Epic film

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Not to be confused with Epic Movie, Epic (2013 film), or Epic (1984 film).
This article is about the film genre. For films named "Epic", see Epic (disambiguation).

Epic film is a style of film-making with large scale, sweeping scope and spectacle, often transporting the viewer to other settings. The usage of the term has shifted over time, sometimes designating a film genre and at other times simply synonymous with big budget film-making. Like epics in the classical literary sense it is often focused on a heroic character. An epic's ambitious nature helps to set it apart from other types of film such as the period piece or adventure film.


The term "epic" originally came from the poetic genre exemplified by such works as the Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Odyssey. In classical literature, epics are considered works focused on deeds or journeys of heroes upon which the fate of a large number of people depend. Similarly, films described as "epic" typically take a historical character, or a mythic heroic figure. Common subjects of epics are royalty, gladiators, great military leaders, or leading personalities from various periods in world history.[1] However, there are some films described as "epic" almost solely on the basis of their enormous scope and the sweeping panorama of their settings such as How the West was Won or East of Eden that do not have the typical substance of classical epics but are directed in an epic style.

When described as "epic" because of content, an epic movie is often set during a time of war or other societal crisis, while covering a long span of time, in terms of both the events depicted and the running time of the film. Such films usually have a historical setting, although fantasy or science fiction settings have become common in recent decades. The central conflict of the film is usually seen as having far-reaching effects, often changing the course of history. The main characters' actions are often central to the resolution of the societal conflict.

In its classification of films by genre, the American Film Institute limits the genre to historical films such as Ben-Hur. However, film scholars such as Constantine Santas are willing to extend the label to science-fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.[2] Nickolas Haydock suggests that "Surely one of the hardest film genres to define is that of the "epic" film, encompassing such examples as Ben-Hur, Gone with the Wind....and more recently, 300 and the Star Wars films...none of these comes from literary epics per se, and there is little that links them with one another. Among those who espouse film genre studies, epic is one of the most despised and ignored genres"[3] Finally, although the American Movie Channel formally defines epic films as historical films, they nonetheless state the epic film may be combined with the genre of science-fiction and cite Star Wars as an example.[4]

Stylistically, films classed as epic usually employ spectacular settings and specially designed costumes, often accompanied by a sweeping musical score, and an ensemble cast of bankable stars. Epics are usually among the most expensive of films to produce. They often use on-location filming, authentic period costumes, and action scenes on a massive scale. Biographical films may be less lavish versions of this genre.

Many writers may refer to any film that is "long" (over two hours) as an epic, making the definition epic a matter of dispute, and raise questions as to whether it is a "genre" at all. As Roger Ebert put it, in his "Great Movies" article on Lawrence of Arabia:[5]

The word epic in recent years has become synonymous with big budget B picture. What you realize watching Lawrence of Arabia is that the word epic refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God didn't cost as much as the catering in Pearl Harbor, but it is an epic, and Pearl Harbor is not.

The comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail had the joking tagline "Makes Ben Hur look like an epic."


The epic is among the oldest of film genres, with one early notable example being Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria, a three-hour silent film about the Punic Wars that laid the groundwork for the subsequent silent epics of D. W. Griffith.

The genre reached a peak of popularity in the early 1960s,[6] when Hollywood frequently collaborated with foreign film studios (such as Rome's Cinecittà) to use relatively exotic locations in Spain, Morocco, and elsewhere for the production of epic films. This boom period of international co-productions is generally considered to have ended with Cleopatra (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Nevertheless, films in this genre continued to appear, with one notable example being War and Peace, which was released in the former Soviet Union in 1968, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, and said to be the most expensive film ever made.

Epic films continue to be produced, although since the development of CGI they typically use computer effects instead of an actual cast of thousands. Since the 1950s, such films have regularly been shot with a wide aspect ratio for a more immersive and panoramic theatrical experience.

Epic films were recognized in a montage at the 2006 Academy Awards.


Charlton Heston starred in Biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments and historical epics such as El Cid

War epics[edit]

War epics are generally focused on specific battles in a war, P.O.W (Prisoner of War) camps or the personal consequences of living in an invaded/occupied country. Many war epics take place during World War II or the Vietnam War, with notable exceptions being Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, set during the American Civil War and Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, set during the Napoleonic wars. Examples of the more contemporary based war epics include The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Human Condition (1959-1961), Apocalypse Now (1979), Das Boot (1981), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Hurt Locker (2008).

Historical epics[edit]

Historical epics are epic films that take place in the historical past, often focusing on people who alter the course of history. A number of historical epics, especially those made in the 1950s and 1960s, are set in ancient times, particularly in Rome, Greece, or Egypt. Historical epics typically are more grand-scale than other types of epics, featuring elaborate sets and large numbers of extras. Examples of historical epics include Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), War and Peace (1966-1967), Barry Lyndon (1975), Gandhi (1982), Schindler's List, (1993), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), 300 (2007), and Les Misérables (2012).

Religious epics[edit]

Grand-scale films involving Jesus, Moses or other religious figures have been called religious or Biblical epics. This genre was popular in the 1950s and was often associated with towering budgets and such stars as Charlton Heston. Notable examples include Quo Vadis (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959). The 1960s brought the first attempt by a major studio to produce a religious epic in which the Christ Event was its singular focus. MGM released King of Kings in 1961, inspired by a Cecil B. DeMille film of the same title from 1927. Four years later, The Greatest Story Ever Told, directed by George Stevens, was completed for $25 million. A recent example is the 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. While the term "Biblical epics" is used to describe films based on Judeo-Christian stories, other films may be based in other religious traditions, such as The Mahabharata, which is based on Hindu mythology, and The Message, which is based on Islamic history.

Romantic epics[edit]

Romantic epics are romance films done on a large scale, usually in a historical setting. The romance itself is often portrayed in a counterpoint to war, conflict or political events in the background of the story. In these films, the romance and the main character's relationships are the centerpiece of the story, rather than a subplot. Some epic films portray a tempestuous romance against the background of war. The romance itself is often portrayed in a counterpoint to war, conflict or political events in the background of the story, while the romance is in the foreground. Gone with the Wind has been described as the archetypal romantic epic.[7] Examples include Gone with the Wind (1939), Giant (1956), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Out of Africa (1985), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Painted Veil (2006), Tristan & Isolde (2006), Atonement (2007), Australia (2008), Les Misérables (2012) and The Great Gatsby (2013).

Science fiction and fantasy epics[edit]

The science fiction epic received mainstream attention in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as with the earlier 1968 film Planet of the Apes. Nine years later, George Lucas' Star Wars films debuted, rocketing the science fiction/fantasy epic to unprecedented blockbuster successes. Opening in 2009, James Cameron's Avatar again showed the pulling power of the science fiction epic, going on to gross over $700 million domestically and over $2.7 billion worldwide, which makes it the most successful box office movie of all time, not taking inflation into account. In recent times, many fantasy epics have been produced with varying success, including Peter Jackson's The Hobbit film trilogy and The Lord of the Rings film trilogy based on the book series of the same name by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Public reception[edit]

Gross revenue[edit]

The enduring popularity of the epic is often accredited to their ability to appeal to a wide audience. Many of the highest-grossing films of all-time have been epics.[8] The 1997 film Titanic, which is cited as helping to revive the genre, grossed $658 million domestically and over $2.1 billion worldwide, making it the second highest grossing film of all-time, behind 2009's Avatar[9] another epic which grossed $2.7 billion worldwide. If inflation is taken into account, then the historical epic Gone with the Wind becomes the highest grossing film ever in the United States.[10] Adjusted for inflation it earned the equivalent of $1.6 billion in the United States alone.[8] Adjusted for ticket price inflation, the science fiction/fantasy epic Star Wars stands at number 2, with an inflated gross of $1.4 billion in the United States.[8]

Academy Awards[edit]

So far the most Academy Awards ever won by a single film stands at 11. This feat has only been achieved by 3 movies (Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) all of which are considered epics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tim Dirks (2008-07-12). "Epic Films". Filmsite. Retrieved 2008-07-12. 
  2. ^ Santas, Constantine (2002). Responding to film: a text guide for students of cinema art. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 32. ISBN 0-8304-1580-7. ISBN 9780830415809. 
  3. ^ Haydock, Nickolas (2009). Hollywood in the Holy Land: essays on film depictions of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim clashes. McFarland. p. 153. ISBN 0-7864-4156-9. ISBN 9780786441563. 
  4. ^ "AMC Film Site Epics/Historical Films". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 2014-07-16. 
  5. ^ Roger Ebert (2001-09-02). "Lawrence of Arabia (1962)". Great Movies. suntimes.com. Archived from the original on 2005-09-04. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  6. ^ allmovie (2008-07-12). "Explore by genre:Epic". allmovieg. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  7. ^ http://www.mccookgazette.com/story/1485804.html
  8. ^ a b c Box Office Mojo. "All Time Box Office Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2007-07-12. 
  9. ^ All Time Domestic Box Office Results
  10. ^ "All Time Box Office Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation". Boxofficemojo.com. Retrieved 2014-07-16.