The first trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings landed [a few weeks earlier], and it certainly seems like a return to familiar territory for the veteran director, who has helmed several big-budget epics over the last decade. While the trailer itself was a little underwhelming, it did boast the stunning visuals we’ve come to expect from a Ridley Scott movie and an impressive cast led by Christian Bale that also features Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver.
Ever since the director resurrected the genre with Gladiator at the turn of the millennium, the historical epic has had a patchy track record at the box office to say the least, and it remains to be seen how his latest effort will fare. Exodus will need to be a great movie to stand any chance of commercial success, with a release date just weeks after Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, with the concluding chapter of the Hobbit trilogy hitting theaters just five days later. Scott recently said that it was the most expensive production he’s ever worked on, which means that the budget is well over $150m, so there’s a lot riding on the project.
With that in mind, this article will take a look at how the historical blockbuster has fared since the turn of the 21st Century, featuring both the best and the worst that the genre has had to offer in chronological order. Set over thousands of years, some of these movies are based on historical figures or inspired by true events, while others are completely fictional and devised solely for the big screen. The common thread is that all of these historical epics have budgets of $80m and above, so read on to find out the verdict.
3. Kingdom Of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)
Having reinvented the genre with Gladiator, Ridley Scott returned to the well with another historical epic, this time set against the backdrop of the Crusades. Even with a running time of 144 minutes, the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven rushed through plot points and left plenty of characters feeling woefully underdeveloped. Fortunately, the 189 minute Director’s Cut gives the movie increased depth, turning an okay epic into an almost-great one.
While Orlando Bloom’s performance is still the weakest part of the movie, the Director’s Cut at least provides the character with a deeper backstory and motivations, creating a more well-rounded protagonist. The supporting cast fare much better, with Liam Neeson, Eva Green and especially Edward Norton on fine form. The extended version also provides greater substance that serves to enhance the stunning cinematography, lavish production design and spectacular battle scenes, resulting in one of the best Director’s Cuts ever made available.
2. Gladiator (2000)
The historical epic was one of the most popular genres in Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s, but in the intervening decades interest cooled significantly. All of that changed in 2000 with the success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which would go on to earn over $450m at the box office and win five Academy Awards from twelve nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, and spawn a slew of imitators.
While it isn’t the director’s greatest movie by any means, Gladiator is still up there with his best work. While the simple revenge-fueled narrative doesn’t offer much in the way of complexity and plenty of the dialogue is a bit on the clunky side, the sheer spectacle on display makes up for it. From the thrilling opening battle to the intense clashes in the amphitheater, Gladiator delivers stylish and kinetic action backed by spectacular visuals, along with two great performances from Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix.
1. Red Cliff (2009)
After several disappointing movies brought his time in Hollywood to an anticlimactic end, John Woo returned to Asian cinema and ultimately delivered his best work in over a decade. With his usual lack of restraint and visual over-indulgence, the director adapts the ancient Battle of Red Cliffs into a grandiose $80m war epic befitting of what was the most expensive Chinese production ever mounted.
Released as a single 148 minute movie outside of Asia, domestic audiences were treated to a story released in two parts with a butt-numbing combined running time of 288 minutes. Woo’s operatic direction and broad characterizations prevent the movie from descending into tedium, and as you would expect Red Cliff really shines in the action stakes. Epic CGI landscapes, sweeping visuals and some exhilarating battle scenes combine for a spectacular war epic that puts many of Hollywood’s efforts in the genre to shame.
Now on to the worst:
3. The Alamo (2004)
One of the most notorious box office flops in history, The Alamo earned just over $25m worldwide from a budget of $107m, and it would be five years before director John Lee Hancock would make another movie. While not as awful as its infamous reputation would suggest, the production design and authenticity find themselves undermined by an interminably dull narrative.
The unwieldy script requires mountains of exposition, with the result coming off as more of a history lesson that a slice of blockbuster entertainment. With the exception of Billy Bob Thornton, the rest of the cast struggle to make a mark on the proceedings and even the action is staged with little visual style or a sense of urgency. The tagline for the movie was ‘You Will Never Forget’, which is ironic considering how instantly forgettable the final product is.
2. King Arthur (2004)
Jerry Bruckheimer tried his hand at the historical epic, with Antoine Fuqua the strange choice to direct this $120m retelling of the King Arthur legend. Taking a more grounded approach with the material, the movie aims for gritty realism but instead comes off as dull and uninspired, with Clive Owen giving one of the blandest leading man performances in recent memory.
For a genre that relies heavily on its battle sequences to excite audiences, the action in King Arthur is generic at best and plain tedious at worst. A multitude of half-baked subplots and underwritten characters waste a great ensemble cast that features Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, Hugh Dancy, Stellan Skarsgard and Mads Mikkelsen. The Director’s Cut is a slight improvement, but overall King Arthur takes itself so seriously that it forgets to be entertaining.
1. Pompeii (2014)
A director that has built his career on helming mid-budget genre pictures that usually turn a profit, Paul W.S. Anderson’s $80m disaster flick was his most expensive project yet. Aiming for the ‘class-divided lovers against the backdrop of a famous disaster’ that worked so well for Titanic, a terrible script, flat performances and a string of tired cliches instead result in a poor B-movie with A-list special effects.
Kit Harrington certainly looks the part in the lead role, but fails to render his character as anything other than bland. The rest of the cast don’t fare any better, with the only real entertainment being provided by Kiefer Sutherland’s knowingly hammy portrayal of a corrupt Senator. Frequently descending into camp territory and often unintentionally hilarious, only the impressive CGI destruction of the titular city manages to generate any excitement.
The rest at the source.