The Epic Comes Full Circle: Comparing Epic Films of the 70’s and 80’s to the New Century
After decades of success, the epic faded in popularity to the point that it rarely appeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s. When it did appear, its defining characteristics remained except one- the morality tale. During this phase, the morality tale became less of a tale of good vs. evil and more of people trapped by circumstances beyond their control, a theme seen in epics such as The Godfather, Heaven’s Gate, Reds, and The Last Emperor. However, as the new millennium neared, Titanic heralded the return of the epic. The epic was back-bigger and better than ever, and with a return to the classic morality tales of good vs. evil. This would be seen in films such as Gladiator, Troy, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The epic film has traditionally been associated with the characteristics of size, boastful publicity, settings in the past, morality play, and the director with a strong vision. The epic typically featured a grand backdrop while it explores its main characters’ lives intimately. The epic was fueled by a publicity campaign full of hyperbole about the film’s scope and grandeur, often boasting of its cost. The epic, usually set in the past, relied on fantastic sets and costumes to tell its story and would often tell a story of good versus evil whether it was the tale of the Hebrews in The Ten Commandments or Spartacus’ battle for freedom in the film of the same title. Finally, the epic usually had a director who had a strong vision of the film and controlled most if not all aspects of the picture.
By the 1970’s, the epic had fallen out of favor with audiences for the most part. The epics that did appear maintained the traditional characteristics, they also had a different approach to morality tales. As Graves and Engle note, “The comparatively few post-1960’s epics depicted individuals as victims of political and economic graft or as pawns caught up in social revolution and upheaval” (96). Epics reflected filmgoers’ changing tastes as seen in “New Hollywood” films such as Easy Rider, The Graduate, and The French Connection that featured antiheroes. The Godfather differs in its morality play in that it does not explore good vs. evil in the traditional sense with good triumphing over evil. Instead, it is more a case of a lesser evil (the Corleone family) vs. a greater evil (the rival mob families) or arguably, an examination of the corruption of a good man (Michael Corleone) by the forces surrounding him.
The epic’s shift in its presentation of morality tales continued into the 1980’s. This is seen in the epic Heaven’s Gate where marshal James Averill saves a group of immigrant farmers from mercenaries hired by a group of wealthy landowners, but loses his girlfriend and idealism in the process when he sees the government supporting the corrupt landowners. Warren Beatty’s epic Reds examined how societal forces (in this case the Russian Revolution) can consume a person while Bertolucci’s 1987 The Last Emperor explored a man caught by political forces beyond his control (In this case, the Chinese emperor confronted by a Japanese invasion).
In 1997, the epic returned to its traditional depiction of good versus evil in James Cameron’s Titanic. Titanic’s lavish sets, heavy marketing, historical setting, morality play, and the strong guiding hand of its director gave it the characteristics of the traditional epic. While the ending is bleak with the death of Jack, Rose’s enduring love for him qualifies as a triumph of good vs. evil.
Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic, Gladiator incorporates all the genre’s traditional characteristics. First, it is big in scope whether it’s the film’s opening battle between the Romans and barbarians or the fearsome battles in the arenas. Gladiator like other epics from this time, relies on CGI to create elaborate scenes involving thousands of people (such as the scenes) and recreations of historic sites like the Coliseum. Like other epics, Gladiator tells a very personal story (here, that of Roman general Maximus who survives an execution only to end up as a gladiator) but it is set against a huge backdrop (that of ancient Rome, including its frontier and capital city). The film was heavily promoted and featured a strong morality tale of Maximus seeking revenge against the unscrupulous Commodus who murders Maximus’ family when Maximus refuses to help him become emperor. Gladiator features a clear-cut morality tale as Maximus fights not only for revenge, but for the restoration of the Roman Republic from Commodus, who has murdered his own father to ascend to power. The film’s historical setting is typical of the epic, here set in ancient Rome, and full of detailed sets and costumes that recreate the past. Finally, director Ridley Scott is a strong force in guiding the film with its large budget, reported rewrites, troublesome star (Russell Crowe), and untimely death of actor Oliver Reed.
With recent films like The Hobbit, the epic seems stronger than ever. With CGI able to create lavish scenes from the past or another world, there is no end to the epic’s scope and the stories it can tell. Filmgoers seem to want big productions involving tales from the past and morality tales. As long as they do, there will be directors who take the challenge of an epic, and throw themselves into producing films that are bigger and better than ever.
Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood,