This Friday sees the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, the latest attempt by moviemaker Ridley Scott to blow our minds enough with his epic visuals that we forget about the writing altogether (seriously, I dare any of you to quote a line of dialogue from Prometheus without looking it up). This time around, he’s ditched sci-fi for the Bible’s story of Moses — adding to the long line of cinema’s attempts to make the past interesting at any cost necessary.
In order to fully prepare for Exodus, then, here’s a collection of some Historical Epic Stories for you to research ahead of time — and a couple of mini-series to watch after the movie, in case you’re looking for more of the same.
Described at the time as “D.W. Griffith’s Colossal Spectacle,” Intolerance *— created in response to the outcry that followed his earlier *Birth of a Nation — sets the tone for the historical epics that were to follow: A staggering three-and-a-half hours long, the movie takes place in four distinct time periods (including both the fall of the Babylonian Empire and the life of Jesus Christ) and is filled with all manner of spectacle and self-importance. In its own way, it was the Exodus of its time, with all the good and bad connotations that brings.
THREE AGES (1923)
Created in part as a parody of Griffith’s Intolerance, Three Ages is also the feature that saw Buster Keaton rise to prominence as he writes, directs and acts in the same movie for the first time. The plot is as simple as you might expect from a silent feature — Keaton appears as a lover in three different eras (Prehistoric, Roman and the then-contemporary 1920s) only to discover that romance, or at least the pursuit thereof, stays constant no matter when in history you may live. What it lacks in terms of overwhelming visuals, it makes up in charm. Would that more historical epics had this movie’s sense of its own ridiculousness.
Remembered these days as much for its cast list as anything else — but to be fair, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton co-starring at the height of their powers and their infamy, that’s perfectly understandable — anyone could be forgiven for thinking this movie has little to offer beyond the gossip factor. That’d be unfair, as Joseph Mankiewicz’s sand-and-sandals movie really sets the bar for the historical epic as we know it today: the combination of glamor, bombast and confidence on the screen here is still the touchstone of everything that followed.
…Well, almost everything. The movie that made Derek Jarman’s name owes little to the expansive epics that had come before and remains an oddity of the genre in both its focus and visual style — but what an oddity; beautifully shot and filled with a restraint that’s both fitting considering the subject matter (Sebastiane centers around the saint of the same name and his attempts to ignore his own homosexuality) and enjoyably at odds with other movies in this vein. It might not be for everyone, but for those interested in historical movies, consider this a must-see.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
An adaptation of the controversial 1950s novel of the same name by the writer/director team that brought you Taxi Driver — and a cast that included Harry Dean Stanton, Harvey Keitel and David Bowie — may have sounded like a Saturday Night Live sketch when first announced, but by the time the movie arrived in theaters, it was clear from the amount of upset it provoked that this was the real deal. Or a real deal, at least; it’s an interesting movie, sure, but it’s clear from watching it that both Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese were more comfortable in 20th century New York than first century Jerusalem.
Before Ridley Scott made Exodus, he sharpened his historical teeth — and made Russell Crowe into a superstar — with this over-the-top Roman epic that plays into every single stereotype imaginable and remains utterly watchable. It’s as if Scott sat down and thought “What would people want to see from a movie called ‘Gladiator’ and managed to cram it all in (including Oliver Reed, in his final film role before his death). Reportedly, some experts working on the movie quit because it was too divorced from reality, suggesting that said experts didn’t realize that “reality” is really the last thing audiences want from a movie like this.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
If The Last Temptation of Christ was too heretical for you, then Mel Gibson has the solution to your concerned woes: a 2004 epic that says remarkably close to the New Testament version of events, focusing in on the final hours of his life. Of course, by “remarkably close,” I mean “perhaps more violent than you may have expected,” but this movie — shot with dialogue entirely in Aramic and Latin, with English subtitles — remains the highest-grossing R-rated movie in American box office history, finally proving that violence is more acceptable than sex when it comes to getting people to show up at theaters.
VALHALLA RISING (2009)
From the arguably ridiculous to the arguably sublime. It’s likely that you’ve not seen this Danish movie about a group of Christian crusaders traveling in search of a crusade, accompanied by a Norse warrior — but you should stop what you’re doing right now to change that. Directed by Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen, this is a Viking movie like you’ve never seen, and an antidote to everything else on this list. If you watch one movie from this list, it should be this one.
THE BIBLE (2013)
What happens when you bring the producer of Touched By An Angel and creator of Survivor and The Apprentice together? The answer is this miniseries based on, as the saying goes, the Greatest Story of All Time. Yes, this mini-series goes one further than previous historical epics by adapting the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It was so successful that parts of it were edited into a movie for theater release (Son of God — guess what part of the Bible that’s about) and a sequel was greenlit, called AD: Beyond the Bible. Amusingly, the show was such a success that a book adaptation was released, called A Story of God and All of Us. Yes, that’s right; there was a book adaptation of a TV show based on the best-selling book of all time.
MARCO POLO (2014)
The latest entrant into the historical epic realm is Netflix itself, which launches Marco Polo — a 10-episode show developed by the Weinstein Company, and starring newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy as the titular lead alongside Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan — on December 12. After political drama, prison drama and whatever the hell Bojack Horseman is, Netflix has finally decided to offer something that network television just doesn’t do anymore: globe-spanning historical television. Here’s hoping it lives up to the trailers.