Epic films are a style of filmmaking with large scale, sweeping scope, and spectacle. The usage of the term has shifted over time, sometimes designating a film genre and at other times simply synonymous with big budget filmmaking. 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.
Epic historical films would usually take a historical or a mythic event and add an extravagant setting and lavish costumes, accompanied by an expansive musical score with an ensemble cast, which would make them among the most expensive of films to produce. The most common subjects of epic films are royalty, and important figures from various periods in world history.
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. 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 usually covering a longer span of time sometimes throughout entire generations coming and passing away, 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. Lynn Ramey 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" 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.
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:
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 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, 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 such as El Cid (1961) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962). 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 during 1967-1968 and, 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.
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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 Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, set during the Napoleonic Wars, The Patriot, set during the Revolutionary War, and Gettysburg, set during the American Civil War.
Examples of the more contemporary based war epics include The Burmese Harp (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Human Condition (1959–1961), Paths of Glory (1957), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Kagemusha (1980), Das Boot (1981), Gallipoli (1981), Come and See (1985), Ran (1985), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Thin Red Line (1998), and Hacksaw Ridge (2016).
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 The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Leopard (1963), Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), War and Peace (1966-1967), Barry Lyndon (1975), Gandhi (1982), The Last Emperor (1987), Schindler's List (1993), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), The Patriot (2000), Gangs of New York (2002), The Last Samurai (2003), The Aviator (2004), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), and Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
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.
In the 1980s Martin Scorsese made The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a controversial landmark examination of Jesus Christ's human nature that stands among the director's finest works. A recent example is the 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ.
Another recent example is the Martin Scorsese epic Silence (2016), about two Portuguese priests in the 17th Century Japan who struggle with faith while searching for their mentor. The film has been hailed by many critics as one of Scorsese's greatest films of his career.
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. Examples include Gone with the Wind (1939), Giant (1956), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan's Daughter (1970), Out of Africa (1985), The Age of Innocence (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997),Lagaan (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Painted Veil (2006), Tristan & Isolde (2006), Atonement (2007), Australia (2008), Les Misérables (2012) and The Great Gatsby (2013).
Epic crime films are usually gangster stories done on a wide scale, and usually show the rise and fall of a criminal empire. The most famous example is The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990), with all three films of large scope and scale, as well as Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America in 1984. While not about organized crime, Michael Mann's Heat portrays a heist on a very massive scale, and thus falls into this category. Other examples include Scarface (1983), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
The epic western is a subgenre of the western that emphasizes the story of the American Old West on a grand scale. Many epic westerns are commonly set during a turbulent time, especially a war, as in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), set during the American Civil War, or Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), set during the Mexican Revolution. One of the grandest films in this genre is Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which shows many operatic conflicts centered on control of a town while utilizing wide scale shots on Monument Valley locations against a broad running time. Other notable examples include The Iron Horse (1924), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Searchers (1956), Giant (1956), The Big Country (1958), Cimarron (1960), How the West Was Won (1962), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), Heaven's Gate (1980), Dances with Wolves (1990), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Django Unchained (2012), and The Revenant (2015).
Science fiction and fantasy epics
Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis is considered the first science fiction epic, as well as the first science fiction feature-length film. Epics of this genre 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. Another milestone in the sci-fi genre is considered to be Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner. 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 addition, the Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic Interstellar was released in 2014.
Martin Scorsese's 2011 Hugo is a recent notable example of a 3-D fantasy adventure epic, whose budget was around 150-170 million. In recent times, many fantasy epics have been produced with varying success, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series based on the theme park ride of the same name, 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, the Harry Potter movies film series based on the book series of the same name by J.K. Rowling and the Hunger Games film series based on the book trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
There have been many animation epic films made on different subjects. Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke are two notable animation war-fantasy epics. Both the films portray the struggle between human and nature; and the protagonists trying to establish a peaceful co-living. Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira is another example of animation epic which depicts a dystopian society in cyberpunk fashion. An American example of an animated epic is the Disney film The Lion King.
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. 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 the 2009 film Avatar, 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. Adjusted for inflation it earned the equivalent of $1.6 billion in the United States alone. 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.
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.
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