Part 1 | Part 2 | Examples
Epics of Royalty Figures:
One of the most common themes or topics of epics are royalty, kings, or leading personalities or figures from the times. (See adventure films for epics related to the King Arthur tale.) Royals have been the subject of epics such as the following:
The Great Epic Director - David Lean:
British director David Lean has produced some of the best historical epics of all-time - films that focused on a major romance, character, or swashbuckling adventure in the foreground, with the historical events serving as a colorful backdrop. His films had a major effect upon the British film industry for years to come. Lean's epic masterpieces included:
The Merchant-Ivory Period Films:
The exquisite, beautifully-composed, best-known period films of the triumvirate (producer Ismail Merchant, director/screenwriter James Ivory, and novelist Prawer Jhabvala) have often used historical settings as backdrops for their well-crafted dramas, often taken from the writings of E.M Forster with recreations of Edwardian England with superior production values. Some of their greatest films include:
Other Great Epics:
The greatest Civil War film and the most definitive of all epics was also a Southern costume drama - David O. Selznick's sweeping production of Gone With The Wind (1939). In his later years, cinematic pioneer King Vidor directed the lusty Western epic Duel in the Sun (1946) with Lionel Barrymore as the sprawling land baron. The all-star, panoramic Cinerama film, How the West Was Won (1962), was another example of a western epic. Costner's Best Picture-winning revisionist epic western Dances with Wolves (1990) was the first Western to win the top honor since Cimarron (1930).
Other notable war-time epics have been produced, including the re-creation of D-Day in Darryl F. Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962), the WWII hero adventure PT 109 (1963) about John F. Kennedy's (Cliff Robertson) courageous rescue of fellow Marines, the big-screen epic biography Patton (1970), Joseph Sargent's MacArthur (1977) about the rebellious, showy WWII general portrayed by Gregory Peck, and the recent recreation of the Nazi Holocaust in Best Director and Best Picture-winning Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993). Also Mel Gibson's Best Director and Best Picture-winning Braveheart (1995) brought the 13th century story of medieval Scottish patriot William Wallace's rebellion against the British to the big screen. Spielberg's epic war film, Saving Private Ryan (1998) opened with a bloody account of the Normandy D-Day landing.
The Best Picture winner of the mid-1980s, Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (1985), was about author Isak Dinesen (Meryl Streep) and her love affair with handsome aviator Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford). And into the 1990s, there were these two Best Picture epic victors:
Historical Epic Dramas from Literary Works:
Literary adaptations of novels and plays have provided the plots and storylines of hundreds of historical dramas. There have been numerous screen versions of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy's work, Anna Karenina. The first was the classic 1935 film starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March, and then it was filmed in 1948 with Vivien Leigh in the title role. Similarly, Tolstoy's epic melodramatic novel War and Peace (1956) (with a final running time of 208 minutes), with impressive battle scenes (especially the Battle of Borodino) and panoramas, was brought to the screen by director King Vidor in the mid-50s. It starred Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Herbert Lom as Napoleon, Oscar Homolka as General Kutzov, and Henry Fonda as Pierre. A Soviet version of War and Peace (1963-1968) by director Sergei Bondarchuk was more faithful to the book at 373 minutes in length, and took five years to complete.
Some other prominent examples include Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1933, 1994), Charles Dickens' David Copperfield (1935), Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1939), Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1940), Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (1940), Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1934) and Jane Eyre (1943), Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1946), director King Vidor's film adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead (1949), Thomas Hardy's Tess (1979), Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit (1987), Edith Wharton's novel for Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) about 19th century New York society, and Henry James' early 20th century novel for Ian Softley's UK film The Wings of the Dove (1994) with Helena Bonham Carter.
Major Epics in the New Decade:
New Zealander Peter Jackson's trilogy of author J.R.R. Tolkien's best-selling fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) was told on a mammoth, epic scale. Ridley Scott's R-rated Best Picture winner Gladiator (2000) (with state-of-the-art CGI visual effects) grossed $458 million worldwide, won five Oscars, and inspired a new wave of other shield-clanging 'sword and sandal' epics in the next decade. It unleashed Russell Crowe as Maximus, a general who was turned into a slave and fought in the Roman Coliseum to preserve his honor ("Are you not entertained?") and attempt to overthrow the Emperor (Joaquin Phoenix).
A muscle-bound Brad Pitt starred as Greek hero/warrior Achilles in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004), loosely based on Homer's 2,800 year-old epic poem The Iliad about the 10 year war between Troy (headed by King Priam (Peter O'Toole)) and Greece, and a blonde Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie (as Alexander the Great's mother Olympias) starred in Oliver Stone's much-criticized box-office epic disaster Alexander (2004).
Ridley Scott's extravagant, beautifully filmed and fictionalized Kingdom of Heaven (2005) told about the 12th century Crusades, while Warners'/director Zack Snyder's bloody, CG-enhanced 300 (2006) was based on Frank Miller's vividly graphic novel that retold the story about the famous last stand in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (an underdog Spartan army of 300 led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) fought in phalanx formation against King Xerxes' Persian army of 250,000). [The notorious Alamo-style battle was also the subject of The 300 Spartans (1962).]
Director Louis Leterrier's 3-D remake action film Clash of the Titans (2010) featured Gorgons, gods, and giant scorpions, and starred Sam Worthington (in his followup film to Avatar (2009)) as Perseus - the mortal son of the god Zeus (Liam Neeson), with the promised sequel Wrath of the Titans (2012). The videogame adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) by director Mike Newell, with Jake Gyllenhaal as young fugitive prince Dastan, was a major PG-rated flop for Disney Studios. Also, Tarsem Singh's $75 million action 3-D epic Immortals (2011) appeared to do well, with its story of secretly-chosen Theseus (Henry Cavill), with the help of visionary priestess Phaedra (Freida Pinto), battling ruthless King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke).
In 2003, Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) was a swashbuckling epic tale about a chase between a French vessel and a British frigate (commanded by Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe)) during the Napoleonic Wars.