Top 5 Historical Epics of All Time

published on July 2, 2020

There are big movies and then these
movies, films that pack in scope, scale,

and spectacle to create an experience
that feels truly massive

So enormous we couldn't
even fit ten on this list

These are our picks for the top five
best historical epics of all time


For this list we're taking it era by era

So starting at the beginning,
let's take a look at ancient times

And the most epic recreations of classical
antiquity take us to places like Egypt

to films like Cleopatra
with it's humongous sets,

and the ten commandments
with its revolutionary VFX

And then to Greece and
films like the strangely hammy Troy and

these strangely not hammy Jason and
the Argonauts

And then Rome in a million different
films, the best of which includes

Scorsese's biblical The Last Temptation
of Christ, Kubrick's iconic Spartacus,

one of the first true epics of all time,
Cabiria, and the all mighty Ben-Hur

The Arabian Peninsula in The Message and

even a little bit to Babylon in
the partially epic Intolerance

But it's actually China where we find
our most extravagant of ancient yarns

Gorgeously colored and
often list-topping hero,

along with Yimou Zhang's somehow even
more colorful Curse of the Golden Flower,

vastly less colorful Shadow, and the
peculiarly Matt Damon led The Great Wall

But it's another director, John Woo,

who snags this spot with his
enormous two-parter Red Cliff

>> If you weren't looking you may have

missed the China has entered
a new era of epic filmmaking,

cranking out bigger and more spectacular
takes on their country's history

just about as fast as America
turns out Marvel movies

And none is quite as spectacular
as Red Cliff, Parts I and II,

which mark jJohn Woo's return to his home
country after a long stint in Hollywood

The film recounts the Battle of Red Cliffs
in the beginning of China's Three Kingdoms

period that is so
ensconced in legend and lore

The country's most expensive film
ever at the time of its making,

Red Cliff is full to the brim with
fantastic actors in awesome roles,

exciting strategy, and counter strategy

Culminating in a final 40 minute showdown
that starts out somewhere between a watery

Helm's Deep in the Battle of Blackwater
and ends in an all out melee

It is epic in absolutely every possible
sense of the term and a fantastic

way to jump on board with some of the most
exciting contemporary epic cinema

Next up, we're fast forwarding to the
Middle Ages to see how the idea of an epic

has changed, and it's pretty much
the same but more in Northern Europe now

You can get your fix on
rebellion in Braveheart and

the Crusades and
Kingdom of Heaven and El Cid

A little further East,

you get the absolutely incredible Czech
film Marketa Lazarova and the rare,

mostly non-violent, epic Andri Rublev,
that's more about the casting of a bell

Of course, if bells aren't for you,

you can get huge battles in Eisenstein's
Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky

We get some incredible
stories out of India

This era is bests are probably
Jodha Akbar and Mughal E-Azem,

especially if you like your epics brightly
colored, badass, and filled with song

And we even start to see some epic set
in the Americas, namely Apocalypto

But for our second slot,

our choice finds us in Japan with
the master of the Jidaigeki,

none other than Akira Kurosawa whose
Seven Samurai is unparalleled, but

almost too small to be called an epic when
compared to his later films, Kagemusha and

our number four pick, Ran


>> A Samurai adaptation of Shakespeare,

and not Kurosawa's first, Ran retells the
story of King Lear in feudal Japan as an

aging ruler abdicates, leaving his three
sons to do battle for his throne, and how

Ran has some of the biggest, boldest,

no BS battlefield scenes without the
obscurity of cuts or camera tricks or CGI

It's all right there in a wide
shot right in front of you

Watching it, we're frankly not entirely
sure Kurosawa didn't just stage an actual

war and film it

Shot near the end of his career,

Ran is the culmination of years of
the very best in Samurai filmmaking

Extended to the grandest scale money
could afford, gorgeously photographed,

brilliantly staged, and ambitious as hell

The only thing higher than our praise for
Ran are Lady Kaede's eyebrows

Moving right along to
the early modern period,

epics start to look a little different
in the 18th and 19th centuries

Less swords, more powder of the gun and
wig varieties

America gives us Western epics like
Last of the Mohicans, The Alamo, How

the West Was Won, and Heaven's Gate, and
southern epics like Gone With the Wind

We get Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon in China and Zulu in Africa

But it's in Europe this
time that we find our pick,

alongside such strong entires as Napoleon
and The Charge of the Light Brigade,

it's Bondarchuk's War and
Peace that wins the day this time


>> Seven hours over four parts,

shot over five years with more money
than any other Soviet project before it,

Sergei Bondarchu's behemoth
adaptation is every bit a match for

its notoriously weighty source material

There is a sequence within it, the Battle
of Borodino, that took two years to film,

12,000 extras, 200 operational cannons,
gave the director one of the two heart

attacks he suffered while
shooting this monster, and

is today still the largest
battle scene ever shot

But to measure War and Peace in numbers
like that does it a disservice

Its generous length provides it
latitude to be both big and small,

adapting Tolstoy at scales both
imperial and personal, and

it extends this intimacy over
nearly 300 actual characters

It's utterly unprecedented, would still
be one of the finer films ever shot if it

didn't stretch to the horizon, and is well
worth taking the time to fully devour

(Sound) For our last two stops,
we arrive in the 20th century,

which we'll split roughly down
the middle between its two great wars

And many of those films set in the first
half of the century focused on Europe

during the first one, The Big Parade,
A Very Long Engagement,

and especially All Quiet
on the Western Front

Although last year's 1917 has
surely established itself

right up there with the best of it

But there was other history to cover too,

the Russian Revolution in Reds,
Battleship Potemkin, and Doctor Zhivago

The Indian revolution in Gandhi, a big
boat that didn't float so good in Titanic,

the Wsche Incident in Seediq Bale, the
Nanjing massacre in the Flowers of War,

and a whole bunch of American mob
history in Once Upon a Time in America

But it was in Arabia where a man
named Lawrence took part in one of

the World War's lesser known
conflicts to bigger effect,

landing here at the top of this slot for
our number two pick

>> Lawrence, only two kinds of creature
get fond of the desert, Bedouins and

gods, and you're neither

Take it from me, for ordinary men
it's a burning, fiery furnace

>> No, Dryden, it's going to be fun

>> It is recognized that you
have a funny sense of fun

>> When we think epic film we think of
CinemaScope live screenshots of vast

expanses dotted with figures so
small they might be miniatures

And there is no movie that has ever used
the highly rectangular frame quite like

David Lean managed in Lawrence of Arabia

Truly massive in sight and sound, less
we forget about the Maurice Jarre score,

it is impossible to watch
this film on a big screen and

not feel the endless extent of the barren
desert stretching out before you and

wrapping around you until
you're practically in it

It's just so massive and it fits the
character so well, always larger than life

in everything he did, this is truly
a tale made for the big screen

(Sound) And finally we arrived at
the last half of the 20th century,

a period of time that gave us World War II
most cinematically rendered in

the Thin Red Line,
the Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalingrad,

The Longest Day, Patton, Dunkirk,
and obviously Saving Private Ryan

There's the Sino-Japanese War
best shown in City of Life and

Death and the end of the Chinese Imperial
line in The Last Emperor

But our last slot belongs to
a depiction of the Vietnam War,

the scope of which we see best dramatized
in Platoon and Full Metal Jacket,

but never quite spectacularly as
our final pick, Apocalypse Now


Vietnam, with all its
guerrilla jungle warfare,

is a strange conflict to render broadly

And amidst Apocalypse Now's increasingly
surreal onset of psychosis,

it's easy to forget how massive
the film set pieces really are

But they were destroying whole villages,
napalming giant swaths of jungle for real,

dispatching entire squadrons
of helicopters and

spanning bridges in conflict

Hell, even the troops entertainment
has a certain epicness to it

It makes the departure from
civilization and descent into madness

all the more impactful for the scope of
the chaos we leave behind and trade in for

this different kind of insanity

It's gorgeous, haunting,
and a genuine masterpiece,

which is why it's our pick for
one of the best epic films of all time


So what do you think?

Disagree with any of our picks?

Did we leave out any of
your favorite epics?

Let us know in the comments below and
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