The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema

The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema

by Jacqueline Reich


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Italian film star Bartolomeo Pagano's "Maciste" played a key role in his nation’s narratives of identity during World War I and after. Jacqueline Reich traces the racial, class, and national transformations undergone by this Italian strongman from African slave in Cabiria (1914), his first film, to bourgeois gentleman, to Alpine soldier of the Great War, to colonial officer in Italy's African adventures. Reich reveals Maciste as a figure who both reflected classical ideals of masculine beauty and virility (later taken up by Mussolini and used for political purposes) and embodied the model Italian citizen. The 12 films at the center of the book, recently restored and newly accessible to a wider public, together with relevant extra-cinematic materials, provide a rich resource for understanding the spread of discourses on masculinity, and national and racial identities during a turbulent period in Italian history. The volume includes an illustrated appendix documenting the restoration and preservation of these cinematic treasures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253017451
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/19/2015
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jacqueline Reich is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. She is author of Beyond the Latin Lover (IUP, 2004) and Re-Viewing Fascism (IUP, 2002).

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The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema

By Jacqueline Reich

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Reich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01748-2


The Birth of the Strongman


ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL STATE RECORDS, BARTOLOMEO Pagano, the actor who was to gain national and international fame as Maciste, was born on 27 September 1878, at Via dei Marsano 9 in Sant'Ilario Ligure in the province of Genoa, Italy. The town, about ten miles to the east of the port city, was where he lived most of his life and where he died on 24 June 1947 at the age of sixty-nine in his home, the Villa Maciste. Little else is known about Pagano's life. The generally accepted story was that he was discovered by Itala Film while working as a stevedore at the Genoa port. He married Camilla Balduzzi, had one son, Oreste, in 1916, and suffered from sleepwalking after a severe fall (a fact that excused him from military service before and during World War I). He eventually retired from filmmaking not, as was often the case, due to the advent of sound, but because of a severe case of diabetes and arteriosclerosis. The salary he received for his work on Cabiria was 20 Italian lire per day; by 1921 he was making close to 17,000 lire per month, an extraordinary fee for a male actor at that time.

While verifiable biographical information on Pagano is sparse, publicity materials are copious. What emerges from the first moment his name appears in print is a complete and total (con)fusion between character and actor. Mostly it is the character, Maciste, and not the actor, Pagano, who is front and center. Only one printed interview with Pagano exists, and it appeared identically in two different periodicals in 1924, under two different titles: "Un'intervista con Maciste" (An Interview with Maciste) and '"Maciste, il gigante buono.' Intervista con Bartolomeo Pagano" (Maciste, the Gentle Giant: An Interview with Bartolomeo Pagano). In both texts the same anonymous interviewers consistently refer to Pagano as Maciste. Even when the journalist notes how, at the Villa Maciste, Maciste returns to "becoming" Pagano, he essentially remains "in character," "with an elastic gait" and described as an "eminent man of action," reinforcing his classical physique. The writer stresses Maciste's attachment to his castle, which he bought from "the fruits of his labor" and built with his "Herculean" strength; the work that takes three days is done in one (clearly Rome was built in a day here). The writer also reinforces Maciste's tie to the earth and, by extension, Italy, symbolized by his great love for gardening. The fact that Liguria, the region in which Genoa resides, is "in his body and courses through his veins" signals a possible reference to the city's most famous denizen, Christopher Columbus, and his status as world traveler who longed for the motherland.

This fusion of character and actor had legal ramifications. Twice Pagano found himself in the courtroom over legal disputes pertaining to the ownership of Maciste's brand name, prompted first by the Maciste series' move to Germany in 1922 and then its subsequent return to Italy and Turin's FERT Studio in 1923. The first legal action, dated February 1923, was brought by Itala Film against Karol Film, the producers of the German films, in an attempt to prevent the German company from using the name Maciste in their productions. On 20 July 1923 a Berlin court ruled in Itala Film's favor, forcing Pagano to return to Italy or face grave economic penalty. Once back in Italy, Pagano sued Itala Film in return for the rights to the character Maciste, a battle he won in the courts twice in 1923 on both initial judgment and appeal.

Itala Film's original case against Pagano was personal and brutal. Their argument was that Pagano no longer had the physique to represent Maciste's "type," and that he was "neither Othello or Cyrano or even Charles Chaplin.... Maciste is always Maciste, and with the contract expired we can always find another one." What both of these court cases reveal is the economic importance of the brand as well as the fusion of character and actor, even in the minds of the court. It ultimately ruled that Pagano and "Maciste" were indistinguishable; that Itala Film had exploited that connection in the production, advertising, and marketing of the film and series; and that, ironically, its lawsuit against Karol Film had discounted its own legal standing. The court concluded that Maciste was an individual, not a type, and that Pagano was the only actor who could portray him on screen, much like, as the tribunal argued, only Chaplin could play the Little Tramp. Pagano and Maciste were ruled inseparable, and their stardom was consistently rising throughout the 1920s.

Other press pieces stressed the issue of his national significance. The interviews cited above claim that while working in Berlin, Pagano insisted on being paid in Italian lire, not German marks. The 1926 biographical publicity booklet Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) affirms (or rather exaggerates) his regional and national prestige, referring to him as someone with a face that was "characteristic of the good, Ligurian race" and as a "Modern Hercules" (4). "No Italian is more famous abroad than he is: as an exceptional artist, with natural gifts, and for the love of art, Maciste honors our Cinema and our country in Italy and beyond" (2). The writer continues, citing a previous observation in the periodical Al Cinema: "Bartolomeo Pagano ... was born an artist: coming into this world he was already destined to become the high priest of the Tenth Muse, a representative of Cinema on the Olympus of the Arts" (4).

This chapter examines the interplay of cinema, stardom, genre, and the national in the Italian film industry's first two decades in order to contextualize this Maciste/Pagano trajectory. I argue that the Maciste films, in coming into their own as a unique and highly successful genre, did not emerge out of nowhere; instead they borrowed heavily from the previous generic codes and conventions of Italian and French early cinema. The comic film and the historical film in particular are the two main sources of inspiration for the fusion of nationalism, heroism, and humor that characterized this distinctive series. On the one hand, the Maciste films drew on their comic predecessors in a variety of ways: with their reoccurring motif of the chase; their use of humor and irony, especially in the intertitles; and the interplay between character and star. On the other hand, the muscled male star of the historical epics and later the strongman films came to the fore as the modern-day Herculean national icon, a secular rather than sacred hero.

Early Italian cinema's male heroes were markedly worldly and markedly nationalized. As I discussed in the introduction, the rise of nationalism affected the positioning of the male body in the emerging mass media of early twentieth-century Italy, and the Italian strongman's muscles, particularly those of Maciste, functioned as the visual personification of modern Italian masculine citizenship. As Maurizia Boscagli has argued, the male body in the twentieth century was "also a hegemonic medium of mass interpellation" that "must always be assessed within the historical conditions of its production." What sustained the projection of nationalist ideas onto the male body were classical ideals of masculine beauty that Italian cinema furthered and popularized to an unprecedented extent. The Italian film industry had relied on classical mythology since its inception, epitomized in the historical epics for which it was world-renowned: for its collective cultural symbols, for its narrative inspiration and structure (particularly in the hero's screen representation), and for the construction of stardom."

We know from Roland Barthes that myths have an ideological function: they serve to naturalize and normalize what is cultural and constructed. In the case of Maciste, his diegetic association with the Ancient Roman Empire (he is an African slave in Cabiria) and his subsequent metamorphosis into modern hero drew on the classical myths of the heroic Roman soldier, the new turn-of-the-century parables of patriotic heroism, and a popular charismatic appeal through his athletic ability and his comedic geniality. The highest-paid female stars of the day projected a celestial otherworldliness highlighting their detachment from the everyday world. Conversely, Italian cinema firmly grounded its male counterparts in everyday life, no matter how great their physical gifts or mental acumen. The Maciste series fused classical genealogy and modern nationalism into popular iconic Italian stardom, one that would produce a unique hybrid genre that resonated within the Italian peninsula and beyond its borders.


The second decade of the twentieth century marked fundamental shifts and radical changes in modern Italian politics, culture, and society. Its first years signaled the beginning of Italy's renewed colonialist expansion, this time into Libya; the initiation of reforms that would bring about universal male suffrage; and its increasing economic progress and presence on an international political scene despite internal strife and large waves of emigration. Intellectually and artistically, it witnessed the national and international prominence of the avant-garde futurist movement and the continued expansion of its domestic film industry, particularly with forays into multi-reel and soon feature-length productions, represented by the pioneering epics La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy, Itala Film, 1910) and Linferno (Dante's Inferno, Milano Films, 1911). The year 1911 marked the commemoration of the nation's first jubilee, which provided an opportunity to exalt and consecrate the national myths of the Third Italy, fusing the glories of Ancient Rome, humanism, and the Renaissance with the adoration of the heroes and heroics of the Risorgimento in light of Italy's march toward freedom, monarchic democracy, and modernization. It was an opportunity for those across a wide political spectrum to celebrate the economic, social, and political progress made during the Italian nation's first fifty years as well as the promise of future glories and conquests.

One highlight of these celebrations was the inauguration of a national monument in Rome, the Altare della Patria (the Altar of the Fatherland), in honor of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of the united Italy (fig. 1.1). Commissioned in 1878 after the king's death, and designed by Giuseppe Sacconi, an architect who would not live to see his work completed, the monument was meant to constitute a lay, symbolic space that would be capable of conveying the Italian state formation and, simultaneously, secularize Papal Rome into an appropriate capital for the Liberal state. Construction began in 1885; its official completion, following the addition of the country's tomb of the unknown soldier, came only in 1921. Its impending construction forced alterations to the city's geography, taking the phrase "all roads lead to Rome" literally; city planners rerouted streets away from the Vatican to lead to the Piazza Venezia, where the monument would stand. With its beaux arts style, the monument, representing both the classical (the Dea Romana) and the pagan (King Vittorio Emanuele II), fused "ancient unity of Italy and the reborn Italian nation," a fact reinforced by its deliberate proximity to the Roman Forum and other ancient ruins. Moreover, as the embodiment of the new state religion, the Altare della Patria communicated a national spirit and identity, most visible in its classically posed and chiseled muscular male bodies.

The Altare della Patria serves as an objective correlative for many of the variant discourses that converge in and around the Maciste films: the fusion of and transition from antiquity to modernity; the rise of nationalism; and the importance of the heroic male body, both sculpted and sepulchered, for the construction of the ideal Italian citizen. Throughout this chapter references to the Maciste series and Pagano's stardom serve as examples of these convergences. Italian cinema's first years coincided and coexisted with these cultural forces, with which it also engaged both on screen in the types of films that populated early cinematic exhibition, and off screen, in what was being written about the new medium, especially in relation to stardom.

The early twentieth-century Italian political landscape revealed various attempts to construct a civic religion, what the historian Emilio Gentile defines as "a system of beliefs, values, myths, rituals, and symbols that confer an aura of sanctity ... [on] a political entity, and on the country's institutions, history, and destiny in the world." During the profoundly anticlerical disposition of post-unification Italy, moves to popularize patriotic religion through rituals and celebrations of the new nation-state sought to find ways to "make Italians." Nationalism was the most powerful and effective concretization of this sacralization of politics. It conferred "a sacred aura on their political institutions, to exalt the fundamental principles and values of the national community, and to cultivate a collective identity among its citizens, which required them to feel a sense of duty, loyalty, and devotion toward both state and nation," culminating in the Fascist regime's institutionalized celebration of its various constitutional symbols, beliefs and rituals.

At the same time, film emerges as its own civic religion, a new, secular place of worship that is tied to the national from its inception. Cinema became a sacred site of popular culture and created its own rituals (film-going), sites of worship (theaters), and gods (stars, or divas and divos) as objects of worship and devotion. And just as the extra-cinematic discourse can mythologize actors into divine creatures, "myths and rituals can also be the spontaneous expression of the masses" as audiences play a fundamental role in creating stars. Spectators consume the stars, whom they worship and who, in turn, particularly during the silent era, allow themselves to be worshipped. Sociologist Edgar Morin, one of the first to theorize stardom in the 1950s (and thus one of the first observers of the phenomenon before the multiplications of mass media), writes:

The star is like a patron saint to whom the faithful dedicate themselves, but who must also to a certain degree dedicate himself to the faithful. Furthermore, the worshipper always desires to consume his god. From the cannibal repasts in which the ancestor was eaten, and the totemic feasts in which the sacred animal was devoured, down to our own religious communion and receiving of the Eucharist, every god is created to be eaten - that is, incorporated, assimilated.

Cinema thus assumes an essentially polytheistic pagan form; theaters are the new modern temples and places of worship, and stars are the new gods, both human and immortal idols of worship.

Similarly, the Italian words adopted for stars - diva and divo, literally translated as "goddess" and "god" - betray this religious imprint, proposing an otherworldliness, a separation from mortal individuals' average and everyday existence. The Italian word divismo appeared as a general term in reference to Italian stardom in both Italian contemporary periodicals and film histories of the period. Divismo and the female divas had their antecedents in lyric opera and the dramatic theater that filled Europe's major theaters in the nineteenth century. The most important theatrical actresses of the day - Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse - became the models, both for their onstage performances and off-stage popularity, for the screen divas. The case of Lyda Borelli, who was a popular stage actress before she made her film debut, further reveals the continuities between stage and film stardom.

In Italy what materializes is a portrait of a national film production that lacks an institutional structure that could consistently discover and manufacture stars, as did most national cinemas in the 1910s. Nevertheless, it produces some of the most significant star phenomena of the silent period in Europe and abroad. In the early 1910s these stars' potential gross at the box office as attractions for the public made them valuable commodities. Rival studios, both national and international, would bid and attempt to woo such stars in order to bolster their own respective productions and profits. Early cinema's cross-cultural and international distributional exchanges, while at first involving early film production - generally one-reel films - eventually came to include actors, such as the Danish Asta Nielsen, who established their popularity simultaneously in their native countries and abroad. The major turning point for film stardom in Italy was not a homegrown entity, but rather Nielsen herself. Her 1910 film Afgrunden, directed by Urban Gad and released as Labisso (The Abyss) in Italy and Woman Always Pays in the United States, featured the wild-haired and wide-eyed actress performing a highly erotic dance and made her an international sensation. In many ways Nielsen became the model for the diva and her on-/off-screen persona. The rise of stardom in Italian silent cinema also benefited from significant industrial developments that occurred between 1910 and 1913: the standardization of film stock; the movement toward full-length feature films; better-structured distribution and exhibition networks; and the emergence of effective promotion strategies and critical discourses pervading the trade press, film magazines, and daily newspapers?


Excerpted from The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema by Jacqueline Reich. Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Reich. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Maciste?
1. The Birth of the Strongman: Italian Silent Cinema, Stardom, and Genre
2. From Slave to Master: Cabiria (1914) and Maciste (1915)
3. Maciste Goes to War: Maciste alpino (1916)
4. Over There: The Maciste Series, World War I, and American Film Culture
5. Love, Labor and Leadership: The Modernity of the Maciste Series, 1919-1922
6. Muscling the Nation: Benito Mussolini and the Maciste Films of the 1920s
Conclusion: The Giant of the Dolomites and Beyond
Appendix: Claudia Gianetto and Stella Dagna
Part I: The Restoration of the Maciste Series
Part II: In Focus: Scene Analyses
Part III: Filmography

What People are Saying About This

University of Notre Dame - John P. Welle

At long last, this carefully researched, clearly written and theoretically informed star study offers a fascinating and multi-faceted portrait of one of the most intriguing — and heretofore elusive — figures in the history of silent film. Employing a full range of interdisciplinary approaches, together with a thorough examination of archival resources and a masterful synthesis of historical details, Jacqueline Reich's The Maciste Films of Italian Silent Cinema marks a major contribution to film scholarship.

David May Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis - Gaylyn Studlar

...a brilliant contribution to the study of stardom in silent film. Reich combines stylish writing, deep historical research, and intellectual sophistication to tell the story of an overlooked star from one of the most important periods of Italian cinema. Engaging in a wide-ranging but carefully considered examination of extra-cinematic and cinematic discourses, including recently restored prints, Reich persuasively argues that Maciste’s populist appeal as an icon of masculinity linked to national identity demonstrates the power of cinematic stardom to merge political and visual culture in sometimes unexpected and startling ways.

editor of Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader - Giorgio Bertellini

By weaving together questions of stardom, genre, and national ideology through groundbreaking archival research, Dr. Reich’s reading of Maciste provides a fantastically rich and exceptional contribution to star studies, Italian studies, and film history.

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