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10 Greatest Historical Epics

Updated on September 21, 2014
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Wiki defines epic films as films "that emphasize human drama on a grand scale". I would further define them as historical films about a period of extreme change in world history. Epics are one of the most expensive film genres to make because of the star-studded casts and historical set design and costumes. While expensive, they are also some of the most popular films and often dominate Academy Awards. Only 3 films have ever won 11 Oscars and two of those were epic films, Titanic and Ben-Hur. Further, if you look at the 25 films that have won the most Academy Awards (all with at least 7 Oscars), ten of these films were traditional epics.

I am a big fan of epic movies and have seen all of the films that were voted into the top ten on this list. I particularly like biopic epics that deal with true stories about fascinating historical figures. However, there are many sub-genres of epics including historical fiction epics such as Titanic, which inserted fictional characters into the actual historical events.

This ranking of the best epics was based on the movie rankings of members at Rankography best movies.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2011 Rankography

10. Roots (1977 - TV Mini Series)

One of the Greatest Epics Ever; the Story of Slavery in America

This 1977 mini-series was adapted from Alex Haley's novel of the same name and it covers the lives of descendents of Kunta Kinte (LaVar Burton), a slave captured in Africa. Haley wrote this book after spending 12 years researching his family tree and created the story based on some of the characters he found in his own ancestors. Roots came at a pivotal time in US history and helped to further race relations in the country. It was a seminal event and over half the US population watched some or all of the episodes during that initial showing.

This outstanding epic film was originally broadcast over 8 nights and spans several generations of Haley's ancestors from Kinte, who was first brought to the America in 1767 to Chicken George (Ben Vereen), the first Haley to gain his freedom in America. Roots beautifully embodies the spirit and determination of a family to rid itself of tyranny and gain freedom. Of course, there is much hardship and heartbreak along the way and you will cry and much as you will laugh with this film, but it truly is one of the best epics of all time.

From both a social and cinematic standpoint, everyone should see this film at least once!

If you liked Roots... - You might also like the slavery epic, Amistad

Amistad
Amistad

A Spielberg film of the trial of 53 slaves after their uprising aboard an 1840s slave ship.

 

9. Glory (1989)

One of the Best Epic Films about the Civil War

In Glory, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is a Civil War officer who volunteers to lead the first all black company of soldiers. Along the way Shaw and his company must endure racism both from the enemy and their own Union army.

Shaw must also deal with his own personal demons and internal prejudices within the ranks of his black company. Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) is the senior most officer within his company but he must deal with more radical members of the company led by Private Trip (Denzel Washington) that want to strike out against racist factions.

This is a beautifully acted story about bravery, perseverance and respect. In the end the 54th volunteers to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, a sure suicide mission. It is the true story of this historical battle in which Col Shaw and many of his men died in an amazing act of bravery and sacrifice for the greater good. The men of the 54th proved their worth and honor beyond question in this outstanding historical film. This epic film will move you and provides a new appreciation for the uphill battle that African American's faced even within their own Union army.

8. The Prestige (2006)

Nolan's Entry into Epic Films is a Tour de Force for the Genre

Before Christopher Nolan was a household name for his films, The Dark Knight and Inception, he directed one of my favorite epics of all time, The Prestige. This film, packed with an incredible cast, follows the lives of two Nineteenth century magicians, Robert "the Great Danton" Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred "the Professor" Borden (Christian Bale), who start out apprenticing together under Milton (Ricky Jay), but become bitter rivals after a tragic stage accident which takes Robert's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo). Alfred and Julia had conspired to alter the trick slightly, in a fatally dangerous way, and it results in Julia's death.

After the accident, Milton and Alfred's careers are in ruins but Angier is able to go on to great success. Of course, he hates Borden for the deadly accident. Borden, while first racked with guilt, grows into a bitter, jealous man out to upstage and ruin Angier. The entire film is set against the backdrop of the trial of Borden for Angier's murder in another tragic magic act gone wrong. The film is narrated by Cutter (Michael Caine) who is testifying everything he knows of the two men, to the judge in the trial. Cutter has been a long-time mentor to both men and provides intriguing details to their bitter rivalry.

Along the way there is further complication when Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) whose questionable motives shift throughout the film. This film has many plot twists throughout including the climatic final scene. It is a historical film that you will likely want to watch a couple of times to understand all of the sub-plots and character intrigue.

Christopher Nolan has proven himself as one of the best current Directors in Hollywood and The Prestige is an absolute triumph in the historical epic genre. If you love period pieces but also enjoy highly complex, intricate plots, this is one of the best epic films for you.

If you liked The Prestige... - You might also like the lesser known film, Seraphim Falls

Seraphim Falls
Seraphim Falls

A dramatic western themed film between two bitter rivals with intriguing plot twists and turns. The film stars Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan. Things are not always as they seem.

 

7. Reds (1981)

A Sweeping Epic Film about the Russian Revolution

Reds is the true story of John Reed (Warren Beatty), a radical American journalist early 20th century. He meets Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a married woman with radical feminist ideals. They fall in love and Bryant leaves her husband to join the intellectuals trying to change the world. Their group of intellectuals includes playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and Max Eastman (Edward Herrman)

As with many intellectuals in the early 20th century, they become enamored with communism and the events transpiring in Russia. In October 1917, they travel to Russia in time to take part in the revolution that changes Russia's history for the rest of the century.

Excited by the Russian revolution, the pair return to the US hoping to stimulate a similar revolution here. More than just a historical drama, this epic film is also about love, relationships and commitment. The love triangle between Reed, Bryant and O'Neill provides a concurrent theme throughout the film.

This is another of the long epics that span greater than 3 hours. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and won 3, including Best Director (Beatty) and Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton).

6. The Last Samurai (2003)

A Riveting Tale of the Loss of Tradition

The Last Samurai is one of my favorite epic films and a gripping tale of a group of samurai trying to save the centuries old Bushido tradition. This historical film is set in 1870s Japan. Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a Civil War hero who has become a drunk and an attraction in a traveling side show.

Algren is recruited by agents of the Emperor of Japan to train his imperial army in the use of guns in warfare. The Emperor's ultimate goal is to crush an uprising led by one his former guards, samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Against Algren's wishes, the army is sent into the field with their weapons too early. The falter in battle from fear of the legend of the samurai and are completely overrun.

However, during the battle Katsumoto is taken by Algren's bravery despite a near fatal wound and decides to spare Algren's life. He is taken captive but as he is nursed back to life he becomes enamored with the ways and tradition of the Bushido. He eventually flips his allegiance and side with Katsumoto to help the battle against the Emperor.

It is a sweeping epic that highlights a struggle that occurred over 140 years ago. Yet, while it is historical in nature, it is also metaphorical to current times in the sweeping technological changes revolutionizing our lives. This epic film cautions just how easy it is to lose site of traditions in the face of dramatic technological change.

If you like The Last Samurai... - You might also like a lesser known epic, Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai (The Criterion Collection)
Seven Samurai (The Criterion Collection)

A classic epic about 16th century Japan. Often cited as the blueprint for the highly successful Western, The Magnificent Seven.

 

5. Ben Hur (1959)

One of the Most Celebrated Epics of All Time

When I think of the old school, prototypical epics, Ben-Hur is the film that always comes to mind. This sweeping epic film is based on a novel by Lew Wallace. One could argue that Gladiator copied much of its basic storyline from Ben-Hur. Judah Ben-Hur (Charleton Heston) is a successful merchant in Jerusalem. A new Governor arrives, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who was a childhood friend of Judah's in Jerusalem.

Messala is anxious to get together with Judah and rekindle their lifelong friendship, but it is quickly clear that their political views are very different. Messala asks Judah to help him round up the dissidents in town, many of which are Judah's friends. When he refuses, Messala pronounces that if they are not friends then they must be enemies. After a mishap during a parade, Messala blames Judah and sentences Judah to the galleys and imprisons his mother and sister.

After years of slavery in ship galleys, Judah saves his Centurion's life during a ship battle. The Centurion, Quintas Arrius (Jack Hawkins), is so grateful that he takes Judah back to Rome and adopts him as his son. Over time, Judah becomes a chariot racer with the goal of seeking vengeance on Messala.

I will not spoil the story by revealing anything further. This sweeping 3 1/2 hour epic won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. It is a rite of passage for anyone that enjoys biblical style epics.

If you like Ben-Hur... - You may also like Roman-era epic, Spartacus

Spartacus
Spartacus

Possibly Kirk Douglas' greatest role as the gladiator slave, Spartacus, who leads a revolt against the mighty Roman army. The film also stars Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov.

 

4. Gladiator (2000)

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in this Historical Epic

Like a Greek tragedy, Gladiator is a classic struggle between a beloved soldier and the evil son of the Emperor. Set in Rome in 180 A.D., General Maximus Meridius (Russell Crowe) has just led the Roman Army to victory against the Germanic barbarians. The elder Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is fair and just and decides to reward Maximus as his successor instead of his weak, petty son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). However, before Maximus accepts the Emperorship, Commodus kills his father and assumes power.

Commodus asks Maximus for his allegiance but Maximus refuses because he suspects that Commodus had his father killed. Commodus knows that Maximus' appeal with the people is a threat to his power. He orders Maximus and his family killed. Maximus is attacked on the road but he is able to narrowly escape. But when he returns home, he finds that his family has been slaughtered and burned.

Most of the movie is a story of determination and persistence for revenge. Maximus is taken as a slave to North Africa and enlisted as a gladiator. With absolute resolve, he focuses on winning his way to the Coliseum in Rome to find a path to the Emperor Commodus.

This critically acclaimed film won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. This is truly one of the greatest epic films of all time.

3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

An Action Packed Epic Film about World War I

A broad epic about Thomas Edward Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), a British intelligence officer who organizes a rebel army of Arabs to fight the Turks during World War I. In addition to O'Toole, this classic film features Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif and Claude Rains. Directed by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

No one could accuse T.E. Lawrence of living an ordinary life. The film begins just after his death in a motorcycle accident when he was just 46 years old. In a series of flashbacks, this historical film paints a picture of Lawrence in the deserts of Northern Africa. Not always a perfect man, Lawrence used many different methods to achieve victory. However, this film is nearly perfect and definitely one of the best epics of all time.

If you liked Lawrence of Arabia... - You might also like one of the best history films, Gandhi

Gandhi (Collector's Edition)
Gandhi (Collector's Edition)

Another Academy Award winning film about a great man who changed paths in order to change the world. Another of the truly great epic movies.

 

2. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson is William Wallace in this Classic Epic

Braveheart was Mel Gibson's second foray into directing and acting and his best effort by far. One of the greatest epic films, it follows the life of William Wallace, Scotland's fiercest warriors and heroes. After losing his father and uncles as a young boy, Wallace is thrown into war when the English kill his wife and child in another slaughter.

More than anything, this epic is the story of the oppressed rising up and taking their freedom from a tyrannical occupier. While not everything in the film is historically accurate, much of the storyline follows actual historical events. Braveheart is highly entertaining and inspirational. However, if you are squeamish about violence and the resulting gore, then you may wish to avoid this historical film.

Much as Saving Private Ryan did for the landing at Normandy during World War II, Braveheart does for Medieval hand to hand combat. We become completely submerged in the battles creating a sense that we have an 'insider's' glimpse into these ancient battles.

Braveheart is also a story of the underdog in which the leaders of an inferior army use ingenuity to outsmart their enemy and even the odds. There is much to love about this epic film and really a must see for fans of historical movies.

1. Gone with the Wind (1939)

The Grandaddy of all Historical Epics

Gone with the Wind is a sweeping historical epic film following the lives of two key figures, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Scarlett is a manipulative, self-centered Southern belle during era just before the Civil War through the Reconstruction. Scarlett wants to marry a Southern gentlemen, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who loves another woman, so she must "settle" for a dashing, but rough-cut Butler.

This epic movie covers the entire period of the Civil War from its beginning in 1861 through the first few years after the war's end. During this time, the O'Hara plantation, in Georgia, is over-run and looted, Atlanta burns and many of Scarlett's friend and family dies.

She is forced to lead and protect her family during this difficult time. While married to Butler, their tumultuous relationship is accented by powerful one-liners throughout this film.

Gone with the Wind won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, and it definitely deserves its spot atop the list of the best epic films. Leigh and Gable were outstanding together and the entire supporting cast is excellent. Often considered one of the best movies of all time, it is a must see historical epic movie.

If you liked Gone with the Wind... - You might also like the lesser known epic, Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain

This Civil War epic follows the lives of three people during the Reconstruction after the War. It is a well acted drama with an intriguing story line.

 

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Which of these Epic Films is your favorite?

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I would love to know what you think about this Epics lens. If you liked it, you might want to check out our other lens about the Best Movies in a number of genres.

Any thoughts about this Epic Films lens? - What do you think about Historical Films ?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I have always adored "Gone with the wind", it is a classic. Besides this, I am a fan of Benhur and Gladiator.

    • raelcalu profile image

      raelcalu 5 years ago

      surprise to see The Prestige and not able to see Titanic or Amistad...

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Wonderful list with a couple of new names (to me!). Noted down for watching! Thank you!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      A fan of The Prestige and the Last Samurai.

      Always enjoy your reviews.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      A fan of The Prestige and the Last Samurai.

      Always enjoy your reviews.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I enjoyed reading your reviews and reliving some of my favorite epics, haven't had time to watch one for too long!...*

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

      Some wonderful movies, not sure that I agree with all ten but there has tobe some room for personal choice I guess. Interesting lens with some great memories

    • MelonyVaughan profile image

      MelonyVaughan 5 years ago

      I don't know how many times I've seen "Gone With the Wind." It is such a stunning, well-cast movie with picturesque scenery. Great lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      not sure if I would count all of these into epics, but I did love LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

      LORD OF THE RINGS, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN are my fave epics.

      These days we have more great epic TV series than epic films in cinemas.

    • BlueTrane profile image

      BlueTrane 5 years ago

      Braveheart is fantastic!

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 5 years ago

      Nice Lens! --- The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean --- Directed by John Huston. Starring Paul Newman, Ava Gardner (1972).

    • PropheticBlogge1 profile image

      PropheticBlogge1 5 years ago

      What a fantastically detailed lens, there are a few films on here that I'd never heard of such as Reds and Glory. I do love some of the other epics you mentioned such as Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Have to disagree with the Prestige though, I didn't enjoy it in the slightest and loathed Christian Bale's accent in it! Fabulously detailed lens. Thoroughly enjoyed it.