The epic is one of the oldest genres in film. Since the beginning of the 20th century studios and film-makers have taken ‘epic’ (often historical and biblical) subject matter and spent huge amounts of money, along with the use of famous actors and actresses, to create breathtaking and spectacular movies. Directors such as D. W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation, 1915, Intolerance, 1916) and Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, 1923/1956, The Sign of the Cross, 1932) helped to cement the genre as one of the most popular and important styles of film.
There was a ‘boom’ in the production of the epic between 1958 and 1965, which included the Oscar winning classics Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959) and Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960). The literature that has been selected for this report contains two pieces written during the ‘boom’ period of the epic, an article from a few years later and then a contemporary article at a time when the epic was just about to embark on its next adventure (and possible ‘boom’) with the film Titanic (Cameron, 1997).
In an article from Films and Filming titled Epic, (December, 1963) Raymond Durgnat uses the dictionary definition of the word ‘epic’ as a starting point for his discussion, which defines it as ‘a poem narrating continuously, achievements of one or more heroes’ (1963, pg. 9). This is an interesting definition when talking about the word ‘epic’ in relation to film-making. Most epic films would fit in with this dictionary definition but with films such as The Ten Commandments, El Cid (Mann, 1961) , Ben-Hur and Spartacus it is usually the activities and achievements of a certain individual that are the focus of the film.
Durgnat states however, that it is necessary to look beyond the dictionary definition of the word in order to understand the complex meanings of the genre. In other words, we must look beyond ‘a sense of heroism and a sense of history’ (1963, pg. 9), which are the two ‘epic essentials’ (ibid. ) and read further into what these films are representing. Durgnat believes that countries often see their own history ‘in that of other nations’. (ibid. Spartacus is an example of this theory in practice as it an American film set in Ancient Rome with the main characters’ (Kirk Douglas) struggle and eventual victory used to portray certain aspects of American history. The big budget epic also represents an aspect of America’s present as huge, spectacular, expensive films are a tool for the country to underline its wealth and power.
Another key characteristic of the epic that Durgnat points out is the notion of ‘man measuring himself against the greatest forces in the universe. ‘ (ibid. This notion is prominent in many epics from the ‘boom’ period especially Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. In Ben-Hur, the lead character (Charlton Heston) must overcome the powerful Messala (Stephen Boyd) in order to gain revenge for the arrest of his family and his own betrayal. Ben-Hur, a Jew, must challenge the power of Rome and Caesar in order to gain revenge over Messala. Rome is represented as the greatest force in the Universe and Messala refuses to accept that there is anyone of any higher divinity than Caesar, in the face of stories about the activities of Jesus Christ. During the film Messala states that ‘Caesar is God’.
In The Ten Commandments the greatest power in the universe is represented by Egypt and Pharaoh. Once again the film depicts Heston’s struggle and eventual victory, this time over Rameses. In both films the most epic scene is used to represent this victory. Ben-Hur completes his mission through the chariot race and Moses leads his people to safety by parting the sea. Durgnat also states that the word ‘epic’ has not been unproblematic when talking about this genre of film.
He explains how the word has often been exchanged or degraded even ‘to mean expensive, spectacular or action-packed’. 1963, pg. 10) There are many films that are expensive, spectacular and action-packed but are not epics. Waterworld (Reynolds, 1995) is an example to support this theory as it cost astronomical amounts of money to make, due to it all being filmed on water, with plenty of stunts and action. However, it failed to reach epic status for its lack of history and there is no sense that Kevin Costner is measuring himself against the greatest forces in the universe. Durgnat also uses other examples to support the idea that an expensive film is not necessarily an epic.
He states: “Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939) and Duel in the Sun (Vidor, 1946) are not epics in our sense of the word; they are relatively intimate dramas which happened to be very expensive to make. ” (1963, pg. 10) Durgnat believes that an association with the Bible can make a film an epic as it is the ‘greatest, most significant book’ and is an epic tale of man’s relationship with God. Films such as Barabbas (Fleischer, 1962) and The Bible – In the Beginning (Huston, 1966) achieve epic status through their use of biblical subject matter.
A second article from Raymond Durgnat that featured in Films and Filming six years later titled Epics and Existence (April, 1969) picks up on the religious theme of epics and, in particular, how the story of Christ is handled. Durgnat states that matters concerning Christ often call for a ‘spiritual style’ (1969, pg. 60) which contrast to the way the events of other characters are depicted. This theory is apparent in both Barrabas and Ben-Hur as the two respective characters’ stories are told with ‘sharp, gruelling, physical realism’ (ibid. in comparison to the ‘spiritualised’ scenes of Christ’s crucifixion. 1 An interesting similarity that Barabbas and Ben-Hur share is that the story of Jesus Christ is almost written in as a sub-plot but by the time each film climaxes we realise that the involvement of Christ is the most significant strand of the story. Barabbas (Anthony Quinn) gradually begins to feel the guilt of being granted freedom instead of Jesus and Ben-Hur realises the significance of his relationship with Christ when Jesus is crucified.
Up until the crucifixion scene, Ben-Hur rejects ‘everything that does not further his revenge’ (ibid. ) including the love of Christ. Durgnat interestingly points out that there is a scene in the 1925 version of this Biblical epic where we see Ben-Hur’s ‘conversion’ (ibid. pg. 60) which is omitted from the 1959 film. Durgnat points out how this adds an ‘element of moral suspense to Ben-Hur’s behaviour’ (ibid. ) during the chariot race in the 1959 version. Durgnat states: “We expect, in fact some of us want, Ben-Hur to drive his chariot over
Messala’s injured body” (ibid. ) Through watching the film, surely many people will share this expectation as it is nothing more than Messala deserves after his initial betrayal and ‘brutal tactics’ (ibid. ) during the race. An article from Films and Filming titled Blockbusters or bust? (February, 1963) by William Fadiman highlights some of the reasons why many studios turned to the big-budget epic as a method of attracting audiences to the cinema. Fadiman states: “In a desperate determination to recapture a diminishing audience which as rejected the local cinema for the family living room… Hollywood has decided to undertake the production of a number of films to be manufactured at completely unprecedented high costs. ” (1963, pg. 64)
The box office success of epics such as Ben-Hur ($70 million)2 and The Ten Commandments ($80 Million)3 had shown the rest of Hollywood what was achievable through the big budget ‘blockbuster’ movie. The film Cleopatra (Mankiewicz, 1963) however, cost $44 million4 and Fadiman believed that it needed to make at least double this amount ‘to assure a sizable profit margin. (1963, pg. 64) Cleopatra made $62 million5 at the box office, which was a respectable total, but not big enough to cover the cost of production and distribution. This may well have been a contributing factor to the decrease in big budget ‘epic’ film productions between 1965 and the early 1990s. An article from 1999 by Alexandra Keller titled Size Does Matter, discusses the definition of the ‘blockbuster’ and why so many people go to see them, focussing on the film Titanic.
She begins her argument by posing the question, ‘Why have people the world over spent two hours and seventy-four minutes watching a boat sink? ” (1999, pg. 132) Her article goes on to suggest answers to this question in almost list form. Keller states: “People went to see Titanic to experience a stunningly executed , special effects-laden, working-class loving, owning-class hating… romantic tragedy. ” (ibid. ) Keller also states how ‘they went because Leonardo Di Caprio is apparently the sexiest thing anyone has seen since whoever was hot last month’ (ibid. This underlines the importance of the ‘star’ in the epic as Charlton Heston was the ‘hottest property’ when Ben-Hur hit the big screen just as Kirk Douglas was when Spartacus graced our movie screens. All these factors contribute to a successful epic movie and echo Durgnat’s earlier point, stating that essentials of an epic are a sense of heroism and a sense of history, which are present in Ben-Hur, Titanic and Gladiator. When these films received success at the Oscars they continued to flourish and cement their epic status as people are keen to see, if they haven’t already, what all the fuss is about.
In conclusion, Keller speaks of the problematic American dictionary definition of the word ‘blockbuster’ which is interesting when compared to the definition of the word ‘epic’ as stated earlier in this discussion. A blockbuster is defined as ‘something such as a film or a book, that sustains widespread popularity and achieves enormous sales. ‘ (ibid. pg. 136) Through looking at this definition, clear distinctions can be made between an epic and a blockbuster.
Films such as The Full Monty (Cattaneo, 1996) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell, 1994) received huge financial success but they are by no means ‘epics’. The Greatest Story Ever Told (Stevens, 1965) was not extremely popular and was a box-office failure but is an ‘epic’ in every sense of the word as it supports the definitions of what an epic is and should be. Established, popular actors, historical subject matter, big budget, large scale production, a sense of heroism and running time of approximately 3 hours: few epics would fail to contain these essential characteristics.