If you want something visual that’s not too abysmal /
We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie.” — The Rocky Horror Picture Show
It’s the hair that kills you, in the early photographs — it’s a little too high, a little too wing-shaped, a little too giddily bouffant-ish. I’m talking about photos from 1946, 1947, back when Steve Reeves was a 20-year-old winning his first major bodybuilding tournaments. Here’s this huge, muscular kid, aw-shucks grin on his face, practically naked, posing in his little trunks, and somehow his hair is the only remotely salacious thing about him. It wants to be looked at, but it doesn’t want to want to be looked at. This isn’t Elvis in a go-fuck-yourself-ma’am pompadour; we’re in the immediate post–World War II years, and American bodybuilding is still slightly awkwardly presenting itself as a bulwark of clean living and sound morals, basically just a well-toned Scout troop. Some of the black-and-white photos from, say, Reeves’s two wins at the Mr. Pacific Coast contest show him posing with, or lifting, pretty girls in frank satiny bikinis, who I guess played some sort of facilitative role onstage, and they’re all, Reeves and the girls, breath-catchingly good-looking, and they’re wearing maybe three ounces of clothing between them, and from the looks on their faces they might as well be in a Norman Rockwell painting. Sex is like a rumor they’re choosing not to believe.
It seems peculiar, now, this modesty. How do you reconcile it with the basic fact of the setting? And yet: One of the guys who dominated early-modern bodybuilding was John Grimek — he won the first two Mr. America competitions, in 1940 and 1941 — and one of the reasons he dominated was simply that he practiced posing. His competitors worked out like mad, then showed up at the venue hall with no clear concept of how they were going to display themselves. Maybe they found the whole idea of prancing around in a swimsuit a little embarrassing. That’s why Reeves’s hair, with its tiny admission of carnality, strikes me, I’m sorry, as a profound and in some ways frightening cultural object. You can look at these photos and immediately, intuitively grasp the slide of not just bodybuilding but also American culture from Greatest Generation decency right through big cars and flannel suits and bell-bottoms and out the polyester-narcissist airlock of the 1970s. Bodybuilding’s future, the porn ‘staches and supplement scams and science-project hyper-hypertrophying, is hovering right there.1 These guys were plants growing toward a light they had no idea was about to burn them whole. And Steve Reeves was, in some important way, the first one to break into flower.
A few years later, he accomplished his more obvious and celebrated first — the first bodybuilder to become a movie star, the first one, a generation before Arnold, to crack the aesthetic-athletic-entertainment code and remake himself as a quasi-mainstream celebrity. But you could tell a long time before it happened, is what I’m saying. He was, as he declared in his most famous movie role, “too hungry to help it.”
Given the extent to which Schwarzenegger saw Reeves’s career as the model, or at least the beta version, of his own,2 their backgrounds are strikingly different. Schwarzenegger was the son of an abusive small-town police chief, stably but unhappily settled in Thal, Austria; Reeves was a kid from rural Montana who moved around with his mother before finally landing in Oakland, California. Schwarzenegger, with his weirdly clinical willfulness, settled on bodybuilding as a career path very early on and undeviatingly pursued his own advancement. Reeves wandered into weightlifting the way most people wander into it, drawn by pictures in magazines, and stuck with it mostly because he liked it and because he was good at it.
Let’s be clear about that: He was phenomenally good at it. He was naturally gifted in a way that still makes other bodybuilders very sincerely freak out. During his first four months of training, he put on 30 pounds of muscle, which is obviously ludicrous. There are stories about crowds sort of helplessly following him around as he walked on Muscle Beach — he had that kind of charisma. When he first started competing in earnest, not long after coming back from WWII,3 it took him about six seconds to break into the upper echelon of the sport. Apart from his two Mr. Pacific Coast wins in the mid-’40s, he won Mr. America in 1947 (the year Schwarzenegger was born), Mr. World in 1948, and Mr. Universe in 1950. He showed up on about a million magazine covers — Adonis: The Magazine of the Male Physique (“America’s Favorite Bodybuilder, Original Painting by George Quaintance”), Strength & Health (“Meet the New Mr. America, Twenty Cents”), Muscle Builder (“HOW I Gained 50 Pounds of Man Muscles FAST!”). By the late Truman years, boys who saw Charles Atlas ads and fantasized about not having sand kicked in their faces were mostly fantasizing about being Steve Reeves.
He wanted to be a movie star. I mean, of course he did. He couldn’t act, but he was stupefyingly handsome and — I think you could probably feel this in the air in the early ’50s — the whole erotic unconscious mind of film was poised to fall hard for muscles.4 He swung a part in the 1954 schlock-comedy Athena (“an old-fashioned conservative lawyer falls in love with the daughter of a family of fitness fanatics”). He played a cop in Ed Wood’s crime-drama simulacrum Jail Bait, randomly wandering through scenes with his shirt off; he’s inept, but then, it’s an Ed Wood movie:
The problem, fame-wise, was that there wasn’t really a filmic mode in the early- to mid-’50s in which a male non-actor could appear plausibly starlike simply by having a mind-blowingly great body. Comedies and noir dramas depended on plot and dialogue, all those antique levers that took specialized skills to work. Plus you mostly wore clothes in them. The right vehicle didn’t find Reeves until 1957, when he flew to Italy to star in Le fatiche di Ercole, The Labors of Hercules, released in the U.S. as just Hercules. Hercules was an international hit, made Reeves a star, and opened the gates for a million pepla, the cheerfully low-budget mythsploitation films that came pouring out of Italy in the late ’50s and 1960s, many of them also featuring Reeves. Hercules also set the pattern for any number of future strong-dude-interacts-with-special-effects action films; it’s not an exaggeration to say Conan the Barbarian probably never happens without it.5 Before Reeves made Hercules, filmmakers basically saw bodybuilders as a curiosity. Then he made it, and the Biceps of Doom era arrived.
Hercules is a terrible movie, but it’s terrible in such a daffy camp way that it’s extremely easy to like. Maybe you’ve seen it. For years, it was a staple of late-Saturday-night, unswept-corner-of-the-cable-box programming, old-fashioned Mystery Science Theater territory (and in fact the sequel, 1959’s Hercules Unchained, got the MST3K treatment in 1992). If you haven’t watched it, you can get the flavor pretty quickly by skimming the script for the trailer, which goes sort of like this:
“RISING LIKE A COLOSSUS FROM THE LEGENDS AND MYTHS OF ANTIQUITY — COMES THE SCREEN’S MIGHTIEST SPECTACLE”
[Whooshing green letters] “MIGHTY AS THE MAN WHO LIVED IT”
[Voice yells] “Herculeeeeeeeeees!”
[Whooshing red letters] “HERCULES”
[Booming male voice over shots of Hercules fighting, throwing discuses, wrestling lions, carrying diaphanously clad swooning princesses, etc. ]
“Immense and immortal was the strength of Hercules! Savage and sensual was the world of Hercules! Lavishly produced amid pagan palaces on Mediterranean shores, where Hercules lived, loved, and awed his fellow men!”
“Here is fascinating drama, epic in scope, of palace intrigue and murder, of deeds reckless and heroic!”
“The great curse and labors laid upon Hercules!”
“A love so great it defied the gods!”
“Hercules, a legend undimmed in thousands of years!”
It goes on like that for another solid minute (“The voyage to distant lands! The attack of the monkey-men!”), but you get the idea. The actual movie is in pretty much the same vein of merry Technicolor plot-salad. Hercules/Reeves rips a tree out of the ground to throw in the path of a runaway chariot, falls in love with the princess being run away with thereon, travels to her father’s court, throws a discus really far, takes a young Ulysses under his wing, kills the Nemean lion in a not-totally-implausible bit of pre-CGI beast fighting, rides the Cretan bull, which looks like a two-month-old bison, sails away with Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece, finds the Golden Fleece, cavorts with some grape-dangling Amazons, is chained to pillars by the hostile and (it turns out) fratricidal king, goes Full Samson on the pillars, kills a bunch of gladius-fodder guards, installs Jason on the throne, pats Ulysses on the head, marries the princess, and sails away into an orange-lit background painting, all in a lean 1 hour, 47 minutes. The film’s Wikipedia page declares that the screenplay “is loosely based upon the myths of Hercules and the Greek epic poem Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes,” which, it’s pretty clear, were consulted scrupulously during filming.
What’s interesting about all this, to me, is … well, let’s start at the beginning. Both bodybuilding and action movies occupy weird conceptual positions within their respective spheres. Bodybuilding is simultaneously the most hyper-masculine sport in existence (muscles!) and the most classically effeminate (posing! subjective aesthetic judging! kind of a beauty pageant!). Action movies are the films simultaneously most obsessed with the power and perfectibility of the human body (muscles!) and most fascinated and haunted by its vulnerability (frequent extreme death!).6 These strands of continuum-uniting paradox come together, very strangely, in the way we imagine the ancient world — the pre-Christian, Greco-Roman-Barbarian world of mythology picture-books and crappy sword-and-sandals epics.
Here’s what I mean by that. Early bodybuilding was literally an attempt to embody Greek and Roman standards of beauty; to the point that Eugen Sandow, the father of modern bodybuilding, went to museums to take measurements. Sandow was also famously photographed — with strategically placed fig leaves! — mimicking the poses of famous statues, and other early-20th century bodybuilders took that concept in some crazy directions. The winner of the first-ever bodybuilding contest, the “Great Competition” Sandow hosted in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1901,7 toured England staging mock-gladiatorial combats and Roman games.
And there’s a circular connection between Grecian Ideal–derived bodybuilding and gods-and-heroes movies, in that the latter didn’t fully take off as a popular art form until they started staffing themselves with practitioners of the former. Which didn’t happen because anybody thought, Whoa, these guys look like late Hellenistic sculptures, but because, just almost coincidentally, muscles are amazing to watch on film and naturally lend themselves to stories about the prerogatives and limits of physical power. As a result, not just Hercules and Conan but Spartacus, Perseus, King Leonidas, Thor, Hector, all the oaken-fleshed demigods of yesteryear come to us looking like they just walked out of Sandow’s gym,8 and thus like they just walked out of the Louvre. You can play a medieval knight with a relatively normal physique — you’re in full armor, after all — but try strapping on a Bronze Age shield with a sub–Mr. Universe body and you come away looking silly. Russell Crowe (Gladiator) probably came closest, and his biceps are the size of Pomeranians. Brad Pitt (as Achilles in Troy) looked like he’d spent six months preacher-curling the Trojan Horse.
And it goes back to Reeves in Hercules. Whatever all this says about America and Europe and sex and violence and history and death, and I don’t think it’s ineloquent, his was the richly overdubbed comedy-baritone voice that said it first.
But there’s a further distinction to draw here between Reeves as Hercules and Schwarzenegger as Conan. The sentimental subplot in Hercules revolves around the hero’s decision to surrender his divine powers, including his immortality, in order to experience human love. (“I have always wanted a family!” Hercules booms at the Cretan Sibyl.) The plot of Conan, by contrast, turns on the glowering barbarian’s relentless quest to win power and destroy his enemies, even at the cost of multiple girlfriends and a lot of vaguely PTSD solitary-roamer-of-deserts-style loneliness. This — that unexpected inversion of Hollywood sentimentality — helps make Conan the Barbarian a better movie than the easygoing Hercules. But it’s also a vastly more reactionary and mean-spirited one.
And I mean … you don’t exactly need a compass here, right? Steve Reeves, who was happy to play all this for laughs as long as he got to play it at all, became the highest-paid actor in Europe, cheerfully turned down the chance to star in both A Fistful of Dollars and Dr. No, and retired early after dislocating his shoulder in an on-set chariot accident.9 He lived quietly with his wife in California, where he bred horses and was apparently pretty content. Occasionally he’d release statements about how drugs were damaging bodybuilding.10 He died in 2000. Schwarzenegger kept sharpening his jawline, took over Hollywood, smirked around a lot of cigars, went into politics, and emerged as a sort of supernova of self-justifying American egotism. Reeves once said that if he could push a button and be himself in Hercules or push a button and be Schwarzenegger in Conan, he’d push the Hercules button. He was talking about bodybuilding aesthetics. But I kind of hope I would, too.
“You couldn’t be anyone but Hercules the Theban,” the princess says to Reeves when he saves her at the start of the movie. Thank goodness for him she was wrong.