Generally speaking, my criteria for epic:
- A running time that's longer than average. The starting point for me is typically the 150-160 minute mark. Some are shorter.
- Narrative criteria is more of a grey area; true epics span a larger frame of time, with more characters and interaction, and a broader focus. Or otherwise a tighter all-encompassing focus on a single character.
- Whether based on actual events or not, an epic should strive to set a convincing stage. If not historically accurate, an Epic should be immersive. If you spend 3 hours questioning the validity of an epic, you either shouldn't be watching it to begin with, or it isn't trying hard enough.
- Immersion is paramount - Proper epics have the uncanny ability to transport you to another time or place in ways most other genres can't. The very best of the genre make it so three hours or more feels like 10 minutes.
- Setpieces. Epics play with their action the same way they play with narrative. The very best epics have jaw-dropping scenes of spectacle. A 45 minute battle sequence means so much more when it follows 2 hours of buildup. Epics aren't necessarily action packed, but you know a setpiece when you see it.
It's tough to choose, as the "period epic" is by far my favorite genre of film, but a few of my favorite epics in no particular order:
- Kingdom of Heaven (Director's cut) - In its pure form, this one is a lavishly beautiful film. While hardly accurate, the film applies just the right balance of contemporary idealism to allow us as an audience to gather some idea of what the mindset of the time may have been like. The characters are given space to breathe, the sets, costumes, and performances are all pitch perfect, and by God the siege of Jerusalem is one hell of a spectacle. Just a beautiful film.
- Lawrence of Arabia - Put aside for a second, the fact that the film was made in 1962, and yet outside of the opening credits feels like it could have been filmed a year ago. This is quite simply a stunning portrait of an individual who had a huge impact on one particular corner of the globe. Beautifully shot, and brilliantly acted, this is practically the definition of "epic". For set pieces there's the siege of Aqaba, attacks on trains, and the road to Damascus. A near perfect film for which Peter O' Toole was royally robbed of Oscar gold.
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - Falls 10 minutes shy of the 150 mark, but an epic in every sense of the word. From the opening moments, the film sucks you into its world, and if you give yourself over to it, you won't want to leave, even after the credits start to roll. Crowe gives what I consider the best and most assured performance of his career, and the entirety of the supporting cast shines.
- The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly - Leone's masterpiece. Sure he made other, longer films later in his career, but this remains the only film in my opinion to really have the feel of an epic. From the crosses and double crosses early on to the Civil War backdrop later in the film, to the final, epic three-way standoff. This isn't just another western.
- Seven Samurai - Oft imitated, never duplicated. It's 207 minutes long, subtitled in Japanese, and black and white, and yet it is relentlessly entertaining. Kurosawa's masterpiece combines visual flair and memorable characters with a meaningful narrative and one hell of a fantastic action sequence. Like so many other classics, the plot is deceptively simple, but the ideas are something a little deeper. Just a great flick.
- Saving Private Ryan - From the harrowing opening sequence to the amazing final act, SPR is about the finest, most entertaining and most flatteringly imitated portrayal of the Second World War in Europe that's been laid to film. I'd also call it the single finest effort in Spielberg's illustrious career, and Hanks' best on screen performance. It's one of those flicks that just transports you completely. Some have problems with the bookends, but they're a decidedly Spielberg-ian touch, and it wouldn't be the same film without them in my opinion.
Some other notables that I love:
- Alexander - Screw the haters, I thought Stone did a bang up job (avoid the original theatrical cut though).
- Fall of the Roman Empire
- A Bridge Too Far
- Avatar (yes, i said it)
- Braveheart - Hasn't aged as well as i'd like, but still a great effort.
- The New World
- The Last Samurai
- El Cid
- Robin Hood
- The Thin Red Line
- The Lord of the Rings
As the ancient Tibetan philosophy states:"Don't start none... won't be none...".