Maciste – The First Superhero

R: Luigi Romano Borgnetto, Vincenzo Denizot. B: Agnes Fletcher Bain, Giovanni Pastrone. K: Augusto Battagliotti, Giovanni Tomatis. D: Bartolomeo Pagano, Ada Marangoni, Amelia Chellini, Didaco Chellini, Arline Costello, Louise Farnsworth, Leone Papa, Clementina Gay, Robert Ormand, Leone Papa. P: Itala Film. It 1915
Print: Cineteca di Bologna / EYE
Dutch titles, Engl. subtitles

“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. (…) 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. (…)

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. (…)  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. (…) 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.’”
Aimee Pavy
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

>>> Maciste alpino on this site