Like "musical," "comedy," "war film," and "Western," "epic" is a term used…to identify a particular type of film. It was first used extensively in the 1910s and the 1920s: Variety's review of Ben-Hur (1925) noted that "the word epic has been applied to pictures time and again" (6 January 1926: 38). It was particularly prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s, when epics of all kinds were produced to counter a decline in cinema attendance. And it has been recently revived with films such as [Braveheart (1995)], Gladiator (2000) [and] Troy (2004). As a term, "epic" is associated with historical films of all kinds, particularly those dealing with events of national or global import or scale. As a genre it thus encompasses a number of war films and westerns as well as films set in earlier periods. But because of its links with ancient classical literature, it is associated above all with films set in biblical times or the ancient world. However, the term "epic" has also been used to identify—and to sell—films of all types that have used expensive technologies, high production values, and special modes of distribution and exhibition to differentiate themselves from routine productions and from rival forms of contemporary entertainment. There are therefore at least two aspects to epics, two sets of distinguishing characteristics: those associated with historical, biblical, and ancient-world films and those associated with large-scale, high-cost productions.
These aspects have often coincided, as is true not only of films such as The Ten Commandments…and Troy, but of films with more recent historical settings such as…Schindler's List (1993) and Pearl Harbor (2001). However, the production of large-scale, high-cost comedies, musicals, and dramas such as…The Sound of Music (1965) and Gone with the Wind (1939)—some of them with historical settings, some with-out—and the production of more routinely scaled historical and biblical films…most war films, Westerns, and swashbucklers tend to make hard-and-fast definitions more difficult. Generalizations can be made about the scale of the films and the events they depict, the prominence of visual and aural spectacle, and a recurrent preoccupation with political, military, divine, or religious power, but, as is often the case with Hollywood's genres, anomalies and exceptions of one kind or another can nearly always be found. It is easier to be more precise about specific periods, cycles, and trends.
The Silent Era
The generic and industrial traditions of the epic film date back to the 1890s, when several Passion plays (plays representing the life of Christ) were filmed and exhibited in unusually lengthy, multi-reel formats. In the period between 1905 and 1914, a number of relatively large-scale, high-cost historical, biblical, and ancient-world films…were made in Italy, France, and elsewhere in Europe and helped to establish the multi-reel feature. Multi-reel films of a similar kind were produced in the United States as well. But at a time when production, distribution, and exhibition in the United States were geared to the rapid turnover of programs of single-reel films, films like this were often distributed on a "road show" basis. Road show films were shown at movie theaters as well as alternative local settings such as town halls for as long as they were financially viable.
Many of these films drew on nineteenth-century traditions of historical and religious representation, particularly paintings and engravings, toga plays, Passion plays, pageants, and popular novels…and their subsequent theatrical adaptations. They also drew on nineteenth- and early twentieth century preoccupations with Imperial Rome and early Christianity, and on an association between religious and historical representation and nationhood and empire. These traditions and preoccupations were particularly prominent among the middle and upper classes, to whom many of the earliest multi-reel films and features were directed and to whom the aura of respectability associated with religious and historical topics and the legitimate theater was important….[P]roductions like this helped found a tradition of large-scale, high-cost spectacles, "superspecial" productions that would be road shown not just in legitimate theaters but in the large-scale picture palaces that were being built in increasing numbers in major cities. Ticket prices were high. The films were shown, usually twice a day, at fixed times and with at least one intermission. They were usually accompanied by an orchestra playing a specially commissioned score. Only after a lengthy run in venues like this, a practice essential to the recouping of costs and the making of profits, would superspecials be shown in more ordinary cinemas at regular prices.
The production of road shown superspecials reached a peak in the United States in the 1920s…Although these films are diverse in setting and type,…there are aesthetic, structural, and thematic links among them. Like the epics and spectacles of the 1910s, they exhibit what Vivian Sobchack has called "historical eventfulness" (p. 32)—that is to say, they mark themselves and the events they depict as historically significant. In addition, nearly all these films narrate stories that interweave the destinies of individual characters with the destinies of nations, empires, dynasties, religions, political regimes, and ethnic groups. While some focus on powerful characters (generals, pharaohs, princes, and leaders), many focus on more ordinary characters who either become caught up in events over which they have little control…or are unsung agents of significant historical or epochal change…Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad are variants in which, as vehicles for star and producer Douglas Fairbanks…, the power of the central character to effect change is, however fancifully, bound up with his physical prowess.
From the Depression to the Post-War Era
With the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, Hollywood companies cut back on expensive productions and road shows. These practices were revived in the early 1930s, establishing a cross-generic trend toward what Tino Balio calls "prestige pictures" (pp. 179–211). However, although many prestige pictures were top-of the-range costume films of one kind or another (adaptations of classic literature, biopics, swashbucklers, and the like), very few were made and road shown on the scale of the silent superspecial. Fewer still were biblical films and films with ancient-world settings. Cecil B. DeMille…, who had produced and directed The Ten Commandments…in the silent era, produced and directed The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). But…these productions were the only biblical and ancient-world productions made between 1928 and 1949. All…may be interpreted as films that engage the Depression and its moral implications in various ways. Toward the end of the 1930s, David O. Selznick…explicitly appealed to the traditions of the silent road shown superspecial when producing and planning the distribution of Gone with the Wind… DeMille, meanwhile, sought to revive the biblical epic by re-releasing The Sign of the Cross in 1944 and producing and directing Samson and Delilah in 1949.
Cecil B. DeMille
By 1949, Hollywood was undergoing a long-term process of change. Audiences, ticket sales, and profits were in decline; the ownership of theater chains by major studios was declared illegal; competition from television, domestic leisure pursuits, and other forms of entertainment were on the rise; and at a time when income from overseas markets was more important to Hollywood companies, a number of European countries were taking steps to protect their domestic economies, to stimulate domestic film production, and hence to limit the earnings Hollywood companies could take out of these countries each year. At the same time, the Cold War, nationalist and anti-imperial struggles, the superpower status of the United States, the marked increase in church-going, and the prevalence of religious discourse in the US itself provided a set of contexts and reference points for many of the films, in particular the big-budget road shown epics Hollywood was to produce, co-fund, or distribute during the course of the next two decades.
The postwar growth in epic production was the result of a decision to spend more money on enhancing the cinema's capacity for spectacle through the use of stereophonic sound and new widescreen, large-screen, and large-gauge technologies and on an increasing number of what were beginning to be called "blockbuster" productions—productions that, in road show form in particular, could be used to justify higher prices and generate high profits in a shrinking market. MGM led the way in road showing remakes of silent spectacles and in using income held abroad to fund the use of overseas facilities, locations, and production personnel with Quo Vadis in 1951. Two years later, Twentieth Century Fox pioneered the use of CinemaScope and stereophonic sound with its adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas's bestselling novel The Robe. In 1956, DeMille released a four-hour remake of The Ten Commandments, which used Paramount's new VistaVision process, was shot in Egypt, Sinai, and Hollywood, and cost over $13 million. The film made more than $30 million on its initial release in the US and Canada alone. The following year, Columbia released The Bridge on the River Kwai, one of the first in a series of road shown epic war films. And in 1960, the road show release of Cimarron and The Alamo, the latter filmed in Todd-AO, helped cement a trend toward epic Westerns.
The Ten Commandments
The Bridge on the River Kwai was produced by Sam Spiegel…, an internationally based independent producer. Along with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it was one of a series of epics he made with British director David Lean...The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed in Ceylon using a mix of British, American, Japanese, and Ceylonese actors, stars, and production personnel. Ceylon was a British colony, and The Bridge on the River Kwai was registered as a British film in order to take advantage of British subsidies. Although credited to the French writer Pierre Bouille (who wrote the novel on which it was based), its script actually was written by Carl Foreman and extensively revised by Michael Wilson, both of them blacklisted US Communists.
The national identity of a film like The Bridge on the River Kwai is thus hard to pin down. This was an era of increasing independent production, in which funding for films was increasingly obtained on a one-off basis from a variety of international sources and international settings, locations, and casts were becoming the norm for big-budget productions. Blacklisted writers, whether officially credited or not, were hired to write or co-write scripts for epic productions such as…Spartacus (1960),…and cut-price Italian "peplums" (toga films)…proved popular at the box office in the US as well as in Europe.
Hence the ideological characteristics of postwar epics are difficult to categorize. While the prologue to The Ten Commandments explicitly declares its anti-Communist agenda, Quo Vadis, The Robe, [and] Spartacus…are anti-fascist. Most of the remainder, even some of the westerns, are hostile to imperialism and to the brutal, cynical, and dictatorial exercise of political and military power. But they are often compromised by their focus on white ethnic characters. And their displays of male heroism, sometimes in stark contradiction to an apparent concern with the ethics of war, add a further layer of ideological complication.