The Epic Film: Myth and History, Derek Elley [re-published 2014, originally published 1984]
The onset of the 21st century seemed to herald a revival in the epic genre in film. Large-budget “Sword-and-Sandal” movies of the early 2000s such as Gladiator and Troy, labelled “Neo-epic films” by cinema critics, have reinvigorated the genre. At the same time, a new blockbuster phenomenon in the shape of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series of films, padded with wall-to-wall distinguished British (and Commonwealth) actors, have extended the epic genre, and in the case of the ‘Rings’ cycle, given the flagging “Sword-and-Sorcery” sub-genre a new lease of life.
The author’s approach to his subject is a somewhat scholarly one, although the book also remains accessible purely on an entertainment level. Elley begins by making clear the distinction between the heroic and the epic … “heroes alone do not make an epic,” other ingredients especially the “all-important mythic quality” is needed to elevate the narrative to a higher plane, the ‘supra-human’ dimension. The author then proceeds to trace the transition from the epic in its original, literary form to its cinematic form.
The book concerns itself to a large extent with the type of epic film much in vogue in the fifties and sixties, drawn from the history and mythology of antiquity (Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia). Right up front I’d have to say that I think that the author is inclined to take the genre a bit too seriously. The epic movie, in whatever phase or incarnation it takes, has been something difficult to be especially serious about! By definition the standard form of the epic has tended to be characterised by an indulgence in excess – grandiosity, vulgarity, basically everything 8XL in size! Mention the epic film and people often think of monumental Hollywood flicks like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and the like. Conspicuous consumption the order of the day, so much so so that it could be suggested that epic films should be primarily seen as a kind of parody of themselves.
The Epic Film spends a good deal of time examining another type of epic movie, the Continental Sword-and-Sandal variant of the species which further takes away from the serious side of the genre’s purpose. The Sword-and-Sandal as the book points out is also known in the trade as a Peplum movie (from the type of brief robe or tjunic worn by both sexes in them). The Peplum had its heyday between the late 1950s and the mid 1960, usually set in Ancient Greece or Rome and filmed at Cinecittà in Rome (for a time the world’s film studio of choice) and/or in the campagna in Italy or Spain. The elements of the genre are well-known and entirely formulaic: heroic but one-dimensional gladiatorial strongmen, a bevy of immaculately beautiful but defenceless heroines, a paper-thin storyline appallingly scripted and only coincidentally unrecognisable as history, incoherently edited, low budgets, sloppily shot with atrociously wooden acting and haphazardly dubbed into English.
Footnote: the popularity of the Italian Peplum provided career change opportunities for body builders as many would-be actors like Steve Reeves, Mark Forest and Kirk Morris, made the transition from the bodybuilding game to become leads in Sword-and-Sandal sagas. Interestingly, many of the Italian musclemen-stars took Anglo-sounding names in an attempt to make them more appealing to the American market, thus the well-known Sergio Ciani became on screen the aptly named “Alan Steel”.
Steve Reeves’ phenomenally successful Labors of Hercules (1957) was the springboard for a spate of strongman-centred Pepla. From the mid sixties a number of the Peplum strongmen made the switch to Spaghetti Westerns which spectacularly filled the void when the popularity of the Sword and Sandal costumers began to wane. Spaghetti Westerns utilised the same device of giving its Italian stars American-sounding names, the most famous of which were the ‘Trinity’ duo, Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.
Whilst acknowledging the limitations of many of these B-grade epics Elley soberly proceeds to unearth all manner of meaningful cinematic aesthetics from the likes of Samson against the Moon Men, Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon, etc, etc. The author describes his text somewhat grandly as an extended essay on defining “the epic form in its filmic context”. The definition in the book that took my eye is attributed to Charlton Heston, “There’s a temptingly simple definition of the epic film: It’s the easiest kind of picture to make badly” (Chuck should have known – he appeared in his fair share of dud epics in his career).
Elley points out that spectacle is the most characteristic trademark of the epic genre, and that trait is (or was) synonymous with Hollywood. Although we connect the Pepla of that era with Italy and the Continent, we tend to associate the wider phenomenon of epics with America. The author quotes Peter Ustinov to good effect: “I’ve always thought that only the Americans can do Ancient Rome pictures. Both cultures have the same kind of relaxed, rangy pomp. Both have exactly the same kind of bad taste”.
The book is adorned with some 88 pictures in glorious black-and-white and these may hold for some readers the greatest interest. Amongst these is a still from the 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, a long range shot of a Late Roman frontier fortress under attack – complete with a modern Italian villa and two parked fiats close by in the background. Another revealing picture contains a close-up of the cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas as the fabled Ulysses, his heroic countenance somewhat spoiled by the clearly visible but unsightly appearance of Kirk’s varicose veins! Or equally entertaining, is the photo of Victor Mature as Samson, teeth gritted, valiantly wrestling a ‘savage’ lion which has the look of having been recently rejected by a local LA taxidermist.
Many of the era’s epic films that came out of Hollywood tend to be prone to snatches of excruciatingly bad dialogue. The book provides a wealth of atrocious quotes from the genre. Savour if you will these little vignettes which run the gamut from overblown dramatic(sic) intensity to inane absurdity:
“Love and hate are horns on the same goat”, Rune woman, in The Vikings (1958).
“At one time, when you were a little fella, you were always asking questions!”, Joseph, to Jesus, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
This last line of dialogue, tinged with more than a touch of folksy mid-western Americanism, could easily have rolled from the mouth of failed actor-turned-US president, Ronnie Reagan, whilst whittling wood on the back-step of his Californian ranch.
By focussing on 50s and 60s Hollywood and Italian epics Elley largely neglects the first resurgence of the Sword-and-Sorcery film which took place in the late 70s and early 80s … the Star Wars cycle, Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, etc (all made before The Epic Film‘s original publication in 1984). Other (admittedly minor) sub-genres of the epic such as the Sinbad saga films (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and so on) and the Swashbuckler/Pirate films don’t get a guernsey at all … although the Sinbad movies could just as well be categorised as adventure-fantasy films, rather than strictly Sword-and-Sorcery ones.
Elley’s study of the epic film genre is informative and instructive in so far as it goes. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Biblical figures, barbarians and Norsemen, all get a good run, but Elley’s historical survey cuts off at the end of the Dark Ages. I’m left with a tinge of regret that he didn’t take a more expansive approach in the book to include the grand and occasionally grandiloquent epic movies made about legendary Britons of a later era like Arthur and Robin Hood, as well as the more modern epics like Lawrence of Arabia or Dr Zhivago and even extend it to examples of the genre as diverse as 2001 a Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes.