The Death of the Epic

“A cast of thousands,” announces the hokey voice on an old trailer, “The greatest adventure story ever told.” Hyperbole aside, this is the calling card of the old Film Epic: do it bigger, do it better, make it the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen. Wikipedia defines an Epic as having “large scale, sweeping scope, and spectacle.” To that I would add that the classic Epic genre, which peaked in the ‘60s, trends toward long films, usually over three hours. The expense that goes into producing these films has always made them difficult prospects for filmmakers and studios to undertake, but the genre used to enjoy a popularity that has since seemed to fade.

Only a few recent films fully conform to the genre’s definition. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is far and away the best example (The Hobbit movies also technically fit the bill, but we’re not going to talk about them). Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar comes in at two hours and forty-nine minutes, and its sweeping scope and spectacle certainly fit the genre’s characteristics. There are also a few films that fulfill all of the characteristics except the length. Dunkirk springs to mind, at just under two hours.

But most of those spectacular three to four hour Epics seem to be gone, if not for good, then at least for the foreseeable future. Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like these.

There are a number of reasons behind that trend. For one thing, historical adventure stories have largely given way to a preference for fantasy, science fiction, and superhero movies. As The Lord of the Rings and Interstellar prove, there is nothing intrinsic about these genres that prevents them from being made into Epics. And they are excellent genres in their own rights. At the same time, the overall lack of historical films today does mark an extraordinary departure from the stories told by the Epic genre at its height.

More important, I think, is Hitchcock’s famous assertion: “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” And we should probably assume that the bladder in question belongs to a human who forgot to use the restroom before walking into the theater. In other words, any film stretching much past the two hour mark is inviting a form of impatience that comes naturally to all of us. The old Epics of the ’60s accounted for this human shortcoming by including an intermission after two hours: five minutes of pleasant music during which the audience could get out of their seats, stretch their legs, and answer any higher callings that occurred to them.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the human bladder that these films strain. Four hours is a long time to be watching a film. To put it in perspective, your work day is likely only twice the time it would take to see one of these films. That’s two extra hours that the audience could be spending in any way that they see fit. And we must add to that the extra cost to the studios of making one movie the length of two. The opportunity cost of an Epic, both from a viewer’s perspective and from a producer’s perspective, is therefore much higher than that of a traditional two hour film. And that is why I think these tremendous productions have become rarer and rarer in recent times.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Epic genre that I miss (admittedly this is coming from a guy in his twenties, who never experienced the genre’s heyday). The pageantry, the great sweeping scores, and the sense of truly massive adventure are hard to match in films half the length. I even miss the old overtures and intermissions that would open and then punctuate the films. They were like palate cleansers, ten minutes of beautiful music to clear our minds and our expectations of the clutter of our daily lives, thereby setting the tone for the movie to follow. And I miss the fantastic adventures that came with the genre, adventures which only seem to be hollowly echoed by the majority of today’s superhero and action films.

In truth I’m not lamenting some golden age of filmmaking. There were good epics and bad ones, just as today there are good films and bad films. But I do feel that we could stand to learn something from that old genre, both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the kinds of stories that they told. They managed to combine a sense of the spectacular with a kind of grounded quality that these days seems rather rare. But don’t take my word for it. The next time you find yourself with four hours to spare, think about tracking down a copy of an old Epic, be it Spartacus, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, or whichever strikes your fancy. I’m willing to bet that you won’t regret it. 

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