The definition of an “epic” film is one with a large, sweeping scope, depicting a historical (or mythical) event. It is bigger than a period piece, and sets the story of a hero against the historical backdrop. Critic Tim Dirks describes the recipe for an epic: “extravagant setting and lavish costumes, accompanied by grandeur and spectacle…They are expensive and lavish to produce, because they require elaborate and panoramic settings, on-location filming, authentic period costumes, inflated action on a massive scale and large casts of characters.” Within the epic genre, there are sub-genres. The Roman epic, such as Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 Cleopatra or the Russell Crowe Gladiator; Greek Classical epic, such as 1980’s Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts (I believe the expression that applies would be “special effects FTW”); the Biblical epic, one of the most popular sub-genres, including Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments; and the American Western epic, such as Cimarron and the aptly-titled, Giant. Not to mention biographical epics (both modern such as 1992’s Chaplin and older, 1936’s The Story of Louis Pasteur), with a sub-genre of a sub-genre in royal biographical epics, war epics (from the Civil War to WWII), adaptations of Russian novel epics, Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E.M. Forster novel epics, and countless others. Dirks also lists Star Wars (science fiction epic?), Apocalypse Now, Titanic (ship/sea/disaster epic?), Schindler’s List, and The Birth of a Nation (original!). I believe another qualification of an epic is sheer length. Cleopatra clocks in at over four hours. Spoiler, but Rex Harrison dies at hour two, and it kind of goes downhill from there. With the re-release of Titanic into theatres this past spring, there was a flurry of online activity of people wanting to know if the film had been cut, or if it was possible to sneak in to the theatre to only catch the second half, when the ship starts sinking. The action in an epic has a certain ebb and flow, and a good epic recognizes its own episodic nature (think early picaresque novels like Don Juan) and structures the plot accordingly.
“Epic” in slang terms, has also come to mean something wonderfully larger than life. An “epic” party is the best party anyone has ever given. An “epic” blog post is the most brilliant piece of literature anyone has ever composed. “Epic” in its true film sense can also be placed under this new slang version, at least in intention. Studios made epics and spent massive amounts of money and time in order to make more money than anyone had ever made off of one film. Box office records alone have been set and broken on epics from The Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind to Titanic, not to mention licensing fees, royalties, and hundreds of other fees Hollywood is still collecting. The “summer blockbuster” is technically a sub-genre of the epic, although the content is much looser. The first summer blockbusters were epics. Epics had the biggest stars, the best costumes, the newest technology. They also had the biggest hype. Gone with the Wind is the prime example. After conducting a nation-wide search for Scarlett O’Hara, that included one hopeful popping out of a cardboard box wearing a full 1860’s hoop skirt on producer David O. Selznick’s doorstep on Christmas Day, Selznick also burned down old sets on a backlot in a highly-publicized, invitation-only event. Everything about an epic from start to finish is larger than life. Sometimes larger than folklore.
Cleopatra will go down in history not as a milestone in cinematic history, but as a milestone in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s controversial and public love affair. Taylor was married at the time, and her husband was so irate with the reports he was receiving from the set, that he arrived in Europe to keep an eye on her. Too late. Taylor and Burton were married a few years later, divorced, and married again. Their sizzling scenes in Cleopatra are the focus for movie historians now, as the beginning of their affair, rather than because they are cinematic masterpieces. Ancient Rome or Greece were especially titillating settings because of the lush surroundings and risqué costumes. A producer could get away with Elizabeth Taylor in a bikini because it was “historical.” The sensual surroundings of the Roman stories combined with the real-life drama of the stars to create irresistible movie-going. The private lives of the stars were almost as epic, if not more so, than the films themselves. Spartacus, Kirk Douglas’s Roman epic, was made as a backlash against Charlton Heston’s more popular Ben-Hur. Douglas apparently was not pleased that less experienced Heston had gotten the coveted role in Ben-Hur, and even more displeased with his success, Academy acknowledgement, and instant fame, Douglas made Spartacus the very next year. Spartacus is startlingly similar to Ben-Hur, but Douglas’s performance is most definitely infused with an element of revenge. Sometimes he’s got this look in his eye like he really will kill someone. The tension between the two films and between Douglas and Hollywood, where he felt underappreciated and as if he had to prove himself time and again, fueled gossip and ticket sales. Ben-Hur is more well-known as a film, but who hasn’t heard the “I am Spartacus!” line that Tony Curtis utters parodied in some way?
Often, epics were based on books. During the Studio Era, producers were always reading new books and scouring classic literature for stories that would translate to film. Selznick was famed for his adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, minor epics, but stepping stones on Selznick’s path to Gone with the Wind, another novel adaptation. Dickens was a favorite, as Shakespeare always will be (from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet to Julie Taymor’s Titus). Greek and Roman myths and stories of Olympus or of emperors were popular. In the silent era, the Middle East was an area of fascination (The Sheik). America’s cannon was not as developed as the English or European cannon in literature at that time, but new fiction, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, were sought after instead. Galley proofs of new novels circulated within a studio. Rebecca was a new novel when Hitchcock picked it up in order to translate it to film. Early American authors didn’t translate especially well to film (although The Scarlet Letter was and continues to be attempted), but the newer works of Hemingway and his contemporaries did. Edna Ferber was an author and playwright who was most decidedly an American writer. Two of her novels, Cimarron and Giant, depicting the American West, were turned in to epics. The American West, its own genre of film, not to mention a complete sub-genre within epics, was a special area of interest in Hollywood. Stories about English mansions or Roman emperors were all well and good, but the American public wanted to see the American spirit. Novelists like Ferber were sought-after. Red River, one of the first “Westerns” is a small epic, but a clear forbearer of Giant. This “go West young man” spirit and interest, combined with lack of classical American literature, combined with the epic power and desire to make money, birthed the Western Epic.
Epics are sort of the annoyingly pretentious sibling of film genres. In my next series, I’ll look at a few epics , that seem especially pretentious or tiresome. Let me say- I do not love all epics equally. It’s not necessarily related to taste, either. My shelves hold at least 5 DVD sets of epics I started but couldn’t finish. The quaint costume drama Around the World in Eighty Days, 2001: A Space Odyssey (oh Stanley Kubrick, how wrong you can go and oh how right), Dr. Zhivago (which is a bit odd because I watched War and Peace starring Audrey Hepburn in one sitting), and more. My parents still have Ben-Hur on VHS, with the intermission music and titles, which I love. Ben-Hur was probably my first epic, and I do love it. Other “sword and sandal” epics like Cleopatra don’t thrill me as much. But, all this to say, epics are a genre like any other: with both thinkers and stinkers alike, all examined herein.
One of the key components of epics I haven’t mentioned yet is locale. This series is published in conjunction with ALL GOOD THINGS‘ 2012 Cinematic World Tour Blogathon. In this series I’m traveling through time and space, to the most beautiful, exotic, and distinct locations: what better way to take a trip? Be sure to check out the other posts, linked over at ALL GOOD THINGS. Thanks for hosting!