", 1924)
- Maciste contro lo sceicco ("Maciste vs the Sheik", 1925)
- Maciste all'inferno ("Maciste in Hell", 1926)
- Maciste nella gabbia dei leoni ("Maciste in the Lions' Den", 1926)
- il Gigante delle Dolemite ("The Giant From the Dolomite", 1927)
The 1960s film series (in chronological order)
There were a total of 25 Maciste films from the 1960s sword-and-sandal revival. The first title listed for each film is the film's original Italian title (along with its literal English translation), while the U.S. release title follows in parentheses. Films are listed strictly in their original production order in Italy. (Note how many times Maciste's name in the Italian title is altered to an entirely different name in the American title):
- Maciste nella valle dei re/Maciste in the Valley of the Kings (Son of Samson, 1960) starring Mark Forest
- Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste/Maciste Vs. the Headhunters (Colossus and the Headhunters, 1960) starring Kirk Morris
- Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi/Maciste in the Land of the Cyclops (Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops, 1961) starring Gordon Mitchell
- Maciste alla corte del gran khan/Maciste at the Court of the Great Khan (Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World, 1961) starring Gordon Scott
- Maciste contro il vampiro/Maciste Vs. the Vampire (Goliath and the Vampires, 1961) starring Gordon Scott
- Maciste, l'uomo più forte del mondo/Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World (Mole Men vs The Son of Hercules, 1962) starring Mark Forest
- Maciste contro Ercole nella valle dei guai/Maciste Against Hercules in the Vale of Woe (Hercules in the Vale of Woe, 1962) starring Kirk Morris as Maciste
- Maciste all'inferno/Maciste in Hell (The Witch's Curse, 1962) starring Kirk Morris
- Il trionfo di Maciste/The Triumph of Maciste (Triumph of the Son of Hercules, 1962) starring Kirk Morris
- Maciste contro i mostri/Maciste vs. the Monsters (Fire Monsters Against the Son of Hercules, 1962) starring Reg Lewis
- Totò contro Maciste (Totò vs Maciste, 1962) starring Samson Burke; this was a comedy/satire (part of the Italian "Toto" film series) and was never distributed in the USA; it is apparently not available in English
- Maciste, il gladiatore piu forte del mondo/Maciste, the World's Strongest Gladiator (Colossus of the Arena, 1962) starring Mark Forest
- Maciste contro el sheik/Maciste Vs. the Sheik (Samson Against the Sheik, 1962) starring Ed Fury
- Maciste, l'eroe piu grande del mondo/Maciste, the World's Greatest Hero (Goliath and the Sins of Babylon, 1963) starring Mark Forest
- Zorro contro Maciste/Zorro Vs. Maciste (Samson and the Slave Queen, 1963) starring Alan Steel
- Maciste e la regina de Samar/Maciste and the Queen of Samar (Hercules Against the Moon Men, 1964) starring Alan Steel
- Maciste nelle miniere de re salomone/Maciste in King Solomon's Mines (Samson in King Solomon's Mines, 1964) starring Reg Park
- Maciste alla corte dello zar/Maciste at the Court of the Czar (Atlas Against The Czar, 1964) starring Kirk Morris (aka Samson vs the Giant King)
- Maciste, gladiatore di sparta/Maciste, Gladiator of Sparta (Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules, 1964) starring Mark Forest
- Maciste contro i mongoli/Maciste vs the Mongols (Hercules Against the Mongols, 1964) starring Mark Forest
- Maciste nell'inferno di Gengis Khan/Maciste in Genghis Khan's Hell (Hercules Against the Barbarians, 1964) starring Mark Forest
- La valle dell'eco tonante/Valley of the Thundering Echo (Hercules of the Desert, 1964) starring Kirk Morris (released in France as Maciste and the Women of the Valley) (Note* - This was the only Maciste film that did not have the word "Maciste" in the original Italian title; this film actually shows Maciste materializing from a rock wall.)
- Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus: gli invincibili/Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus: The Invincibles (Samson and the Mighty Challenge, 1965) starring Renato Rossini as Maciste (aka Combate dei Gigantes or Le Grand Defi)
- Gli invicibili fratelli Maciste/The Invincible Brothers Maciste (1965) starring Richard Lloyd as Maciste
- Maciste il Vendicatore dei Mayas/Maciste, Avenger of the Mayans (No American title, 1965) (Note* This Maciste film was made up almost entirely of re-edited stock footage from 2 older Maciste films, Maciste contro i mostri and Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste, so Maciste switches from Kirk Morris to Reg Lewis in various scenes; this movie is very scarce since it was never distributed in the USA and is not available in English.)
In 1973, the Spanish cult film director Jesus Franco directed two low-budget "Maciste films" for French producers: Maciste contre la Reine des Amazones (Maciste vs the Queen of the Amazons) and Les exploits érotiques de Maciste dans l'Atlantide (The Erotic Exploits of Maciste in Atlantis). The films had almost identical casts, both starring Val Davis as Maciste, and appear to have been shot back-to-back. The former was distributed in Italy as a "Karzan" movie (a cheap Tarzan imitation), while the latter film was released only in France with hardcore inserts as Les Gloutonnes ("The Gobblers"). These 2 films were totally unrelated to the 1960s Italian Maciste series.
- According to William Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman mythology, Macistus (Μάκιστος) was "A surname of Heracles, who had a temple in the neighbourhood of the town of Macistus in Triphylia."
- Dizionario universale archeologico-artistico-technologico, contenente: Archeologia .... Belle arti .... Arti e mestieri ..., Luigi Rusconi, Tip. G. Favale e comp., 1859, p. 607
- Dizionario universale archeologico-artistico-technologico, contenente: Archeologia .... Belle arti .... Arti e mestieri ..., Luigi Rusconi, Tip. G. Favale e comp., 1861, p. 914
- Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film, Benjamin Robert Brewster, Lea Jacobs, Oxford University Press, 1998
- The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Roger D. Woodard, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 477
- Maggie Günsberg in Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre claims that d'Annunzio used two sources: one from ancient Greek, makistos, meaning "longer," (though Doric Greek μάκιστος actually means "greatest", "tallest", or "longest in time") and the second from a supposed Latin word macis meaning "rock". No such word as macis exists in Latin. The Italian word macigno ultimately derives from Latin machina used in the sense of "millstone".
- The Many Faces of Hercules at Brian's Drive-In Theater
- Santo and Friends, website on Mexico's equivalent of the 1950s-1960s pop culture Hercules