Our 50 best epic movies list was so gargantuan in scope that we had to split it in two – here’s the best of the rest, in no particular order.
David Lean’s life of T E Lawrence is justifiably regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, with barnstorming performances from Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif. It’s undergoing a 4K restoration for release this year, to mark its 50th anniversary – if you have any interest in cinema at all, you have to see it on the big screen.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Quentin Tarantino’s roaring rampage of revenge was originally concieved of as a single film – and in 2004 he screened the complete version of Kill Bill at Cannes, a full four hours of kung fu and spaghetti western homage.
A few tweaks were made for the omnibus edition, removing volume 1’s cliffhanger ending and dialling up the violence in the anime sequence. Most notably, The Bride’s battle in the House of Blue Leaves doesn’t cut to black and white halfway through – in the original, the monochrome portion was a sop to the censors offended by all the gore splattered over Uma Thurman’s yellow tracksuit.
Making fur coats sexy, David Lean’s follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia was equally sweeping in scope, depicting the entire Russian Revolution through the doomed romance of poet-turned-doctor Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie), the wife of a revolutionary. Filmed at the height of the Cold War, Lean’s lasting achievement – since he wasn’t able to film in Russia – was his meticulous recreation of the country on location in Spain and Canada.
Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (2004)
Zhang Yimou’s wuxia saga is an epic in the truest sense of the word, combining a grand scale with a sweeping story that takes in four colour-coded acts. Jet Li’s nameless hero figure takes on three assassins in order to get close to the king – but to what end? Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films sat on the movie for ages, eventually agreeing to release it when Quentin Tarantino said he’d put his name on the promo material. Thanks, QT.
Mel Gibson may be best-known for his ill-advised telephone rants now, but in Braveheart he brought the crazy in a good way. His account of William Wallace’s battle for FREEDOM! was riddled with historical inaccuracies (including, memorably, a white van seen in the background of one battle scene) but who cares, when the battles look this cool?
Dr Zhivago (1965)
DW Griffith was accused of racism over his film The Birth of A Nation – even in the 1910s, making the Ku Klux Klan the heroes was considered a bit much – so he responded with this sweeping denunciation of intolerance.
Four parallel stories provide accounts of intolerance down through the ages, with the Babylonian sequence proving particuarly spectaular. Without CGI and modelwork to fall back on, Griffith built the massive temple set seen above for real – they didn’t mess about in the early days of cinema.
The most expensive film ever made – even after you adjust for inflation – cinema-goers flocked to see Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s real-life romance play out on screen through the personas of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Despite being the highest grossing film of the year, it still posted a loss – it was just that expensive. Still, at least those grandiose sets went to good use – some of them turned up in Carry on Cleo.
Orlando Bloom stars as a blacksmith-turned-Crusader in Ridley Scott’s period war film. As you’d expect from the director of Gladiator, the battle sequences are jaw-dropping – though the film’s most interesting feature is its even-handed depiction of the warring sides. Keep an eye out for an uncredited Ed Norton as the masked Leper King, Baldwin.
Abel Gance’s silent biopic of Napoleon rivals the French Emperor’s reign for length – it’s a whopping five hours long. Although it failed to make a splash when it arrived in the US – talkies just having taken off – it’s remarkably innovative.
Gance used handheld cameras and underwater shooting to dynamic effect – and in the film’s finale, the curtains draw back on a gigantic screen, with footage from three cameras projected side-by-side in a tryptich. One screen just wasn’t enough to contain Gance’s ambition.
The counterpoint to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Jinnah tells the story of Muhammad Ali Jinnah – the founder of modern Pakistan. He’s stuck in an anteroom of heaven, and his file’s gone missing because it’s been transferred to a computer that no-one knows how to operate – so he’s forced to make his case to the celestial authorities. Sounds like they need to get IT support in. Christopher Lee, who starred as Jinnah, regards it as the most important film he’s made – and who are we to question Count Dracula himself?
Don Chaffey’s adventure epic has only a nodding acquaintance with the original Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, but that’s beside the point – the film’s iconic stop-motion animation sequences, directed by Ray Harryhausen, are worth the price of admission on their own. Jason’s battle with a stop-motion skeleton army is justifiably iconic, and puts many modern CGI sequences to shame.
Based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiwicz, Quo Vadis takes in the early years of Christianity, and the persecution of the sect by the mad Roman Emperor, Nero. Although made on a grandiose scale – it takes in everything from gladiatorial combat to the burning of Rome, and features the most costumes ever made for a film – it’s most notable for Peter Ustinov’s salacious turn as the depraved Nero.
The prequel to 1993’s Gettysburg, Gods and Generals follows the career of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, played by none other than Stephen Lang – Avatar’s musclebound villain Colonel Quaritch.
Lang gained plenty of experience of shooting at blue-clad foes in Ronald F Maxwell’s Civil War film (and in Gettysburg – he played Confederate Major General George E Pickett in the earlier/later film). Between them, Gods and Generals and Gettysburg are nearly as long as the American Civil War itself, clocking in at a whopping six hours apiece.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s account of China’s last Emperor, Pu Yi, is characteristically lush and vibrant, following the boy king into adulthood as he’s deposed by the Communists, endures life in a prison camp and eventually retires to a simple life as a gardener.
The first film ever to shoot footage in Beijing’s Forbidden City, it even took precedence over Queen Elizabeth II – Her Maj wasn’t able to visit the location while on a state visit, as the production was shooting there.
Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine may be the least convincing Scandinavians this side of the Bronx, but accurate casting was the least of this rip-roaring adventure’s concerns. Curtis stars as the bastard half-Viking heir to the throne of Northumbria, who’s sold into slavery only to rise through the Viking ranks.
Anyway, never mind all that – The Vikings has a scene in which Kirk Douglas scales a castle door by chucking axes at it and using them as handholds. Who could ask for more?
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral sci-fi is nothing if not ambitious – it starts with the dawn of man, transitions into the future of space exploration (via one of the greatest cuts in the history of cinema) and proceeds to take the audience on the ultimate trip – taking in alien monoliths and mad computers on the way. Good luck puzzling out the closing twenty minutes of the film, though.
Meryl Streep and Robert Redford act out a grand romance in this adaptation of Karen Blixen’s memoir of her years in British East Africa, playing a woman caught in a marriage of convenience and a big game hunter who find themselves drawn to each other. The pair’s chemistry would be enough to sell the movie on its own, but director Sydney Pollack uses the African locations to great effect, with sweeping shots that mirror the film’s high emotions.
For his story about an Irish entrepreneur who goes slowly mad as he attempts the impossible task of moving a ship through a jungle and over a mountain, Werner Herzog merrily ignored the warnings posed by his script, and tried to move a ship through a jungle and over a mountain.
One crewmember lost a foot in the process, cutting it off with a chainsaw to prevent the venom from a snakebite spreading. The cinematographer, meanwhile, had to have his hand operated on without anaesthetic. Herzog’s clashes with star Klaus Kinski on the troubled production were the stuff of legend – at one point a local chief offered to kill Kinski on Herzog’s behalf. Never mind the movie – the production alone was an epic.
Martin Scorsese’s crime saga follows Leonardo Dicaprio’s young tearaway as he attempts to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Bill the Butcher. It’s Daniel Day-Lewis, though, who dominates the film as Bill – his “Honorable man” monologue, draped in the American flag, is a masterclass.
Ultimately, though, Bill’s towering personality and Dicaprio’s mission of revenge are swept aside by the course of history, their blood feud rendered petty and meaningless in the face of the Draft Riots that ravage New York.
In terms of scale alone, this western beats all-comers – it was shot by four different directors, using the Cinemascope process, and could only be projected onto a huge curved screen. It needed to be big, just to cram in all the stars who featured, with Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and John Wayne jockeying for screen time.
Director George Stevens stuffed his four-hour account of the life of Christ with famous faces – to mixed effect. Max von Sydow, then an unknown outside Ingmar Bergman’s arthouse films, does a creditable turn as the Lamb of God, but he’s somewhat undermined by the parade of Hollywood stars in supporting roles – including Charlton Heston, Telly Savalas – and John Wayne’s infamous cameo as the Centurion, drawling, “Truly, this man was the son of Gawd.”
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Martin Scorsese swaps mobsters for monks with his depiction of the life of the Dalai Lama, who’s forced into exile by the oppression of China’s communist government – facing a series of arduous challenges on the journey to safety. Fun fact: the film inspired Axl Rose to write Chinese Democracy, the title song from his oft-delayed Guns N’ Roses album.
What Zack Snyder’s Spartan saga lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with stunning visuals. Using an appropriately spartan palette, Snyder’s film recounts the story of the 300 warriors who fought a vastly superior Persian force at Thermopylae, in an adaptation of the graphic novel by comics legend Frank Miller. Historical accuracy goes out the window, but that’s fair enough – this is an exercise in myth-making.
Quo Vadis (1951)
Akira Kurosawa’s last great epic was loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, depicting a samurai warlord’s descent into madness as his three sons betray him one by one. At the time, Ran was Japan’s most expensive movie, with Kurosawa constructing and destroying a full-size castle for the climactic battle scene.
Russell Crowe burst onto the Hollywood scene with his characteristically gruff portrayal of the Roman general Maximus, who finds himself in somewhat reduced circumstances when his family is killed and he’s sold into slavery as a gladiator. Will he fight his way to the top and have his revenge on wicked, incestuous Emperor Commodus? With macho man Ridley Scott, directing, is there any doubt?
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