Let’s start with the brash statement that cinema, as we know it exists because of this genre. It’s the genre that draws crowds (or used to), that quite literally creates worlds, demanding the best from every tech guild. This is one genre that no other medium can do justice – the epic. They cost millions to produce, have bankrupted studios, and are responsible for much of the advanced technology. Even when they are bad, they are fascinating to watch, preferably in a theater – not on a hand-held device.
The primary criteria are big screen, big story, a cast of thousands, massive sets and the notion that longer is better. For this exercise I have taken this to the purest sense in that only one selection relied heavily on CGI. For the rest, if you saw 400 people onscreen its because there were 400 people being directed on the set; if you saw a battle in a field, on the sea, or in the desert, its because that is where it was filmed, requiring a director with a completely different skillset than the computer effects whiz might offer.
Here are five that snagged my attention:
Lawrence of Arabia David Lean (1962)
No contest – this is one of the finest (and most difficult) films ever made. Lean was a master at creating epic stories that managed to include intimate details of all of his characters. His attention range must have been phenomenal, from massive set pieces involving sand, camels and horses, trains, and hundreds of extras, to the slightest wince and raised eyebrow from his leads. O’Toole’s performance sent his career into the stratosphere – most deservedly so – and the small all-star supporting cast is no less wonderful. This is a film to be seen when you’re very young, then again during adolescence, an adult, and in, my own case, as a retiree. It sends different messages to all age groups and will never lose the sense of wonder one gets during those first shots in the dessert.
Napoleon Abel Gance (1927)
When Gance took on the life of Napoleon, he also challenged the way films are presented as well as made. At certain points in the film, three screens are required to display the action as Gance envisioned what would become Cinemascope/wide screen. Add a full live orchestra and his silent gem was – and is – as involving for the audience as any modern day confection. The acting is silent screen emoting at full tilt, but when you get past the exaggerated glares and pensive moments, the 330-minute extravaganza is more of an experience than a movie. Since its restoration in the 80s, the film is resurrected every few years for special roadshows. I doubt it would play as effectively on any device or TV set, so when the opportunity to see it in its purest format, jump at the chance.
The Last Emperor Bernardo Bertolucci (1987)
One of the modern era’s best and most controversial directors took a couple of steps away from his usual subject matter (i.e. Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist) and gave Hollywood what it wanted – in his own his words, a “big-titted” movie about Puyi, the last man to sit as Emperor of China. Bertolucci does manage to work in enough politics and the odd kink to remind us it’s his film, and Hollywood was so grateful it awarded him 9 Oscars, which almost made up for their previous oversights. Vittorio Storaro (cinematographer) and composers Ryuichi Sakamoto/David Byrne (Taking Heads)/Cong Su provide plenty of vision and scope for a very big story that has a surprising effective intimate finale.
The Thief of Bagdad Raoul Walsh (1924)
Yes, another silent film. This one rides squarely on the back of Douglas Fairbanks, who wrote, produced and starred in an extremely loose adaptation of 1001 Arabian Nights. His physical flair while performing his own stunts and flashing smile are always engaging, and we enjoy the adventures in which his character, a petty thief named Ahmed, becomes entangled. The primary attraction, though, are the astonishing sets designed by William Cameron Davies and the crude special effect (flying horses, magic rope, and, of course, a flying carpet) are fun to watch all the same. Another interesting note is that United Artists produced the film – a studio founded a few years earlier by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Fairbanks, himself.
Gladiator Ridley Scott (2000)
I break with my “no CGI” rule for Gladiator simply because there haven’t been many true epics in recent years that were also able to give equal attention to the personal struggles of the protagonist. Scott’s film is thrilling in parts and moving in others; overall, pretty damned inspiring. Crowe, Reed, and Harris give fine-tuned and entertaining performances, but the true blood-lusty driver of the film is Joaquin Phoenix as the immoral and cruel Commodus, a man and eventual emperor. The film is pure fiction, but in actual fact, the real Emperor Commodus was eventually done in by a gladiator. Pietro Scalia’s quicksilver editing and Hans Zimmer’s glorious score magnify the action. God, I wish they made more films like this one.
Feel free to wheel-out all the Cleopatra’s, Lords of the Rings, Ben Hur’s – what have you – I’ll stand by these five as cinema’s most accomplished epics. So what did I miss? Do let me know, please.