Saturday, 14 June 2008

Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary on over 250 Historical Spectacle Movies

The cover of the 2004 second edition, with expanded coverage

This McFarland book, published in 1990, discusses the epic film, providing full reviews of 222 movies and shorter summaries of another 73. Richard Harrison, the star of a number of Italian peplum productions in the 1960s provides the introduction, followed by an overview of the history of the genre by author Gary A. Smith. It's important to note the boundaries of the epic Smith provides here as they define what gets included and what doesn't.

Budget is not directly an issue, though the presence of larger-than-life characters and monumental events, whether historical or mythological, are prerequisites. So too is that these events occur sometime between the beginning of the world and the thirteenth century – the latter proving a somewhat arbitrary cutoff point that leads to the exclusion of a film like Freda's Maciste in Hell which would otherwise presumably qualify.

Another limitation, perhaps more obvious today than at the time of the book's publication, is its strong emphasis on European history, religion and mythologies and corresponding film productions, with no mention of, say, Tarkan Meets the Vikings from Turkey or Tales of the Taira Clan from Japan.

Nevertheless, the range of films featured is still broad, ranging from silent Italian and Hollywood epics such as Cabiria and Intolerance, through much of Cecil B DeMille's output, onto the 1950s Hollywood epics, scores of peplums, sundry Hammer exotics, Caligula and Caligula the Untold Story (but no mention of Mattei's Caligula and Messalina) and even a few versions of Bible stories produced under the auspices of church groups and released theatrically.

All the longer reviews follow the same basic format, telling the potential viewer what he or she needs to know, with an overview of the story and an evaluation of the film's strengths and weaknesses, along with any particularly noteworthy facts about the production.

Though perhaps not as comprehensive as it could be I doubt that it would be possible for anyone to genuinely cover the epic across the entirety of world cinema and feel sure that Epic Films will remain a useful guide to pre-Gladiator, 300 and Passion of the Christ historical spectacles. Certainly, I came away from it with a better sense of where these films fit in relation to their wider sub-generic histories. And, at the simple level of knowing whether this or that Hercules or Maciste peplum is worth a look, it will undoubtedly help.

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