Epic: A Cast of Thousands!

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Timeshift, Series 11 Episode 9 of 12

Duration: 1 hour

Timeshift reveals the ten commandments of big cinema as it goes behind the scenes of the biggest film genre of them all - the epic. See the biggest sets ever known! Hear the sound of Ancient Rome! Count the spiralling costs as budgets soared!

From Ben-Hur to The Ten Commandments, from El Cid to Cleopatra, these were films that set a new standard in BIG. In the days before computers they recreated ancient worlds on a vast scale, and they did it for real. Epic cinema hired armies, defied the seasons and changed cinema. Even the screen wasn't big enough for the epic, so Hollywood made it bigger - and some cinemagoers experienced vertigo watching these vast productions.

Today, the epic lives on in the Oscar-laden Gladiator and the spectacular sweep of Avatar. As this documentary reveals, the stories behind the films are as spectacular as the films themselves.

Music Played

7 items
  • Quo Vadis (1951)

    Quo Vadis (1951)

    Many adaptations of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 classic ‘Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero’ have come and gone by the time Mervyn LeRoy took the helm of this first true great Hollywood Epic. In fact the story of Marcus Vinicius (played by Robert Taylor) and Nero (Peter Ustinov) had already appeared on a number of occasions on cinema screens. Early adaptations had appeared as early as 1901, 1913 and a 1925 version which starred the great Emil Jannings.

    However, it is the 1951 version of Quo Vadis which really sticks in the mind. Why? Well, it probably comes down to a number of factors. Ustinov’s take on Nero (in which he would receive an Academy Award Nomination) is flawless in so many ways. The use of set pieces such as the burning of Rome and the Christians being thrown to the lions were other key factors, don’t forget this was 1951 after all. The use of Technicolor is also a major factor when it comes to the film being remembered today. LeRoy’s version was the first Technicolor epic to be shot in Italy, and the first of the major Hollywood epics to be filmed at the infamous Cinecitta Studios (very much the home of the Hollywood Epic). With this in mind, as the poster above states, Quo Vadis would be ‘The Mightiest Technicolor Motion Picture of all Time!’ and it was.

    But the film wouldn’t be the ‘Biggest’ of the Epics. After all Quo Vadis was released in the old 1.37: 1 aspect ratio and not in the super widescreen ratios we would see within the next few years.

  • The Robe (1953)

    The Robe (1953)

    When first released in September 1953 The Robe was classed as the epic to end all epics and when watching the film you can see why. The film had lavish sets, impressive and colourful costumes and the new film stars of the age to put into the costumes and put them in front of these sets. The Robe established Welsh born actor Richard Burton (Burton would receive his first Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor for The Robe) as well as London born actress Jean Simmons both of which would later have major Hollywood careers.

    However all of these factors can be pushed to the side when we start to discuss the importance of The Robe in the history of cinema in general. The Robe was the first ever Hollywood production to be released in the now infamous CinemaScope format, an aspect ratio which almost tripled the size of a normal size cinema screen of the 1950s. And while some cinemas were converted to be able to take on the mite of CinemaScope many new cinemas were also built to take on the new format. And if what you saw on the screen wasn’t big enough for you, The Robe was one of the major productions which also established stereophonic sound in the cinemas.

    So like it or loath it, The Robe established our modern day cinemas in more ways than one.

    It’s also worth noting that The Robe is really the only major Biblical Epic to have its very own sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators was released the following year.

  • Ben Hur (1959)

    Ben Hur (1959)

    There are Epics and then are Epics, Ben Hur is the latter. While Quo Vadis and The Robe had the colour and size to establish them as true Hollywood Epics, Ben Hur had it all! Massive set pieces (think of the sea battle as well as the now infamous chariot race), probably one of the best scores ever composed by Miklós Rózsa and the feeling of traveling across the entire Roman Empire. The sense of adventure could be found throughout the films 3 ½ hours run. And on top of all this, Ben Hur also had one other major weapon in its arsenal when it came to being the ultimate Hollywood Epic, and that weapon was Charlton Heston.

    While The Ten Commandments (1956) had established Heston as one of the major Hollywood stars, it was Ben Hur which made him into a pure Epic legend.

    It’s worth noting that Ben Hur has had a good run when it comes down to Hollywood adaptations. The 1925 Silent version of Ben Hur (directed by Fred Niblo) is a real masterpiece of filmmaking and most certainly worth watching out for, especially when it comes to the life size sea battle and outstanding chariot race.

  • Cleopatra (1963)

    Cleopatra (1963)

    Much has been said about what Cleopatra did for the Hollywood Epic. Nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox is most certainly worth mentioning from the start. But all that money which nearly broke the back of a major Hollywood Studio can be seen in all its glory on the screen. From Elizabeth Taylor’s beautifully handmade dresses (most of them designed by Irene Sharaff) down to the mass produced Roman Soldier outfits. The set design is another great triumph (especially after they ripped down the productions original set in England), the Port of Alexandria is most certainly a clear winner as well as the infamous ‘Sphinxmobile’ when Cleopatra enters Rome.

    But Cleopatra’s box office returns came at a high price and left a large question mark over how the Hollywood Epic would survive.

    The following year Hollywood got the answer with the finically crippling release which was The Fall of the Roman Empire; and apart from the odd release, the super production Epics were expelled from Hollywood.
    Only to return in 2000 with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. But that’s another story….



Tom Baker
Clare Wilmshurst
Clare Wilmshurst
Series Producer
Ben Southwell
Executive Producer
Michael Poole


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