The Hollywood landscape has always been dotted with epic films, but epic films had their biggest shining moment from the late 1930s to the late 1950s. These two decades saw the release of some of the best movies Hollywood ever had to offer at a length of 2 hours plus. While modern times have seen a slight inclination towards producing a similar type of movie with contemporary flair, there have been few that coupled public favor with industry acclaim as well as the classic epic films did.
Ben-Hur was originally produced in 1925 as a silent film according to imdb.com, but it is the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston that remains immortalized in the minds of movie-goers. The role of Judah Ben-Hur ended up being the only acting role that landed Charlton Heston an Oscar throughout his long career. The movie adaptation of this classic book had to leave some aspects of the novel to the side, but for the most part it remained a fairly true rendition of the book. The Chariot Race sequence became the prototype for car races in many films.
Ben-Hur is a very moving film which follows the life of a young man who was born at approximately the same time as Christ and who encounters Him numerous times throughout the book and movie. How this all plays a part in the life of Ben-Hur would be too much of a spoiler to share.
Gone with the Wind – 1939
Gone with the Wind has been a somewhat controversial film in modern times because of its depiction of the slave characters in the story, but it remains the benchmark by which epic films are judged. Whether or not you care for the storyline, the movie is worth watching merely to see the sets, the costuming, and the stunningly beautiful Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Gone with the Wind follows Scarlett throughout the years of the Civil War and through several years of reconstruction in the deep south regions surrounding Atlanta.
Cleopatra – 1963
Cleopatra was a flop when it was released in 1963, largely because the public was fed up with Elizabeth Taylor and her love scandals at the time. It is unfair, however, that Cleopatra stills carries the term flop with it so many years later. It is a wonderful film. Elizabeth Taylor was never more beautiful than when costumed as Cleopatra. Her wardrobe was stellar, and the eye make-up she wore, while not true to life, is phenomenal.
In this film Taylor gives a very solid performance as the impassioned queen trying to save her lands and birthright from the forces of Roman oppression. The movie depicts her love affairs with Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony. Rex Harrison is magnificent as Caesar and delivers orations throughout the film as only he could. Richard Burton as Mark Antony is also believable enough, but does not touch the perfectly cast Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison in terms of quality.
Raintree County – 1957
Raintree County never seems to show up on lists of landmark films or epics, but it is a very well-acted and extremely well-written movie. The story line follows a young man who falls in love with one girl but supposedly impregnates another on a summer’s day. When he marries the “fallen” young woman his life becomes a constant battle with her inner demons. The Civil War doesn’t manage to compare with the torment expressed within the married life of the characters portrayed by Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County, definitely an epic and underappreciated film.
Big Country – 1958
Big Country is an epic film that is full of a lot of drama without a huge amount of action to guide the viewer through the 2.5 hours of storyline. Gregory Peck is the main star of the film though he shares the stage most notably with Burl Ives who turns in a wonderful performance as the patriarch of a family trying to secure a piece of land in rain shy cattle country where the value of a piece of land with water is great, and a battle brews over who will have the water in the end. Charlton Heston, Chuck Connors, and Jean Simmons also appear in this movie, and the first two turn in somewhat rare performances as bad apples.
These five epic films are all very worthy of viewing. When you are done watching them, compare the quality of the story, the filming, and the acting with more contemporary films labeled as epic, such as Avatar and Titanic, and decide if any new movies can really compare.
Ben-Hur (silent) on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016641/
Ben-Hur (1959) on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052618/
Gone with the Wind on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031381/
Cleopatra on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056937/
Raintree County on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050882/
Big Country on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051411/