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8 Classic Historical Epics

Swords, Sandals and The Bible

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Before the use of computer generated graphics to take audiences back to ancient worlds, Hollywood would build massive sets and employ a literal cast of thousands.

Fearful of the new medium of television, studios staged these spectacular films in order to draw audiences to theaters. It worked for a time, but by the 1960s these epics proved too costly to make while audiences began to lose interest.

For decades, the studios refused to make these movies. It would take computer generated special effects for them to even think about doing such large scale movies again. Here are eight classic historical epics from their heyday of the 1950s.

1. ‘Quo Vadis’ – 1951

MGM Home Entertainment
Set in ancient Rome following the accomplished reign of the Emperor Claudius, Mervyn LeRoy’s historical epic focused on an early Christian woman (Deborah Kerr) and her secret love affair with a Roman soldier (Robert Taylor). Lurking in the background is the crazed Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov), who plots to burn Rome down and rebuild it in his own image while seeking to destroy Christianity. LeRoy’s film featured a startling sequence where Rome is burned and earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, only to come away without a single win.
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2. ‘The Robe’ – 1953

20th Century Fox
Richard Burton stars in director Henry Koster’s religious epic based on the bestselling novel from Lloyd C. Douglas. The first film to ever be shot in CinemaScope, The Robe focused on a decadent Roman tribune (Burton) who presides over the crucifixion of Christ. But after winning Christ’s robe while gambling, the tribune begins to see the error of his ways and starts to reform his ways while becoming a true believer at the cost of his own life. Though not as well known as some of the others on the list,The Robe did earn Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture, and paved the way for some of the bigger spectacles later in the decade.
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3. ‘Land of the Pharaohs’ – 1955

Warner Bros.
With a literal cast of thousands – there were reportedly 10,000 extras on hand for some scenes – Howard HawksLand of the Pharoahs defined the grandeur and the excess of the large-scale Hollywood epic. The film starred Jack Hawkins as the titular pharaoh, who spends years wearing his people down building the Great Pyramids. Meanwhile, he marries a young princess from Cyprus (Joan Collins), only to learn the hard way that she has aspirations for his throne. Not the greatest of epics, Land of the Pharaohs remains one of the more inspired entries in the genre.
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4. ‘The Ten Commandments’ – 1956

Paramount Pictures
One of the most successful historical epics ever made, The Ten Commandments starred Charlton Heston as the biblical Moses, who begins life as the Pharoah’s adopted son, only to learn about his true Jewish heritage and lead his people across the Egyptian desert to the Promised Land. Grand in every way imaginable, the film – directed by master showman Cecil B. DeMille – was extraordinary for its scope, high production values and a standout performance from Heston, whose turn as Moses made him the go-to actor for historical epics. The Ten Commandments was a giant box office hit and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.
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5. ‘Ben-Hur’ – 1959

MGM Home Entertainment
If there was ever one movie that defined the historical epic, Ben-Hur would be it. Starring Charlton Heston as the titular prince-turned-slave, the film was a mammoth achievement for William Wyler, who directed a literal cast of thousands and staged a stunning chariot race that lived on as one of the greatest cinematic moments of all time. Ben-Hur was epic filmmaking at its finest and marked the pinnacle of the genre for Hollywood. It swept the Academy Awards with 11 wins, including Best Actor for Heston, Best Director for Wyler and Best Picture. Nothing before or since has ever measured up to the success of Ben-Hur, which makes it no surprise that Hollywood’s love affair with historical epics began to wane following this film.
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6. ‘Spartacus’ – 1960

Universal Pictures
After working with Kirk Douglas on Paths of Glory, director Stanley Kubrick allowed the actor-producer to hire him after Anthony Mann had been fired. It was Kubrick’s first large-scale production, which featured a cast of some 10,000 extras, and the only time he had not exerted complete control over a film. That lack of autonomy led to numerous conflicts with Douglas, who pushed the project through production as a labor of love. Douglas starred as the titular Spartacus, a Roman slave who leads a rebellion against Rome and eventually comes into conflict with Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Roman patrician and general who hunts him down. Spartacus was a big success and won four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov. But it ruined the friendship between Kubrick and Douglas, who never worked together again.
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7. ‘Cleopatra’ – 1963

20th Century Fox
If Ben-Hur was the pinnacle of the historical epic, then Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra marked the beginning of the end. A box office flop despite being the highest-grossing movie of 1963, the film starred Elizabeth Taylor as the titular Egyptian queen and soon-to-be husband Richard Burton as the Roman general Marc Antony. Much has been said – including on this site – about how much of a financial disaster the film was, especially since it nearly bankrupted a major studio. But its place in cinema history, particularly in regard to historical epics, cannot be understated. Thanks to Cleopatra, Hollywood would begin to shy away from these massive undertakings in favor of more character-driven films of the late-1960s and early-1970s.
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8. ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ – 1964

Paramount Pictures
With The Fall of the Roman Empire, Hollywood’s fascination with sword and sandal epics came to a crashing end. Starring Sophia Loren, James Mason and Alec Guinness, the film covered the beginning of the last days of the Roman Empire from the reign of Marcus Aurelius (Guinness) to the death of his wayward son Commodus (Christopher Plummer). Of course, the actual fall of Rome lasted for another few hundred years, but that would make for too sprawling a film. Everything about Fall of the Roman Empire is impressive; all the power, majesty and might of Rome is on full display, while all the main characters give quality performances. But in the end, the film crashed and burned at the box office, and took with it Hollywood’s desire to stage these massive epics.
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