Epic film

The Epic is a genre of film which places emphasis on human drama on a grand scale. They are more ambitious in scope than other genres which helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film. This often entails high production values, a sweeping musical score by an acclaimed film composer, and an ensemble cast of bankable stars, placing them among the most expensive of films to produce. The genre likely derives its name from the similarities it shares with epic poetry.

Genre characteristics

Generally speaking, the term "epic" refers to movies that have a large scope, often set during a time of war or other conflict, and sometimes taking place over a considerable period of time. A historical setting is typical, although fantasy or science fiction settings are also used. The central conflict of the film is usually seen as having far-reaching effects, oftentime changing the course of history. The main characters' action are often central to the resolution of this conflict.

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

The genre reached the peak of its popularity in the 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. 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). Although "epic" films continue to be produced to this day, they are typically not made on so grand a scale as films from this period, and usually utilise computer effects shots instead of a genuine cast of thousands.

The definition of epic has expanded over the years to include films that in general have a large scale or scope of history, time, or events. The crime films The Godfather (1972), Scarface (1983), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and Casino (1995), for instance, could hardly be considered epics in the same way that the Cinecitta films were, but are sometimes listed as such by critics. Some epic films (espically from the 1950s-1970's) were shot with a wide aspect ratio, for a more immersive and panoramic theatrical experience.

Many refer to any film that is "long" (over two hours) as an epic, and as such a definition of an epic film (especially among today's films) is a matter of dispute among many. 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."

Monty Python and the Holy Grail had the joking tagline, Makes Ben Hur look like an epic.

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


Historical epics

Epic Western

Sword and sandal

Religious epics

The evolution of Jesus films is rooted in the religious or Biblical "epic;" a popular genre in the 1950s usually accompanied by towering budgets and names such as Charlton Heston, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, or Yul Brynner. Examples include: The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.

The ensuing decade 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 more recent example would be the 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ.

While the term Biblical epics is used to describe those films based on Judeo-Christian stories, other films may be based in other religious traditions, such as The Mahabharata.

Romantic epics

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. The archetypical romantic epic is Gone With the Wind (1939). Other examples include Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan's Daughter (1970), Out of Africa (1985), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), and Atonement (2007).

War epics

War epics are war films done in a large sweeping scale of epic films. These films are often used to recreate grandscale landmark war battles. A partial list would include: El Cid (1961), The Longest Day, Lawrence of Arabia (both 1962), Zulu (1964), Khartoum (1966), Patton (1970), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Hawk Down (2001), We Were Soldiers (2002), and Troy (2004). War epics occasionally crossover with the anti-war film genre, such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Stalingrad (1993).

Public reception

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 $600 million domestically, and $1.8 billion worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of all-time, not adjusting for inflation. If inflation is taken into acount, then the historical epic Gone with the Wind becomes the highest grossing film. It earned the equivalent of $1.3 billion in the United States alone.


See also

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