Epic film is a style of film-making with large scale, sweeping scope and spectacle. The usage of the term has shifted over time, sometimes designating a film genre and at other times simply synonymous with big budget film-making. Like epics in the classical literary sense it is often focused on a heroic character. An epic's ambitious nature helps to set it apart from other types of film such as the period piece or adventure film. Epic historical films would usually take a historical or a mythic event and add an extravagant setting and lavish costumes, accompanied by a expansive musical score with an ensemble cast, which would make them among the most expensive of films to produce. The most common subjects of epic films are royalty, gladiators and/or figures from various periods in world history.
The term "epic" originally came from the poetic genre exemplified by such works as the ''Iliad'', ''Epic of Gilgamesh'', or the ''Odyssey''. In classical literature, epics are considered works focused on deeds or journeys of heroes upon which the fate of a large number of people depend. Similarly, films described as "epic" typically take a historical character, or a mythic heroic figure. Common subjects of epics are royalty, gladiators, great military leaders, or leading personalities from various periods in world history. However, there are some films described as "epic" almost solely on the basis of their enormous scope and the sweeping panorama of their settings such as ''How the West was Won'' or ''East of Eden'' that do not have the typical substance of classical epics but are directed in an epic style.
When described as "epic" because of content, an epic movie is often set during a time of war or other societal crisis, while covering a long span of time, in terms of both the events depicted and the running time of the film. Such films usually have a historical setting, although fantasy or science fiction settings have become common in recent decades. The central conflict of the film is usually seen as having far-reaching effects, often changing the course of history. The main characters' actions are often central to the resolution of the societal conflict.
In its classification of films by genre, the American Film Institute limits the genre to historical films such as ''Ben-Hur''. However, film scholars such as Constantine Santas are willing to extend the label to science-fiction films such as ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' and ''Star Wars''. Nickolas Haydock suggests that "Surely one of the hardest film genres to define is that of the "epic" film, encompassing such examples as ''Ben-Hur'', ''Gone with the Wind''....and more recently, ''300'' and the ''Star Wars'' films...none of these comes from literary epics ''per se'', and there is little that links them with one another. Among those who espouse film genre studies, epic is one of the most despised and ignored genres" Finally, although the ''American Movie Channel'' formally defines epic films as historical films, they nonetheless state the epic film may be combined with the genre of science-fiction and cite ''Star Wars'' as an example.
Stylistically, films classed as epic usually employ spectacular settings and specially designed costumes, often accompanied by a sweeping musical score, and an ensemble cast of bankable stars. Epics are usually among the most expensive of films to produce. They often use on-location filming, authentic period costumes, and action scenes on a massive scale. Biographical films may be less lavish versions of this genre.
Many writers may refer to any film that is "long" (over two hours) as an epic, making the definition epic a matter of dispute, and raise questions as to whether it is a "genre" at all. As Roger Ebert put it, in his "Great Movies" article on ''Lawrence of Arabia'':
The comedy film ''Monty Python and the Holy Grail'' had the joking tagline "''Makes Ben Hur look like an epic''."
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