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Breaking the Bank: Six of Hollywood’s Lost Old-School Epics

Breaking the Bank: Six of Hollywood’s Lost Old-School Epics


For moviegoers growing up in the last 20-30 years, big is the new normal.  I’m talking about those big-budget, over-produced, effects/action-packed extravaganzas that are as expected and routine an arrival as a commuter bus, and never more so than during the summer months.  Come a rise in temperatures, there’s an almost ceaseless parade of these megabuck behemoths through multiplexes starting in May and continuing until the kids go back to school, one rolling out almost every week.

Consider these May-August releases and their eye-popping price tags:

5/4:  Marvel’s The Avengers — $220 million

5/11:  Dark Shadows —  $150 million

5/18:  Battleship — $209 million

5/25:  Men in Black 3 — $250 million

6/8:  Prometheus — $120-130 million

7/3:  The Amazing Spider-Man — $220 million

7/20:  The Dark Knight Rises — $250 million

7/31:  Total Recall — $200 million

8/5:  The Expendables 2 — $100 million

For those of you who haven’t been keeping count, that’s a little over $1.7 billion in productions costs for just these nine flicks.  And that doesn’t include money spent on marketing.  Press buzz around the time of its release was that worldwide marketing expenses for MIB3 pushed the movie’s total tab to $375 million.  Based on that, it’s a reasonable guess, then, that the real cost for the above nine releases is probably – and easily — somewhere over $2 billion.

What makes these gargantuas physically possible and financially affordable are technological advances in special effects, particularly CGI; and a swelling overseas audience as well as broad and deep ancillary markets.

The amount of bigness in today’s movies may be particular to the last few decades, but bigness itself goes back to the earliest days of commercial moviemaking.

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is not only the film which turned a nickelodeon diversion into a major form of serious entertainment, but with its sprawling, episodic story and its scenes of grand scale, screen-filling action, it also qualifies as the first epic.

True to what would become a standard Hollywood paradigm, Griffith was quick to outdo himself with his massive – even by today’s standards – follow-up, Intolerance:  Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.  At over three hours long, following four parallel stories set in different ages, and at a cost of a then staggering $2 million (about $460 million today), Intolerance was – and remains – truly epic.  There are scenes in Intolerance which would remain unmatched in scale for decades (and only then through CGI magic-making), such as the Great Wall of Babylon scene boasting 100-foot high set pieces populated by thousands of costumed extras.  Brag it may have been, but it was not an idle one when Griffith crowed, “Remember how small the world was before I came along?”

With the establishment of the studio system in the 1920s, most movies were made on a cost-efficient production line basis, but the studios always had an eye out for that special property it could turn into a – literally – once-in-a-lifetime screen event.  When it found one, the resources poured into such a product were, even by today’s lavish standards, head-spinning.

Consider Wings, the 1927 epic director William Wellman aimed to make the definitive statement on WW I.  For one scene, Wellman had 165 aircraft dogfighting over a full-sized recreation of a sector of the WW I western front.  Or 1931’s Cimarron, based on Edna Ferber’s popular (and epic in its own right) novel, where director Wesley Ruggles ran 5,000 mounted extras past 28 cameras to recreate the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Remember:  we’re not talking about miniatures or models or computer-generated magic.  We’re talking life-sized, 1:1 stuff here — 165 pilots flying 165 cloth-and-cable WW I fighter planes over real trenches manned by thousands of uniformed extras.  We’re talking real riders on real horses galloping hell-bent across the plains.

Every year or so, one studio or another would heave one of these Goliaths onto screens with the kind of supporting hype reserved for the Second Coming:  the first version of Ben-Hur (1925), the WW I epics The Big Parade (1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Western saga The Covered Wagon (1923), and, of course, the most memorable of the pre-WW II classic epics, Gone with the Wind (1939).

After WW II, the big budget spectacle evolved from a special effort to a desperate Hail Mary move to stave off the movie industry’s slow-motion collapse.

As soon as the war ended, the movies began losing audience; not in dribs and drabs but in a torrent.  Just in the first ten years after the war, average weekly attendance dropped from 82 million to 50 million (and wouldn’t stop dropping for another two decades).  Not coincidentally, the number of TV sets in the country rose over the same period, from a literal handful to almost 31 million, amounting to nearly one in every two American households.

The only way to beat the little screen, thought Hollywood, was to make the big screen bigger.  That meant releasing more movies in color, more movies in stereophonic sound, gimmicks like 3-D and Smell-O-Vision (yeah, you read that right), and, as I said, by making the big screen, well, bigger with a variety of wide screen processes such as Panavision, CinemaScope, and the hugest of the huge, the wraparound screen of Cinerama (think of it as the Imax of its day).

But Hollywood needed big stories to fill those big screens.  The 146-degree arced screen and multi-track sound of Cinerama wasn’t invented for intimate human drama or cutsie heart-warmers.  The idea was to outgun TV with the kinds of giant-sized storytelling TV couldn’t match.

You could argue it started with Cecil B. DeMille and his Biblical epic, Samson and Delilah (1949), the third highest-grossing movie 1941-1950 behind The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Duel in the Sun (1946).  DeMille had established himself as a master of Big Picture moviemaking back in the silent days, but his postwar work made his name synonymous with screen extravagance, each of his efforts bigger than the one before.

The epics played big and, when they worked, earned big.  Taking their cue from Samson and Delilah, a string of similarly grandiose sword-and-sandal epics weaved through the list of the decade’s top moneymakers:  Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Spartacus (1960), DeMille’s own The Ten Commandments (1956), and The Big Daddy of the toga-and-chariot gang, Oscar-winner Ben-Hur (1959).

The big/bigger/biggest formula was applied against other genres as well.  There were epic comedies (Around the World in 80 Days, 1956), epic war movies (The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957), epic dramas (Giant, 1956), epic adaptations of epic novels (War and Peace, 1956), epics about great events past (The Alamo, 1960) and not so long ago (Exodus, 1960).

By the end of the decade, the big budget epic had become a regular part of the movie landscape.  They only constituted a relative handful of titles each year – their tremendous expense and sheer physical demands prohibited more – but each was introduced as a singular event, their very rarity making every one of them something special and remarkable.

They would initially premiere only at high-end showcase theaters, like New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing for weeks – sometimes even months – before moving on to the neighborhood theater circuit.  They would have musical preludes, intermissions, souvenir programs and sometimes other overpriced tchotkes for sale in the lobby.  These weren’t just movies; these were events, so much so that when the most popular were re-released years later, even the re-releases were considered events, a chance to revisit – or, for younger moviegoers, visit – a legend from the past.

Not unlike today, big wasn’t always better, and a number of these epics were like big, beautifully-wrapped gift boxes with not a lot inside.  How the West Was Won (1962) is a good example.  Nearly three hours long and packed with stars from start to finish, HTWWW was supposed to portray one hundred years in the pioneering and settling of the American West, broken up into episodes, each helmed by a different director.  Well, it was big, it looked great on the Cinerama screen and sounded even better accompanied by Cinerama’s multi-track stereo, but each episode tended to fall into stale oater clichés imbued with a faux grandeur by being in an incredibly big-ass production.

Even flicks by King of the Big Picture himself – Cecil B. DeMille – don’t hold up particularly well, despite having been huge moneymakers in their day and The Ten Commandments remaining an Easter time TV favorite.  DeMille had never evolved past a silent era brand of hammy acting, he favored shooting exteriors on obviously artificial sets (this at a time when other filmmakers were increasingly moving toward location shooting), and his storytelling was grandly sentimental and as nuanced as a poke in the eye.  Even other directors of his time – though impressed by DeMille’s showmanship and box office muscle – didn’t think much of his filmmaking.  Said director William Wellman, “Directorially, I think his pictures were the most horrible things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But other directors found, in the big canvas, a way to draw an audience deeply into a layered, textured story in a way more conventionally dimensioned movies didn’t.  They found the big story for the new big screens, and delivered work with all the richness of an epic novel.  Think David Lean and The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Stanley Kubrick and Spartacus and 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), William Wyler and Ben-Hur, Arthur Penn and Little Big Man (1970), Francis Ford Coppola and his Godfather films (epics which combined to create a still greater epic).

Eventually, the epic – as it used to be — would be subsumed by a new, incessant kind of big budget moviemaking, the kind of moviemaking which now marks every summer and holiday season, and which turns what was once the rare and special into the commonplace.

It has also turned the epic into kid stuff.  With $100-200 million or more on the line, big budget movies have to target the lucrative young audience; it’s the only demographic which can possibly generate enough revenue to make such a hefty investment pay off.  So, instead of Lawrence of Arabia, we get Battleship; instead of Patton (1970), we get Men in Black 3.  The adult epic is dead.

Some of the best titles from the classic epic days still have an afterlife, recirculating on cable channels.  You all know them:  the evergreens, legendary films by legendary filmmakers still standing as cinematic milestones:  Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001, The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Longest Day (1962) et al.

But there are a few I think have fallen off the popular radar for reasons I don’t quite understand.  They still show up, but the titles don’t have the same attraction as the evergreens.  If they do pop up, and you want to see Big Picture storytelling at its best, you might want to give them a watch…but save yourself a couple of hours for it.

The Sand Pebbles (1966).  Directed by Robert Wise.  Adapted from Richard McKenna’s novel by Robert Anderson.

It’s China, 1926, and Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is a Navy fleet engineer re-assigned, at his own request, to a small gunboat patrolling China’s rivers.  All Holman wants is to run his engine without interference, but the great political and social forces fighting for domination in a fractured China reach even into his boiler room.

Although neither the novel nor the movie was intended as an allegory of America’s then increasing involvement in Vietnam (McKenna based his novel on his own experiences in the 1930s as a “China sailor” on an American gunboat), it was understandably taken as such.  Both McKenna and Anderson tapped into those universals which have dogged so many of our military involvements, from the Indian Wars of the 1880s through Vietnam to the still-unresolved conflict in Afghanistan:  a lethal mix of willful ignorance and dismissal of native sensibilities, arrogance, and naïve, simplistic idealism.

Movies, it is sometimes said, takes us to times and places normally beyond our reach.  Aided by renowned production designer Boris Levin, and shooting on location in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Wise delivers us into a recreation of China c. 1920s so full-bodied and textured, we feel just as dislocated and bewildered and entranced as any new sailor showing up for duty on the gunboat San Pablo.

But at the heart of all that production value is a very human, very life-sized story about one unexceptional, emotionally unanchored sailor moving from casual apathy to heartbreak to disillusionment.  In his only Oscar-nominated performance, McQueen shows he was always more than the King of Cool.  His Jake Holman only feels at home surrounded by machinery, but then he reaches out – violating both white and Chinese taboos – to befriend one of the coolies who do the dirty work on the ship, and suffers mightily for it.

McQueen at his best:  he’s just killed his Chinese friend to save him from torture by one of the many militant groups vying for power.  Numbed, he retreats to his engine room, tries to bury his grief by stoking his boilers, and then suddenly slumps over his shovel as if in physical pain.  Wise shoots McQueen from behind and gets more out of those slumped shoulders and bowed back then some directors get from a screen full of tears.

Barry Lyndon (1975).  Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., by William Makepeace Thackery.

Thackery’s tale about an opportunistic Candide-like character was loosely based on a real-life fortune-hunter, and is considered the first novel built around an anti-hero.  Barry (Ryan O’Neal) begins as a nice enough Irish lad who missteps when he fiddles around with a British army officer’s girl.  On the run after a duel, he passes through one adventure after another, always looking for some way to advance his station, ultimately marrying into money which he then proceeds to squander away along with the love of his sons and wife.

At the time, Barry Lyndon was an underperformer and considered something of a disappointment.  Audiences looking for Kubrick’s follow-up to the high-energy, violence-filled antics of Clockwork Orange (1971) choked on the deliberately-paced elegance of Barry Lyndon.  But with the remove of four decades, Lyndon seems less a follow-up to Clockwork than to Kubrick’s similarly poetic 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968).  Pushed less by narrative than by immersion in a sense of place and time – with cinematographer John Alcott channeling the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough — one is hard put to think of another film which so completely puts the viewer in the 18th Century.

That said, Barry Lyndon is not without its narrative charms, particularly during Barry’s climb to the upper classes.  He’s waylaid by a loquacious highwayman, captured by Prussians and turned spy, then turned again by the cool gambler he’s been set to spy on, and on and on and on:  an alternately mirthful/heartbreaking trek through the constantly ebbing/flowing world of European intrigue.

Most lovely moment:  Barry finds himself serving in a British army unit with one of his few, true friends, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley).  Grogan is mortally wounded in a skirmish against the French.  Barry drops out of the ranks to carry him to the safety of a gully.  Grogan presses his remaining coin on young Barry, then says, “Now kiss me, me boy, because I’ll not be seeing you again.”  Barry sets his lips to the father-like figure as the older man dies, leaving a weeping Barry alone, the intertwined tree branches overhead through which filter columns of light providing a nature-formed temple for the young man’s grief.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).  Directed by Stanley Kramer.  Written by William Rose and Tania Rose.

At the time, Kramer had a reputation as one of the most socially-conscious filmmakers in Hollywood, with a body of topical, often controversial movies to his credit including the anti-racism The Defiant Ones (1958), anti-nuke On the Beach (1959), anti-Creationist Inherit the Wind (1960), and anti-Nazi Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).  Having spent years depressing the hell out of people, Kramer turned around 180 degrees and set out to make the biggest, funniest movie comedy ever (he hoped) by casting every comedic performer he could think of in a big-screen, snowballing chase after $350,000 (hardly seems worth it today, but trust me, that was a lot of bucks in 1963).

Even a Kramer comedy had something more on its mind than just laughs.  There may not be a funnier or more bitter indictment of greed as a small number of everyday, otherwise decent schmoes get wind of a buried cache of loot from a long-ago robbery, and descend from reasonable people trying to negotiate a fair split into a frantic, obsessed, incredibly destructive – and ever-expanding – mob that seems to lay waste to a good bit of southern California in their race for the money “hidden under a big W.”

The true mark of how well Mad, Mad World works is to look at how often its “comedy of destruction” has been copied without delivering the same quotient of laughs:  think 1941 (1979) where even Steven Spielberg couldn’t pull it off.

Along with all the crashing and smashing and cars careening, there are any number of hysterical comic performances:  Sid Caesar as the level-headed vacationing dentist who ultimately becomes a manic Ahab-like obsessive; Phil Silvers as a fast-talking salesman who talks himself into more trouble than he talks himself out of; Jonathan Winters as a slow-burning but ultimately raging moving van driver.  One could go on and on, and that’s one of the charms of the movie:  it’s a showcase for just about everybody who was anybody in comedy in the 1950s-early 1960s, and the Roses give them just as much to juggle verbally as bonk-in-the-head slapstick (to name one:  Terry-Thomas’ lacerating indictment of Americans’ obsession with “boosoms”).

Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo gets great use out of the desert and sleepy locales of a then under-developed southern California, and the movie has an exhilarating visual sweep which complements the escalating, mushrooming chase.

But my personal favorite scene is not the wholesale destruction of a hardware store by Sid Caesar, or Jonathan Winters’ razing of a gas station, or Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett stuck in a pilotless airplane which crashes through a billboard, but a quieter bit of verbal wit.  Before the craziness takes root, Caesar gathers with Winters, Rooney, Hackett and Milton Berle to try to devise a fair split, and comes up with a mathematical formula worthy of Stephen Hawking:  “You get one share for the truck, you get one share for being a person in the truck, you get one share for going down to the wreck…”

Curio note:  Milton Berle was a notorious but highly skilled camera hog.  If you watch closely, in every crowd scene, Berle lags behind everyone else to get himself a few extra seconds of face time in front of the camera.

The Three Mustketeers (1973); The Four Musketeers:  Milady’s Revenge (1974).  Directed by Richard Lester.  Adapted by George MacDonald Fraser from the novel by Alexandre Dumas.

A Hollywood producer’s wet dream:  a property of proven and perennial popularity, an immediately recognizable brand name, and it’s in the public domain so the rights don’t cost a dime.  That’s why the Internet Movie Data Base lists 29 screen and TV adaptations of Dumas’ 1844 adventure novel dating back to 1914.  But nobody – seriously, nobody – did it as well as Richard Lester & Co. in this two-part, epically sumptuous romp through 17th Century France.

Lester had originally intended The Three Musketeers as a vehicle for The Beatles (he had already directed them – quite successfully – in A Hard Day’s Night [1964], and Help! [1965]), and the dry, tossed off, deadpan wit and little tickling bits going on in the margins which trademarked those Fab Four features abounds here.  Example:  at a lavish costume ball for the king of France, a group of dwarves carrying serving trays on their heads engage in Altmanesque mumbles as to which of their head-balanced hors d’oeuvres the king liked best.

For all of its throw-away bits of humor, Fraser stays impressively close to the plot of Dumas’ novel and its tale of French royal court intrigues and derring-do, and the roles are filled out by a cast brimming with charm:  Michael York as the naifish D’Artagnan, Oliver Reed as brawling Athos, Frank Finlay as clothes-hound Porthos, and Richard Chamberlain as lady’s man Aramis.  And behind them sits a bench equally deep in talent:  the great British comedian Spike Jones, Lester favorite Roy Kinnear, Charlton Heston as the oily Richelieu, Fay Dunaway and Christopher Lee as Heston’s chief henchpersons, and Raquel Welch in an unexpectedly deft turn as a clumsy, somewhat dingy lady-in-waiting to the adulterous queen (Geraldine Chaplin).

Lester beautifully balances truly impressive swordplay with humor, maintains a buoyant tongue-in-cheekiness without ever descending into camp.  And when, in the second film, the action takes a turn toward the dark, Lester manages that transition just as smoothly, having kept the film grounded enough to allow grief as well as fun.

Curio:  Musketeers was originally shot as a single film, but producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind split the movie in two, causing such a ruckus among their cast (“Let me get this straight; I get paid for one movie, but you get two movies out of it?”), it resulted in a lawsuit and the consequent routine inclusion in actors’ contracts of “the Salkind clause” to prevent future producers from pulling the same move.

The Big Country (1958).  Directed by William Wyler.  Jessamyn West, James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, and William Wyler adapting the novel by Donald Hamilton.

In Hamilton’s grand scale novel, Wyler saw an allegory for the self-destructive Cold War dueling between East and West which had been going on since the end of WW II.  Charles Bickford is Wyler’s Wild West version of Eisenhower, heading a powerful ranch clan of powerful, high-society-aspiring types who believe they’re bringing civilization to the West, engaged in an on-going, escalating fight for with Burl Ives’ boorish, Third-Worldy bunch.

As big as the West is – and cinematographer Franz Planer catches the sense of a limitless expanse as few Western lensmen have – it seems almost paradoxical (if not psychotically obsessive) that each family is murderously committed to the idea there’s no room for the other.

Between them is sea captain Gregory Peck, come west to marry Bickford’s daughter (Carroll Barker) only to lose her when he refuses to indulge in typical displays of cowboy machismo.  Peck finds a kindred spirit in Jean Simmons, owner of a key piece of territory Bickford and Ives both covet.

The story of feudin’ ranchers is an old one, but Wyler infuses it with a sense of tragic pointlessness no John Wayne oater ever had.

One of the best moments:  After having refused to publicly trade punches with Charlton Heston, Bickford’s like-a-son foreman, Peck calls Heston out for a one-on-one before dawn, while the rest of the ranch is still asleep.  Peck’s not the coward he’s been branded to be, nor a foppish pacifist; he’s just not willing to spill blood for a show.  The fight is shot in long shot – in fact, often in extreme long shot, against plains which seem to roll on forever – as if to italicize just how meaningless the petty (and sometimes lethal) peacock displays by and between the dueling families really are.

Bill Mesce