Historical Epics – Films and the Genre

When I was growing up, I watched Historical Epic Films such as Spartacus, King of Kings, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and Jason and the Argonauts. And I cannot forget, that whenever I went over my grandfather’s house, we would sit in front of the television and watch video tapes that recorded the TV series of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and Xena: The Warrior Princess.

I did a unit in my third undergraduate year called, Genre Writing, and I engaged more with the Historical Genre. I wrote an essay that talked about how the popularity of the genre fluctuated with the passage of time because of economic demand and advertisement. This explained why, while I was growing up, there were hardly any Ancient History films to watch at the movies.

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History of the Historical Genre

The Historical genre is defined by Johnson as, fictional works set before the middle of the last century, where the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. The popularity of this genre in fiction began during the 19th century when Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly (1814) was published. The fiction was popular because Scott tried to accurately portray the background and qualities of ordinary people involved in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion against the British crown. As a result, its popularity inspired writers and followers and is generally considered the first historical novel. Throughout the 19th century other works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter (1850) and Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities (1856) became popular bestsellers in their era and classics to modern standards.

It was not until the 20th century the Historical genre increased in popularity due to the production and distribution of Historical fiction that was being blended with other genres like Romance and Mysteries, and the mass productions of Epic films. Highly praised novels such as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (1920-22) increased the genres popularity, and the mass consumption of the Historical subgenre of Westerns during the 1930s to 1950s made this subgenre become a genre in its own right. The blending of genres like Historical Romances were introduced to the market in the 1970s with stories of passionate lovers set in historical periods. As a result, the extreme popularity of Historical fiction and its blended-genres produced issues of it becoming a lowbrow form of literature. This was because the quality of the genre declined with the mass production and distribution of Historical novels. The popularity of the genre fluctuated because the fiction was either considered bad history with modern day characters living in the wrong time period, or authors not stylistically using research on the time period, to use through the narrative, but instead, cramming information of the period, overwhelming the plot.

The Historical Epics and their Popularity

The Historical genre in film productions was called the Historical Epics. The difference between Historical fiction and Historical Epics was that the films focused on world historical events and figures, myths, and turning points of cultures. They were treated with the cinematic style of large scale productions, and on grandeur, massive levels. As a result, Historical Epics were spectacular and expensive to create. During the 1950s to the 60s the genre flourished in popularity for two decades with the help of new technologies of industrial printing, radio, cinema, television and information technologies. Some films produced during this time on a mass scale were, Ben-Hur (1959), Sparatcus (1960), and the King of Kings (1961). The film, Ben-Hur focused around the friendship of a Jewish man from Judea and a childhood friend who was a citizen of Rome. The film was also known as a Biblical Epic because it involved the narrative of Jesus Christ. These types of films at the time were seen as spectacles. They were initially exhibited on large screens at roadshow settings via bookable seats, intermissions and overtures. This type of viewing helped increase the genre’s popularity because it attracted huge audiences, and they had unique experiences. However, just like Historical Fiction, the Historical Epics fluctuated during the 20th century. The genre’s fiction continued on a low scale, but the films vanished from Hollywood’s production during the early 1970s and late 1980s. They were still popular when they were featured on Television but they had become an exhausted market for mass production. This was not because of the decreased demand of the audience, nor the consumption, but instead, the expensive and grandeur nature of producing and distributing such Epic films that were unprofitable. An example was the film, Cleopatra (1963) that had been costly to produce, and even though it was the highest grossing film of that year, it made no profit due to the film’s overproduction.

When the Historical Epic films ceased, the market remained focused on Historical fiction. During the 1970s, different topics were chosen that reflected the trends in social history that the academia were focusing on. Due to the shift from political history concerning major historical figures and events, to social history about women, the lower class and everyday life, it allowed writers the freedom to explore these neglected topics. Genre-blending with Historical fiction continued during this period. For example, Ellis Peters started the trend of the Historical Mysteries of medieval mysteries.

It was not until the mid-to late 1990s that both forms of the Historical genre increased in popularity into the 21st century due to the distribution of advertisement helping consumption. Historical fiction began winning major literary prizes and during the 1990s the Historical Epic had been under revision with films such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Brave Heart (1995). But, it was not until 1997 with the popularity of James Cameron’s Titanic that brought back the Historical Epic to mass productions.

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Then in 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator became a success that inspired another wave of Historical Epics to the cinema, similar to those during the 1950s to the 60s. For example, in 2004 films such as Troy, The Passion of the Christ and Alexander were released to the market and had brought back the success of the Historical Epics with ancient world settings. The distribution of modern day advertising helped the genre’s popularity. Magazines, newspapers, posters, articles and interviews of the cast members allowed consumers to become more fascinated with these particular films. As a result, the films popularity increased the Historical genres mass production, distribution and consumption, keeping it alive.

Historical fiction during the beginning of the 21st century received a boost with the popularity of the Historical Epics. Publishers began to promote their books as “upmarket historical fiction” and the popularity of Historical fiction showed that people had still been interested in historical topics. This was because people wanted to be constantly entertained, to learn about the past, to have re-tellings of the same major events in history with different perspectives. History also provided an emotional intensity to any human being. A book review magazine called The Historical Novels Review revealed that every year it publishes 800 reviews of new historical novels, demonstrating that Historical fiction is economically demanded by the market.

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We now have TV series and Movies such as:

  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand
  • Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
  • Spartacus: Vengeance
  • Spartacus: War of the Damned
  • Rome
  • Agora
  • The Clash of the Titans
  • 300: Rise of the Empire
  • Immortals
  • Wrath of the Titans

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And I cannot forget, The 300 Spartans, or 300, which made ancient Sparta a part of popular culture with its famous phrases and saying, ‘This is Sparta!’

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I hope one day, my work will be a part of the mass of the Historical Genre, which inspired me during my childhood and developed my love for the past, Ancient History and Mythology.

Till next time,
Claire

For more information on the Historical Genre and Epics:

  • Johnson, Sarah. L. (2005). Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Libraries Unlimited.  
  • McCracken, Scott. (1998). Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction. Manchester UP: Manchester.
  • Russell, James. (2007). The Historical Epic & Contemporary Hollywood: From Dances with Wolves to Gladiator. New York & London: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

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