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The 15 Best Epic Movies of All Time

27 January 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Santiago Sánchez

Peter-OToole-Lawrence-of-Arabia

“But the question that everyone wanted answered was whether I would have the nerve and the strength to start the whole process from scratch. I said yes; otherwise I would be someone who had no dream left, and without dreams I would not want to live.”

From Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog

The greatest epics are movies unparalleled in magnificence. Their visions are only matched by the jaw-dropping spectacles they exhibit on screen. Every frame carries tremendous ambition that translates into piercing emotions for the audience.

These filmmakers had the audacity to dramatize their ideas in majestic splendor. They transport us from vast desert landscapes to the gaping void of space, from dismal jungles to countries torn apart by the drums of war. But there is something all of these epics share in common. However Homeric their journeys are, they all lead down a long, winding path into our humanity.

 

15. The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)

The English Patient

Critics have hailed this film as “the Casablanca of the late 20th Century”. Roger Ebert compares director Anthony Minghella’s visual bravado with that of David Lean. So what makes The English Patient earn such high praise?

It takes place in Italy in World War II. A nurse looks after a badly burned man, known only as the English patient. From the start, we are bombarded with intriguing character and plot questions, each and every one falling into place as the movie progresses. The story elegantly leaps in time, sweeping us like sand in a desert storm. When it finally settles, we feel as burnt as our title character.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film recounts editor Walter Murch’s conversations with the author of the book, Michael Ondaatje. They give interesting views on movies and storytelling, and it is a must read for anyone interested in film editing. Ondaatje’s novel is also highly recommended.

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation is nothing less than a champion for flawless storytelling. Its greatest quality is the intimacy we are allowed to share with the characters.

 

14. The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

The Last Emperor

Bertolucci collaborated with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro in many films . These include Last Tango in Paris and The Sheltering Sky. However, it is in The Last Emperor that they are both at their finest. The movie is a visual morsel, and it will make your eyes salivate from the first shot to the last.

This biopic tells the story of Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. The film jumps back and forth across time, from his childhood on the Chinese Throne to his inevitable abdication, from his imprisonment to his release into a world that has left him behind. The film is not the royal tale of an emperor, but the life of a man and the history of a nation.

Bertolucci was given exclusive permission to film in The Forbidden City, a jaw-dropping palace complex built in 1420. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Last Emperor is a remarkable epic with arresting visuals and an amazing score to accompany them.

 

13. Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)

Ben-Hur

It is a wonder that Ben-Hur remains as one of the most exhilarating films Hollywood every made, as it runs close to four hours.

Ben-Hur is the tale of a Jewish man seeking revenge against a terrible betrayal. The chariot race scene is a classic piece of action cinema. It took five weeks to film, with tour buses visiting the monumental set frequently. George Lucas cites it as his inspiration to create the famous pod-race scene in The Phantom Menace.

Ben-Hur is pure, enjoyable entertainment. The movie is a remake of the 1925 version, and another remake is due for 2016.

The biblical epic holds a special place in cinema history. Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments are all fantastic examples of this subgenre.

 

12. Dr. Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)

Dr. Zhivago

David Lean is the unquestionable master of the epic film, and Dr. Zhivago finds him at his most sentimental.

Yevgraf Zhivago tells the story of his half brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago, to young Tonya. Yuri, a poet and a doctor, experiences defining moments in 20th century Russia. History unfolds in the background of a tender and troubled romance. The film encompasses from World War I to the rise of the USSR.

As the novel, written by Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak, was banned by the Soviet Union, David Lean had to film the picture in Spain. Outside of Madrid, he built an entire Moscow. It is hard not to marvel at the impressive scope and detail of the movie’s set design.

The final scene in Dr. Zhivago is sheer brilliance, a moment where the entire film comes together in a subtle burst of emotion. 

 

11. War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966)

War and Peace (1966)

Clocking in at a daunting eight hours, War and Peace is the most ambitious and expensive film ever produced in the Soviet Union.

A love story intertwines with Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia in 1812. Director Sergey Bondarchuk masterfully adapts Leo Tolstoy’s classic into a movie as spectacular as it is intelligent. It tracks characters trying to wade the raging river of history.

The epic required a record-breaking 120,000 extras. The Red Army was even mobilized to shoot the awesome battle sequences. The Battle of Borodino remains one of the best ever recreated.

War and Peace won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture at the time of The Cold War. It was allegedly taken away from the filmmakers by Soviet authorities.

War and Peace provides a guideline as to what an epic should be: a movie restricted only by the filmmaker’s vision and audacity. It is well worth its running time.

 

10. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)

The Lord of the Rings movies

The odyssey to make Bad Taste prepared Peter Jackson to direct the films that would mark a generation.

The protagonists, no more than common folk fighting for the greater good, endure a perilous journey that puts their friendship to the test. The trilogy uses themes such as the bonds fellowship, and the prevailing power of hope, to create a fictional world more real to the audience than their own.

The third film, The Return of The King, won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. J.R.R. Tolkien’s boundless imagination is given justice through the film’s scope.

Peter Jackson truly shows off his cinematic talent. His extraordinary use of montage to convey ideas and feelings at such mammoth scale helped establish the fantasy genre as one of the most important (and lucrative) at the start of the 21st century.

 

9. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of cinema’s heavyweights. His impressive repertoire of films, from Solaris to The Mirror, from Stalker to The Sacrifice, ranks him among the best directors that ever lived. Ingmar Bergman was a fan of his.

Andrei Rublev is Tarkovsky’s epic, and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The film is based on an icon painter in 15th century Russia. It’s a story about an artist, a journey into the creation of art itself. Tarkovsky never spoon-feeds his audience, he doesn’t hold our hands, but only creates a subtle path for us to follow. We experience and feel its spiritual themes, not told about them.

Critically acclaimed as one of the best foreign films ever made, Andrei Rublev teaches us that an epic is ranked by the passion and ambition for the ideas behind it, rather than the money that backs it up.

 

 

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  • Brian Lussier

    Interesting list. When we think “epic”, most people think of films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Lawrence Of Arabia, Gladiator and all. Historical films that take place hundreds if not thousands of years ago where people go into battle with their swords and axes and bows and arrows. Many people will not consider films like, say, Apocalypse Now or 2001: A Space Odyssey as epics, because they belong to specific genres: the war film and science-fiction in these particular cases (although, to me, 2001 was never science-fiction; it breaks through all barriers of categorization and transcends even cinema itself to become something else entirely – a visual poem). So you’re treading dangerous waters in calling these epics. But truth is, they are! Glad to see 2001 where it belongs: #1. That’s the only place that could ever befit this film on ANY list onto which it can be put, including, as you mentioned, that of the best film ever made period! Would have preferred to see The Lord Of The Rings higher, however. Peter Jackson did things that had NEVER been done before in that trilogy and that haven’t been equaled to this day, and on SO many levels! Anyway, that’s just me…

  • Muhammed Ameen Noushad

    One of the most amazing lists ,And love you for selecting 2001 as the greatest epic 🙂

  • Unkle Amon

    Nice to see Andrei Rublev on this list and 2001 is def. epic in every way.

  • Ted Wolf

    Ben-Hur defined the epic for me, and it hits the elements so well. I would transpose #1 and #2 on this list personally, but definitely agree that Apocalypse Now belongs on this list.

    • Monica Kitroser

      Ben -Hur should have been number one., 2001, A Space Odyssey second.

  • Mr. Patriarchy

    Where the fuck is Starship Troopers?

    • Jowana Bueser

      The Internet was invented for this kind of comments!

    • Marius Aanonlie

      In a bargain bin at the local Walmart.

      • Mr. Patriarchy

        Excuse me? SST is an extremely well-elaborated movie, with lots of critiques at our society, our military, the feminist movement, and even in some way, managed to predicate 9/11, everything cleverly buried and disguised under it’s tons of gore and cheap dark humor. Too bad you are too dumb to understand this movie, maybe you should go watch something more simple for your peasant’s brain to process, like Transformers?

        • garden variety

          Too bad you don’t know good acting and music.
          It doesn’t matter how deep the story is if it’s executed poorly, then it’s shit. That’s what good cinema is all about.

          • Mr. Patriarchy

            Shut up. If you seriously believe that Basil Poledouris’ music is bad, you don’t deserve attention.

          • George Georges

            People making that kind of statements generally aren’t worth discussing with.

    • Victor TheGroover

      genius!

  • williamdais

    Guess it depends on how you define “epic.” The Godfather saga had “epic” qualities, with its Shakespearean intrigues and subplots over three generations. Thanks for including War and Peace, the greatest of all epics. Magical realism as only Tolstoy could inspire.

    • Brett

      I also was wondering what criteria the listmaker used to determine whether a movie was an epic or not. I was surprised by some of the choices on the list for this reason.

      • Komba Moses Mbayo

        Too Eurocentric or better still ‘errorcentric’ and this is my opinion!!!

        • Cygnifier

          If so, what non-Eurocentric movies would you include? Just sniping like this is trolling. Add examples of value and you’ve become a more reasonable critic.

  • Ernesto Perez

    that pink floyd “echoes thing” was a rumor, they stated it in interviews, just watch the dates

  • Adam Mathews

    “2001 is not only the best epic film around; it makes a strong case for the best movie ever created.” REALLY? Seriously? This BORING movie that, at the end, disappears up its own butt artistically (rather than the book, which explains exactly what is happening during the entrance into the monolith and the birth of the star child)? Maybe you can make a case for “best artistic delivery/visuals/ect.”, but I don’t accept that a movie will LITTLE universal appeal could be labeled “best”.

    • Brian Lussier

      That is exactly why 2001 is great, because it DOESN’T explain its ending! As humans, we don’t know the secrets of the universe, so explaining them is pretentious. I’ll quote what Arthur C. Clarke said of Kubrick’s approach to sci-fi: “Unlike most science-fiction authors, including myself, I must say, Kubrick regarded the future and the mysteries of the universe as unknown, unknowable and inexplicable.” That is where science-fiction becomes crap, when it has the pretention of having answers to unanswerable questions. Kubrick didn’t have that pretention, and that’s what makes 2001 so great!

      • Adam Mathews

        Yeah…still a boring movie. I don’t dispute the influence of other sci-fi films as far as cinematography and sound track…up until the utterly stupid ending. Pretension of having answers? I think it’s complete pretentious bullsh*t to cop out on the “unknown and inexplicable” nature of the universe in order to flounce some boring artsy crap ending to a movie that otherwise had a solid plot. It’s a movie about a monolith floating in space; this isn’t a “secret of the universe”, it’s a made up extra terrestrial artifact. The future is NOT “unknown and inexplicable”; if you read any of Clarke’s books you would have found endless predictions about the future (many of which were even proven true). I don’t know why Clarke approved of this movie (or at least the ending); seemed like it betrayed everything his writing was about.

        • dtrgf

          you just have shitty attention span and no patience faggot

          • Adam Mathews

            lol, you’re not exactly broadcasting any particular intelligence yourself by being needlessly vulgar (and homophobic)

          • Matt

            c’mon, really?

        • Scirocco

          Clarke approving the ending? This story was created in tandem by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. The novel and the movie were released at the same time.

          • Brian Lussier

            Heck! The book was even released AFTER the film, if not by much.

          • thecolonel1

            The movie is based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, which was published way before the movie.

        • Sonja Jolevska

          or perhaps,,you are illiterate and stupid as you gotta courage to insult the greatest movies ever made that most of humanity intellectuals agreed indisputably upon that, as a sort of:”art declaration”..so..be quiet and try to listen and learn something
          .

        • Abhishek

          I completely agree with you Adam. It is just a great movie because it was Kubrick’s movie. Be it any list here, it has to be included in each and every list at the top. It was great no doubt but not explaining the part does not make every movie great.

      • Monica Kitroser

        Absolutely, ahead of its time, as I posted above. 1968!!!!!!!

      • ladyofargonne

        I thought there was a messiah tone to the end of 2001. And it isn’t childhood programming since I’m Jewish. As far as Transforners go, if you’re into science fiction your mind should be open to anything.

  • Richard McLin

    Great list, but forgot a few,
    Michael Mann’s crime thriller “Heat”
    “The Longest Day”
    “Kingdom of Heaven”
    “Heavens Gate”

    • Brian Lussier

      Kingdom of Heaven is an okay film, but certainly doesn’t belong on a best ever list. Gladiator, perhaps…

      • Richard McLin

        Gladiator was awesome.

    • How is heat epic?

  • Jeffrey Wilsey

    I was expecting Fanny and Alexander

    • Marius Aanonlie

      Creepiest movie EVER!

    • Shadowfax

      lol alexander is shit

      • ladyofargonne

        “Fanny and Alexander.” Not “Alexander.” Two entirely different movies.

  • Harsh Vardhan

    what about boyhood?and the before series? there should be some modern cinema up on this list as well

    • Critics and film buffs often like to pretend only the oldies are great.

    • etc

      Terrific point! No one has done before what Boyhood has achieved. It depicted that everyday “regular” life is epic on its own way, and definitely can be shoot as an epic by a talented and original director!

  • williamdais

    2001 A Space Odyssey is epic in the sense that it tackles life’s biggest questions, and the universe is the shooting location. Hard to beat that combination. When I first saw it I thought it was a little on the slow side, with the extended shots, slow pans, minimal dialogue, etc, but the more times I’ve viewed the film, I’ve grown to realize that the pacing is essential In conveying the emotional despondency and awe which cosmic philosophy is concerned. 2001 stands alone in its horrific portrayal of man’s tiny place in the scheme of things, and Kubrick should be applauded for the courage it took to make a film that broke the US film formulas, not only for sci-fi but for any other genre. Europeans of course had done that long ago, as well as Japanese.

    • Monica Kitroser

      Agree 100%

  • Philip

    Waterloo definitely deserves to be on this list, 17,000 trained soldiers were used for some of the most incredible battle scenes ever recorded. That’s in addition to a booming individual performance from Rod Steiger. IF not in the top 10 than it merits an honourable mention. Other than that great list, interesting to see Lawrence of Arabia in second.

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  • Still D.R.E.

    Godfather Godfather 2??????

  • Sergio

    I would consider more an epic to Barry Lyndon than to Andrei Rubliev… and it’s much more an epic the movie of Ran than to the Seven Samurais talking about of Kurosawa.

  • Muhammed Ameen Noushad

    Well , I love your list my man and agree that all the films you mentioned are amazing. But a few more should have honorary mentions (Hero, Crouching tiger the hidden dragon , In the Mood for love , Grandmaster , Citizen Kane , The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Conformist , Amadeus , The Bridge on River Kwai , Patton , A Clockwork Orange , The Godfather , Chinatown , Barry Lyndon , The Deer Hunter , Gandhi , Platoon , Dances with Wolves , Schindlers List , The Pianist , Saving Private Ryan , Days in Heaven , The thin Red Line , The Aviator , Munich , There Will Be blood , Hugo ,Lincoln)

    Urm these are just the few movies which I think were made in a Grand Scale and could make you gape with wonder.

  • Kostas Fnord Dagres

    Where is Saving Private Ryan , Platoon , Excalibur , The Longest Day ,

  • John Davidsson

    Great list, too short though

  • Redouane Rami

    I never can understand WHY in earth there is no Nolan movie (Inception, Interstellar)? “Epic” is a intense word, and all these old-school movies are not intense. Time has changed and 9x% of these movies will bring no goosebumps to the audience. Authors like Nolan will, and his films will remain legendary and can be seen again years later.

    • Just nostalgia.

      I

    • etc

      Since you have mentioned Nolan, what about for Arronofsky’s Fountain, imo one of the most underrated movies of the 00s.
      In any case, sorry but the LoT trilogy is very weak to be included here… An then why not Star Wars?

    • Rushnan Jaleel

      All of the films on this list, are not only more epic in the truest sense of the word, but better as well. You do not need constant thrill-rides and ‘intense’ moments to quantify something as epic. There are those moments and there are quieter ones. There are moments of almost maddening intensity in films like Apocalypse Now, Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia. Much more so than almost anything Nolan has made.

  • Monica Kitroser

    I have seen 2001, I do not know how many times. It is epic, deeply philosofical, the music is awsome, the presence of HAL, THE COMPUTER, WAS PROFETIC. ( the film is from 1968) Men built and are building computers. The sensation of the “emptiness” when the astronaut is sent into the “nothingnesss” is white astronaut suit against black infinite of the universe. I spent ages discussing the Monolit. Its presence is ominous and so powerful! But I have loved Ben Hur for ages. That was 1959! The chariots race is a work of art, no stunts for Charlton Heston, except for seconds, when falls from the chariot. No computers, no special effects, and 11 oscars. Titanic? a computer game, with 11 undeserved oscars.

  • Ed Duprey

    Where’s El Cid, Bridge On the River Kwai, The Fall Of The Roman Empire, Sparticus, and The Ten Commandments

  • Go Irani
  • Dave

    I would replace Zhivago or English Patient with Bridge On The River Kwai

  • Aashis Vijayakumar

    Holy Mountain, Sleep, Blue, Aguirre (you have mentioned it.)

  • Matt

    Titanic?

  • michaelredmond

    Where’s Visconti’s THE LEOPARD (1963)?

  • if only dune by jodorowsky would have made,it would have topped the list,sigh of cinephiles

  • Lucas Corsi

    WAIT,where is There Will Be Blood?Is one of the most best movies ever made!

  • Ataturk

    I am nr. 1 fan of Kubrick and I believe he is the God of all Gods but guys you are way beyond than me, in all lists there is always a Kubrick film or even more accurately always nr. 1. Don’t get me wrong but try be more objective guys not subjective.

  • Darren

    I think the term is Magnum Opus, not magnus opus

  • andre fernandez

    Andrei rublev should be the first one also satantango

  • feast for

    I would only include Fellowship of the Ring in this list, Return of the King is too out there trying to look cool, just like the Hobbit films, when I saw the Hobbit trilogy and saw everyone complaining I couldn’t understand, it was exactly the same lame action-over-character that Jackson did in RotK, he makes Faramir look like an idiot and Denethor as a madman and the complexity of both characters gets wasted, he makes the Battle of Pelennor too epic and big and forgets to make some strategy out there, a thing that at least the first half of the battle has -same for Black Gate- he can’t comprehend the idea that the madness of Gollum destroyed the ring itself, hence the ring brought it’s own destruction and Frodo was unable to interact in the last moment of destruction -hence proving Denethor right- the only good scenes are the Samwise parts.

  • Cygnifier

    Some interesting choices. A few are quite odd though: it is hard to see The Good, the Bad, the Ugly or Seven Samurai or Apocalypse Now as fitting the criteria to be epics. They fail the grand scope requirement, being much more focused on more intimate connections/narratives.

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  • Brandon Thompson

    This list is too short as people are pointing out below and I think that there should be “Another 15 of the Best Epic Movies”.

    Some could include
    Star Wars (IV or V)
    Heat
    Godfather 1/2
    Satan Tango
    Das Boot
    Ran
    The Deer Hunter
    There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights and Magnolia can all be considered Epics in their own way
    Barry Lyndon
    The White Ribbon

  • I See Dead Trolls

    Let’s argue about the definition of “epic.”

  • Nuno Freixo

    Love the good, the bad, and the ugly, but would chose once upon a time in the west…

  • Alexander Seibt

    Heaven’s Gate ftw!

  • Cristian Gallina

    Once upon a time in America

  • giallopudding

    War and Peace should be #1. But excellent list.

  • Alexander Seibt

    Heaven’s Gate

  • Random Movie Goer

    Alright, hold up. First of all, I am a strong believer that The English Patient is just three hours of bland british nothingness. Secondly, there is no such as “the best movie ever created.” What makes one movie better than another? In lists like this, its fine. An epic movie has certain qualities and these films best exemplify those qualities. But, with “best movie”, Theres no standard of judgement and inevitably leads to personal preference, which is no way to determine the best movie ever created.

  • Yan Villeneuve

    The English patient? Really? A couple comes to mind: Spartacus, Metropolis, Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, The Bridge on the River Kwai….