5. Lawrence Of Arabia
Like many of the other early film epics on this list, Lawrence Of Arabia was a touchstone masterpiece that would go on to inspire such notable filmmakers including, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and many more.
Although director David Lean’s career was saturated with epic celluloid running across each and every frame, including ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ and ‘A Passage To India’, Lawrence of Arabia endures as his epic masterpiece.
Lawrence of Arabia has everything a film connoisseur could ask for, with sweeping wide shots of the Arabian desert, well crafted and lived in characters, the main protagonist portrayed by the legendary Peter O’Toole, and tantalizing suspense building and executed with masterful precision.
It is one of those epics that truly needs to be appreciated on the largest screen that can be conjured and even then it is still not enough to contain its epic majesty. Yet it will forever live within the immortality and history of film.
4. The Godfather Trilogy
The Godfather Trilogy is an epic family tragedy and a masterpiece in every sense of the cinematic language. The arcs are long, natural, subtle progressions. The burn is slow but calculated, meticulous and feels real when the payoffs come to their full realizations.
Many scenes sear into the audience’s memories after almost fifty years. From the first scene’s dialog about respect and justice to the murder of Don Fanucci, the horses head, the pear, the orange, the cutthroat, the kiss of death, the abortion, the baptism, Mary’s death, Sonny, Fredo, the list goes on and on.
Every scene, every shot is crafted with masterful care and attention. The dark cinematography is reminiscent of a Rembrandt. The cast and acting, the motivations, the outbursts, the subtleties, it is all done with grace and authenticity. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who came out of the ‘Film Brat’ generation, turned the Mario Puzo novel into an arguably perfect trilogy and an epic masterpiece that will last forever.
3. Andrei Rublev
Only the second feature film by Andrei Tarkovsky, it is a wonder that Andrei Rublev remains his supreme epic masterpiece. The film is set in the 15th century and follows the life and moral struggles of a painter who wanders his way through a dreary medieval land filled with witches and pagans, blood, destruction, and war.
The film is unconventional and slow, to say the least, but where this unconventionality and slowness rest, it is shown to be steeped deep in allegory and meditative thought. It is not an easy film and challenges anyone willing to brave its 205-minute runtime with pressing questions about creation, faith, and meaning.
The film bookends with two metaphorical scenes. The dreamlike chase up a tower and a balloon flight away from the crowds below, possibly representing a desire, if not an ambitious one, for creative freedom. This ambitious flight in the first scene pairs succinctly with the last scene. The bell maker’s son whose ambition and faith in taking the few esoteric secrets he knows in the creation of the towns bell is both bewildering and epically awe-inspiring.
As said in the introduction, the epic has been with cinema from the beginning and although there are many silent-era epics to chose from such as D.W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance,’ F.W. Murnau’s ‘Faust’ and ‘Nosferatu’ or Rex Ingram’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ there is one film that stands exceptionally from the pack, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The advanced city of Metropolis stands as a bustling utopia from the heights of the skyscrapers and to the ignorant Freder who lives a comfortable rich life as the son of the founder and leader of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen. After following a beautiful woman named Maria into the underground. It is there Freder realizes that utopia is not without its cost as he watches in a wonderfully expressionistic display the mindless and robotic workforce labor the beast-like machinery.
Metropolis is a marvel of its time and still holds up as a shocking spectacle miraculously achieved in 1927. Its million dollar budget adjusted for inflation would be a summer blockbuster-sized two hundred million by today’s standards, something that was unheard of at the time.
The film does not disappoint, and its creative energy and concept combined with relevant moral themes and dilemmas still ring as true today as it did in Lang’s time. Every sci-fi epic ever to come after seems to have some inspiration or homage to this film. A film that from the first frame to the last remains the essential silent-era epic masterpiece.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001, directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, is the quintessential epic and look at the development of humankind, where we started, where we are now, and where we will be going. It is an alchemical masterpiece in this way as it exposes our deepest fears, particularly our fear of the unknown.
The unknown is perhaps the most crucial theme explored in the film. It shows us the danger of remaining static and familiar to past sentiments. It shows our attachments, our inherent inclinations towards tribalism and fear of the other. Conversely, it bestows, equally dangerous notions about technology and development of AI, as well as the importance of not becoming likened to the behavior of cold machines ourselves.
Opening in space with the sun, earth, and moon in alignment then proceeding to earth at the dawn of man. The warring apes find the next stage of their evolution through the black monolith. It is a kind of extraterrestrial or spiritual entity that guides the human race along, providing checkpoints throughout their development. It is a metaphorical concept that can be interpreted in endless ways.
It is a film that grows with the viewer and develops as the viewer develops. This ‘meta’ quality results in the film becoming a monolithic beacon of meditative enlightenment through various stages of growth. There isn’t enough that can be said about the epic scale, craftsmanship, technical achievement, and creative direction the film contains.
Although Kubrick produced mostly grand films within his career, many of which could be considered epics, this is perhaps the epic to end all epics, a magnum opus to the director, and a masterpiece to us all.