The phenomenon known as Maciste was first introduced in the film Cabiria (1914), the most famous of all the early Italian epics. This immensely popular blockbuster was nearly upstaged by one character, Maciste the Nubian slave, portrayed by Bartolomeo Pagano. Maciste proved so popular and charismatic that Pagano was showcased in his own film the following year, Maciste, and a series of Maciste productions would continue through the silent era. In this, Pagano’s second appearance as Maciste, the line between character and actor blurs. The heroine, in need of a hero, hides from her pursuers in a movie theater showing Cabiria, where she witnessess the on-screen derring-do of the strong and benevolent Maciste. She seeks him out at the real-life Itala Film studio, believing she will find the heroic qualities she needs in the actor who plays Maciste. She turns out to be correct.
Bartolomeo Pagano, sometimes billed as Ernesto Pagani, was born on September 27, 1878. Little is known about his life prior to the day he was discovered by Giovanni Pastrone, director of Cabiria, who saw him working on the docks in Genoa. Pastrone offered Pagano twenty lire (about three dollars) a day to play the minor character. At the height of his fame, Pagano earned 750,000 lire a year. As Maciste, Pagano became an international star, although in his homeland he was loved for being uniquely Italian. A 1927 article in the Italian film magazine Cinema-Star describes his appeal: “[Italian audiences] prefer, above all the heroes of the screen, our Maciste who, in anatomy and character, is Latin.’ Famed spaghetti western director Sergio Leone claimed that his father, the actor-director Roberto Roberti (née Vincenzo Leone), discovered Pagano. While there’s no proof of such a claim, Roberti did direct Pagano in the 1918 Maciste poliziotto (Maciste the Detective) in between his longstanding working relationship with the Italian diva Francesca Bertini. “Divismo” was the description for Italy’s female-dominated star system. Pagano’s immense popularity made him the rare male superstar, or “divo.”
Pagano starred in a little more than thirty films in his short career, which ended in 1928. All but four were part of the Maciste series. Many of these films were called “peplum” films, after the short skirt or tunic worn by characters in films that took place in ancient times. Though variations on Maciste often appear in historical or classical tales, he was very much a modern invention, the creation of director Pastrone and Cabiria screenwriter Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio – a flamboyant Italian dramatist, poet, writer, and novelist – was a highly respected literary and political figure, who had been in the public eye since the 1880s. He gave a number of speeches that, according to the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, nudged Italy closer to World War One, which it finally entered in 1915 – the year Maciste was released. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, D’Annunzio was closely tied to politician and future Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Pastrone fully understood the prestige his production of Cabiria would gain by employing D’Annunzio to write the scenario and intertitles.
Cabiria laid the foundation for the Maciste phenomenon, which melded the character and the actor who played him into one of the modern world’s first superheroes. In Maciste, we first see the actor demonstrate his great strength by lifting a dumbbell with another man on it. This was standard fare in the age of the Strongman, or Uomo Forte, who extolled the virtues of physical training, good health and exercise. Throughout the film, Pagano performs feats of astonishing strength, which, combined with the numerous tests of heroic bravery that confront the character as contrived by D’Annunzio’s script, succeeds in transforming the actor himself into Maciste. The name Bartolomeo Pagano all but disappeared from the media, to be replaced by the name Maciste – onscreen and off.
Whether the setting of the film was historical, as in Cabiria, or contemporary, as in Maciste, the character came to represent a nationalistic ideal of virile and paternal strength. Film historian Pierre Sorlin points out that “the same description applies perfectly to his contemporary, Benito Mussolini.” And Sorlin goes on to say, “Fascists never used Maciste for their propaganda, but the character perfectly fitted the kind of human being they wanted to promote.” Mussolini himself did not use movies to spread propaganda until the 1930s, relying instead on a combination of personal appearances, self-penned newspaper articles and radio. He did finally open the Cinecitta film studio in 1937 to promote Italian and fascist ideals. Perhaps the cinema didn’t interest Mussolini until he, through it, could talk.
Many members of the Cabiria crew also found employment on the Maciste series. Set decorator Luigi Romano Borgnetto and cinematographer Vincenzo Dénizot went on to co-direct Maciste. Cinematographer Giovanni Tomatis lensed a number of Maciste films for Dénizot. Although the crew was somewhat consistent throughout the series, Pagano’s co-stars rarely appeared in more than one film. Leone Papa and Clementina Gay both had brief movie careers, and the first Maciste is the only production they ever appeared in together.
The legend of Maciste spread with the international distribution of his films. According to a 1917 New York Times article, “Maciste is the Douglas Fairbanks of Italy. As a matter of fact, he out-Fairbanks Fairbanks, since he is almost twice as big as our own favorite athletic actor…Maciste makes the whole Austrian army shake in its boots.” Just how exaggerated the perception of Maciste’s prowess became is evident in excerpts from two further 1917 New York Times articles: “Film fans the world over know Pagano as Maciste, who, being eight or nine feet in height, is the possessor of strength in proportion,” and, “Maciste and a company of players were in Austria [and] were interned before they could return to Italy, but, through the ingenuity and daring of Maciste, finally succeeded in escaping and crossing the border.”
Pagano retired from the movies in 1928, before the introduction of sound. In 1941, Carlo Campogalliani, the director of La trilogia di Maciste (The Maciste Trilogy, 1920), tried to convince Pagano to appear in an adventure film so he could re-introduce Maciste to contemporary audiences. Pagano refused, supposedly due to an arthritic condition. The “peplum” or “sword and sandal” genre was revived in 1958 by the Italian production Hercules, starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves. Maciste continued to haunt Campogalliani, so two years later he re-launched the hero with his 1960 production Maciste nella valle dei re (Maciste in the Valley of the Kings, also known as Son of Samson), with Brooklyn bodybuilder Lou Degni filling the role of Maciste. In order to capitalize on the popularity of Steve Reeves, Degni was given the more Americanized name of Mark Forest.
Unlike Hercules or Samson, who are heroes from a distant, mythical past, Maciste came to life in the twentieth century. From his first appearance in his own film, he wasn’t a hero of ancient Rome but merely a working-class actor, employed by the Itala Film studio. He was an ordinary man in possession of extraordinary strength and bravery, who was, in the words of film scholar Monica Dall’Asta, “a true mythical hero of the masses.”
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Donald Sosin