click to buy “The Epic in Film” at Amazon.comFew film genres have been so critically despised and disparaged by film critics as the Ancient World epic. Serious, whole-hearted appreciations of such films in the press have been rare. Ridicule, impatience and disgust tend to permeate the reviews… Rarely has there been such an extreme disjuncture between critics and the public as there has been over the Ancient World epic. For by comparison with the critical dismissal of so many of these films, the public have flocked to see them in their millions.

– Jeffrey Richards (1)

Despite the popularity of epic films and the significant role they have played in cinema history, as a genre they have received comparatively little academic attention. For this reason alone, two recent books on the epic – The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas and Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds by Jeffrey Richards – are welcome additions to the field.

In The Epic in Film, Santas returns to “the classic literary form” of the epic as a means of “providing the basic aesthetic parameters” of the genre’s development from antiquity through to film (p. 19). This literary template for the epic may find expression in the cinema but it must also jostle with other ways of understanding the epic that circulate in popular culture. Thus, he notes that “the word ‘epic’ is tossed about [by critics and filmmakers] regardless of a film’s particular form” (p. 16). For Santas,

the use of the term epic by the advertising agencies often causes confusion if one attempts to assess a film’s stature by literary standards rather than by its commercial potential. While it is obvious that such things as size, spectacle, or large casts are meant to attract large audiences, it is not clear, or admissible, that an epic film possesses, or that it should possess, distinct literary qualities. (p. 15, emphasis mine)

As this passage suggests, Santas acknowledges that the often contradictory meanings of the epic in film, film promotion and popular culture mean a literary approach will be both illuminating and yet – as with all methodologies – “bound to have limitations” (p. 17).

Regardless, Santas’ return to Aristotle to define the epic in form, theme and tone adds clarity to what has always been a murky cinematic genre. Santas focuses on the role of the hero at the heart of Aristotle’s discussion of the epic. As such, Santas sees the epic as encompassing heroes beyond the usual mytho-historic confines of the genre. His subcategories of the epic include mock epics such as The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) and anti-epics such as Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). In other words, Santas sees the influence of the heroic, epic form beyond the sword-and-sandal film, bringing in often-overlooked offshoots of the genre but also a sometimes surprisingly diverse selection of films.

King of Kings

Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Otto Rank, Santas sees the epic film as a contemporary form of mythmaking. He argues that

the enduring popularity of the epic film can be explained largely by its ability to preserve and re-create mythical patterns and thus remain in touch with the deeper wishes of national identity…it is capable of embracing popular trends and ideals that define or represent an era. (p. 4)

This relationship between transhistorical, mythical patterns and the specific historical moment that gives them new expression in film is one that has created some tension in cinema scholarship. One only has to recall the structuralist controversy of the 1960s and ’70s which surrounded the (sometimes quite ad hoc) application of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss to film, particularly the Western genre (2). To be fair, even Lévi-Strauss himself stressed that recurring mythic structures were adjusted for every culture (3).

The epic has always been quite sticky in this regard, because at the level of production it is a genre that can quite deliberately model itself on older mythic stories and formal structures. Epic films may indeed tap into a collective unconscious and evoke contemporary and historical resonances, but they may also be a product of myth-by-numbers in an age when one can sit down with a copy of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters (4).

Bearing in mind the commercial realities of the epic film, Santas briefly discusses the significance of the film star to the construction of the epic hero and the marketability of the spectacle that the epic film allows. His examination of various strands of the epic are most illuminating when connected to specific eras of filmmaking. As Steve Neale has noted, scholars have tended to study the film epic in terms of the era in which it is set, rather than the era in which it is made (5). This is understandable given the genre’s preoccupation with the mytho-historic past and the rather sprawling nature of the genre’s limits; discussion of subgenres along the lines of subject matter seems inevitable. But it has the effect of flattening out the genre – its filmic development and its relationship to real history. Santas makes encouraging moves to address Neale’s concerns but is inevitably cut short by the breadth of his study.

This breadth is also the strength of the work, given Santas’ intention to display “the multiplicity of forms the film epic has attained” (p. 18) and the mythic qualities it has maintained across those myriad forms. In other words, as an overview of the genre with subcategories, case studies and suggested films for further examination, Santas is (quite deliberately) trying to generate a starting point for the study of film epics, which is ideal for classroom discussions.

Santas is keen to redress the frequently dismissive attitude of many critics towards the cinematic epic. But he is sometimes disarmingly suspicious of the new storytelling technologies that have enabled its reinvention. He writes:

One gets the impression that the epic form has weathered the assault of a monstrous technology, one with long and pliable tentacles that threatens to embrace, if not suffocate, the epic’s traditional forms. The result is a constant fragmentation of the epic form into newly generated subgenres…constantly being formed. (p. 17)

There is no denying that many forays into the cinema epic are, quite simply, very bad. But then, I like bad cinema. Whether a “good” epic is able to generate “nobler instincts” (p. 19) in its audience perhaps becomes as much an issue of taste as of formal elements.

But then what is an overview and analysis of a genre, if not a combination of formal analysis and personal taste? Quite unexpectedly, I read The Epic in Film from cover to cover in one sitting. This is indicative of Santas’ accessible, entertaining writing style and also my initial surprise at his idea of what constitutes the epic film genre, or, more specifically in this case, what constitutes an epic film. This raises the thorny issue of exactly how we mark the limits of any genre. As Rick Altman’s 1999 book Film/Genre illustrates so well, film genres and genre films are slippery concepts that change over time and depend upon who is using them (6).

I cannot help but reflect that my role as reviewer is inextricably tied to whether or not, at some fundamental level, I agree with Santas’ definition of the epic genre, its subcategories, and his choice of films to illustrate the field. Particularly welcome is his inclusion of a chapter devoted to the woman-centred epic, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s troubled production of Cleopatra (1963). Santas notes that the film “is the only grand epic of its era whose lead is a woman, one who could stand her ground” (p. 116). But in-depth analysis of gender and the epic is precluded by the restrictions of the book’s format. More perplexing is the conflation of the comic epic with the “comic strip epic” (p. 132). Santas argues that this latter form of the epic borrows “elements from newspaper comic strips, cartoon-type heroes like Dick Tracy, Batman, and Superman” (p. 132), including superhero film adaptations and comic strip-inspired films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). Yet comics are not always (or only) comic. Acknowledging that superhero films can vary significantly in tone, Santas discusses Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) in a chapter on the “information age epic” – contemporary epics using digital effects.

I am not yet convinced Santas’ application of Aristotle to film is an approach that adequately takes into account elements specific to the cinema as an art form and as an industry. But using Aristotle as a touchstone makes particular sense when the film epic genre is at such pains to stress its connections with the epic past, however vaguely realised this past may be (7).

click to buy “Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds” at Amazon.comWhile Santas takes us across the various strands of the epic, including both Hollywood and international art-house examples, Jeffrey Richards’ focus is narrower. Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds begins with an examination of the epic film’s nineteenth-century forebears in art and theatre, and an overview of early film epic cycles, before focusing in on just two decades of the Hollywood epic: the 1950s and ’60s. As with many works on the epic, Richards divides his study according to the setting of the films – the Roman empire, the Bible, Greece and Egypt. But by concentrating on the mid-century revival of the film epic, Richards is able to give greater heed to Neale’s criticism that work on the epic pays too little attention to the era in which the films are actually produced (8). Indeed, at the outset, Richards proclaims: “It is a truism that historical films are always about the time in which they are made and never about the time in which they are set” (p. 1, emphasis mine).

Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds is rich with cast and crew accounts of film production, bitchy star gossip, and (often delightfully scathing) contemporary reviews. These accounts alone make the book entertaining reading, and effortlessly display Richards’ meticulous research and attention to the epic as a product of the commercial Hollywood industry. In this regard, chapters of the book would be well placed in a course on studio-era Hollywood in terms of its practical machinations and the impact on the final product. Richards also pays welcome attention to the role of sound and music in the epic.

But more broadly than the production histories, in his analysis of the resulting films Richards constantly makes connections between the politics of the ancient and contemporary worlds. He notes that the epics of the ’50s and ’60s frequently reflect a post-World War II anti-Fascism, as well as America’s “Cold War and the domestic anti-Communist witch hunt” (p. 55). By focusing on just two decades for most of his book, Richards is able to chart these political connections across numerous films, frequently linking them back to blacklisted writers deliberately infusing the films with commentaries on their own predicament.

As with Santas, Richards includes a chapter on the revival of the epic in recent years, but shares with him some telling reservations. For Richards, an integral conflict within the film epic is how to convey a sense of history in the language of its characters and yet remain accessible to a contemporary audience. He comments:

The writers of television adaptations frequently did not bother… In Xena, where the heroine is given a sidekick with the ludicrously unclassical name of Gabrielle, characters say things like ‘Get off my back’, ‘I feel your pain’… and ‘Why don’t you stick around’. This is pure and unforgiveable laziness: scriptwriters who cannot be bothered to find an idiom that is both comprehensible to a present-day audience and able to convey a sense of pastness. It has the effect of convincing audiences that historical or mythological characters are merely contemporary Americans in fancy dress. (p. 167)

I’m afraid that Richards has missed the joke in this instance. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) are comedy dramas – and Richards deliberately omits comedies at the outset “partly to accommodate a strictly limited word count, but also because as someone who is temperamentally melancholic, I respond more productively to tragedy than to comedy” (p. ix). Hercules and Xena highlight the inability to reconstruct a lost past and instead revel in the inherent fakeness of the whole genre. These programs embrace the cheesiness of the epic’s most derided forms, yet give it the scope of the television series format to develop character relationships – even in the context of comic implausibility (9). Xena places its central characters alongside the heroes and gods of ancient Greece, as well as later Roman figures such as Julius Caesar, Biblical figures such as Lucifer, and even the Medieval Beowulf – well, you get the idea. All epics are “fancy dress”, it’s just that some take it more seriously than others.

Gladiator

What seems like an objection regarding accuracy actually comes back to the issue of taste surrounding the “good” and “bad” epic. Thus Richards later notes of Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000): “This is not really an attempt to tell an accurate story from Roman history. It is full of provable errors” (p. 175). And yet Richards declares the film (quite understandably) a “decisive and triumphant return” of the epic (p. 174), with a balance of spectacle and character development. My point is not to insist that Hercules and Xena are as “good” as Gladiator – although, because they represent a different form of the epic, I could still mount an argument for this – but rather to note that accuracy is often the red herring in discussions of the epic. Writing on cinematic depictions of ancient Rome, Maria Wyke has argued: “Historians should try to understand not whether a particular cinematic account of history is true… but what the logic of that account may be” (10). From this perspective, what is selected, omitted, and changed in an historical or a mythological story is not an issue of accuracy, but rather becomes a means of examining the various contemporary forces at play in shaping those variations. There is some irony in Richards’ complaint that the audience may be fooled into believing that everyone in the past was just like them, given that he acknowledges films about the ancient world are always about contemporary concerns “and never about the time in which they are set” (p. 1). Richards is welcome to prefer the inaccuracies of Gladiator or Rome (2005-2007) over Xena, but it’s useful to prise apart the underlying reasons for that preference. But then, as Richards himself explores, the epic has always been a genre of conflicting forces: of television and film’s competing visions of the epic; of “spirituality and sexuality”, particularly in the Cecil B. DeMille epics (p. 37); of entertainment and historical authenticity; of spectacle and story; of cheesiness and substance.

The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster and Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds are in many ways complementary to one another because each author takes a notably different approach. Santas is interested in the formal and thematic qualities of the epic, which leads him to a surprisingly diverse range of films and settings. I may not have always agreed with his categorisation, but I would still use his work in the classroom precisely because it opens up discussion on the nature of the hero, the epic, and broader issues of categorisation and genre that are not generated by Richards’ book. In Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, the focus is narrower – just Hollywood, just ancient world epics – and the approach historical, archival. The depth of the material that this narrow focus allows and the adept balance of contemporary material – from production to reception – with Richards’ commentary is quite simply a delight. Scholars and fans of the epic would do well to have both books at their bedside.

The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster, by Constantine Santas, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, 2007.

Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, by Jeffrey Richards, Continuum, London, 2008.

Click here to order The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster from  Amazon.com

Click here to order Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds from  Amazon.com

Endnotes

  1. Jeffrey Richards, Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, Continuum, London, 2008, pp. 54, 55.
  2. For an overview of this early myth criticism, see Sheila Johnston, “Film Narrative and the Structuralist Controversy”, in Pam Cook (ed.), The Cinema Book, BFI, London, 1985, pp. 222-250.
  3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, Jonathan Cape, London, 1969, p. 8.
  4. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, third edition, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, 2007.
  5. Steve Neale, “Epics and Spectacles”, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, p. 87.
  6. Rick Altman, Film/Genre, BFI, London, 1999, pp. 78-9, 82.
  7. As Vivian Sobchack argues, what the epic really creates is a somewhat hazy feeling of “general historical eventfulness” emphasised by the sheer length of time the audience is made to sit through the film. Vivian Sobchack, “‘Surge and Splendor’: A Phenomenology of the Hollywood Historical Epic”, in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader II, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995, p. 286, emphasis in original.
  8. Neale, p. 87.
  9. Indeed this juxtaposition, along with the queer potential of the program, can be seen as partly responsible for its cult following. See, for example, the work of Sara Gwenllian Jones, including “Starring Lucy Lawless?”, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, April, 2000, pp. 9-22.
  10. Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History, Routledge, New York and London, 1997, p. 13.

About The Author

Dr Djoymi Baker lectures in Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne. She writes on adaptations of mythology in film and television but will watch even the shoddiest of epic films simply for the love of it.

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