Cinema and Media Studies Epic Film
John Trafton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0205


Throughout film history, epic films have played an important role in expanding the aesthetic and narrative potentials of film and fostering a unique spectatorial relationship with the past. The silent Italian epics bolstered a national identity linked with an antiquated territorial past, the sweeping panoramic scope of the American epics of the 1950s provided Hollywood with a way to compete with television, and the rebooting of the epic film at the end of the century provided new possibilities for digital effects. In 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator signaled a cinematic recovery of the swords and sandals epic, constructed through Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of genre memory: an old genre form or narrative subject is evoked and then reinvented for contemporary audiences by drawing on the technology and culture of the present. The study of film as a global phenomenon has also brought non-Hollywood epic films to the attention of scholars, and globalization has increased the popularity of many epic films outside their native countries (Yimou Zhang’s Hero [2002] being a notable example). The 21st century also saw the word “epic” being used to describe other films that did not meet the criteria set by the epic films of classical Hollywood but nevertheless possessed many of their qualities (e.g., the length and scope of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), raising questions about the epic film’s influence on contemporary film movements and innovations. It was clear from this resurgence that scholarly attention should be given to the epic film. This annotated bibliography considers a variety of academic approaches to epic film—different methodologies for reading epic cinema and contextualizing the epic film within the broader study of film history and film theory. This article also considers a variety of texts on history of the epic film, notable filmmakers, studies of these film’s treatments of specific historical eras, production histories, and different forms of epic films outside of Hollywood, placing the epic film as part of the larger global film phenomenon. Ultimately, this bibliography aims to provide a useful place for scholars to embark on a study of epic cinema and to develop new and unique contributions to the field.

General Overview

In conjunction with the Scholarly Approaches section, this section provides scholars with a variety of approaches to the epic film in relation to the larger field of film studies. The starting question here is what constitutes an epic film? Is the epic film a genre (or specifically a subgenre of the larger historical film), and if so what are the prevailing genre codes? What do epic films have to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with cinema and other media modes? This section aims to provide a thorough understanding of what an epic film is and why the form has persisted into the 21st century. Because an engagement with the past is such an important component of the epic film, this section examines the epic film in relation to the broader field of historical film studies. The section starts first with Burgoyne 2008, as this book places the epic as part of a constellation of different subgenres that form the larger genre “the historical film” (if indeed we are to consider the historical film a genre). From there, Elley 1985 serves as an early example of epic film scholarship, evolving into a more robust field exemplified well by Carnes 1995, Francaviglia 2007, and more recent works such as Stubbs 2013; these texts explore the role of the historical film in social context and the building of cultural memory, from which the scholar can focus specifically on epic films. Lastly, Santas, et al. 2014 is an excellent reference text to be read in relation to the other work contained here. The scholar that reads these texts, after a careful consideration of one or more of the scholarly approaches in the previous section, would be ready to effectively investigate epics from a particular period in history and from different national or transnational cinemas.

  • Burgoyne, Robert. The Hollywood Historical Film. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    In one of the early chapters in this book, Burgoyne offers effective ways of understanding the epic film as a subgenre of the larger group of the Hollywood historical film. Using Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) as case studies, Burgoyne considers the ways that the epic film has evolved from the silent period to the present as well as the ways that these films provide an index of generational change.

  • Carnes, Mark C., ed. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Holt, 1995.

    As an early consideration of historical films and their role in historical memory, this edited volume provides a perfect place to examine how the epic film shapes an understanding of the past.

  • Cullen, Jim. Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Cullen examines the explicit relationship between filmic treatments of the past and American culture. This text is very adaptable to considerations of the Hollywood epic film and studies of notable filmmakers.

  • Elley, Derek. The Epic Film. London: Routledge, 1985.

    The importance of Elley’s book for scholars now is its age; The Epic Film can provide the scholar with an effective comparative study, showing how the epic film was understood in 1985 and providing a contrast with the work of more recent scholars (such as Robert Burgoyne and Andrew Elliot) to show how an understanding of the epic form’s place in cinema history has progressed into the 21st century.

  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2007.

    Although not dealing with epic films directly, this collection of essays provides some insightful angles on reading historical films and ways historical films can be used to teach history. Because the epic film has primarily dealt with historical representation, these essays can provide the scholar of the epic film with innovative ways for approaching the epic film in relation to the present.

  • Santas, Constantine, James M Wilson, Maria Maddalena Colavito, and Djoymi Baker. The Encyclopedia of Epic Films. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

    As a reference text, The Encyclopedia of Epic Films provides a good resource to accompany the texts from any of the proceeding sections.

  • Stubbs, Jonathan. Historical Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Stubbs draws on the work of previous historical film scholars (e.g., Burgoyne, Toplin, and Grindon) to offer new insights into the historical film genre. In the case of the epic film, Stubbs offers an insightful comparison of epic films from various points in film history throughout the chapters, taking into account production circumstances, industry politics, and the advent of new filmmaking technology.

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