When one thinks of the idea of the Epic Film, what does that entail? Does it generally speak to the length of the film, the subject of the film itself, or a combination of both? There have been many lengthy films made throughout cinema history, with films such as Sátántangó (1994) and Shoah (1985), which come in at 439 and 566 minutes, respectively. With that said, they do not meet the criteria of Epic films, with Sátántangó being a long drama and Shoah a documentary film. Films of the past are not inherently Epic films either, with movies such as Jezebel (1938) and The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) taking place in the past, with Jezebel being a period piece pre-Civil War New Orleans and Zatoichi a movie set in feudal Japan. Even though these films took place in the past, neither of them are Epic films, as they do not provide the Epic feeling of films classified as such. The reason for their classifications not meeting the standards of the films is that each of these movies lacks what all Epic motion pictures have: the majestic settings, the landscapes pictured, and the cinematic technological improvements that helped establish the Epic film.
The establishment of the 'Epic' film came from another medium's past: the poem. The idea of the past emanates significantly throughout the poems that we relate to as 'Epic'. Verses from The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Aeneid created stories about mythical historical events. As a basis, the poems revolve around prominent events in the past, with some utilizing a narrator. Their goal was to tell a story of great men from a forgotten era and make them the quality of person people should strive to be (Okpewho, 2009). Most scholarly studies do not deny the idea of these poems not being of epic proportions, due to the idea of what individuals should seek, instead focusing on what makes up their essence. Modern critics see the status quo of these ancient poems arranged around an individual (Feeney, 1986). The idea is that the writers of these 'epic' poems not only focus on an individual but also focus on the performance as the narrators, audience, and physical location played a role in the dramatization of the theater production (Okpewho, 2009). These elements translated well to a different medium, leading to the idea of the epic jumping from the page to the silver screen.
Figure 1. Unknown. (nd) A tablet of the Epic Poem The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The jump to motion pictures for the 'Epic' changed many things for the new entertainment medium. Instead of films predominantly being short films, filmmakers started to increase the time of their movies. With new durations came new settings. When the Italian filmmakers made the first lengthy films in the early 1910s, two filmmakers specifically, D.W. Griffth (1875-1948) and Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959), saw the possibilities of films on a grander scale (Sobchack, 1990). Their ideas for longer films kickstarted the 'Epic' Hollywood film. These movies drew from enshrined past cultures from different periods, such as Egyptian, Biblical, Classical, Mythical, and the American past (Bryant, 2014). Each era had several films present themselves, with both Griffith and DeMille focusing on the U.S. South and Biblical eras, respectively, with Birth of A Nation (1915) and both versions of The Ten Commandments (1923) and (1956). While directors made films about these periods, they did not have the scale or size of the settings that each 'Epic' film provided. Even if the idea of the Biblical epic could dissuade people from seeing the movie, studio heads saw opportunities to sell people on the settings with the excitement and thrills of the era (Hall, 2002). What set Epic films apart from other films was that each historical period struck a chord with audiences by providing that lengthy dramatic experience.
Even with the settings being an established entity in Epic films, what made these films distinguishable were the landscapes of each film. Regardless of being a film or stage epic, the landscape provides a spectacle and adds substance to the visual magnificence (Ambrose, 2016). An example of this is Ben-Hur (1959). As an audience, we understand that Ancient Rome had chariot races, such as the iconic one in this film, because of the reinforcement of this moment in other films during Ancient Rome, such as prior versions of the Ben-Hur story (Tashiro, 2004). Another film that provides this inclusion is A City of Sadness (1989), with dynamic landscape shots that are not prevalent in non-epic films, along with the action of the unfortunate massacres the movie presents (Andrew, 2016). While the film does not share the settings of Hollywood epics, the movie provides another marquee moment of the past, which is the landscape of the epic genre. Even with the setting and scenery providing the functional basis of what epic film is, the new technological advances in filmmaking helped create this film genre.
Figure 2. Wyler, W. (1959). Ben-Hur [Still]
For epic films, two different eras brought innovation to filmmaking. DeMille's original The Ten Commandments used a new two-color Technicolor technique to bring color to the film, which he used in the Biblical prologue scene (Ambrose, 2016). This effect, while expensive, changed the idea that film could be not only black and white but also provide some coloration depth to the grand scenes and their grand production designs. There were other epics throughout the early to mid-1920s, but none of them had the foresight to utilize the continuing advances in filmmaking like The Ten Commandments.
While film studios continued to make epic films, there was a decrease in the size and the scope, especially starting around the prominence of television. Between the years 1946 to 1953, film revenues declined by roughly 25% (Nadel, 1993). To change the course of dwindling returns on films, studios partnered and even purchased new film camera inventions. Widescreen formats such as CinemaScope and Vistavision helped create a new cinematic experience that television could not offer at that time. Specifically, the unique aspect ratio helped directors change the scope of films by not relying directly on close-ups of specific actors but by using large crowd shots, panoramic views, and returning to filming on large sets (Bryant, 2014). Studio heads returned to the grandiose epic films of the past, with films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) and having stylized sets and scenes. Due to the effort the film production companies put in, audiences returned, and the epic genre peaked in production during this period (Sobchack, 1990).
Figure 3. Lean, D. (1962) Lawrence of Arabia.
The epic film genre laid its foundation in the past, not only through its medium predecessor but also in its style of filmmaking. The movies that resonate with this type of film tend to be long but highly elaborate in their settings and design. Even though the genre is not prevalent in today's filmmaking, the style did not die. Films such as There Will Be Blood (2007) continue to inspire audiences with the over-the-top effects and expansive landscapes. These films resonate within the epic film genre because of the exquisite settings, the lavish landscapes, and the continuous camera innovations they use to tell the epic story on film.
Ambrose, A.N. (2016). Appealing to the “Movie Mind”: The 1926 International Eucharistic Congress and the Rise of Epic Film in America. U.S. Catholic Historian, 34(3), 51-73, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26156325
Andrew, D. (2016). Time for Epic Cinema in an Age of Speed. Cinema Journal, 55(2), 135-146. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44072421
Bryant, M. (2014). Epic Encounters: The Modernist Long Poem Goes to the Movies. Journal of Modern Literature, 37(4), 70-90. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.37.4.70
Feeney, D.C. (1986). Epic Hero and Epic Fable. Comparative Literature, 38(2), 137-158. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1771065
Hall, S. (2002). Selling Religion: How to Market a Biblical Epic. Film History, 14(2), 170-185. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3815620
Nadel, A. (1993). God’s Law and the Wide Screen: The Ten Commandments as Cold War “Epic”. PMLA, 108(3), 415-430, https://www.jstor.org/stable/462612
Okpewho, I. (2009). Rethinking Epic. Storytelling, Self, Society, 5(3), 218-242. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41949032
Sobchack, V. (1990). “Surge and Splendor”: A phenomenology of the Hollywood Historical Epic. Representations, (29), 24-49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2928417
Tashiro, C. (2004). Passing for the Past: Production Design and the Historical Film. Cinéaste, 29(2), 40-44. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41689713
Cover Image: Griffith, D.W. (1916). Intolerance [Still]. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Intolerance-film-by-Griffith
Figure 1: Unknown. (nd). A tablet of the Epic Poem The Epic of Gilgamesh [Photograph]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Gilgamesh
Figure 2: Wyler, W. (1959). Ben-Hur [Still]. https://www.slashfilm.com/1009853/charlton-heston-had-one-worry-when-it-came-to-ben-hurs-famous-chariot-race/
Figure 3: Lean, D. (1962) Lawrence of Arabia [Still]. https://www.reddit.com/r/MovieDetails/comments/i0oi5z/in_the_pivotal_attack_on_aqaba_in_lawrence_of/