Monday, August 19, 2019

Epic Films: Casts, Credits and Commentary on More Than 350 Historical Spectacle Movies, Second Edition by Gary Allen Smith

An entertaining and informative guide for the sword-and-sandal fan
If you like movies about gladiators, centurions, argonauts, and apostles, then Gary Allen Smith has compiled the book for you. I am an enthusiast of ancient-world movies myself, and Epic Films is the best viewer’s guide that I have found on the genre. In the second edition, Smith catalogs 353 historical epics, providing cast and credits for each, as well as descriptive copy including plot outlines (with spoilers, unfortunately) and interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes on the making of many of these films. Smith’s personal critiques are insightful and articulate, though the book really should have had a better proofreading because it does contain a lot of typos.

The second edition of Epic Films was published in 2004. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is the most recent major film to be profiled, while Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is mentioned as being in production at the time of publication. Smith mostly skips over the silent era, with a few exceptions. He does include D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, for example, but not the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria. Beyond the dawn of the talkies, the book covers all periods of cinematic history amply, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Italian peplum films of the 1960s to the modern era of digital special effects, including many made-for-TV movies and miniseries that have long been forgotten. Smith does not confine himself to ancient Greece and Rome, biblical epics, and caveman films. He explains in his introduction that his definition of epic covers history up to around the year 1200. This allows for the inclusion of more medieval fare, such as stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The lion’s share of the entries, however, focus on ancient times, and when adventures from the Middle Ages are included, such as El Cid or Braveheart, they definitely qualify as epics. Noticeably absent are the Arabian Nights genre, such as The Thief of Baghdad or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Asian history is represented solely by Genghis Khan, the Mongols, and the Tartars, and, through Hollywood’s fault rather than Smith’s, Kings of the Sun is the only film about the ancient Americas. Mostly Smith focuses on American, British, French, and Italian productions, with an occasional outlier like the Polish film Pharaoh.

Most of the books published on this genre of film have been scholarly monographs by film studies or cultural studies professors, such as The Ancient World in Cinema by Jon Solomon. The only other film-by-film guide I’ve seen is a book called The Encyclopedia of Epic Films, which, although it may have Ben-Hur on its cover, considers everything from Spider-Man to Star Wars as epics. Smith’s Epic Films, on the other hand, is aimed at the general reader who just enjoys grandiose cinematic depictions of prehistoric, ancient, and medieval times. Smith proves himself a very knowledgeable guide and offers much to learn for even the most avid fans of sword-and-sandal cinema. I have only watched about a third of the movies covered in this book, and it has yielded quite a few fortuitous discoveries of interesting films yet to be seen.

Though one might quibble here and there about a film that was or was not included, Smith deserves to be commended for putting together what is likely the most authoritative and user-friendly guide to the genre. Film fans who just can’t get enough of Hercules, Maciste, Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Odysseus, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Jesus, or the various Caesars are sure to enjoy this book. It is high time for a third edition.
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