The History of the Decline and Fall of the Epic Film Genre

Despite the fact that I like history and I like movies,  I don’t think a lot about about the history of the movie industry.  But I was reading the other day about the 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, which I’d never even heard of, but sounds very interesting, as it has a very strong cast.  (Too bad Edward Gibbon didn’t get screenwriting credit.)

The film was a fairly bad box office failure, reminding me of another epic historical film that famously lost money: Cleopatra, which I blogged about here.  It wasn’t that people didn’t want to see Cleopatra; it was just that it was so expensive it couldn’t make back its massive cost.

It seems like “epic” movies were big in the 1960s, until they ran into bombs like Cleopatra, at which point the industry turned towards smaller, more “personal” movies, until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came along and turned things back toward the epic scale.

I think “epic” movies–think movies with ornate sets and large crowds–became prohibitively expensive to make, so they turned away from them in the ’70s.  Then the advent of CGI made it possible for the genre to be resurrected.  Look at the Wikipedia article on historical epic films, and take note of the dates:

Examples of historical epics include Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Barry Lyndon (1975), Gandhi (1982), Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), Joan of Arc (1999), Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Les Misérables (2012).

Now, the “new” epics are not as really the same as the “old” epics–it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how, but there is a feeling of unreality about the new CGI based movies.  They lack “grittiness”–a term normally associated with the non-epics made in the 1970s, but which applies to the macro scale as well.

“Capriccio Romano”, by Bernardo Bellotto. 1740s. Image via Wikipedia.

It can be done–one reason I think the Star Wars prequels are better than people give them credit for is that they do a better job emulating the “feel” of the bygone epic films than most other modern epics do.  George Lucas may be over-reliant on CGI, and he may have done more than anyone else to usher in the era of cheap epics, but he himself knows what he’s doing when it comes to CGI effects.   This could just be because Lucas (and Spielberg) are old enough to remember the era of the original epic movie era, and so can understand them enough to imitate them expertly.

But now that CGI is so prevalent, and makes epics so easy (relatively speaking) it makes all epics too overdone, too focused upon spectacle, and loses the deeper meaning.  I believe that some historians feel the same thing happened to cause the decline of Rome.   “Bread and circuses” indeed…


  1. The biggest reason for the decline in epics was the pressure put on by the theaters. A 3 1/2 hour movie reduces the number of showing per day and that’s fewer butts in seats. Epics were fine for drive-ins because you didn’t need a second movie, but drive-ins declined and theaters wanted movies under two hours. Multi-plexes allow epics to return because after the initial weekend they can be put into the smaller viewing areas. I went to see the 4 hour Hamlet. It started at 8 and ended at midnight. It was hard sitting there that long and leaving that late. With regular movies the theater could have done three showings and made three times the money. Video and DVD also help these movies make profits not to mention marketing toys and lunch boxes and stuff.

  2. Now during weekends with nothing to do and between Christmas and New Years long movies and even mini-series help fill up the time on wide screen TV’s with surround sound.

    1. I haven’t watched many miniseries, but I do get the feeling they are taking up the market formerly served by epic movies. There’s more time to tell the story, and they certainly have no trouble attracting A-list actors. Another difference, maybe, from the earlier era when TV was viewed as secondary to cinema.

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