“Despised and disparaged”: Reconsidering the Epic

The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster
by Constantine Santas

Feature review by Djoymi Baker

Dr Djoymi Baker lectures in Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne. She writes on adaptations of mythology in film and television but will watch even the shoddiest of epic films simply for the love of it.

Few film genres have been so critically despised and disparaged by film critics as the Ancient World epic. Serious, whole-hearted appreciations of such films in the press have been rare. Ridicule, impatience and disgust tend to permeate the reviews… Rarely has there been such an extreme disjuncture between critics and the public as there has been over the Ancient World epic. For by comparison with the critical dismissal of so many of these films, the public have flocked to see them in their millions.

– Jeffrey Richards

Despite the popularity of epic films and the significant role they have played in cinema history, as a genre they have received comparatively little academic attention. For this reason alone, two recent books on the epic – The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas and Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds by Jeffrey Richards – are welcome additions to the field.

In The Epic in Film, Santas returns to “the classic literary form” of the epic as a means of “providing the basic aesthetic parameters” of the genre’s development from antiquity through to film (p. 19). This literary template for the epic may find expression in the cinema but it must also jostle with other ways of understanding the epic that circulate in popular culture. Thus, he notes that “the word ‘epic’ is tossed about [by critics and filmmakers] regardless of a film’s particular form” (p. 16). For Santas,

the use of the term epic by the advertising agencies often causes confusion if one attempts to assess a film’s stature by literary standards rather than by its commercial potential. While it is obvious that such things as size, spectacle, or large casts are meant to attract large audiences, it is not clear, or admissible, that an epic film possesses, or that it should possess, distinct literary qualities. (p. 15, emphasis mine)

As this passage suggests, Santas acknowledges that the often contradictory meanings of the epic in film, film promotion and popular culture mean a literary approach will be both illuminating and yet – as with all methodologies – “bound to have limitations” (p. 17).

Regardless, Santas’ return to Aristotle to define the epic in form, theme and tone adds clarity to what has always been a murky cinematic genre. Santas focuses on the role of the hero at the heart of Aristotle’s discussion of the epic. As such, Santas sees the epic as encompassing heroes beyond the usual mytho-historic confines of the genre. His subcategories of the epic include mock epics such as The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) and anti-epics such as Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). In other words, Santas sees the influence of the heroic, epic form beyond the sword-and-sandal film, bringing in often-overlooked offshoots of the genre but also a sometimes surprisingly diverse selection of films.

Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Otto Rank, Santas sees the epic film as a contemporary form of mythmaking. He argues that

the enduring popularity of the epic film can be explained largely by its ability to preserve and re-create mythical patterns and thus remain in touch with the deeper wishes of national identity…it is capable of embracing popular trends and ideals that define or represent an era. (p. 4)

This relationship between transhistorical, mythical patterns and the specific historical moment that gives them new expression in film is one that has created some tension in cinema scholarship. One only has to recall the structuralist controversy of the 1960s and ’70s which surrounded the (sometimes quite ad hoc) application of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss to film, particularly the Western genre. To be fair, even Lévi-Strauss himself stressed that recurring mythic structures were adjusted for every culture.

The epic has always been quite sticky in this regard, because at the level of production it is a genre that can quite deliberately model itself on older mythic stories and formal structures. Epic films may indeed tap into a collective unconscious and evoke contemporary and historical resonances, but they may also be a product of myth-by-numbers in an age when one can sit down with a copy of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.

Bearing in mind the commercial realities of the epic film, Santas briefly discusses the significance of the film star to the construction of the epic hero and the marketability of the spectacle that the epic film allows. His examination of various strands of the epic are most illuminating when connected to specific eras of filmmaking. As Steve Neale has noted, scholars have tended to study the film epic in terms of the era in which it is set, rather than the era in which it is made. This is understandable given the genre’s preoccupation with the mytho-historic past and the rather sprawling nature of the genre’s limits; discussion of subgenres along the lines of subject matter seems inevitable. But it has the effect of flattening out the genre – its filmic development and its relationship to real history. Santas makes encouraging moves to address Neale’s concerns but is inevitably cut short by the breadth of his study.

This breadth is also the strength of the work, given Santas’ intention to display “the multiplicity of forms the film epic has attained” (p. 18) and the mythic qualities it has maintained across those myriad forms. In other words, as an overview of the genre with subcategories, case studies and suggested films for further examination, Santas is (quite deliberately) trying to generate a starting point for the study of film epics, which is ideal for classroom discussions.

Santas is keen to redress the frequently dismissive attitude of many critics towards the cinematic epic. But he is sometimes disarmingly suspicious of the new storytelling technologies that have enabled its reinvention. He writes:

One gets the impression that the epic form has weathered the assault of a monstrous technology, one with long and pliable tentacles that threatens to embrace, if not suffocate, the epic’s traditional forms. The result is a constant fragmentation of the epic form into newly generated subgenres…constantly being formed. (p. 17)

There is no denying that many forays into the cinema epic are, quite simply, very bad. But then, I like bad cinema. Whether a “good” epic is able to generate “nobler instincts” (p. 19) in its audience perhaps becomes as much an issue of taste as of formal elements.

But then what is an overview and analysis of a genre, if not a combination of formal analysis and personal taste? Quite unexpectedly, I read The Epic in Film from cover to cover in one sitting. This is indicative of Santas’ accessible, entertaining writing style and also my initial surprise at his idea of what constitutes the epic film genre, or, more specifically in this case, what constitutes an epic film. This raises the thorny issue of exactly how we mark the limits of any genre. As Rick Altman’s 1999 book Film/Genre illustrates so well, film genres and genre films are slippery concepts that change over time and depend upon who is using them.

I cannot help but reflect that my role as reviewer is inextricably tied to whether or not, at some fundamental level, I agree with Santas’ definition of the epic genre, its subcategories, and his choice of films to illustrate the field. Particularly welcome is his inclusion of a chapter devoted to the woman-centred epic, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s troubled production of Cleopatra (1963). Santas notes that the film “is the only grand epic of its era whose lead is a woman, one who could stand her ground” (p. 116). But in-depth analysis of gender and the epic is precluded by the restrictions of the book’s format. More perplexing is the conflation of the comic epic with the “comic strip epic” (p. 132). Santas argues that this latter form of the epic borrows “elements from newspaper comic strips, cartoon-type heroes like Dick Tracy, Batman, and Superman” (p. 132), including superhero film adaptations and comic strip-inspired films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). Yet comics are not always (or only) comic. Acknowledging that superhero films can vary significantly in tone, Santas discusses Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) in a chapter on the “information age epic” – contemporary epics using digital effects.

I am not yet convinced Santas’ application of Aristotle to film is an approach that adequately takes into account elements specific to the cinema as an art form and as an industry. But using Aristotle as a touchstone makes particular sense when the film epic genre is at such pains to stress its connections with the epic past, however vaguely realised this past may be.