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