One hundred years ago this year the feature film came in to it’s own when the Italian’s got there first with the epic “Cabiria”, a year later David Wark Griffith made “The Birth Of A Nation” and cinema audiences were then made to sit through over three hours of film. My personal favourite D.W. Griffith film is probably “Way Down East”; the use of Lillian Gish floating to her almost certain death is etched forever in my memory, no great big extravaganza like “Intolerance” or the racism of “Birth Of A Nation” or “Broken Blossoms”, just great story-telling and that is what makes a great epic.


The two stand outs of silent film for me are both flawed Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” and Erich Von Stroheim’s “Greed”. Gance’s film was rediscovered in the 80’s thanks to Kevin Brownlow’s painstaking reconstruction to somewhere near the premiere length. The film shows the early life of Napoleon, but in every way you feel Gance is reinventing cinema leading up to the finale in widescreen, filling three screens, but it came too late after “The Jazz Singer”, nobody wanted to watch silent epics which also leaves me to Von Stroheim, perhaps American Cinema’s greatest silent director and his finest film “Greed”, running at over seven hours on it’s premiere. “Greed” was finally cut down to the 140 minute version we have today, I remember first seeing it in the early 90s on TNT (in the days before TCM), it is a gripping film from the start as people get money they want more money and it leads to a showdown it the desert, a masterpiece that could only be achieved in silent cinema.

In the 30s, feature films ran at the most 90 minutes, occasionally you got an epic like “All Quiet On The Western Front”, but one epic was going to outdo them all in 1939 “Gone With The Wind”, based on Margaret Mitchell’s forgettable only novel, it tells the tale of Scarlet O’Hara and the American Civil War. What makes me love the film is that is technicolor’s crowning achievement and Vivien Leigh’s amazing performance, in a film close on four hours, she is only not in two scenes, however the one irritating thing is Leslie Howard’s rather weak performance and you cannot understand why Scarlet would ever fall for him.

With the second world war epics were rare, even rarer you would find an epic made in occupied France “Les Enfants Du Paradis” is the greatest French film of all. It was only able to be made due to being filmed as two feature films, it captures an earlier version of France long gone, the Paris theatre land of the 1820s and 30s but love still prevails, Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault are perfect.


With the coming of Television in the 1950s, cinema needed to be epic to get people back into the theatres. My favourite is still the greatest action film of all time, “Seven Samurai” , a three and a half hour epic tale of farmers who are raided every year by bandits for their crops. Some amazing scenes in the rain as they fight have never been bettered. Much of the decade was taken up with biblical epics such as “The Robe”, “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur” which didn’t add up to much and cumulated in 20th Century Fox going bankrupt with “Cleopatra” in 1963 only for “The Sound Of Music” to save the studio.


The 60s was a decade of change and was there any need for the epic? I still have a great love for “Lawrence Of Arabia” and two Italian films “The Leopard” and “La Dolce Vita” . I first heard of “The Leopard” in the early 90s when Scorsese told Barry Norman that it was one of his favourite films. It was shown in a dubbed restored version on BBC-2 a couple of years later and was restored to a subtitled print by the BFI in the early 00s, it is probably the best looking film of all time. Claudia Cardinale never looked more lovely and Burt Lancaster gives his best performance as the Sicilian Prince who sees his old world fading away.

Out with the old, in came Sergio Leone who boosted Morricone’s music out over long drawn out gun fights, it was brilliant and by the end of the 60s “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” and “Once Upon A Time In The West” had emerged and still remain two of my favourite westerns, they seem to need the epic length.

In the 70s, I love Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900”, which I have seen in an English language version and subtitled, the subtitled seems to work better, but like “The Leopard” and the dollars films, the leads spoke English, everybody else spoke Italian and were dubbed back into English, again to tell the story, it needs the 5 hours running time. Arguably the greatest gangster films of all time and the story of America were given by Francis Ford Coppola in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II”, two superb films that repay repeated viewings. However after this and Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” it seems that epic films were all the rage and destroyed the studios with Coppola going mad in the Jungle in “Apocalypse Now” and “Heaven’s Gate”, both now reassessed as masterpieces. Even Werner Herzog was getting in on the act, he wanted to do one better than “Aguirre, Wrath Of God” and so went mad in the rain forest with Klaus Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo”, this process is brilliantly portrayed in Les Blank’s documentary “Burden Of Dreams”.

It seemed in the 80s, it was only the German’s who would make epic films with “Heimat” coming up first, but these films worked better on television such as Bergman’s finest film “Fanny & Alexander” a sort of Bergman compendium, if you like.

Leone was back in the game in the 80s with his last film, the flawed, but brilliant “Once Upon A Time In America”, a sort of Jewish version of “The Godfather” with a running time of close on four hours.

Since then epic films have been rare, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was one of America’s best of the 90s, but it was hardly the sort of film you would want to take with you on a desert island. I remember watching Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” at the cinema which was close on four hours, a superb performance from Denzel Washington, but I haven’t seen it again in over 20 years, the length puts me off . If I was to choose my favourite films, many of them are of epic length, so I guess that I do approve of length, even if at first it puts me off. So, thanks again to Cabiria.

Dom Dirk

Next Film School is the Tracking Shot. The main feature will be A TOUCH OF EVIL.

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