An epic is a genre of film that emphasizes human drama on a grand scale. Epics are more ambitious in scope than other film genres, and their ambitious nature helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film. They typically entail high production values, a sweeping musical score (often by an acclaimed film composer), and an ensemble cast of bankable stars, placing them among the most expensive of films to produce. The term "epic" comes from the poetic genre exemplified by such works as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
As popularly applied to motion pictures, the term epic refers less to a set of generic qualities than to a vague sense of "epic-ness," a quality more or less synonymous with enormity. The "epic" movie is often set during a time of war or other societal crisis, and covers a long span of time, in terms of both the events depicted and the length of the reel. Typically, such films have a historical setting, although fantasy or science fiction settings have become common in recent decades. The central conflict of the film is usually seen as having far-reaching effects, often changing the course of history. The main characters' actions 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 about the Punic Wars that laid the groundwork for the subsequent silent epics of D.W. Griffith.
The genre reached a peak of popularity in the early 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). Nevertheless, films in this genre continued to appear, with one notable example being War and Peace, which was released in the former Soviet Union in 1968, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, and said to be the most expensive film ever made.
Epic films continue to be produced, although nowadays they typically use computer effects instead of a genuine cast of thousands. Since the 1950s, such films have regularly been shot with a wide aspect ratio for a more immersive and panoramic theatrical experience.
The definition of epic has expanded over the years to include films that in general have a large scale or scope in 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.
Many writers may refer to any film that is "long" (over two hours) as an epic, making the definition of this genre a matter of dispute. 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.
Historical epics are epic films that take place in the historical past, often focusing on people who alter the course of history. A number of historical epics, especially those made in the 1950s and 1960s, are set in ancient times, particularly in Rome, Greece, or Egypt. Historical epics typically are more grand-scale than other types of epics, featuring elaborate sets and large numbers of extras. Notable examples of historical epics include Lawrence of Arabia, Titanic, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon, Robin Hood, Ben-Hur, Gladiator, Gandhi, Ivan the Terrible, Gone With the Wind, Mughal-e-Azam and D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking films The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
Grand-scale films involving Jesus and other religious figures have been called religious or Biblical epics. This genre was popular in the 1950s and was often associated with towering budgets and such stars as Charlton Heston, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, or Yul Brynner. Notable examples include Quo Vadis (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959).
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 recent example is the 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ.
While the term Biblical epics is used to describe films based on Judeo-Christian stories, other films may be based in other religious traditions, such as The Mahabharata, which is based on Hindu mythology, and The Message, which is based on Islamic history.
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 archetypal romantic epic is Gone With the Wind (1939). Other examples include Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Out of Africa (1985), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), Jodhaa Akbar (2008), and Australia (2008).
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: "Seven Samurai" (1954), El Cid (1961), The Longest Day, Lawrence of Arabia (both 1962), War and Peace (1965), Zulu (1964), Khartoum (1966), Patton (1970), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Schindler's List (1993), Braveheart (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Patriot (2000), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), We Were Soldiers (2002), Troy (2004), and Red Cliff (2008). War epics also include the anti-war film genre. Films such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Stalingrad (1993), The Thin Red Line (1998), The Last Samurai (2003), The Kingdom (2007) Arn: The Knight Templar (Swedish, English Subtitles, 2007) are epics.
Crime epics are unusual to that of other epic subgenres; crime epics tend to focus on the lives of the people within organized crime, mostly within an operatic and dramatic scale. The criminal lifestyle and how it affects others is presented in all aspects as the driving force of the story. The archetypal crime epic is The Godfather (1972). Other examples include The Godfather: Part II (1974), Scarface (1983), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), The Untouchables (1989), GoodFellas (1990), The Godfather: Part III (1990), Casino (1995), Heat (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), City of God (2002), The Departed (2006), and American Gangster (2007).
Although not very well represented in the 1960s' "golden era" of epic films, the science fiction epic received mainstream attention in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nine years later, George Lucas' Star Wars films debuted, rocketing the science fiction/fantasy epic to unprecedented blockbuster successes. Opening in 2009, James Cameron's Avatar again showed the pulling power of the science fiction epic, going on to gross over $700 million domestically and over $2.7 billion worldwide, which makes it the most successful box office movie of all time, not taking inflation into account. In recent times, many fantasy epics have been produced with varying success, including Peter Jackson's wildly popular and critically acclaimed Lord of the Rings film trilogy based on the books of same name by J. R. R. Tolkien, the Harry Potter film series of J.K. Rowling's creation, and The Chronicles of Narnia based on C.S. Lewis' famous novels. More recently, Christopher Nolan's Inception opened to extremely positive reviews and was one of 2010's big financial successes.
Some notable animated movies that could be considered as epics would be a multitude of Disney movies including Hercules (1997), Tarzan (1999), Aladdin (1992), and the most famous being The Lion King (1994). Don Bluth's classic The Secret of NIMH is another example. Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler (1993–1995), though unfinished, was to be considered as an epic film. Hayao Miyazaki's 1995 anime film Princess Mononoke is a historical fantasy film that runs over 134 minutes, making it the second longest animated film to date, behind Final Yamato (not listed as an epic film), which runs over 165 minutes.
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 over $1.8 billion worldwide, making it the second highest grossing film of all-time, behind 2009's Avatar, which grossed $2.7 billion worldwide. If inflation is taken into account, then the historical epic Gone with the Wind becomes the highest grossing film ever in the United States. Adjusted for inflation it earned the equivalent of $1.6 billion in the United States alone. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, the science fiction/fantasy epic Star Wars stands at number 2, with an inflated worldwide gross of $1.4 billion.
So far the most Academy Awards ever won by a single film stands at 11. This feat has only been achieved by 3 movies (Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) all of which are considered epics.