Like "musical," "comedy," "war film,'' and "Western," "epic" is a term used by Hollywood and its publicists, by reviewers, and by academic writers to identify a particular type of film. It was first used extensively in the 1910s and the 1920s: Variety's review of Ben-Hur (1925) noted that "the word epic has been applied to pictures time and again'' (6 January 1926: 38). It was particularly prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s, when epics of all kinds were produced to counter a decline in cinema attendance. And it has been recently revived with films such as Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), and The Alamo (2004). As a term, "epic" is associated with historical films of all kinds, particularly those dealing with events of national or global import or scale. As a genre it thus encompasses a number of war films and westerns as well as films set in earlier periods. But because of its links with ancient classical literature, it is associated above all with films set in biblical times or the ancient world. However, the term "epic" has also been used to identify—and to sell— films of all types that have used expensive technologies, high production values, and special modes of distribution and exhibition to differentiate themselves from routine productions and from rival forms of contemporary entertainment. There are therefore at least two aspects to epics, two sets of distinguishing characteristics: those associated with historical, biblical, and ancient-world films and those associated with large-scale, high-cost productions.
These aspects have often coincided, as is true not only of films such as The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), How the West Was Won (1962), and Troy, but of films with more recent historical settings such as The Big Parade (1925), Exodus (1960), The Longest Day (1962), Schindler's List
(1993), and Pearl Harbor (2001). However, the production of large-scale, high-cost comedies, musicals, and dramas such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), The Sound of Music (1965), and Gone with the Wind (1939)—some of them with historical settings, some without—and the production of more routinely scaled historical and biblical films such as Salome (1953), Hannibal (1960), and, indeed, most war films, Westerns, and swashbucklers tend to make hard-and-fast definitions more difficult. Generalizations can be made about the scale of the films and the events they depict, the prominence of visual and aural spectacle, and a recurrent preoccupation with political, military, divine, or religious power, but, as is often the case with Hollywood's genres, anomalies and exceptions of one kind or another can nearly always be found. It is easier to be more precise about specific periods, cycles, and trends.
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